Good Intentions Aren’t EnoughFeatured, Social Justice — By Penny Carothers 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.