Category Archives: aid

Means Justifying the Ends

Development efforts are often portrayed as having one destination: ending poverty.  One need only to read the newspaper to see examples of the diversity of projects with poverty alleviation as their goal: flashlights to midwives in Africa, malaria nets distributed within global malarial zones, microloans in Central America, and education for poor girls in Brazil.  All projects are classified as development, all with aims to make the world a better place for a certain group of people.  New membership organizations work to provide one umbrella under which all of these organizations can stand together in support of more effective and efficient aid and development.  They are fostering greater discussion about the importance of keeping our commitments to the world’s poor.

Implicit in most of these conversations about development is the notion that the end justifies the means.  Feeding starving Haitians is more important than how one goes about procuring the food.  Getting indigenous Hondurans access to capital takes priority over the process of  building capacity that allows local communities to shift the balance of power within their country’s economy.  Implementing a program becomes more important than who implements it, making it good business to send in the ex-pat director rather than invest in local administrators.  For our part, we all want to make the world a better place, so the detail of how we go about doing it comes off as technical minutia in the face of good will.

But as President Obama declared exactly one year ago today, “Our focus on assistance has saved lives in the short term, but it hasn’t always improved those societies over the long term.”   Indeed, I have grown impatient with people as I share aspects of my work, to which they inevitably respond with an explanation how they are helping the poor too by giving money to projects that to my ear reaffirm exactly those notions of charity that save lives in the short term but do nothing to change societies over time.  How do we get broad-based discussion about the relevance of the methods and approaches by which we engage with poor communities around the world?

One way is to create more opportunities for these discussions to take place.  The Social Change Collaboratory is partnering with One Equal Heart Foundation to create a forum for grassroots organizations focused on the how of development.  Our goal is to provide the space in which we can come together and strengthen our network of like-minded NGOs whose work is defined by these characteristics:

  • Relationship-based.  Partnerships are based on a strong relationship with people living and working in the community of focus.  Concepts of equality are forefront in conversations about cross-border collaborations.
  • Local decision-making.  Areas of focus and programs emerge from the communities being served, as do the leaders who implement these programs.
  • Learning community.  All members of the community have opportunities to reflect and learn from what works and what does not.

We want to expand our own learning community and amplify examples of community-driven social change projects.  Over time, we want to use the partnerships that we have with amazing social change leaders around the world to create bridges that bring their voices into on-going conversations about development.  We believe that investing ourselves in understanding the means of social change will result in a world in which more communities have capacity from within to care for their most disadvantaged.

Our first meeting will take place in mid-October in Seattle.  While our focus is on building a community of leaders who are able to meet face-to-face, we welcome information about any organization committed to these characteristics.  I will use future posts to share the results of these gatherings.

Building a Worm Bin

One of the less glamorous realities of working in a small non-profit office lacking any cleaning service is finding a place to put your banana peel or apple core after lunch.  Too many times have I returned to the office after a warm summer weekend to find a cloud of fruit flies hovering within my trash can.

Managing her leftover crusts, however, isn’t a problem that Jeannie Berwick, executive director of One Equal Heart Foundation, has to deal with anymore.  As a part of her transition into an office space outside of her home, Jeannie missed the ease of tossing food waste in her home worm bin.  Why not avoid the hassle of transporting food waste home or to the building “clean green” bin in the basement.  Jeannie took a plastic sweater box, drilled some holes into it, and created an office worm bin discretely placed within her new workspace.

As Jeannie sees it, her worm bin is more than just a place to throw scraps—it is her field project connecting her with the cycle of life and the realities of the day-to-day work done by her partners in Chiapas, Mexico.  Indeed, she is replicating an initiative started by her colleagues in Chiapas, where each staff member has a field project that gets them out of the office and into direct contact with diverse people and the issues defining their lives.  While staff members may manage finances or write grant reports most of the time, some of the time they collaborate in the building of community gardens, manage bee hives, or lead trainings on the building of worm bins.  Staff and the community they serve have regular opportunities to share one space, building relationships that unite them around a shared mission.

I wonder how the conversation about poverty alleviation would shift if each of us working within this sector had a field project that allowed us to share the same space—either physically or spiritually—with those living close to the earth.  What would policies and practices look like if aid decision-makers regularly took an hour out of their work week to tend their worm bin or otherwise collaborate on a shared project with someone receiving aid.  I imagine that better and more sustaining solutions would result.

You can see Jeannie’s worm bin for yourself – and learn more about One Equal Heart at their Open House being held on Wednesday, September 28th at their new offices on Capitol Hill in Seattle.


At a recent “development”-focused event, I got talking with a friend involved with several giving circles.  She was interested in knowing what funding this particular organization needed to move forward.   I responded that we had a basket of projects that all needed funding—it was more about finding the match than finding a project in need of support.  “We have programs for women and children, programs to put in stoves and cisterns.  If you have a human rights interest, we have several projects in that direction.  Ecological sustainability, food production… indigenous medicines and health care.  What are your interests?  We probably have a great match for you.”

To the outside eye, the funding process for social change projects must resemble the job of a used car salesperson.  While not cars on a lot, the communities with which we work have defined a whole spectrum of initiatives that would help them to solve their most pressing problems, and these projects often range in scope, theme, and purpose.  Within certain limitations (and effective NGOs know what those are), the donor can drive the conversation because it is highly likely that their interests can be met with an initiative.

Perhaps this funding structure is one way that social change projects set themselves apart from traditional “transactional” NGOs focused on delivering one service or product (i.e. micro-loans, mosquito nets, technology).  (I have written about transactional vs. transformational “development” here.)  If you consider society as a vibrant, hand-woven piece of fabric, each element of a society—its politics and power structure, economics, geography, culture, class and race dynamics, gender roles, etc. – are woven together into a resilient textile.  Effective social change means more than just pulling out one of these strands, but rather reorganizing the layout of color so that an entirely different textile results.  The only way to permanently end poverty is to change the society that allows it to persist.


The needs of small social change organizations and the interests of funders are moving farther and farther apart, perhaps jeopardizing exactly the social change that we hope will decrease global poverty rates.

The Collaborative Learning Project based in Cambridge, Massachusetts, has been a leader in promoting dialogue with recipients of aid around the world.  Their “Listening Project” engaged nearly 6,000 people in discussions about issues that local people believe need to be addressed to make aid more effective.

The “Listening Project” recently published a summary of what they have learned through all of these discussions.  One important conclusion is that local people are concerned about the system by which funding is given, not the amount.  They wish that donors would work together to pool money and address poverty in holistic ways, not through piecemeal funding that leads to too many intermediaries and too much administration to manage it all.  They talk about having “projectitis.”

If you think about the ubiquitous “logic model” tool, our culture can be defined as strongly focused on linear relationships and clear outcomes.  We tend to believe that one shift in a poor society’s culture can lead to a domino effect of change.  (The Asian Development Bank published an interesting article about “complexity theory” within development, urging practitioners to reconsider “command and control” approaches to poverty alleviation.)  As funders become increasingly concerned about evaluation, it is easier to measure the effect of one change rather than measuring change caused by a whole range of variables shifting through multi-dimensional social change work.  Projectitis, however, is getting in the way of local leaders receiving the general operating support that they need for their holistic, interconnected approaches to poverty alleviation.  It is increasing their reliance on outside partners who can manage of all this, not giving them more ownership and sense of control.


Most NGO leaders were hopeful that the onslaught of social media tools would help them to reach new audiences and expand their funding base.  The first half of this has certainly happened.  Facebook, Twitter, etc. have allowed NGOs to create followings of people around the world, extending our communities to people beyond our direct vicinity.  On the funding side, however, The Chronicle of Philanthropy reports that most non-profits have reported very little money raised through social media.  I have been repeatedly stumped by the anemic results of Facebook Cause campaigns conducted by different small non-profits with which I have worked.

Social media tools have led to projectitis on steroids with new sites launched weekly to help connect projects with people able to support them.  Web Advantage recently posted links to 30+ social media sites that promote “social giving.”  I was elated to find such a comprehensive list of virtual venues on which to post my basket of important initiatives.  The problem?  Most invite us to use members within our existing community to promote projects to their social networks.  (We were already doing that.)  Some of them cost money to join, a risky investment for small NGOs just finding their way with social giving.  And managing these on-line micro-solicitations for funding adds another whole layer of administration on small NGOs.  It seems like the old rules of relationship-building still apply within this new virtual world.

I was talking this week with the development officer of a leading local mid-size non-profit, and she noted that she recently realized that she was not managing a single general operating grant.  With the exception of a small percentage of funds coming from individuals, all of her funding was for defined projects.  This reality leaves little leverage for exciting initiatives that come at the margins of these projects.  Non-profits in general have less and less leeway to be nimble in response to changing conditions, as well as a decreasing ability to invest in organizational capacity building, holistic evaluation of their work, and cross-thematic initiatives.

It is hard to fundamentally change a hand-woven textile if you can only reweave a few of the strands.

A visual: Two slides that demonstrate how funding occurs now

Slide 1: A model for social change

Slide 2: Projectizing social change work.  The challenge is to fill in the gaps between projects.

Roxhill Rocks!

For better or worse, the lines of “local “and “global” are blurring, and old concepts of “think global, act local” and its many variants no longer neatly apply.  As New York Times columnist Paul Krugman commented at a World Affairs Council event a few years ago, his shift from covering “third world” economies reeling from debt and internal inequality to reporting on the U.S. economy wasn’t such a big leap.

Indeed, a welcome trend in “development” conversation is the shift from thinking in terms of poor countries and rich countries to thinking in terms of disadvantaged communities or regions anywhere in the world.  More people are talking about inequality locally, regionally, and globally, which poses a different set of challenges than does the alleviation of poverty in a more homogenous setting.

Local inequality is on my mind this week as I work with teachers at Roxhill Elementary School in south Seattle on their first ever auction.  It is school fundraising season, when north end schools comfortably bring in $200,000 or so to round out salaries and pay for art and music enrichment.  Roxhill, on the other hand, is looking at a $190,000 reduction in its budget for next school year with no parent fundraising body in place to make this up.  They stand to lose their City Year volunteer, reading intervention specialist, and their afterschool reading and science programs.  I am sure that Seattle is not the only city with schools facing two very different funding realities.

Roxhill is an amazing school tucked away on the Seattle/unincorporated King County line.  Roxhill opened in 1958, led by Seattle’s first African-American principal, Mr. Harrison Caldwell.  It is located in one of the most diverse neighborhoods in King County.  Roxhill represents this diversity, with 35% Latino, 26% African American, 18% Asian, 18% Caucasian and 3% American Indian students.  Over 60-percent of the student body receives special education or ESL support, and over 80-percent of families live below the poverty line and qualify for free and reduced lunch.

But what drew me into helping Roxhill was the fact that its principal and teachers understood their funding realities and decided to do something about it.  At my child’s school, a parent-led auction committee starts ten months out and plans a magical event that raises around $140,000 each year.  At Roxhill, teachers began meeting in February and worked through their vacations and weekends to pull together an event designed to engage the community beyond their parents, who cannot afford to give any more than they do now.  I spent a few hours at the school yesterday.  The teacher coordinating the auction used her prep period to meet with me, and another teacher came in between her classes to update the procurement spreadsheet.

Increasingly we can apply our experiences helping communities far away to our search for ways to help communities within our own city.  The same concepts that we think about on an international scale—charity, dependence, new forms of partnership, capacity building, and need for systemic transformational change—apply to intra-city collaborations.  Many people have floated the idea, for example, that north end schools give a percentage of their auction proceeds to disadvantaged schools in the south, but concerns about cold hand-outs and dependence without action keep north end schools from doing so.  As we rethink global aid, it is also time to re-imagine how we might close local gaps of inequality.

Roxhill offers us a new example for acting on our concerns about the inequality of school funding.  Certainly we need to find new funding mechanisms for public schools in general.  But Roxhill’s strategy of expanding its community well beyond its boundaries resembles small NGOs elsewhere in the world that expand their community to include us as partners in their work.  Roxhill isn’t looking for charity but rather partnership, and people have responded.  Parents from at least three north end schools have jumped in as volunteers, donors, and auction attendees because they could see how their contributions could be magnified by the energy and creativity of Roxhill staff members.

University of Chicago professor of law and ethics Martha Nussbaum, in her thought-provoking book For Love of Country: Debating the Limits of Patriotism, gives us examples of how in-depth experience close at hand can translate into greater empathy beyond our direct sphere of influence.  She speaks as a parent about the need to invest yourself deeply in the love and care of your own children.  “But that should not mean that we believe our country or family is really worth more than the children or families of other people—all are still equally human, of equal moral worth.”

Most of us know that people outside of our direct community have the same worth as we have.  The challenge is finding new ways to reinforce this belief with structures that ensure traditionally disadvantaged people have access to tools that allow them to experience dignity and equal opportunity.  Roxhill shows us how one community can expand its borders and include us in their effort to give its children (in the adapted words of John Dewey), “What the best and wisest parent wants for his [or her] own child.”

I learned yesterday that a number of items for the auction came in from an unknown source.  Turns out that the school’s meter maid incorporated auction procurement into her route and landed a bunch of donations from local businesses and police officers.  If you are in Seattle and want to join me at the Roxhill Elementary School “Night for the Stars” auction, it takes place on May 12th at Twist in Belltown from 6:30-9:30pm.  Roxhill Rocks! is a school motto.

3 Cups Response from Afghanistan

Last week I wrote about the Three Cups controversy.  The Pakistani NGO leader I mentioned wrote to me in response, and I want to share with you his thoughts.  He currently works in Afghanistan for a large international aid agency.

Yes, I have 3 Cups of Tea.  Its a good book, which tells the story of an individual’s help that can be like a drop in the ocean, but the right step to make difference in the lives of poor and marginalized people.  However, keeping in view the scenario of aid effectiveness in the developing world, many raise the point that aid and help comes either with conditions or it comes with political agenda.  In both cases people’s right to life with dignity is ignored.

The Afghanistan context in terms of aid effectiveness is complex.  Rights based organization have raised their concern about US & NATO support.  They are estimating that US is spending $3.5 million a day in Afghanistan, however more than 90% goes back to them in terms of the extremely high  cost of technical assistance, salaries, food and other benefits  to the major USAID contractors and security companies such as Black Water (now named EX).  In Kabul, the large stores are full of American and European goods, which is supplied by major US and European corporations from  Europe and US.  Therefore, one can see no difference in the lives of the poor Afghans.  Similarly, many of the international humanitarian organizations have ignored the humanitarian principles of aid and help by negotiating with warlords and shadow commanders only to keep their programs running in the country, instead of benefiting larger communities.

In my opinion, the aid from individual, government, and international donor communities needs to focus on creating an environment where aid is seen as tool for empowering communities, not promoting “modern slavery.”

3 Cups. 2 Perspectives.

My initial reaction to the Three Cups of Tea criticism was from the perspective of an American non-profit manager focused on international poverty alleviation.  I agreed with the aid blogosphere questioning key elements of CAI management.  The board consists only of Greg Mortenson and two others?  He gets all of the royalties from his book, not the charity?  He takes ill, and only a friend can replace him, not a deputy already in place at CAI?  Clearly there were some longstanding management issues brewing under the surface of this heroic tale.

I turned to Pakistani English-language newspapers to confirm suspicions of local malfeasance.  I started with The Dawn, the most widely circulated English language newspaper in Pakistan.  This story wasn’t headline news, but Dawn’s blog published a post by DC-based Kalsoom Lakhani that criticized Mortenson for playing John Smith in a Pakistani version of Pocahontas.   The post received 44 comments;  by my superficial reading of names, only one Pakistani was critical of Mortenson’s work.   Over and over, responders implore the author to reserve judgment and to celebrate the fact that Mortenson did anything on behalf of Pakistani children.

It was Afridi’s comment on an Express Tribune column by a Pakistani scholar at UC Berkeley that made me realize the situation was more complex that originally thought.   “Yet more pseudo-intellectual pap from a Pakistani in the American ivory tower.”  I began to look at the bylines of writers, and by in large, those critical of Mortenson are based in the U.S. or work for international aid agencies.  I have no idea where people commenting live, but an overriding theme took shape.  This is less of a story of “he said, she said,” and more a story of two perspectives that coexist within one field of poverty alleviation.

Comparing apples to apricots

Several years ago, our family hosted a Pakistani NGO leader studying at the University of Washington, and he told us about his family’s abundant apricot harvest in Gilgit, Pakistan.  He planted an apricot pit in our backyard and told us that it would grow into a strong and productive tree.  I think about this imminent apricot tree while reading all of these blog comments.  People are speaking two different languages, engaging two different world views, and comparing proverbial apples to apricots.

On one side, people are talking about NGO accountability, accuracy, honesty, and effective governance, comparing Central Asia Institute to the American NGO ideal.  They feel betrayed by Mortenson, having bought into the story that he depicted in his books.

On the other side, people herald Mortenson for his sincerity, selflessness, humanity, and commitment to those people deemed second class by their own people.  In their view, CAI comes out strong when compared with Pakistani government programs, which historically have padded the pockets of government officials.  As Faizan comments, “Being a citizen of a state where the education is being circumvented by all democratic despots in the past,…even if Greg is [utilizing 40% of its funds to conduct educational activities], I am the one very much happy with that because we never attained 40% of our rights in anything including education, health, security, social justice, social status.”  As Faizan and many others point out, something is better than nothing.

And this response caught my eye:

I guess its finally the time to tell the truth. Mortenson sahib is no fraud or thief. I’m one of the little girls who entered the school built by him in his book. My picture is also on the book cover. So no one better to tell you about him. He has changed my whole life. now I work in an ngo in our village. If it wasn’t for him i would be illiterate and married with 5 kids not earning my own livelihood. I say wail to mortensen sahib our saviour.


As published reactions to Three Cups makes clear, bi-cultural NGOs operate in two very different worlds.  One side is held against an ideal standard of American/Western accountability with governance, accounting, and evaluation systems in place to demonstrate clear and transparent effectiveness.  The other side has a very different standard, one defined by existing structures marred by corruption and the legacy of colonialism.  Complex social structures and long timelines impact the delivery of aid. Those of us who have worked with international partners in poor places around the world have seen their appreciation of our help with very few questions asked.  Anything is better than nothing when you have little.

I hope that this Three Cups debacle starts some critical conversations among NGO leaders, recipients, and donors involved in bi-cultural NGO work.  Some topics might include:

How do we move away from “scaling up” to locally-driven social change?  One reason Mortenson has been so successful raising money is because he claims to have build 170 schools, serving 68,000 children.  Big numbers entice big donors, while real impact comes in the quality of engagement, not necessary the quantity.

How do we change the narrative of aid?  I have trained many interns on grant writing, and the narrative always goes like this: describe how really bad the situation is for these people, and then describe how your project will save the day.  It works—I have received many grants following this narrative.  The problem, however, is that it portrays local people as living without any resources or resourcefulness to use in solving their own problems, opening the door for us to save them.

How do we leverage opportunities for transformational change while providing critical services?  The only way to end poverty is to change the circumstances that cause it in the first place: change the education system, shift local culture away from corruption, and  commit ourselves to a culture of learning on both sides of the partnership.  Ashesi University in Ghana is one example of an education project that does this so well.  How do we do more of this?

How do we create bi-cultural boards of directors that bridge the two sides of these organizations?  There is no international accountability mechanism that links a board of directors here with a board in the country of operation.  In most cases, any linkage is made through the U.S. executive director, who sets the tone for bi-cultural exchange based on his or her management philosophy.  Without a new standard for cross-cultural accountability and learning, we will continue to be comparing apples to apricots in larger conversations about effective poverty alleviation.

We are still waiting for the apricot tree to grow out of our backyard, much as people wait for the truth of come out about CAI and Mortenson’s work in Pakistan.   After all of this time, I don’t expect a tree to grow because we live within different conditions.  I also don’t expect one truth to result from these inquiries because different cultural contexts impact our sense of the truth. Through cross-cultural, cross-class, cross-sector dialogue, we could move closer to building NGO structures that honor both sides—indeed all truths—in these discussions.

Walk in Someone Else’s Shoes

Immediately after the Haiti earthquake, a teacher in my daughter’s school created a shoe drive in order to give kids a tangible way to help the despaired children we were seeing in the media.  I cringed as my own child asked me if she could toss in a few pairs of worn sneakers.  (I said no.)  What would these poor Haitian children do with a bunch of Seattle-proof leather shoes and thick canvas sneakers?

I found out that night.  Watching the evening news reporting on earthquake victims, the camera panned across a group of Haitian children around ten years of age.  One of them was wearing the hugest pair of Air Jordan high tops I have ever seen.  I have lived in the tropics.  I can’t imagine that high tops are comfortable in the heat and humidity.

This instinct to give our stuff to people without stuff is so pervasive.  I worked for the last six years with impoverished African-Brazilian girls living in the shantytowns of Salvador, Brazil, and I received countless emails from well-intentioned individuals asking if they could donate school supplies or hand-me-down clothing.  Due to the volume, I created a templated email that explained the importance of supporting local economies as much as we support education or health programs.  The only way to end poverty permanently is to support a shift in the environment that allows this poverty to persist.  That means helping local economies to grow.

I bring all of this up because today is “A Day Without Dignity,” a counter-campaign to Tom’s Shoes “A Day Without Shoes.”  Tom’s Shoes believes that it is a travesty that so many children are shoeless, and so they launched their campaign to raise awareness, encouraging people to go without shoes for a day.  Of course Tom’s Shoes is known for giving a pair of shoes to a poor child for every pair purchased—a great marketing plan for all of those people wanting shoes and wanting to help.  A win-win situation for all, right?

Not quite.  One of the most thoughtful advocates of “smart aid,” Saundra Schimmelpfennig of Good Intentions Are Not Enough, has launched a counter-campaign to raise awareness of the impact of such shoe drops on the dignity of poor people and their communities around the world.  The impact is complex.  First, imagine a poor community where some children walk around in new, foreign-looking shoes.  One reason why my Brazilian colleagues didn’t want gifts from abroad is that it targets children.  Nothing shouts out to the community, “Hey, this kid is tied to foreign money,” than a fancy Rotary backpack or nice pair of exotic shoes.  Our good intentions might result in a child’s kidnapping, bullying, or jealousy between children that destroys the community-building local leaders are working so hard to create.

Then of course there is the economic impact of undermining local industry.  Donating school supplies to my colleague’s project in Brazil meant that she would not buy these same supplies from small, family-businesses down the street from the school.  On a bigger scale, whole industries can be undermined by well-intentioned donations from abroad.  We wonder why Africans don’t take care of themselves while we engage in activities that directly undermine their ability to take care of themselves.

I so appreciate Schimmelpfennig’s counter-campaign because it highlights the core element in a human’s existence that gives him or her honor, self-respect, and a reason to work for a better tomorrow.  Lost all too often in the shuffle of providing aid to the poor is a recognition of a person’s dignity, sometimes the only possession they have left.  All of us who have lived in poor places around the world have seen tremendous resilience to patently unfair circumstances.  We have seen individuals so proud of their countries, just as we are proud of ours.  Where we might see despair, they see hope.  The local leaders I know addressing their societies most pressing problems all have one thing in common: a sense of dignity that gives them self-respect and a place of honor within their communities.

A few years ago, I was  speaking to Washington State high school students participating in Model United Nations, and I asked them to kick off their shoes and try on their neighbor’s.  I remember the kids’ enjoyment in trying to walk around in shoes that may be a little big or a little small, but mostly different from what they arrived in (much like one’s cultural perspective).

I think of “A Day Without Dignity” as a campaign to encourage people to walk in someone else’s shoes and think about what it would be like to have foreign-looking shoes dropped uninvited into your community.    Prance around in those espadrilles for a while and think about how it would feel to see local shelves bare of locally-made shoes because the companies just couldn’t compete.  Step into those high tops and imagine wandering around a tropical town for a day.    Consider a parent’s humiliation in realizing that they could never provide something so fancy for their beloved child.  Then put your own shoes back on and look for solutions that honor the dignity of local people in their journey towards a society with less poverty and more hope.