Why don’t people care more?

Upon the completion of a two-year stint in Malawi as a math teacher a very long time ago, I attended a debriefing for Canadians returning from overseas postings. The facilitator asked how many of us had gone through their first posting; most raised our hands. He continued, “I’m sure you’re filled with wonderful stories of having met tremendous hard-working, resilient, beautiful people who have led unimaginably difficult lives but have nonetheless held their heads up high despite the horrible conditions they live in. You’ll want to tell all your friends and families about all of these people and how they’ve affected you and ultimately made you a better person and more appreciative of what you’ve got. You have so much to tell people!” As he was speaking I thought Yes, this guy totally understands me.

“No one cares,” he said.
He was a downer, but for the most part he was right. My mother cared (in part because it was her default response to do so) and some of my best friends cared. No one else really gave a shit. My experiences in Malawi, and more precisely the people who changed my life, were of little importance to the people back home. They wanted to hear more about my stories of roadside mice snacks than the struggles of the poor living there.
It was a harsh but important lesson that repeated itself when I returned to Africa two years later and lived in Ghana. Life was so utterly different, poverty was so utterly everywhere, it was impossible to remain unaffected. And still, upon my return to Canada, it was a challenge to convey to others the importance of helping people elsewhere whose pathetic standard of living prevented them from living in dignity.
It begs a fundamental question: why is it so hard to care about strangers who live less fortunate lives? Here, I use “care” in a very broad sense. There are many ways to show you care. Of course you can give money. You can also become a slacktivist for your favourite cause, you can volunteer, you can Tweet your solidarity to those in need, you can learn about their lives and their struggles, you can raise awareness in your community, you can change your own habits, the list goes on. However one defines “care for others”, I believe there’s a tremendous shortage of it. No wait, that does sound pessimistic. Then let me say this: there should a whole lot more caring.
To focus on giving, and in particular giving money: giving is easy, especially now when you can go online and click away your cash in seconds. Giving leaves the giver with a sense of satisfaction and personal fulfillment, however it does little to strengthen their understanding of where their money is going and the change it is meant to make. While lots of people do give, again I say: there can be a whole lot more.
Maybe we’re just too selfish. Maybe our own problems, however trivial they may seem to others, effectively block out anyone else’s and don’t leave us room to care. Maybe our lives are too hectic to care. Maybe it’s too easy to change channels from the latest massacre in Syria to the next round of American Idol. Maybe the sheer enormity of the help required is too overwhelming for any one person to think they can make a difference. Nearly ten million children under the age of five die every year from preventable diseases, over a billion people live in slums, more than a billion live on less than 1,25$ a day. Millions of people are forcibly displaced every year from their homes due to conflict or environmental disasters, hundreds of thousands of women and girls die every year before, during, or just after childbirth. Around seventy million children worldwide are without access to basic education. It’s enough for the average person eager to help wonder, “Whatever I do won’t make a difference.”
This is not so: giving can make a difference in people’s lives. The language around giving has changed considerably since my stay in Malawi nearly twenty years ago. As such, the actions taken to make sure that giving is effective have changed as well. It’s much less about meeting needs as it is about realizing human rights; it’s less about giving and receiving and more about sharing and enabling (for everyone). It’s less about pity and gratitude and more about respect and dignity.
Twenty-odd years ago, the realities of the poor were not always well understood and often not accurately conveyed to those more fortunate. If you lived in a rich country, you saw images of poor Africans with distended bellies looking sorrowfully at the camera with a pseudo-celebrity (why do I keep thinking Sally Struthers?) asking for your help. Nowadays, messages like this and others are at times labeled as poverty porn, a term that gets its point across but with a regrettably vulgar choice of words. Effective nonprofit organizations have moved well beyond this oversimplified and misrepresentative vision of aid. Those organizations need to raise their profiles and share their good practices of using funds wisely and transparently while enabling people to claim and enjoy their rights. I think – I hope – people will give to something they know will make a difference.
Ultimately, someone wanting to help will have the empathy, the desire, the kind-heartedness and the will to find a way to give. Asking Why don’t people care more? I realize that the question could be phrased differently. I recently came across another way of asking this question from an unlikely source: my children’s comic books. DC Comics unveiled a new campaign where members of the Justice League (Superman, Wonder Woman, Batman, and the other usual superheroes) are “spokespersons” asking to help dying families in the Horn of Africa. It’s a fundraising campaign called We Can Be Heroes, in which DC Comics matches your donation to one of three partner organizations. OK, the use of the term “heroes” to designate people giving money to help others is patronizing to the extreme, but I’ll let it slide because these are comic book characters. At any rate, an awareness-raising video from the website asks the question, What do you do when someone needs help?It’s direct, it gets to the point, and it leaves room for only one answer as far as I can tell: “I help.” Doesn’t matter who needs help, where they live, or what they do: just help.

Three Cups of Reality – Stories from the field: Iraqi human rights defenders, in their own words

Marianne Elliott wrote a great piece – Three Cups of Humble Pie – on the fiasco stemming from Greg Mortenson‘s troubles surrounding the facts of his stories and the way in which his Central Asia Institute has been run. In her post she quotes Desiree Adaway from her blog on the basics of effective governance and how a non-profit should be run. I’ve never read Three Cups of Tea. I bought it for my wife years ago and she found it somewhat interesting but, she admitted, there was something unconvincing and artificial about his writing – a review that may prove to be quite prescient.

When I heard the news about all this last week, I was annoyed more than upset. News like this does little to lend credibility to those working for non-governmental organizations or other civil society organizations who are making a difference in peoples’ lives. Granted, as many people pointed out, including Nicolas Kristof, Mr. Mortenson has probably built more schools in Afghanistan and Pakistan that you or I ever will.  

Still. If you want to engage the general (and generally wealthier) public on issues such as education for poor children in developing countries, stick to the truth. Don’t make it sound any loftier or noble than it really is, don’t write anything just to appeal to an uninformed public that is craving for a tear-jerker story. Just tell it like it is. If anything, Mr. Mortenson’s account, if indeed it has been exaggerated, is prompting me to share some of my own stories from the field. One of the most moving for me was back in 2007 in Amman when I took part in a workshop I designed for Iraqi human rights defenders. The workshop was facilitated by alumni of Equitas‘ training of trainers program. During the workshop, I kept a blog of the events. For me this entry speaks to the horror that Iraqis were faced with on a daily basis, and the tremendous courage and strength they showed through incredible hardships. Here’s the entry from Tuesday, March 20:

Not easy
Tuesday, 20 March 2007, 03:56 PM

A short entry, I promise. Second meeting tonight at 10, this time with the facilitators, to plan for tomorrow. We talk about human rights education activities, and as usual we’re changing things a little.

The recap group [of participants] did not do a recap, as we talked about during the debrief the night before. They came up with a way for participants to share their experiences. The setup: take the chairs, come and form two rows in the middle of the room. On the left side, place your chair there and sit if you’ve got a positive story to tell us about your work. Go to the right if you’ve got something negative. People getting organized, shuffling back and forth, not knowing which side was which, still trying to figure out what they were going to say. Settled after a minute or so, silence. Go. The participant facilitating the activity randomly went from the positive to the negative sides, passing the microphone. This is what I typed as they spoke (this is unedited):

Positive. Establishing a student organization in Mosul. After the fall of the regime, we established it despite problems.

Negative. Days are filled with events, all organizations, not only mine. American forces entered Karballa April 5, rising flag American forces attacked us as we raised a flag signaling peace, with reporters. They wanted tv interview, CNN.

Negative. Less than one year of starting work in Mosul, group of young girls preparing to be teachers. Bus taking them to institute attacked by American occupation. Told driver to get down, asked the girls to take off their clothes completely to make sure they were not terrorists. But remained surrounded, bus driver being beaten, shaking bus until local authorities intervened.

Negative: Program to empower youth from different universities in Mosul and Basrah in strategic planning. 365 young people, training lasted 3 months, chosen 10 young men mostly from Baghdad. Leader was a woman, father also dean of the faculty. Received a phone call , girl was assassinated , she and her father. Group couldn’t keep up their work because they couldn’t keep going, I was among them. They were able to learn from her, but it ended.

Positive. In 2005, our location of institute was next to mosque of the great imam. Entered hq, wanted to arrest head of the organization, wanted to bombard the institutions. But neighbours joined us, civilians, we lay down on the ground. President still there at prisons.

Negative. One occasion affected me. Health situations. Being a leader of women league, I’m only female journalist in Basrah. Controlled by religious sects, consider me secular. Received threats. One delivered me at my home. Suffering in fear for my children, one month ago. Another threat from my union, always staying at my parents affected me badly.

Positive. Really happy was the activities conducted with Iraqi organizations, Mosul university. Has plenty of students in Iraq. Program we had coincided with Shiite and Sunni students, lasted for 4 days, drawing and painting gallery, we wanted to disseminate the problems via the paintings in sectarianism.

Negative. Kirkuk. Went to streets plenty of tragedies. First received a threat from American occupation forces, and from militant gangs, they think we are assistants of the Americans. We record speeches, we receive threats – the latest incident bombing yesterday, our furniture was all destroyed, new and hot issue.

Positive. Civil society organizations. Help families, receiving asylum, work we only hear about them theoretically. In spite of the difficulties, it will be an impulse for us, many organizations. Most important one, see the smile on the faces of children, feel I am doing my work correctly, see the smile on the face of a child. Makes me create new activities.

Negative. By end of 2003 and beginning 2004. the cadre? Contained a female American, trying to improve skills of organization, assistance to illiterate females. Karballah institute for women, before killing that lady. Even Islamic religion, she started to benefit from Iraqi women’s skills, sharing of information. Inaugurated the centre, faced with terrorists, 5-6 people, attacked us. Killed her by 13 bullets, even her fingers fell down. We left work for almost a week.

Negative. Important incident near bombarding clinics in Babel, terrorist attack , I was near the camera took pictures of the bodies, images even worse in the American movies.

Positive. Target groups, 50 families. Lately, our organizations program for heaters and blankets for families. During the program, people were happy about the blankets. Also felt that …people who are able to donate to the civil society organization.

Negative. Incident very painful. When working in British embassy. Director responsible for Iraqi affairs, last day, very sure said we should leave at 2, not 4. last day, she went with her husband to work in some of the palaces. Her husband, felt something suspicious. Most of us we have weapons, we are licensed. We they got home, they were attacked by terrorists, he died at once, she was pregnant and attacked, hope she will get better.

One participant had to leave the room as others were talking, too much for him. It was over, the participant who facilitated asked me, What do we do? I didn’t know she was going to ask me. What the hell do you answer after something like that? I was down in front of them, trying to figure out what I was going to say as I adjusted my mike. Nothing in my personal experience even comes close to what they have witnessed or been subjected to. But the mere fact that they could find positive things to identify with is remarkable. Shows the spirit, the commitment, the heart that they put into their work. As they were saying their stories, I found I had to make a concerted effort to concentrate on what the translator was saying and to just type it. If I stopped to think about what they were saying, I would have found it difficult to keep my composure.

Late afternoon, another activity that was not easy. Sit in a circle, turn the lights off, close the door. Pitch black. Facilitator asks them to recount a personal incident when they were afraid. I had seen this particular facilitator do this before and it was very powerful; so much so, that I wanted to record what people were saying this time. They sat in the circle, I was by the wall with the glow of my laptop shining on my face. The facilitator began, talking about his own experience, having been detained, people he was with being taken away one by one to have their arms broken. I closed my laptop and listened. One person, the date he won’t forget, August 16, 2006, riding in a bus with 8 passengers and the driver. Stopped at a checkpoint and being asked for ID, people in the bus being shot one by one, him at the back. They got to the guy next to him, whose mobile phone went off, scared the killers, they ran. He and the other passenger driving 40 km to the nearest town, seven bodies in the bus.

I don’t think I can write anything more now.


On NGO jargonmania and the futility of pre-meetings

A friend of mine emailed me a top ten list a couple of weeks ago that really hit home. Entitled, “Top Ten Reasons You Know You’re Working at an Aid Organization Headquarters,” almost every item on the list rang true. The first reason pretty much sums up the convoluted, impossibly heavy jargon-laden language we use in the non-governmental organization (NGO) field. Here it is:

You just had a pre-meeting to discuss your strategy planning session for the new initiative to reduce poverty by increasing access to safe water/credit/food/health care through fair and equitable distribution to those with the right to said good or service through engagement with duty bearers in the government and other stakeholders and civil society organizations.

Jargon is one thing, acronyms is another. I’m careful about over-acronymizing my speech. While living in Ghana as a Development Worker with World University Service of Canada, I was a policy advisor in the Girls Education Unit of the basic Education Division in the Ghana Education Service, reporting to the Ministry of Education. In other words, I would introduce myself as the WUSC DW in GEU of the BED in the GES of the MOE.

But that first reason above points not only to excessive jargon but also the speed at which decisions are made in NGOs. Having a “pre-meeting” and a “strategy planning session” to discuss eventual engagement of a cornucopia of stakeholders (sorry! jargon alert) sounds to me like nothing meaningful will ever take place! There are times when working for an NGO when you honestly feel like things aren’t moving as quickly as they should. I know that’s not exceptional, after all I also worked for the government and it was much the same. But the causes for the most part are inherently different: in government (based on my experience working for the government here in Canada), things move at a glacial pace because any decision-making has to follow a precise and slow-moving path of approval. It was much the same in Ghana when I worked for the ministry of education, only there the problem was compounded by a bunch of good employees who were unmotivated for a number of reasons including meagre salaries and being stuck in an environment rife with corruption and ineptitude. With some NGOs the decision-making is participatory to a fault; everyone has to be consulted to the point where no one ever ends up making a decision, or if a decision is ever made it takes an inordinate amount of time to actually be taken. Sad to say, but “pre-meetings” do exist in the NGO world. Just have the meeting and make the decision then!

Pre-meetings are annoying but manageable; it’s when a lack of effective and timely decision-making ruins important opportunities to “do good” that really irks me. Read any number of stories of humanitarian assistance coming from Haiti and you’ll discover plenty of small-scale initiatives from dedicated NGOs (both national and international) that are doing wonderful things to restore human dignity to those who have suffered. Then contrast that to wide-scale initiatives from larger organizations that are responsible for millions of dollars worth of aid and they royally bungle things up. Irk!

This irking is longstanding with me. A lot comes down to the people within the NGOs; many have their hearts in the right place but not necessarily the skills to manage an organization. This is in sharp contrast to the business world, where many leaders have the skills (honed either on the job or through education) to manage others. As one leader of an NGO remarked to me once, “We fell into our positions as managers, and we’re still learning.” To those NGO leaders who are still learning on the job, please take some advice: stop the pre-meetings, or pre-anythings. Meet, decide, act, be responsible and accountable, applaud successes, acknowledge failures (and call them that if that’s what they are, do not couch them in terms of “lessons learned”), and move on.

However, it’s unfair to dump a lack of prompt decision-making squarely on the shoulders of NGO leaders. Let’s be honest, any organization – NGO or otherwise – can have its share of leaders and slackers, and the latter can have a serious effect on an organization’s effectiveness. The NGO sector is no different. When I started working in international development in the early 90s, I was instantly thrilled and dismayed at the people who made international development a career choice. To be quite honest, most the people were fantastic: dedicated, caring, eager to collaborate and listen to others, intent on fostering change, creative and willing to take risks, intelligent and indefatigable in their efforts. The rest were total morons: idiots in the truest sense of the word, people I am convinced were totally incapable of finding a decent job back home. I can think of at least one man I had to work closely with for a few months who was a racist and a misogynist. His love for monstrously bloody steaks, hunting big game and watching the antics of would-be wrestlers in the World Wrestling Federation did nothing to endear him to me.

This was quite demoralizing for me as a newcomer to international development. In my naïveté, I suppose I never stopped to think that I would be going into a field – just like any other – where there was a huge range of people in terms of their competencies and motivations for doing this type of work. Perhaps things are no better now than they were when I started in international development all those years ago, but I’d like to think that the general public is gaining a much better understanding of the work that NGOs do, and that in turn is forcing NGOs to become more accountable for their actions, more transparent in their work, and clearer in identifying tangible results of their programs, and that’s something everyone benefits from in my opinion. 

And to go back to that top ten list, number seven was “You realize that your favourite and most frequented cafe is locate in Schiphol Airport in Amsterdam.” Not true! It’s at the airport in Singapore.