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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Reflections on a Summer in Dhaka

Please note – this is reposted from the Blakeley Fellowship website. The Blakeley Fellowship sponsored my internship at BRAC, thus enabling me to accept an unpaid internship for the summer. I am extremely grateful for the support! This is the blog post I wrote as a final reflection on the time I spent in Dhaka. The original posting can be viewed here.

As I begin the last week of work at my summer internship at BRAC, a development agency headquartered in Dhaka, Bangladesh, it is hard not to be overwhelmed with amazement that my time here is coming to a close. Summer in Dhaka has been everything one might imagine of life in this South Asian city – incessant noise, daredevil streets, the beautiful call to prayer, the pounding heat and hair curling humidity. It has also been a summer of invitations, iftars, a newfound gratitude for cloudy days, an addiction to sweet milky tea and a growing willingness to throw myself into a street filled with oncoming traffic. It has been a summer of mobile money and planning, of working and waiting. I have learned to strive to achieve my goals but to slow down and recognize the need for patience. It was a summer learning to live in a developing country. The fierce competition of the streets belies the disregard for time. A half hour? Forty-five minutes? A day? Two weeks? Time has a different meaning here. Even the lethargic opening of stores baffled me at first, before I slowed down my mornings and learned to savor the morning hours before rushing into the bustle of the day.

BRAC Centre

BRAC Centre

Dhaka teaches those who live in this crowded, vibrant city to appreciate the duality of life. Everything comes with a price. The rain cools the city. The downpours also create rivulets of mud on the bumpy sidewalks that inevitably cover my salwar kameez with droplets of street dirt. The hot, scorching sun creates the type of heat that will make you sweat while lying in bed naked with the fan on full blast. The same sun dries the streets and makes the walk to work dusty but clean. When in Dhaka, it is an art to appreciate the good in every situation and release the frustration of the bad. (And in general, Bangladesh is an excellent way to hone one’s sense of humor. There’s nothing like tackling a cockroach-infested room after a day in the field to help you see the absurdities of life. Or so it seemed at the time – in hindsight, it may have been the exhaustion showing itself…)

Traveling from Gulshan 2 to Banani

Traveling from Gulshan 2 to Banani

This is a hard city to live in. It pushes at you, mentally and physically, with car horns and the press of bodies upon bodies. There is so much need here, need that is sharply highlighted by the oases of luxury apartment buildings with swimming pools shimmering on rooftops. The contrast makes my head spin each time I come face to face with the stark differences between worlds here. Poverty in Bangladesh is a systematic need that cannot be solved by one person. Mentally I know this, but it is hard to shake the sneaky feeling of shame that starts to stick to you after walking past beggar after beggar, the same people stationed everyday on their specific tile of sidewalk by handlers in the early morning hours.

Old Dhaka

Old Dhaka

Perhaps I came with the expectation that working at BRAC would provide some sort of mental peace, an image coming from the idea that I would be doing my miniscule part to improve life in Bangladesh. More likely I didn’t comprehend the reality of life in Dhaka until I was immersed in this strange, scary, beautiful, and complex culture. It’s amazing how fuzzy the start of my summer seems now that I exist in the peculiar twilight zone of those who are about to leave a country.

The famous rivers and boats of Bangladesh

The famous rivers and boats of Bangladesh

I did have certain expectations for my work at BRAC. I came to assist BRAC’s Social Innovation Lab (SIL) with its Innovation Fund for Mobile Money. Which indeed I have – but of course not in the manner I expected. The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation is supporting SIL’s Innovation Fund to encourage the transition from cash to mobile money within BRAC. SIL is facilitating the process change to mobile money within BRAC; it is not implementing the mobile money pilots. Rather, other BRAC programs are implementing pilot projects. To be selected for an internal “grant” from the Innovation Fund, programs needed to submit an idea regarding how to incorporate mobile money into a project to an Innovation Challenge run by SIL. BRAC employees voted on the projects in the challenge, and then the list was narrowed to semi-finalists in May. Final projects were selected on June 1, right on time. Idealistically, I expected to head straight to the field and see bKash, the first and most commonly used mobile money platform in Bangladesh, being incorporated into projects. Instead, I have come to see the tremendous complexity that accompanies changing a system. The transition from cash to mobile money requires coordination and cooperation between many departments, and at an NGO of BRAC’s magnitude, that is no small hurdle. Steadily, SIL has progressed with the final seven mobile money pilots that were selected, but the programs are just starting implementation of the pilots now.

A BRAC office in Mymensingh

A BRAC office in Mymensingh

I have assisted by applying some hard gained skills from Fletcher’s DM&E series: formulating indicators, definitions, baseline plans, and evaluation plans. I have also put these skills to use by designing and piloting an internal knowledge management database for BRAC pilot projects. SIL is a dynamic team, and I have been fortunate to work with several team members on multiple projects simultaneously. Mobile money has been a huge focus of my summer, but my attention has also been dedicated to knowledge management systems and research. I have gone to the field, but not as often as I had originally hoped. Yet I gained knowledge and experience that I could not have imagined when accepting my internship in March. The task of incorporating mobile money into an organization is much more intricate a challenge than I could have anticipated from Medford.

My lovely co-interns and I in wedding garb

My lovely co-interns and I in wedding garb

I am grateful to have spent my summer at BRAC in Dhaka. My time here has been both enlightening and difficult; at the risk of sounding trite, this internship has been a learning experience. Fortunately, it is immediately applicable to my next challenge: working with the Akanksha Foundation, an educational NGO, in India. While in Bangladesh, I received word that I will be an America India Foundation William J. Clinton Fellow in Pune, India from September 2014 through June 2015. My return to Fletcher has been postponed for a year. And while a (large) part of me yearns to reunite with my friends and professors in Medford this fall, all of me is ready to see India.

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After my summer in Dhaka, I’m ready.