18 July 2009 ~ 0 Comments

Let’s start being honest!

This blog post is my response to a post calling for regulation of the NGO industry. It can be found here:http://talesfromethehood.wordpress.com/2009/07/16/regulation-anyone…

An “industry-wide conversation about regulation” is not going to happen until there is an “industry-wide conversation about honesty”. Why would you politely tell that person that you agreed with where they gave there money if you don’t? Here in lies a big problem, I think. Let’s all BE HONEST! When people ask us about NGOs that we don’t think are doing a good job, we NEED to tell them the truth, in the nicest way possible. PEOPLE NEED TO HEAR THAT! You say, “But nothing really happens to those NGOs who don’t feel like following best-practices or participating coordination meetings.” – If we all spoke up – there would be – popular opinion would go down; people would redirect their giving. We NEED to be honest! You say, “It makes me cranky to think that such organizations can implement such bad relief” – so start talking to us about WHAT you have seen! There are no real examples in here – TELL US THE STORIES! Let people learn from your experience.

Example – a quick story I have already written about elsewhere: Where we worked, we encouraged people to sell water filters, which came with training, and the filters were sold at the market rate of $11.50. People were trained in the hows/whys/maintinace of using filters, many families were buying and using filters and health was increasing. A “professional” NGO came in and wanted to “help the poor people” and sold the filters at $3. The entire filter movement was crushed: mistrust, waiting for handouts, no education came with the filters so no one took care of them, etc.

Tell these stories! Let people learn from you! THIS is what we need to hear – the hows and whys of why we shouldn’t do this or we should do that. YOU have lived it, so talk about those things – I personally would love to hear them. What are the 5 worst CONCRETE things YOU have seen done in development that failed. 5 best?

Why do we sugar coat things so much around the NGO world? Just because they set out to do good, we think we can’t criticize them? Just because someone intended to do good with their donation, we feel like we have to pat them on the back and reaffirm their belief that they did, just so we don’t “hurt their feelings”? No, I don’t think that’s going to change anything! We need to tell them the TRUTH, or at least what we have seen of it and why we feel that way, so they learn, so they don’t give again next year… so they ask better questions… so they consider their impact, and so they give responsibly in the future. Those of us who know better are harming the industry if we don’t.

I wrote a really long response to your last post but didn’t put it up as it’s sooooooooo long winded…. and here I go writing another long train of thought new response but a lot of the same messages. Why are we talking “professional” vs “non-professional”? When did YOU become a professional in the industry? When you got your degree in cultural anthropology? When you had worked the last day of your 5th year? No, probably not. Probably, when you started ACTING like a professional. When you “knew what you were doing”. You know this as well as I do: many “professionals” (PhD, INGO employees, etc) might have the right titles or more than the right number of years to get your designation, but are not ACTING in the right ways.

I should surely be kicked out of Cambodia based on your designation. I have talked about this a lot with my coworkers and other people I respected and learned from, especially when we first started our own projects. Originally, when we partnered with a “professional” organization to fund them, we realized that it could be done better – we felt like they were acting like many NGOs do: build infrastructure, have a short term involvement in an area so we can increase our numbers and allow flexibility for ourselves, go on to the next project. No one in the area where we worked was investing in teacher training (often times that just meant being a connector, finding who was doing what and connecting the teachers). What is the use of a $50,000 school building if there is low quality of education going on within it?

Big “professional” NGOs working in libraries were (and are) also doing the “get in get wet get out” approach – training a librarian for a day or two on “how to fix books” – but not working on a more systematic change: teaching teachers how to use books in the classroom, breeding a love of reading by connecting children to the right books which relate to their lives & are designed in their language with the words they know, which are the right level for them…. no one was doing this! And they still aren’t! And many times we would say to each other, “Are we ‘playing NGO’ here? We aren’t the right people to be doing this, we know this….” but we interviewed and we looked for “professional” partners, and you know what? They didn’t materialize. There ARE no literacy experts in Khmer. They just don’t exist. And that is the case in a lot of the areas we all work with. And the people who do exist are doing things in other areas in other fields with other groups. So let’s find them, learn from them, replicate their models, connect with them…. and you know what? Professional can be better, but even unprofessional people like me can do that, and sometimes have better results in learning and changing and community involvement than the “professionals” around them who aren’t taking the time to do it right because they are all about getting to the next project or increaing their numbers or working towards some poorly designed log-frame handed down to them by some big NGO that knows nothing about the area where they work…. Unprofessional people like me, and like you when you started, can take the time to learn, ask questions, ask for help, and admit when we are making mistakes and then work to change them. And if the “professionals” are NOT doing those things, are you really so sure you want to kick me and all those like me out?

And a final point… about voluntourism. I am vocally anti-voluntourism in general. I don’t like calling what we do at PEPY that – and we removed it from our material for a bit, but it is what people search for, so we put it back on our page… because why run from a title: professional/non-professional, voluntourism/educational adventures… who cares what you call it! DO IT RIGHT! And don’t throw the baby out with the bathwater people…. I AGREE with you, Saundra & Tales-From-The-Hooder, in general, voluntourism is not changing the world. A lot of times it is hurting it. But don’t throw it all out until you have tried it all. If you take time to do it right, if it is designed to FURTHER ongoing local initiatives rather than take away from them, if it is designed to put the local communities and programs out into the world as “teachers” not “aid recipients”, it can do good things. I invite you both to come join us any time. Open invite. I don’t think we are doing it perfectly, maybe not even “very well” – but we sure are doing it a lot better than most, and we are willing to learn and change – come see before you kick us out.

So many of the gripes i hear (and tout myself) seem to be on a “are you using voluntourism to raise money for your NGO?” line of questioning and implying that that is bad. ANYTHING is bad if you are putting it above the needs of the community, the mission of your work, and the trust/respect of the people you are working with. Voluntourism is just one of those things; grants/foundations can be just as bad! I have seen SO many NGOs take grant money that comes with so many strings that they basically stray so far from their mission to get their money, they might as well have not taken it at all. We design what we do around our mission, what the community believes in and is striving for, what we see working/not working in our education programs, and NOT what “sells”. People come on our trips, pay their fee, and also have a fundraising minimum which supports our work. We aren’t making up trips for people which are invasive into communities just so we can “sell more trips”. Our 8-10 trips per year though do bring in over $50,000 in fundraising at minimum, and then some of those people who have traveled with us turn around and give us $10,000 per year to support work they believe in. I don’t know if you have worked with big individual donors who believe in what you do and have seen the projects – but I have to say I’d take our $50,000 per year individual family donor over the large $200,000+ foundation donor we worked with anyday. Why? Because we are having a dialogue – it’s not about the “terms and conditions of the MOU” it’s about allowing the communities and the real needs which arise to be funded in ways that work and it is about allowing the things that AREN’T working to be stopped right away. If voluntourism (done right) and provide that opportunity, to fund projects with sustainable and flexible funding to be used on real needs and not as agenda-pushing grant makters deem worthy, it becomes a lot more attractive.

So don’t toss us to the side with the rest. Their are exceptions to these rules everyone is screaming out into the world and writing books about. Rather than trying to set guidelines or say who should be kicked out and who should stay, why don’t we say HOW people can get better and do good. Tell us the stories. Tell us about the NGO that the lady in your first paragraph donated to – what did they DO that you don’t believe in?! I bet we can all learn from that story and I think those conversations are so much more productive.

Let’s talk about how we need to act, what we have learned, and how we can all get better at what we are collectively trying to do. The “get out if you are not professional” message to me is missing a few words. “Get out if you are not willing to act professionally.” Get out if you are not willing to admit and learn from your mistakes. Get out if you don’t recognize that you WILL make mistakes, because it is inevitable. Don’t kick people out for making mistakes but help people learn from them and then stop supporting them and stop nodding kindly at those who are supporting them when an organization brushes their mistakes under the rug and doesn’t step up to fix them. The people who DO admit mistakes, learn from them, and make the organization and the world better for it – THOSE people, in my book, are professional. You too started out as a “volunteer” – which I am now taking to mean to you as someone who didn’t study development and is a newbie. We need newbies, and yes, I agree, they need to be put in non-major-decision-making-positions, but we need to help them learn – not tell them to get out.

You, and so many of the readers of this blog, have the stories those newbies need to hear. Stop being so polite, and tell us what you have seen. (Change the names if you like of course) – but tell us the truth! I’d rather hear that than have you smile and nod at me when I tell you I donated a lot of my hard earned money to a harmful organization, thank you very much.

(I know it is hard to post a response here, so feel free to continue to conversation where it started athttp://talesfromethehood.wordpress.com/2009/07/16/regulation-anyone… if you want to add anything to these thoughts)