Wednesday, November 3, 2010

Do It Yourself

The aid community is up in arms. The cause? Nicholas Kristof. It is truly amazing how much indignation this New York Times columnist seems to be able to stir up.

So what did he say now? He wrote a piece about "Do-It-Yourself foreign aid". In this piece he was talking about the current trend of Americans (and people around the globe) to start their own aid projects, rather than work with big, established aid organizations. It seems that thanks to the internet and social media more "regular people" are learning about large, global problems, and then feeling empowered to actually start a project to address that problem themselves. This is what he means by a do-it-yourself approach to foreign aid.

The aid community has come back talking about the importance of professionalism and accountability.

But I'd like to talk about something else. Don't you think we're misusing the term "do-it-yourself" here? When we take on a do-it-yourself project isn't it usually in our own homes? We work on our kitchen sink that won't stop leaking, or remodeling our bathroom. And yes, the problem with do-it-yourself projects is that we aren't professionals, and we don't usually know exactly what we are doing. But then again, that's OK, because it is our house, and when we remodel the bathroom and discover that new tile is all crooked, we can debate the value of taking it out and starting it over again. And when that sink develops another leak in a month, we can go back in and try and fix it again. Usually we have to live with the results of our own do it yourself projects. And that makes us both invested in the project, and uniquely qualified to decide whether bright pink is really the right color to paint the bathroom wall. And for precisely that reason, do-it-yourself projects tend to be more like open-ended discussions, where the wall changes from pink to blue to beige, as the years wear on.

I'm not really sure about the idea of do-it-yourself projects in strangers houses. I mean who really proposes a do-it-yourself project as a way to get to know random people, or to make friends? At best, it would be an incredibly awkward way to start a relationship.

So I think there is often a contradition in the term "Do-It-Yourself" foreign aid. D0-It-Yourself probably shouldn't be done in a place we consider "foreign". I agree with Kristof that we have become too dependent on big companies and big organizations, and we have lost faith in our own abilities to affect change, indeed our own responsibility to affect change. But that responsibility to affect change starts in our own communities and in our lives. Sometimes it is easier to go global. The problems that exist in hot spots around the globe can seem overwhelming but they have a unique power to motivate. Because the further away a community is, the less experience we have of the community, the easier it is to romanticize the problems and simplify the solutions. And the further we live from that community, and the fewer real relationships we have in it, the easier it is to believe our own publicity and fool ourselves about the successes. Do-It-Yourself does have successes but it also has a lot of failures and a lot of changes to make along the way. And when we are working in a community that we learned about on the internet, and visited for 2 weeks, chances are we aren't well-equipped for the long haul.

That is not to say we can't affect change in the global community. But instead of surfing the internet for the next hot cause, we could stand to look carefully at our own lives and the inequalities that exist in the midst of them. Ultimately we'll find that we do have real connections to our neighbors, both across the street and abroad. The way we shop, where we choose to live, the way we treat the environment does matter to real people around the globe.

Tales from The hood mentions Greg Mortenson (3 cups of tea) as an examples which is often used of "do-it-yourself-aid". Indeed Mortenson is an interesting example. He went half way across the world not because of altruism, or because he was inspired about some problem, but because he wanted to hike a mountain. And he got to know the people in a small village because he fell sick and they cared for him. His project was born not out of some big vision, but out of a promise he made to some friends he made there. And it was born not out of altruism but out of relationship. He had no idea what he was doing, and was certainly not professional. In fact he came back to build a school only to discover that what they really needed was a bridge. But he had the investment in this community that had first cared for him, and a sense of responsibility to those people. Wherever we find ourselves we have similar responsibilities.

Our responsibility to our fellow man isn't reserved for professionals. In fact it is a responsibility we have no right to hand off to professionals. But that responsibility should be born out of our long-term investment in communities and in relationships.

To tell you the truth, sometimes I get frustrated. Sometimes I wonder why SHONA doesn't get the spotlight. Why couldn't we be the next Oprah guest or whatever? But that is the point. Is that really what SHONA is? I work on SHONA because I have a responsibility to my neighbors in Goma, to these incredible women who daily remind me what it means to live humbly. If I have given them the tools that I have, and they can now stand on their own and create change in their lives, that's enough. We are "do it yourself". And this is our home. We don't have to build a mansion or give neighborhood tours, to make what we do valuable.

I'm not a professional, but then again I don't have to be. Because this isn't "foreign" aid. These are my friends and my neighbors, and no one needs a degree for that.

"Do not think that love in order to be genuine has to be extraordinary. What we need is to love without getting tired. Be faithful in small things because it is in them that your strength lies."
Mother Teresa

"What can you do to promote world peace? Go home and love your family." Mother Teresa


Unknown said...

I love your blog! I've been a reader for quite some time, but I particularly like this entry of yours. I also posted a couple entries on Kristof's article, and mentioned you in my latest, if you don't mind?
Thanks for all of your wonderful insight into women in Congo. I love the work that you are doing :)

Anonymous said...

Well, working for a big multilateral aid agency, most times, you end up feeling restricted by memos and politics. And you wonder if the impact carries enough weight to the people whose lives you're trying to better.
In your case Dawn, Shona... makes visible, more long term, sustainable, direct impact. Your partners are able to build capacity, run a small business, and provide for themselves and family continuously whereas in big aid agencies, you get funded for one project, then if the project isn't continued, you are pretty much screwed unless you can build upon the business model and training you've imparted from the one year when the project existed. Later down the row, they can take away their experience as craftsmen, and develop small businesses which fill the needs of their communities. And your work has taught them with the business model to do that.

If Shona were bigger and appeared on Oprah, you'd pay the price of all NGOs and aide agencies who find themselves suddenly bigger and more exposed--you get caught up with politics and memos and the cause celeb trend, which is also frustrating.

It isn't the big aid rhetoric (there was an article or position paper in the Guardian I stumbled across once, that in reality each person in Africa receives about $37 out of all the aid which has gone in) and all the different positions on aid impact.
At the end of the day, it's people.
SHONA makes a more direct and immediate impact and puts national ownership into the hands of the craftsmen and women to develop small business models and tools to sustain livelihoods.
If you were the recipient of aid or an aid agency, you'd be sitting there waiting for next year's funding to clear or some absurd administrative clause to be resolved before grants can come in, and meanwhile, these people would be expected to be on hold..which doesn't always work in the real world because people need to feed their families and can't wait for project proposals and progress reports and status updates and other needed bureaucratic means of accountability

shona congo said...

Thanks Lei, I appreciate your perspective. I totally agree, and have intentionally chosen to make SHONA small but sustainable for many of the reasons you mention. But There are so many forces that push, even tiny people like myself to try and be bigger, and chase funding, it is always important to have voices like yours to remind us of the many reasons it is good to be small! Can I repost your comment on my blog, so other people can read it? Good to hear from you!

shona congo said...

Jacqueline,Glad you enjoyed my point of view. And thanks for including me on your blog. I enjoyed your review of Mortenson's new book. Haven't read it yet myself but have read 3 Cups of Tea and found it quite interesting. Stay in touch as you continue towards your goal of working in the international aid and development industry. Nursing and public health should certainly be extremely helpful in that regard. I'll be interested in hearing your experiences along the way.

Alain said...

I've read the article, Lei's comment and yours. I agree with Lei and I remember that in a conversation one day, you showed me how important it was to keep Shona small as long as it was possible... and just work on it's strength and
About the article, I will agree with you that aid recipients are people, they are nothing else but people and therefore, the best way to help them is by knowing them and understanding their needs. Then and then only will anyone be able to provide an effective response to their needs...
I will join the opinion that states that it's always better to take the approach of tooling the people and help build their capacity to produce valuable responses to their problems... Big organizations (as you know I have worked for them) do not always do it like that and therefore do not happen to be the best solution...
Small organisations (I have my experience with Shona and so many others) are less restricted in the approach they want to take and if they have an heart for what they are doing, they make long lasting impact...

I think that there is really a lot to tell about this issue of "do it yrslef" as seen by Kristof... Maybe I should take a time a write down my thoughts more clearly.

Thanks for sharing your thoughts and yes, you are right to quote MT on this small things: "Do not think that love in order to be genuine has to be extraordinary. What we need is to love without getting tired. Be faithful in small things because it is in them that your strength lies." —
Mother Teresa

Kat said...

smaller is better, more direct results and more direct payment to the folks who are doing the hard work...less paperwork to screw everything up and slow it down and add more people to the mix.

shona congo said...

Thanks Alain and Kat for your comments. I've re-posted them from facebook to my blog as well, so that other people can read them, I hope you don't mind. I certainly appreciate all the affirmation on the value of smallness.

Alain you certainly have seen some of the bigger aid organizations at work in Goma, as well as worked with many smaller ones, so I appreciate your in put. And Kat you also certainly have had a great opportunity to the American presence overseas. I am still meaning to read "the Ugly American". I think it was last Thanksgiving that you suggested that book to me and it is definitely on my reading list.

In the meantime I appreciate both of your affirmation of the value of smallness. It is good to hear and remember!