Category Archives: culture

Help, I Need Somebody… Not Just Anybody

 “…We strengthen existing patterns of advantage and disadvantage because our friends, neighbors and children’s classmates are overwhelmingly likely to share our own racial, religious and socioeconomic backgrounds. When we help someone from one of these in-groups, we don’t stop to ask: Whom are we not helping?”

 “What Does Modern Prejudice Look Like?”
Shankar Vedantam

The project to which I and others dedicate many hours each week toils against poverty halfway across the world in a country with many resources, though very unfairly distributed.  There is no rational reason why people from so far away should be needed to provide funding and training given the money and talent that exists within this country’s borders.  And yet after many years in operation, the project relies on international support to pay its bills.

This notion – that outsiders really shouldn’t be needed to provide this type of support – was pointed out to me by a countryman of the project.  It is simply a matter of knowing and asking the right people, he said.  He knew and asked a couple of the right people to help, and they agreed to do so.  They had all the best qualifications and references, and yet they exerted little or no effort and produced little to nothing.  Drawing on the talents of local people came to an inglorious end within two months of its starting.

Why is it that people living alongside impoverished women and children might feel no calling to invest deeply in solutions, and yet a loyal network of volunteers living halfway across the world give of themselves week after week to help these same people?  Why is it that this countryman feels that I was asking too much of his contacts when he himself gives many hours to the promotion of a different endeavor involving a friend?

Shankar Vedantam’s NPR story “What Does Modern Prejudice Look Like?” answers this question in a way that has real resonance to those of us working in countries with citizens who could help but chose not to.  Vedantam cites the work of Mahzarin Banaji and Anthony Greenwald exploring how a shift in thinking from prejudice to favoritism moves the conversation from insidious acts to omitted acts, from hurting someone to not helping them.

“I think that kind of act of helping towards people with whom we have some shared group identity is really the modern way in which discrimination likely happens,” Banaji says.  In societies where the connected lack a significant sense of shared identity with the poor, the people who could provide financial or skilled support don’t, not because they mean to express prejudice but because they focus their support on people with whom they better identify.  They may give superficial help to causes outside their direct circle, but they don’t often “get skin in the game” by tying their name or reputation to the project or carving out time to deliver high quality customer service on par with what they might deliver for someone else.

With so many small social change projects surviving despite the lack of in-country help and because of actions of people living a world away, what triggers this sense of group identity not based – in many cases – on nationality, race, or class?  Why is it that I have watched several times over people within my own community perform the exact same volunteer tasks I asked of this project’s countryman?  Part of the answer lies in the strong culture of volunteerism that exists in the United States.  Another part lies in the safety of helping far away people—you don’t have to face them and their challenges on a daily basis.  Indeed, I have seen people united across borders around a shared sense of hope and possibility, a unifying force that seems absent in the sometimes more pessimistic attitudes of people from within the country.

At the end of the day of the day, however, reducing inequality remains a daunting task when inequality itself divides people in ways that leave the poor with little chance of ever benefiting from the favoritism of the well-connected.  Outsiders can only support social change so far.  Lasting solutions must involve countrymen and women who, like the woman in Vendantam’s story, give equally to causes outside their circle as to those from within.

Scaling Up Down Under… A Networked Approach

Every now and then, hidden within the routine emails that define our day-to-day projects, we find a message from someone working many time zones away on exactly the same issues with which we are grappling here.  These emails provide a much-needed sense of solidarity and cross-regional or cultural perspective.  They also allow us to put action to a core principle of small NGOs: that scaling up means reaching out and building networks that allow us to learn.

Indeed, one of the first questions I was asked when I first started working with an NGO was how the organization was going to scale up.  “Scale up” meant open offices in other cities; increase the span of programs operating under a larger umbrella; or franchising programs across communities and cultures.   Sustainability is achieved through going to scale because it reaches more people with increasingly less investment.

Small NGOs, however, implement the concept of going to scale differently.  They scale up by sharing their approach across networks of other community-based organizations, networks that foster collective learning on ways to apply these approaches within specific cultures or communities.

Our nascent Seattle-based “Social Change Collaboratory Network” moved closer to going to scale this past year when Tirrania Suhood, Executive Officer of Bridges in Blacktown (Western Sydney) Australia, wrote to introduce herself.  Bridges is a small community organization addressing drug and alcohol abuse through a holistic approach that engages families and communities in achieving sustainable results.  Suhood’s work articulating Bridges approach and building key networks serves as a model for our network and for small organizations anywhere looking to amplify their impact at a time of limited resources.

Articulating the Bridges Network Approach

In November 2010, Bridges released the Bridges Network Approach (BNA), authored by Suhood, to share with other organizations the approach that they take to connect families, communities, and organizations.  As Suhood wrote in the forward: “While operating in Blacktown in Western Sydney, my interest has been in the interrelatedness between the local and the big picture and in demonstrating particular ways in which the local can influence the big picture, including the global.”

 Tirrania Suhood speaks about the Bridges Network Approach

 The Bridges Network Approach builds community capacity through networks, where scale is based on connectedness and “ripple effect‟ impact.  As Suhood continues:

“The Bridges Network Approach (BNA) is a way to address social issues through connecting people and organisations, focusing on strengths and underlying causes, and maximising the use of resources. It is a social change philosophy and working paradigm to help bring about more supportive environments at community and organisational levels. The BNA is an inclusive approach that supports engagement of marginalised people and groups.”

 BNA recognizes that while services cannot be replicated, our approach to these services can be.

Voice for SONG: Building networks that foster learning

Prior to publishing the Bridges Network Approach, Suhood was already active building networks that expanded her organization’s reach.  She was the founding driver and convenor of Voice for SONG (for Small Organisations Non Government), a network, now convened by the Western Sydney Community Forum that promotes the recognition of the value of small community organizations. Like the Social Change Collaboratory Network, Voice for SONG recognizes that small NGOs are unique and should have a voice in decision making processes which affect the sector.

From Sydney to Seattle

Where networks of small organizations have an advantage over a few large organizations is in their ability to create horizontal learning across sectors that remains close to the people being served.  Three specific lessons Suhood’s work:

1.  We can best make our case by telling stories that demonstrate accomplishment rather than discussing research on the effectiveness of small NGOs.  Suhood argues that research discussing the value of small NGOs has little impact on bringing additional support. Demonstration and promotion of specific examples of our work and the efficiency and effectiveness of small NGOs (especially through collaboration) is what will create change.

2.  We need to work to be included in discussions, conferences, and other gatherings that discuss services and social change.  “Small organizations need to be more equitably included in forums like this,” Suhood told a 2006 social services conference, referring to the fact that she was the only representative from a small organization at the conference. She is delighted to again to be speaking at upcoming forums that are being convened by the 3 Pillars Network in several capital cities in Australia

3.  We are stronger together.  Whenever an individual or group of individuals ventures down a road untrodden within their community, they must create the way.  This is as true for the small organizations founded by visionary activists in poor places around the world as it is for coalitions of U.S.-based development organizations trying to build partnerships based on equality and local control.  Finding ways to connect across neighborhoods or continents brings us new ideas and greater solidarity in this shared journey.

Real society change often happens at the margins of an organization’s formal service delivery where people make connections that make a difference.  Finding ways to scale up the people power of small community organizations through approaches shared across networks will lead to greater social change.

A special thank you to Tirrania Suhood for her partnership in writing this article.

Trust, A Word Which Here Means…

It is not everyday that one can quote Lemony Snicket and a Harvard Business School working paper in one piece of writing, and yet that is exactly what I am about to do in order to explore the issue of trust and ways to stay out of a soup pot.

“It is true, of course, that there is no way of knowing for sure whether or not you can trust someone, for the simple reason that circumstances change all of the time.  You might know someone for several years, for instance, and trust him completely as your friend, but circumstances could change and he could become very hungry, and before you knew it you could be boiling in a soup pot, because there is no way of knowing for sure.”

The Vile Village by Lemony Snicket (p. 73)

 At the heart of successful social change work is the relationship between us and them.  It is people from impoverished communities who need to drive the work since they will need to sustain whatever social change emerges.  They, in turn, need our support financially and otherwise to create the space for them to do this work.  How we form and sustain our collaboration will determine our effectiveness over the long term.

Trust is the ubiquitous term that many use to label that glue that holds these cross-cultural collaborations together.  Clearly both sides of the partnership must have confidence that the other is going to follow through on their commitments and give the other the benefit of the doubt in times of strain.

But as Lemony Snicket warns, there is no way of knowing for sure if someone can be trusted as circumstances change, which they do all of the time as small grassroots projects grow into mid-size organizations with expanded reach into broader communities, or as economies struggle and force difficult financial decisions.  How do you sustain trust over time?  In other words, how do we keep ourselves or do they keep themselves out of a pot of boiling soup?

Roy Y.J. Chua, Michael W. Morris, and Shira Mor give us some non-soup related food for thought in their working paper entitled, “Collaborating across Cultures: Cultural Metacognition & Affect-Based Trust in Creative Collaboration.”  They focus on the “collaborative dyad,” or two people working together across cultures to create innovations that draw on each partner’s unique skills, resources, and worldviews.  The concept well describes the collaborations of many small, community-driven social change projects where two communities in very different cultural and financial circumstances joins forces to enact some sort of social change.

“The creative potential in a collaborative dyad comes from the differences between the two people – surface demographic differences such as nationality or ethnic background correspond to deeper differences in people’s knowledge of the world, their capabilities, and connections.”  Chua, Morris, and Mor arrive at an important conclusion: that each partner’s self awareness of his or her own culture and cultural assumptions leads to the kind of trust that supports cross-cultural innovation.

Indeed, the kind of trust matters.  As they explain, “cognition-based trust” is confidence in another based on perceptions of their ability to deliver.  This is the kind of trust based on reading someone’s resume and seeing that they have the skills and past experience to do the job.  “Affect-based trust,” on the other hand, is confidence in another based on “concern for the other and comfort in opening up to them.”  These authors conclude after in-depth study that it is affect-based trust that allows for contextualized flexibility of thought, the kind of thinking that fosters innovation in dynamic, cross-cultural settings.

These findings have a direct bearing on our work as social change leaders:

  • As individuals, we must develop and sustain well-honed cross-cultural skills, making time for self-reflection that allows for change over time.  This might involve spending time in cultures outside of our region of focus or developing learning communities that keep our perceptions in check.
  • As communities, we must invest in face-to-face communication that fosters and sustains trust.  Tightening budgets result in calls for more efficient spending, and international travel is expensive and time-consuming.  Long term collaboration, however, depends on high quality relationships.  Each collaboration needs to find ways to foster these relationships within their budget realities.

Lemony Snicket has an endearing way of explaining complicated terms in his A Series of Unfortunate Events children’s books.  When using a term that most kids won’t know, he follows his use of the word with an explanatory phrase like, “A word which here means….”

If Mr. Snicket were writing about trust across cultures, I imagine he could write any series of explanations.  He could write, “She trusted him, by which I mean to say that:

(a) she assumed that he would be predictable in his actions.”
(b) she knew that he had all of the qualifications needed for his job.”
(c) she understood the limits of her own understanding and gave him the benefit of the doubt that he must know what would serve the best interests of his community.”

How would you explain the sensation of trust that you have with your partners?

Going Local This Summer

One thing led to another in my pursuit to spread the word about hosting international students, and I ended up on my very local neighborhood blog. Here I learned about the new Mexican restaurant installing carpet up the street, the vandalism around the corner, and the valiant effort my neighbors are waging to get the city to enforce our neighborhood’s development plan.

I also saw an image that caught my eye, one of a row of houses and trees against a silhouette of an urban landscape. It said: “Authentically Local: Local Doesn’t Scale.” It was a link to a website of other small neighborhood blogs around the country that live up to the saying “All news is local” in communities from West Seattle, Washington to Lakeland, Florida.

It is indeed the local that we celebrate in the summer—local bands playing on grassy hills in community parks, local ice cream trucks that tweet their locations, local beaches that cool us down when days get hot. Even when we wander away from our homes into other people’s “local,” we go in order to stretch our legs on their streets and immerse ourselves in the day-to-day activities that make their community special.

I am going to take July and August off from blogging to enjoy local near and far. As I do, I want to thank all of you who have traveled with me on this journey of starting the Social Change Collaboratory. I appreciate your ideas, comments, and emails and look forward to continuing the conversation in September. Best wishes for a wonderful, local summer!

“F” Stands for Friendship

For 63 years, the Foundation for International Understanding Through Students – known as FIUTS (pronounced FĪ-yutes) – has connected international students coming to the University of Washington with our community.  It is heroic work finding short-term homestays for hundreds of incoming students, organizing orientation events for over a thousand, and integrating leadership training into programs that lead to life long friendships.  As we start to kick back and enjoy our summers, FIUTS ramps up to welcome a new cohort of international students.  This post is dedicated to FIUTS and hosts everywhere who open their homes to students from other countries. 

Our family celebrated Thanksgiving dinner  in 1979 with six Iranian students participating in a program organized by universities in Boston to expose international students to country life, in this case Cape Cod.  The hostage crisis in Tehran began just weeks before, and these students came to the Cape knowing that it was only a matter of time before the U.S. State Department would revoke their student visas.  No other family would take in the Iranian students— my parents sought them out.  I forget what all we discussed over the course of the weekend, though I do recall all of us sharing a laugh at my father’s suggestion that they repay our hospitality with a barge of oil transported down Bass River to our home.

A decade after that dinner, I was hosted by a generous family outside Stuttgart, Germany.  Another decade later, my own family began hosting international students coming to Seattle for a quarter or year abroad.  We continue to borrow and lend into the hospitality bank that all of us who travel participate in.  We continue to learn from and share ideas with young adults and mid-career professionals from countries around the world.

Every student who spends a week in our home inevitably asks me why we host.  We have international friends and colleagues from our various international experiences.  Why put so much effort into cultivating new international friendships year after year?

1.      It makes the world smaller.

The only way to build a global community of people working together for peace and sustainable prosperity is through human connection, friendship, and cross-cultural understanding.  Indeed, FIUTS was founded on the principle that friends don’t wage war against each other.  On the whole, we need to create more opportunities for people of all ages to collaborate on common projects across the borders of culture, race, or class.  International education is based on giving each young person a personal connection with the world.

As a result of globalization and the recruitment efforts of our local universities needing out-of-state tuition, more and more international students are studying in the U.S.  In the 2009-2010 academic year, 690,923 students studied in the U.S. (amounting to a net economic impact of nearly $19 billion), and even more students than ever before are expected to arrive for a Fall 2011 start.  That means that Washington state students from Anacortes to Zillah will be sitting side by side students from Argentina to Zimbabwe, and a whole lot of students from Chehalis and Cheney will be sharing classes with students from China.  Not to diminish the importance of getting on that airplane, but every single domestic student has the opportunity for a international study abroad micro-experience right on their own campus.

Hosting makes the world smaller for those of us hosting students as well.  Through Facebook and Skype, we can track events in Egypt through wall posts and call up a student’s mom on Skype for a quick question about a recipe.  I often hit the “chat” button on the bottom of my Facebook screen to see who all is on-line, and it amazes me that there are times that I could have concurrent chats with friends in Uganda, Serbia, and Brazil.

2.      It makes the world bigger.

 Most of us working in the field of social change and poverty alleviation have in-depth experience somewhere in the world and personal connections that come from that.  These are the relationships that sustain our sense of connection with cultures we know well.  Despite years of living abroad and a career of international engagement, however, I still wonder at the new insights I gain from my friendship with students who spend time in our home.  We intentionally ask FIUTS to match us with students from different countries each year, playing a sort of FIUTS roulette in seeing what new culture we will learn about that year.  I have gained a deeper and more nuanced understanding of issues from philanthropy to human rights in conversations with students from Europe, Asia, and Africa.  I have learned from them just as they gain new understanding from me about my work.  I have sat at my own dinner table in silence as scholars from Serbia and Croatia rehashed events from the war that tore apart their countries.

Cross-cultural skills dullen over time if not challenged and exercised with new people and cultures.  We work so deep in the trenches of cross-cultural understanding that we sometimes stop checking ourselves to make sure that we are listening and understanding colleagues operating in dynamic conditions.  Hosting new cultures each year makes the world bigger beyond issues directly related to social change and poverty alleviation.

3.      It makes the world better for the next generation.

 International communities of students become global communities of connected citizens who can draw on their cross-cultural friendships in times of peace and challenge.  As our world grapples with the challenges of immigration, growing inequality, and globalization of cultural influences, investing in the cross-cultural leadership skills of today’s university students lays the groundwork for future engagement based on understanding and respect.  International students come to the U.S. to study and experience a new culture, but often that experience is limited to the student culture they find on campus or among their peers.  FIUTS takes advantage of this opportunity to enlist students in building a global community based on mutual understanding by linking these students with people living in neighborhoods across the city and being intentional about building cross-cultural leadership skills among international and domestic students.

There is an on-going game within the FIUTS community—what does the “F” in FIUTS stand for?  While the organization’s work lays the foundation for world peace, it is not a foundation in today’s sense of the word.  Food? No one could argue with the savory array of global foods at every potluck and the succulence of the hand-formed ravioli and dumplings shaped by our students from Italy and China.  Fun? Goes without saying.  Family? We make regular reference to our Thai son and Serbian sister.

But above all, I believe the “F” in FIUTS stands for friendship, the kind of friendship that allows us to leave the community that brought us together and yet feel a kinship that crosses time and space.  The kind of friendship that allows each of us to live within our own cultural comfort zone and yet appreciate the commonalities and differences of people with whom we share a foundation of trust.  The kind of friendship that spans generations so that our children imagine themselves exploring a different part of the world and joining this global community.  I am already excited to welcome our new friends this fall.

Visit www.fiuts.org for more information about hosting in the Seattle area.
Outside of Seattle, call your local university and ask about their international student support services. 

Being Wrong

“To err is to wander, and wandering is the way we discover the world; and lost in thought, it is also the way we discover ourselves.  Being right might be gratifying, but in the end it is static, a mere statement.  Being wrong is hard and humbling, and sometimes even dangerous, but in the end it is a journey, and a story.” Being Wrong: Adventures in the Margin of Error by Kathryn Schulz (p.42)

I may be wrong, but there seems to be a growing trend around explorations of being wrong and ways to be right more of the time.  “Wrongology,” a term introduced by Kathryn Schulz terms in her excellent book Being Wrong: Adventures in the Margin of Error, is the study of being wrong in order to increase our chances of being right.  As Schulz describes in detail, the complexity of society combined with our own filters guiding what we believe has one result: the reality that we are going to be wrong more than we will be right.  How we handle being wrong speaks volumes about our values, our organizational cultures, and our ability to learn from our mistakes.  By embracing our errors and developing a belief in the inevitability of our wrongness, we stand a better chance of improving our service to the people our organizations are intended to serve.

Being Wrong speaks to so many issues that non-profit leaders deal with on a daily basis.  My thoughts center around three main questions that address the potential for individual, institutional, and cross-cultural wrongness.  Every problem begs a solution, so I end with idea to help swing the balance towards being right more of the time.

First my questions:

1. Which approaches to poverty alleviation today will be proven wrong tomorrow?

So many of yesterday’s theories have been proven wrong.  From the “education” of native children in Christian schools to free market enterprises that have undermined local educational systems to large infrastructure projects like roads and dams, the development field has tried a range of actions in the quest to address poverty.  All evidence shows that a good portion of what we are doing now is going to be proven wrong sometime in the future.  What can we do today to mitigate today’s errors, thereby speeding up right approaches to our world’s most pressing problems?

  • Given the power of social conformity and need for certainty, how do we shift our culture to give space to those with different beliefs, to consideration of new evidence, and to the development of solutions that acknowledge complexity over simple answers?
  • There is a moral aspect to being wrong; people judge you and your character.  How do we distinguish the ways that erring leaders handle their mistakes as evidence of their values from the simple fact of their wrongness?

2. How do we create public accountability that allows for error?

To get anything done, a community leader has to bring so many people along with him or her—staff, board members, donors, constituents—engaging in a marketing effort that makes it hard to admit later on that the idea, program, or cause was somehow flawed.  Once a non-profit leader takes over a cause, that leader needs to convince a range of stakeholders that their solution is the best, most effective, most efficient solution among many.   All efforts go into the full court press towards organization survival with little room for honest assessment.

  • How can boards of directors instill within an organization a culture that allows for error and learning from those errors?
  • How can grantmakers provide an honest forum for the sharing of error or uncertainty that doesn’t threaten future funding?
  • How can executive directors integrate an acceptance of mistakes into their organizational culture and provide learning opportunities for staff members?

3. How do we allow for error across cultures?

In working across cultures, there may come times when two leaders working in a relationship of equality are in a state of disagreement in which both are right within their cultures.  Cultural relativity can make a mess out of a traditional management structures, and yet simply proclaiming rightness on both sides creates a stalemate of leadership.

  • How do we use our shared values to guide discussion about possible future disagreement so to avoid cultural misinterpretation later on?
  • How do we better understand the social landscape of risk in either partner admitting wrongness?
  • How do we acknowledge the role of power in who is determined wrong?

And a possible solution:

Schulz’s book reminded me of Atul Gawande’s The Checklist Manifesto: How to Get Things Right.  If we as community leaders get things wrong so often, how do we improve our chances of getting things right?  I believe Gawande is on to something, that we can create a few key checklists that keep us on track in how we engage our partners and honor our mission and values for the long term.  Using a term borrowed from the Shuttleworth Foundation, we can create a system of “radical transparency” that allows for optimal sharing of ideas and learning.

I took a first stab at a Collaborative Social Change Checklist, which includes what I loosely termed an “Organizational Pre-Nup Agreement” that bi-cultural organizations might consider either upon starting their relationship or as soon as such an agreement occurs to them.  My checklist looks nothing like Gawande’s checklists for ensuring that a surgeon doesn’t chop off the wrong arm, but it may be helpful in thinking about ways that we can embed discussions about our errors into our daily social change activities.

As Schulz described, admitting our errors allows us to be a part of a dynamic journey of discovery rather than a static, didactic monologue about our rightness.  We build organizations that are learning communities as much as they are service providers.  That seems like the right way to work for a better world.

What do you think?

Lost and Found in Translation

The Economist recently published a short piece on “the jargon of aid,” entitled “Anyone here speak NGOish?” Evidently, a woman in the Dinka tribe feels to be a “stakeholder” in her nation now that South Sudan is becoming its own country.  The article points out that small NGOs must speak NGOish in order to access grant-funding.  Sadly, this is all the case.

The ability to speak NGO is the reason why so many excellent projects fail to get funding on their own, and why many of us find employment in this sector.  I have often described my work as being the translator between “first world” funders and social change projects, and I don’t mean in terms of the languages actually spoken in these countries.  I flounder around Portuguese and Spanish and haven’t tried my way with other languages spoken in poorer places around the world.  But I speak NGOish, and thus many of the projects I work with have benefited from the grant funds that we manage to bring in together.

People have learned the language of those in power since the beginning of time.  If learning English, Chinese, or NGOish is going to give you, your family, or your community access to economic, political or cultural benefits, you would be foolish not to.   NGOish becomes the lingua franca for indigenous communities trying to access the largesse of international NGOs that over time have become a semi-permanent presence in their societies.  The fact that a Dinkan woman speaks NGOish is an indication of how much exposure she has had to NGOs in her daily life.

But we need to be careful what conclusions we draw from her ability to speak NGOish.

Language can just be a bunch of words put together.  Because they use NGO words does not mean that they think NGO.  I am reminded of a conversation I had once where someone was making an argument about the supremacy of American culture, as evidenced by two men, one Japanese and one Chinese, talking to each other in English.  Clearly the U.S. is the most powerful country in the world if two non-Americans choose our language to speak with each other, right?  (My British friends may argue that this proves British supremacy, but  that is a topic for another day.)  These men were just using English words in order to convey their ideas in a language they both knew.  They were not accessing American culture to do so, nor can we even be sure that they were using these words with the full sense of meaning understood by someone born and raised in Seattle.  While she may know the word “stakeholder,” I am sure that this Sudanese woman is not re-organizing her work according to a progressive logic model or cost allocating overhead to project budgets.  In my work with small bi-cultural social change organizations, there exists a significant gap in how the local project thinks about their work and how we here might conceptualize it, and this gap can get lost when both sides grab on to the words that we are supposed to use to get funding.

Language can be a significant gateway into culture.  As a German major at Swarthmore College, I remember Professor George Avery repeatedly admonishing us to stop translating our English thoughts into German words—it inevitably resulted in bad German.  Instead we should think in German and let the language flow as it would from someone raised in Heidelberg or Heilbronn.  We would then feel firsthand how language is a reflection of culture, thought, worldview, and so many other aspects of a society.

Since learning German, I have seen many examples of this same interplay between language and culture and its dissonance with NGOish.   An example from my work with a project in Brazil involves the term “social justice,” which means different things to different people depending on their race, position, culture, and context.  While some understand “justice” to be a call for equal treatment today, others (including funders) worry about its other meaning, that suggesting retribution and an historical compensation for past wrong.  A second example comes from my recent work with a project based in Chiapas, Mexico.  The term “accompany” is used within Jesuit communities to describe collaborative work with local people.  The term plays a critical role in how local people describe their work and is deeply rooted in local theology, and yet it falls well outside standard NGOish given that it conveys a vague sense of partnership without clear responsibility.

Social change requires local people to drive it—it is their society after all—and they need to be able to express their needs in their own words and concepts.  In the short term, people like me translate their words and concepts into answers that fit into word-limited grant forms.  Over time, they build capacity to answer the questions themselves in ways that resonant with large-scale NGOs.  These same large-scale NGOs hopefully hear their local partners and adapt their language to be more inclusive of diverse ways of thinking about concepts related to program design, accountability, and success.

But if we allow their language to be replaced by NGOish, we lose the nuance and cultural context related to how they talk about their community (“stakeholders”), ways of doing things (“their toolbox”), and reasons for celebration (“expected outcomes”).  We won’t be challenged to rethink our assumptions and develop new approaches that honor the complexity of their reality.  Our learning becomes lost in translation.

More on language: For a fascinating glimpse into language, see the Economist’s “In Search of the World’s Hardest Language.” It is a fascinating review of some of the world’s most complex languages.