Charity and NGOs – Let’s Get Real

I’ve been seeing this article, Dear World, Let’s Stop Giving Our Crap to the Poor, going around the Internet recently, and I think it highlights an important concept that should be widely considered.

The author describes her experience bringing a donated iPhone to a NGO worker in Kenya. When they attempted to use the phone in the field, “it wouldn’t hold a charge for more than 10 minutes. The phone was junk.”

She also raises a crucial question that many people – especially in the Western world – should keep in mind: “Why do we give others – often those in service to the poor or the poor themselves – something we wouldn’t keep or give ourselves?”

Why do we think that it is acceptable to give our old, worn-out goods to others? Why do we assume that these goods are wanted regardless of their condition? The author of the article cites the typical logic: something is better than nothing. But let’s be real – something isn’t always better than nothing. That logic becomes degrading when the donated gifts are computers that take 20 minutes to start up. Phones that cannot hold a charge. Chairs that teeter and tip over. Keurig machines missing parts. Clothing with stains and/or holes. Clown paintings. (I have seen each one of these items come from donations. For real.)

How are these items useful to anyone?

Donation boxes – whether to people or to organizations – should not serve as garbage cans that boost egos. If you are going to donate, donate something that will meet a need beyond clearing out your closet.

The author of the cited article is not advocating a complete halt of donations, nor am I. Like the author herself, a large portion of my closet is secondhand, and I have secondhand electronics that work just fine. The difference lies in the quality of the goods: “There’s nothing wrong with used or second-hand. It’s often my first and favorite choice. Many organizations and ministries depend on used gifts. But if we give used, it should be our best…I am saying if we give it away, it should be something we would use ourselves.”

This is not a new phenomenon. Dan Pallotta’s Uncharitable provides an interesting perspective on donations, the organizational structure of nonprofit organizations, and society’s expectations from the label “nonprofit.” Whether or not you agree with his ideas, Pallotta will force you to reconsider why development – both international and domestic – is treated the way it is. Reasoning behind why NGOs tend to veer away from innovation and risk will become a little clearer. It is a provoking read, and it illuminates a perspective that is just a bit uncomfortable – it pushes at Western cultural norms around NGOs.

After working/interning/fellow-ing in a total of six nonprofit organizations, I can attest to the reality of the practice of donation dumping. The things that I have seen donated would astound someone used to, well, functional items in the work place. Again, how helpful is an old computer if it takes 20 minutes to start up? There is a limited amount of work that can be done on such an old device. Scenarios like this are one contributing factor that hinders the work that NGOs and NGO workers can realistically do. Our mission statements are big enough; we don’t need to fight with our workspaces as well.

This was particularly evident when I interned at a refugee resettlement agency. People and companies would give boxes and boxes of goods. But these goods would be a mishmash of American commercialization, a hodgepodge of articles that formed an abstract painting of household goods. Useful items were few and far between. You can’t send a newly arrived refugee mother home with half of a Keurig machine and expect that these incomplete pieces of machinery will help her settle into her new home. You just can’t.

I now see the same mentality emerge here in India. Things are just given. We need more than that. We need thoughtful giving. We need conscious citizens who both want to help and are realistic about the difference between second-hand and trash.

We need more thought because we can do better.

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Diwali Shenanigans

I have many more words to say about the past four days, but pure exhaustion has muddled my brain. On a whim I bought bus tickets to Mumbai and spent Wednesday evening until Saturday afternoon with a bunch of crazy and motivating AIF co-fellows. It was a jumble of debauchery, exploring, and coming to understand a little more of the kaleidoscope of Indian culture. Amazingly fun and completely exhausting.

So for now, a barrage of pictures until I can summon the energy to voice my thoughts.

Entering Mumbai: See no evil, hear no evil, speak no evil.

Entering Mumbai: See no evil, hear no evil, speak no evil.

Barbed wire alternative

Glass, always a good alternative for barbed wire

Beautiful architecture in West Bandra

Beautiful architecture in West Bandra

Larry buying Diwali gifts for our hosts

Larry buying Diwali gifts for our hosts

Rangoli on the streets of Bandra

Rangoli on the streets of Bandra

Rangoli

Rangoli

And then fireworks!

And then fireworks!

Rangoli at our Diwali celebrations

Rangoli at our Diwali celebrations

Diwali feast

Diwali feast

Enjoying the spread

Enjoying the spread

Aftermath

Aftermath

Mumbai train station

Mumbai train station

The boys on the train

The boys on the train

Clock tower (South Bombay)

Clock tower (South Bombay)

South Bombay

South Bombay

The buildings in South Bombay are stunning.

The buildings in South Bombay are stunning.

IMG_20141024_135005

The Gateway to India

The Gateway to India

Taj Palace Hotel

Taj Palace Hotel

Making cane juice on the streets of South Bombay

Making cane juice on the streets of South Bombay

Peanut Chutney (South Bombay)

Peanut Chutney (South Bombay)

South Bombay

South Bombay

South Bombay

South Bombay

Happy Diwali!

Happy Diwali!

The contrasts of Mumbai

The contrasts of Mumbai

Masala Dosa

Masala Dosa

And my welcome home sight on my way to get groceries.

And my welcome home sight on my way to get groceries this morning – goats. Well played, Pune. Well played.

And now back to normal life – work, writing, and goat watching?

Of Parties, Pizza, and Bollywood

For a weekend with few plans, the past few days were marked with distinctly Indian experiences. I may not be traveling much (something I hope to correct sooner rather than later!), but as my best friend reminded me today while messaging on the oh-so-useful-yet-increasingly-annoying medium of Facebook: “You know that experience is the most important! If that experience comes at the local store and not mumbai that’s okay!” So I’m going to see this weekend as time full of Pune experiences. This place will be home – it already is, to some degree.

One of my favorite memories of Pune thus far is last Friday’s Diwali party with my coworkers at Akanksha. Diwali is Hindi festival of lights. In very simplified terms, it is a celebration of good over evil, of light over dark. This year the holiday actually starts on Thursday, so our party was a warm up to the real event. The dress code mandated at traditional dress, and almost everyone (especially the women) brought out some beautiful examples of Indian fashion. I was lucky enough to borrow a sari from a coworker. (While I fully intend to buy a sari of my own at some point this year, I want time to explore all of the saris. All of them. Then I can pick my favorite(s).) I was also lucky enough to have wonderful coworkers who could put said sari on me and lend me jewelry to complete the ensemble. (It was kind of amusing to see my coworker fold the front of my sari from behind me – the top of her head maybe reaches the nape of my neck. She couldn’t see a thing. Most of the time I don’t feel particularly tall here, but this certainly was an exception!)

A lovely sari paired with my t-shirt, rolled up and tied in the back!

A lovely sari paired with my t-shirt, rolled up and tied in the back!

The HR team really pulled off a nice party. It was a lot of fun to sit and chat with coworkers who I see come in and out of the office but never really speak to. It was also funny to see the shape of the party – it was fantastically reminiscent of a classroom. Everything at Akanksha speaks to people’s past lives as teachers. Every meeting and group gathering – it runs like a lesson, and everyone always comments on how much easier it is to work with kids. How this played out at our party: we spent about an hour making paper lanterns, then competed in teams to make an Indian sweet (basically a dumpling filled with toasted coconut and sugar), and then we ate. It was a lot of fun, and I was vividly reminded of school holiday parties.

Cutting out shapes for paper lanterns

Cutting out shapes for paper lanterns

Everyone hard at work

Everyone at work

Everyone at work

And perhaps not so hard at work! (This gentleman provides support for school leaders and is one of the happiest people I have met. Always smiling and laughing. I am working on getting him hooked to GoT.)

And perhaps not so hard at work! (This gentleman provides support for school leaders and is one of the happiest people I have met. Always smiling and laughing. I am working on getting him hooked on GoT.)

The wonderful Moushi, who helps at the office

The wonderful Moushi, who helps at the office, demonstrates how to roll the dough.

Our contribution to the dumpling contest

Our contribution to the dumpling contest

Chaaaaaaaaaat!

Chaaaaaaaaaat!

After the Diwali party wrapped up, I went out with a coworker and her friends to a fantastic restaurant near my apartment. It was a stunning venue – lights under glass tables, lit ponds, and simple modern tables. To get into the restaurant, you descend a staircase that highlights the space and atmosphere. It was breathtaking. I will certainly be going back – even though it is only open Friday – Sunday and reservations are non-negotiable. It had pretty good thin crust pizza, to boot.

Fancy appetizers

Fancy appetizers

Saturday was an experience, unfortunately not in a positive sense. I had agreed to help run a booth selling Akanksha art products as part of an ongoing fundraiser. The sale was close to my house (5 kilometers), and it didn’t seem like a big deal. The sale itself was fine, but transportation to and from was horrendous. The rickshaw drivers were just beyond awful. I was overcharged both rides, and the second ride was disastrous. Despite agreeing to the meter when I got into the cab, he kept insisting on 100 rupees (an absurdly high number for that distance) and then wouldn’t let me get out of the vehicle. Then he wouldn’t take me all the way to my place – I ended up walking another 15 minutes to my house. The walking didn’t bother me, but overpaying for a ride that didn’t even get me close to my house was infuriating. I actually screamed at the driver, saying that he shouldn’t have taken my business if he was going to cheat me and lie to me. Not sure if he understood, but hopefully he won’t agree to one set of terms and then change his mind halfway through.

Our booth looked lovely at least!

Our booth looked lovely at least!

It’s not really about the money, although I am being careful to stay within my stipend. It’s the lying and cheating and general lack of work ethic that I see in most drivers. In Bangladesh everyone tried to make an extra buck, and while difficult to handle sometimes, I understood the need. Rickshaw drivers here do whatever they want and then expect extra pay for… I really don’t know what. It’s a minor inconvenience, but it’s super frustrating given that I rely on rickshaws for travel.

With the horrible rides on Saturday, I didn’t really want to deal with rickshaws on Sunday. Some distance was needed from those things. So I ended up watching a Bollywood movie at the cinema near my house. Hindi is a beautiful language, and it’s fun to sit and just listen to language. The movie itself was pretty bad. It reminded me of the time I went to see Mission Impossible 4 in Korea with a bunch of friends. It was an awful movie, but the dark theater provided a quiet space to escape for a bit. I enjoyed being in the theater. I think it might be a monthly treat – one afternoon in the theater seeing whatever big movie has come out.

The Daily Commute

When people ask me what I think of Pune, I can honestly say that it’s a lovely city and that it is very easy to live in. Especially after a summer in Dhaka, I am very comfortable here.

The only thing that Pune truly lacks is a decent public transportation system. There are buses, but thus far no one seems to know the routes and there is no real timetable. It’s supposedly a very unreliable method of transport.

So I am left with one option: rickshaws.

The view from the back of a rickshaw

The view from the back of a rickshaw

Riding rickshaws everyday is… an experience. City sights buzz by. You can hear the sounds of Pune waking up in the morning and spiral into rush hour madness in the evening. The strangled quack of a rickshaw horn never fails to make me grin. Occasionally I’ll get a nice driver; once I was treated to a Marathi lesson. These are the things that I focus on when the less than favorable aspects of using rickshaws start to grate on me.

It's hidden, but the small buildings (on the right hand side of the photo) is a community where some Akanksha students live.

It’s hidden, but the small buildings (on the right hand side of the photo) are the houses of a community where some Akanksha students live.

For one, using the rickshaws as I do is a rather costly endeavor. And to be frank, it’s probably the most physically uncomfortable method of traveling. Bouncing up and down on barely cushioned seats bruises my thighs and bum. One ride was particularly notable in its two near misses with other vehicles – within 5 minutes. I won’t even get into the hassle of getting the drivers to go by meter and go a normal route.

Still, my rickshaw rides are part of my Indian existence, and it’s a distinct feature of my life here. As such, I thought I’d share a few moments of my morning commute. In the videos you can see the Pune-Mumbai highway, the rivers that wind through the city, the tall skyscrapers and the lowly tin-roofed slums. It is a mere introduction to Pune and the video quality is low (it was taken on my Bangladeshi-turned-Indian phone), but it’s an introduction nonetheless.

 

Fear

One of the wonderful things about taking a year off from grad school to complete my fellowship is the sudden inundation of time. And I’m saying this at the end of a 6-day week. As in, it is Saturday night, I got back from work at 6pm, and I still feel as though I am ample free time. It is utterly glorious. It is also an indication of how intense life at Fletcher can be – classes, homework, job(s), internship search, funding search, hanging out at the Blakeley kitchen, going to friends’ houses, running, tennis, clubs… If I ever had a free moment, I filled it with something.

That’s not to say that I’m slacking here, either. I’ve gathered my share of projects to supplement my work with Akanksha:

  • A 4-week online course in technology in M&E
  • Working on a committee to establish a Fletcher M&E consulting group
  • Blogging
  • Keeping in touch with people from home
  • Reading
  • Feeding myself (the corner stores near my place will now give me produce on credit – more on that another day)
  • Writing a case study on BRAC’s mobile money pilots (you know, the thing that’s supposed to hopefully be my capstone project for my master’s? Yeah, that thing…)

It’s delightful to have the time to tackle these projects. I’m loving it. Even if it makes me feel slightly brain dead to continue working after leaving the office, it only scratches the surface of how drained a day at Fletcher made me feel.

I miss that place like crazy.

So as a starting point – I am incredibly grateful and happy that I’m here in India with all of the opportunities AIF has given me. I thoroughly believe that this is a crucial time to practice the analytical and practical skills that I learned during my first year at Fletcher while gaining initial field experience. As far as my future job search is concerned, this is just as important as the degree that I’ll hold in my hands in about a year and a half. I’m proving that I can do this.

There’s another reason that I was attracted to this fellowship, and it wasn’t until I read another blogger’s post about something entirely different that I realized it myself.

I remember back to conversations with family in November and December. My grandmother could only laugh that I’d prefer to go to India than Israel. (This came with my insistence that my AIF application needed time and energy, so I wasn’t really interested in applying for a birthright trip, regardless of my eligibility.) I remember my father just shaking his head, a little bemused. A decent summarization of a question he asked me would be: “Why do you keep picking these places?”

Part of it is instinct. I go with my gut for programs like this. I’ll hear about something, and then I’ll let it settle in the back of my mind. If it sticks, if it still niggles at my curiosity after weeks have passed, then I start writing the application. It’s in the gut – it’s right, or it’s not. Whether or not the application itself is successful, that’s another matter. But the decision to apply – that I leave to my gut.

At the risk of making myself sound like a masochist, I think fear plays a major part of this gut feeling. It’s in the challenge. In the blog I read tonight, the author said:

I’d love to say I’m fearless and do new things because I feel I can. I’m actually quite fearful so I do new things because I can’t stand my fearfulness. It annoys me, it insults my intelligence.

I freaking love this. YES YES YES. This is it. This is the little extra that pushes me forward through the days when living in a foreign country loses its shiny newness and the weariness of daily struggles threaten to overwhelm. Why I keep putting myself on planes bound for the other side of the world where I am the proverbial stranger in a strange land. I’d love to say that I pack my things into two suitcases and uproot my life because I feel I can. The truth is that these journeys are terrifying. There’s a reason that every airport goodbye begins with teary eyes. The unknown looms before me, and fear makes me question my sanity. And yet… I can’t stand my fearfulness. There’s something that drives me to look at that fear, tremble in it, and then instruct myself to make it happen. I can’t stand my fearfulness, so I face it headlong. A challenge that is beyond anything I’ve done before and that will probably knock me off my feet time and time again? Bring it on. Let’s do this.

A perk of letting this personality quirk take me to another country? I’m consciously recognizing the impact of this attitude on myself for the first time. I can see the dots being connected to form a cohesive image. This is the first time I moved across the world without a place to live. But if I could figure my way around Dhaka, I knew I’d figure Pune out. Bangladesh was the first time I encountered the dizzying extremes of those who have and those who don’t. I navigated the system of inequality and felt the sticky shame of having more than some people can even dream of. I left with more compassion and desperation than when I arrived. Korea was the first time I went to a country without a solid grasp of the language. I learned Korean, and I became fluent in body language. Japan was the first time I went abroad alone. It was awesome, plain and simple – it cemented my desire to experience the world. Fletcher was the first time I found myself in a cohort of insanely talented, intelligent, and awe-inspiring people and accepted that I too belonged. I held my ground pretty well, and I continue to learn daily from my classmates, even though they’re thousands of miles away. I ran 13.1 miles at once. I never knew my body was so powerful.

I could go on.

By persistently doing things that make me face my fearfulness, I have slowly and surely built up my confidence in myself. It goes a little like this: If I could do that, surely I can do this. It opens me up for the possibility of failure, but I’d rather suffer the metaphorical (and occasionally literal) pain of falling flat on my face than the mental suffering of knowing that I chickened out.

You learn more falling on your face than you do on your two feet.

Wonder

Clearly I’m not great at writing constantly. For better or worse, this blog will reflect my thoughts and ponderings of life rather than chronicle my experiences in India. Of course there will be overlap, but I find myself writing more personal posts for myself than recording my daily life here. I’m more than happy with this direction, and so that’s how I plan to proceed.

One of the greatest assignments I’m working on now at Akanksha is creating a multi-unit curriculum for 8th standard English. I’m working with R.J. Palacio’s Wonder, a delightful novel that delves into the meaning of kindness, humanity, fear, and remorse. Set in an elite New York private school, the book explores the idea of being different in a direct and yet gentle manner. I love the book – I stayed up reading till 1 am and finished it in one sitting. It’s one of those books. It’s an easily accessible text – not a difficult read in the least – but its sensitivity and well-rounded lessons are meaningful at any age.

wonder-by-r.j.-palacio

Side note – I’m reading books, analyzing them, and figuring out how to share the awesomeness. How great is that? It’s like I’m a kid in a candy store. My coworker, who was watching Aladdin yesterday as part of her curriculum design, laughingly said this is the best part of the job. We’re getting paid to have fun. (It’s also slightly difficult to construct meaningful activities that convey abstract ideas and navigate difficult subject areas, but it’s a welcome challenge. I’m not spending my entire day goofing around!)

This week I’ve been rereading Wonder in small chunks as I pull apart different themes and lessons that should be highlighted in weekly modules. A section of text resonated with me deeply this time through, perhaps because I have spent some time reflecting over the past week. Being the sole Fellow in Pune and still in the process of building up a social network here gives me plenty of time to think. And think and think and think.

It’s been a … strange year, both in regards to 2014 and to the age of 25. There have been some downright awful things, and there have been some amazing opportunities. Occasionally, my emotional side pouts and says: I want this year to end. I want to start over. I’m just … doneeeeeeeeee. Trying to out run your own mistakes is exhausting and, I’ve learned, nigh impossible. The processing and dealing with the consequences of said mistakes is equally exhausting and painstakingly grueling. (Or I’m just ridiculously stubborn, which is also true. Basically, this applies to myself. Can’t speak for others and all that.)

But the rational side of my brain points out that a) I’ve gotten to travel to 3 countries in the past 7 months, with some pretty rad people, b) I’ve received 2 fellowships to pursue internships related to my interests in development, and c) I have the support of some crazy awesome people (and the technology to keep in touch with them). Really, I can’t complain. These are opportunities that not many people have, and I absolutely cannot downplay how fantastic that is – I’ve learned so much in Bangladesh and India, and I am so, so fortunate.

So in my as of late contemplative state, the following passages from Wonder were very comforting. And given the universality of the message, I wanted to share. And perhaps convince someone else at home to read this book so that we can nerd out over it together. Just saying. (But really now… anyone?)

Before I digress more and without further ado, some wisdom from Wonder:

“The things you did, you know they were not right. But that does not mean you are not capable of doing right. It only means that you chose to do wrong. This is what I mean when I say you made a mistake… But the good thing about life … is that we can fix our mistakes sometimes. We learn from them. We get better… One mistake does not define you. You must simply act better next time.”

Good to know.

“In the end, mon cher, all that matters is that you forgive yourself. You are learning from your mistake.”

Learning – certainly. Forgiveness – working on it.

“Life is ahead of us. If we spend too much time looking backward, we can’t see where we are going!”

This is the clincher – I’m clumsy enough as is; I don’t need extra obstacles to trip over. 😉

As an ending note, I know this is slightly vague, but I hope it conveys some of my feelings. I can’t recommend Wonder highly enough – I promise you won’t be disappointed!