Good Intentions Aren’t Enough

Featured, Social Justice — By on April 29, 2010 at 11:19 am

I’ve said it already.  Extensively.  But some things bear repeating.

There’s been an explosion on the development blogs regarding Jason Sadler’s proposal to send one million used (but decent!) t-shirts to Africa.  Apparently, Sadler runs a site called I Wear Your Shirt, built on the concept that he (and now another guy in LA) are “human billboards,” utilizing social media tools like Twitter and Facebook to spread the word about the companies that buy his chest for the day.

Certainly, Sadler has good intentions with his newest endeavor.  He’s really trying to help it seems.  But could his attempts to help really do more harm than good?  And what do they say about our own efforts?

The problem starts here: the Me Generation, despite its desire to engage, to be involved, still seems focused on the self.  We don’t want to stand on the sidelines, we want to do something.  We don’t want to blend into the crowd, we want to stand out.  We don’t want to jump on the bandwagon, we want to start our own.  We know our talents, and damn it, we want to do something good.

And sometimes this is laudable.  But sometimes it’s downright harmful (Alanna Shaikh links to some videos of why this idea is harmful here), like the explosion of people who want to work in development but have almost no experience in the countries they seek to help, sense of the local context and real needs, or knowledge of what really works.  My generation is skeptical of established organizations, but here’s the thing: (most of them at least) know what they’re doing.  Why reinvent the wheel?  In what other field are people allowed to just blaze in with no experience, no education, and nothing but a desire to help and a possibly bad idea?  International development is a professional field, and we should be listening to the people who have spent their life learning what works and what doesn’t.

I don’t have much to add to the debate raging on twitter.  My experience in development consists of a graduate degree I’m still paying off, and a long internship at a large ( and well-respected) NGO.  But it’s something we should all take seriously because it speaks to deeper issues that affect our daily lives.   Issues like the blinders of privilege, congratulatory altruism, and the fickle power of social media.

When we seek to help we should be focused on the recipients of our good intentions (we should know the specific people, not simply have some general sense that they’re poor or in need) not what we have to give out of our waste or excess (to learn more about why this is bad policy, see this blog).  Because honestly, how would this debate change if we were asked to give something we value instead of something we’d rather throw away?

But let’s not end there.  It’s not all bad.   Christian Fabian points out that the twitter riot has contributed to the public dialogue about development and vetted this project in ways that should be replicated:

Imagine if a large organization could put out its project plans in a way that was as appealing to comment on as this.
Imagine if there was the same transparancy and accountability of ideas in development.
Imagine if there was the same involvement of donors and implementers – and (watch out!) the beneficiaries of projects.
Imagine if we could actually ask people in the developing world what they thought of projects before we started them.

Now, we wait to see what Jason Sadler will do about it.

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  • Bravo, Penny. I lived in Africa for four years and I saw countless loads of clothes being sold in markets which came from similar clothing drives. These items rarely reach the intended recipients or they are resold by their recipients for more basic items like soap and salt which are far more valuable and more relevant to developing world communities. How about teaming up with local indigenous organizations who understand these basic truths about their own people? I wholeheartedly agree we are willing to give a few crumbs away (used crumbs at that) but we are less willing to go and see for ourselves what people really need.

  • Yeah, this is good stuff. I don’t know if you coined the phrase “congratulatory altruism,” but I like it. I read earlier today that some are postulating that we’re entering a post-materialist era, which I think is debatable, but even if it’s so, I don’t think we’re entering a post-consumerist era; we’re just shifting from consuming stuff to consuming experiences–like the experience of travel overseas, the experience of altruistic outings, the experience of slacktivism, etc. Soong-Chan Rah made a parallel comment (paraphrased here) in his talk at the Christian Community Development Association conference last year: “If you’re going into a community to ‘serve,’ and you haven’t gotten to know the community and the people who live there first, you’re not a missionary–you’re a colonialist.”

  • Christina says:

    Thanks for posting this! I’m a recent college grad and this article really put to words what I had noticed in several social justice movements, including a few that I became worked up about, only to have the desire fizzle out rather quickly. I think this habit of compulsive-helping has turned serious world issues and needs into nothing more than fads on college campuses. Thanks again.

  • Saba says:

    A succinct and well-written post on this debate. And one that appreciates the good with the bad.

    Yes, this is obviously an example of bad development practices on numerous levels, but wow, what a buzz BIG ideas executed cleverly through the power of social media can create, and wow, what great discussions they can prompt.

  • Steve says:

    Right on, Penny. I totally need someone to help me direct my good intentions. People who have the guts and passion to work in development deserve my support more than my input or ideas. These situations are so complex, and I think we oversimplify things, whether out of a desire to be hip, to sacrifice, or both.

  • April Adams says:

    Oh my goodness, Penny, great article. I agree. While I was in collegiate ministry I ran into plenty of people who wanted to “help” without thinking things through and considering the people they were helping. When the ministry wouldn’t help them “help” because of their methods, they would get offended and claim we weren’t spiritual enough. It’s a frustrating thing, no doubt.

  • Thanks y’all for the good thoughts. It’s so wonderful to have a place where I can air my angst and have it be supported. Thank you, thank you.

  • Rebecca Husband says:

    Penny, you are always great at weighing both sides. In my short time in development I’ve witnessed the refreshing slide towards “localization,” i.e., letting the people with the most appropriate context (members of the affected community themselves) design, lead, and monitor these projects. Duh, right? The problem is, and there is not much way around this, the larger, most impactful projects are funded by (sometimes altruistic, sometimes not) foreign governments, which, for good AND for bad, are accountable to their taxpayers, and whose myriad regulations, a direct consequence of answering to so many different taxpayers, pose an administrative burden too large for any but the most polished, slick, and factory-like NGOs. But these NGOs don’t play the obvious villain either: they fully realize the fact that they don’t have full autonomy over the design their own projects, and ultimately have to answer to the donor priorities. It’s a sticky web, and it generates a lot of burnout. Still searching for what the best solution might be. Thanks Penny for initiating such a thoughtful discussion that often doesn’t come to light!

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