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I’m not judgmental,” said the woman working for an NGO in Cambodia. “But I just don’t understand why they don’t seem to get it.” She works handing out soap and toothbrushes as part of a community health project and the “it” is using said items for the improved hygiene results the NGO was counting on. The locals had their own ideas and were instead selling said hygiene improvements.


I love these (sort of) parallelisms. “I’m not a racist, but...” or “I’m not a sexist, but….”


This is a clear signal that when you hear this type of expression the very next thing out of that person’s mouth will verify they are indeed judgmental, racist or sexist.


So right out of the door flies that whole pesky ‘do no harm’ principle where we’re trying to utilize minimum standards in aid and humanitarian responses like ‘we shall respect culture and custom’.


In the development sector, until you and I have lived among the people we profess to serve or have spent many years working alongside them, we will remain tourists scratching our heads muttering, “But why are they doing that?”


The Immediate Concern


The Cambodians had their reasons and you can bet that had the NGO actually chatted with the locals about soap and toothbrushes it may have learned instead that the community needed microenterprise and livelihood generation. Or perhaps they needed a new opera house. The point is they weren’t asked. There’s a razor-thin line between charity and gratitude, isn’t there?


What is the response to those volunteers who feel comfortable going overseas to do work they are not qualified to do at home and thus are responsible for eliminating a real local from real employment? More importantly, what might be the response to the sending agencies that place inexperienced do-gooders in these situations?


Those sending agencies are carving up a US$2 billion a year industry in ‘voluntourism’ and hey, economic existentialism — who has time for that! But humanitarian aid and social development are not commodities. While the selfies continue to pop in impoverished communities (look at me holding raggedy children!), more than 1.3 billion people on our planet live in extreme poverty (less than US$1.25 a day) says the World Bank. Soap is not the immediate concern.




Somewhere in our commitment to development and ending poverty, there sneaks in a troubling rhetoric of ‘telling people what to do’.” I’m all for zeal and drive and infectious enthusiasm (most days), but there is a chorus of righteousness that seems to couple itself with “and you should…” or “it’s better if you….” Only you know what’s best for you, but this is too often a decision we take away from others, especially when we’re ‘helping’ them. That doesn’t sound like we’re upholding the universality of self-esteem and self-reliance.


The formidable Barbara Ehrenreich , author of the influential Nickel and Dimed: On (Not) Getting By in America, uses the word solidarity in discussions around gratitude. I prefer that too and we cannot lose sight of it. We’re all in this together, our shared humanity.


Why not engage with something more like… solidarity economics? Let’s really reduce — and eliminate — future vulnerabilities.


Albert Camus, no stranger to poverty, said we cannot seem “to have dispensed with generosity in order to practise charity”.


Dana McNairn is the CEO of KOTO, an award-winning nonprofit social enterprise providing vocational training for at-risk youth

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