There has been a lot of controversy over the last few days about the book Three Cups of Tea, an account of an American man who spent time in Pakistan, founded schools, wrote a book about his experiences and formed a charity to continue to promote education in Pakistan. The problem is that certain aspects of the book would apparently fit better on the fiction shelf of a bookshop…

Over the last few days there have been a large number of blog posts written on the subject, claiming multiple failings and bad practice on the part of the charity. While I don’t know enough about the situation to comment on the specific claims, I was particularly struck by a post from Saundra on her excellent blog Good Intentions are not enough about her biggest concern.

Whether it’s TOMS A Day Without Shoes or CAI’s Pennies for Peace, schools and teachers are using what are essentially commercials for a charitable product to teach children about the larger world and philanthropy. As is the case with most commercials, these “awareness raising activities” often distort or over-simplify the problems faced in ways that benefit their own organization.

This is extremely worrying as the children brought up on these myths and misconceptions are going to turn into businessmen, philanthropists, and law makers. How will the decisions they make be impacted by a distorted view of what the world is like and how to really help? (see The Live Aid Legacy)

Following the success of A Day Without Dignity, there was interest in creating a Smart Aid curriculum for use by schools and service learning clubs. This scandal brings that need into even greater relief. We need to start providing very real information to students so that they don’t get swept up in hero worship the next time a feel-good story and easy solution is presented to them. Read more

Unfortunately Western culture likes things to be simple and straightforward. When people give to charity they like to feel that they have done something significant, so when an organisation promises that your small donation can help to build a school, or give a mosquito net and save a life, this is very attractive. But this simplistic approach to fundraising, awareness raising and volunteer recruitment causes multiple problems:

  • It is demeaning to the people who are being “helped”. If we really think that things are so bad and the solutions are so simple, then people and their governments must be pretty helpless, or ignorant, or bad, not to do anything. Are we really so superior to these ignorant people that a well-intentioned unskilled worker from the West can go and help these governments to solve their problems?
  • It perpetuates bad practice in aid and development. It is easy to build schools, but who will teach in them? Who will train the teachers? What language will the children be taught in? If it is in a minority language, who will develop the curriculum? It is easy to send mosquito nets or t-shirts to Africa, but what about the local traders who will be put out of business when the market is swamped? Where will people buy mosquito nets from in 5 years when you have lost interest and there are no local suppliers any more?
  • It takes away funding from organisations that are doing good work. Most people when faced with the choice of apparently saving a life, or feeding a family on the one hand, or providing specific expertise to a government wanting to develop an education curriculum in minority languages on the other, would choose the first. It seems to make more of an impact. It seems to be more “bang for your buck”. But what is the real situation, and which will give more benefit in the long-term?
  • It makes the giver feel good and hero-izes the individual charity but ignores the many partnerships that are necessary in order to make real and lasting progress in development work. The next generation in the West grow up wanting to give to and work for charities that achieve apparently remarkable things on their own, not realising that time-consuming and often frustrating partnerships are an integral part of the very long and slow process of addressing complex problems.

As we and our colleagues try to raise funds for our charity and development work these are questions that we need to be continually asking ourselves. Do we present things simplistically? Do we demean the people we are trying to help, by emphasising our role and caricaturing them and their situation? Or are we honest about how we play just a small part, coming alongside local people to contribute our skills to theirs, trying to take small steps together to address what are often very complex issues?

Working together

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