Thursday, September 11, 2008
It seems appropriate that I would be writing this particular post on September 11. It's (mostly) coincidence, as the responses to my last post have got me thinking about this a lot, and I think it's time I threw down my thoughts.
People understand the concept of globalization in a number of different ways, so I'm going to specify my angle before I continue. I'm talking about the "shrinking" of the world through international business, the internet, tourism, and international organizations (such as NAFTA, the UN, the EU, World Bank, etc.) and how it all relates to "humanitarian aid." I'm not going to touch on media here simply because there is just too much, and I want to keep my length digestible.
A number of years ago, I was about to graduate from college. My plan post-graduation was to return to Tanzania (where I had studied abroad) to "give back" in some way. Do a little bit of "development work." Why Tanzania? Because now I knew some people, spoke the language, and it was one of the poorest countries in the world (and still is - people just don't know much about it because they have no valuable natural resources).
Anyhow, I ended up spending a little over a year living and working in Tanzania for an NGO that had just recently been established (I believe I was their second paid volunteer ever). I was teaching and helping to build a sort of Library/Study Center for a town in the middle of nowhere.
Okay - to keep a long story short, I learned a lot about NGOs and "humanitarian aid" over the course of my time out there. First off, the vast majority of NGO-related ex-pats (mostly European, some white American) lived the imperialist colonial life out there. They had servants and drivers and tvs in places where no locals even had electricity or running water. I also learned that that was how those people kept themselves comfortable enough to stay out there for years and years to do the work they did.
The only problem was that the work they did was mostly useless. At one point, some guy who had worked for UNICEF out there gave me some statistic that there were enough NGOs in Dar es Salaam (the major urban center of Tanzania) meant to help street children to give every handful of street kids their OWN PERSONAL NGO to work with. Guess what? There were still street kids all over the place. So what was the matter?
Well - the NGOs all competed against each other, instead of working together. They were all started by idealistic Westerners who thought that THEY had the master plan for "saving" the street kids of Dar. And since they were the only ones with THE solution, they didn't bother doing their research to find out that there were so many other similar organizations already in place. And so they actually caused each other to be LESS effective (much less so). And since the art of grant-writing and reporting to donors consists of data-massaging, exaggeration, and very little real oversight - nobody really knew.
Of course, there was also the issue of the donors, themselves. Because the donors all thought they knew what was important and helpful (even though none of them had actually been to the places where they were donating money to supply aid), so they had strict rules for how their money could be spent. And so some organizations found themselves handcuffed - needing to pay local employees to really help out, but instead having to use their newest cache of donor funds to buy ceiling fans or to ship a container full of run-down, obsolete computers for people to use (without anyone to teach them or run IT on the constantly-crashing computers).
And it wasn't just in Dar - it was everywhere. And I really mean EVERYWHERE. Wherever I traveled in that country, I met some NGO employee (or ex-employee) with similar horror stories.
Because the real issue comes down to who ends up being a part of these organizations (and/or starting them): misguided idealists. YOUNG, misguided idealists. All with great intentions and a desire to make right in the world - but little to no real experience (vocational or life) and not enough wisdom under their belt to have some humility. They go looking for an adventure and drastic change. They go full of their own self-belief and righteous indignation at what the rest of their peers are doing with their lives.* And they screw it up. Not on purpose. Not because of intentions of wrong-doing - but due to being young, dumb, brash, and inexperienced.
The problem is that - once they screw it up, they get too frustrated to make up for it. They don't stay long enough to gain the experience and know-how and wisdom to learn from their mistakes. No - they spend a couple years (or less) and then head back to a comfortable, privileged life back in their home country. And then the next batch heads out to take their places.
And the cycle continues.
Because what happened to me? I started figuring it out. I realized how f-ed up everything was, and I began working more closely with the Tanzanian staff of our organization. I started taking their side more and more often - and then I basically got fired from my "volunteer" job because I pushed too far. And then I came back to the States and I haven't been back since.**
And I doubt I was the only one. I hope I wasn't the only one. I do have this gut-feeling that my situation as one of the (exceedingly) rare NGO workers of color out there helped me see a little bit more clearly. Let me fall in with the other side (in this case, the Tanzanians we were "helping") a little more quickly. I was a bit more experienced in seeing privilege than the others, and so I reacted more strongly.***
But did I make any difference? Absolutely not. Has the organization I left done anything? Well - they've built things. Programs have been initiated. But the town I lived in is still just as poor as when I left it, and nobody's education has improved. So . . .
And then there's the whole issue of "humanitarian aid" in general. The problem is this: when we just give money and services out as we see fit, we ignore what the people on the ground, of that culture, and who know what's really going on (and - likely - what doesn't work) already know. It's patronizing. Insulting. And - usually - somewhat racist in origin. It's no different from the missionary style of the 1800s - "convert the heathens." Whether it's a conversion of religion or of "how to do things, developmentally" - there's no change in the true, background message: "We know better - so shut up and do as we do, savages." I like to mention that the most open-minded and understanding foreigners I met in Tanzania was the German missionary couple living in the town with me.
Oh yeah - and doing all that doesn't work. It doesn't. You just have people asking for a school to be built, for computers, for books, etc. And then they get obsolete computers that don't have internet access. They get college textbooks written in English in a town where few people even SPEAK English conversationally. And then they wait for more, getting more and more dependent on "aid." As with genetically-modified corn that they can't grow themselves - so goes other donated "aid."
So now what? Again - it comes down to taking care of business at home. I am a middle school teacher, and I have always believed that you can't be a decent youth worker until you deal with your own crap; because, otherwise, you can't see past your own perspective to open yourself to the kids you work with. The same with the global world of humanitarian aid - until I have dealt with my own privilege, and the systemic problems of the culture in which I live, I won't be able to help people from a different culture successfully - and permanently - handle their own stuff. Because I won't be open enough to see what is really working (and what really isn't).
And that goes for the large-scale. If our country became more progressive in terms of cultural understanding - we wouldn't be invading other countries to "free" them. If we could dismantle the rich white power structure to get some real equality happening, the general population would be better equipped to justly lend aid to the rest of the world, without getting bogged down in "our way" at the expense of "their way" of life.
Of course - this is all so theoretical, it aches. That's the other problem with idealists and activists - we're all about the grand plan and big picture without being able to solve the nitty-gritty (or without the patience to do so), leaving us impotent to GET to the big solutions . . .
But it's a start. I'm older now - more experienced - and I've gotten over myself enough to be able to see my past flaws. Patience really is a virtue, and there's no reason to expect to be able to make any sort of lasting change in the world until you're into your 40s (maybe your 30s), anyway. Because youthful vigor is great - those are the ones willing to DO and risk more, in general - but my middle school students have tons of energy and self-belief, too, and they'd be in trouble if they didn't have their elders to help bail them out of their rash mistakes, as well.
* Incidentally, I count my Tanzania-self in this company.
** I have promised myself that I will head back to visit friends and adoptive "family" before the next two years are out.
*** I still know jerks who have worked and lived in African nations that still refer to the whole damn continent as if it was just one country.