Tuesday, 27 March 2012

Candy floss for aid workers

The sight of groups of poor children and/or widows dancing and singing their praise before benevolent benefactors used to leave me cold. These days it makes me physically ill.

It's a familiar scenario to anyone who has worked in development/aid in Africa (and possibly elsewhere?): visit a rural village or a new community centre and you'll be met with two hours of self-congratulation and celebration as beneficiaries "express their gratitude" while funders and aid workers look on knowingly, basking in the glory of the good they have done. It is an interminable time-waster and a complete distraction from the reality that few of these projects have achieved nearly enough to justify taking singing-and-dancing time out from doing things better. More importantly, it reinforces the idea that aid workers are saviours who come into an otherwise helpless community and show them the way to a better life. As opposed to, say, recognising that whatever project is being implemented is a small contribution to the livelihood outcomes households are achieving for themselves.

And yet, so many highly intelligent, competent people seem unable to resist. It's like candy floss (cotton candy if you're American) for aid workers - tasty and sweet, leaves you on a completely unsustainable sugar-high and if you get too much of it you feel horribly ill. Seriously, folks, we're better than this. The people we work with are better than this. I'm all for singing and dancing (I really am!) but when it's really just self-aggrandising, sugary nonsense, there are better ways to spend the time.


  1. Having spent a bunch of time in Southern Africa myself, I've certainly sat through my share of "welcoming" ceremonies, unfortunately as the white person with an actual plastic chair, behind the small wooden table decorated with some bougainvillea in a jar. When I worked for a philanthropy that made direct grants to small, grassroots organizations via California, we always struggled to strike the right balance. Since we only saw grantees once a year for one day (if we were lucky), there was quite a lot of pressure on those visits to accomplish a lot. Giving people an opportunity to express sincere gratitude was also important. If treated carefully, it can help build relationships, which was also a key part of our mandate while there. We were also often aware that for some groups and leaders, especially those little experience in managing external funding, these displays were what they thought was being a good host for your "benefactors." How much of those expectations were shaped by cultural and social norms and how much of that was shaped by the foreigners that had come before us, it was hard to know. Along the way, I learned ways to better manage expectations and set clear timelines for site visits to ensure it's time well-spent for everyone. I also learned that my position as an outsider enabled me to craft and share messages with those gathered that took the emphasis off of me and that reinforced the organization's position and relevance in the community, as well as people's own sense of agency.

  2. Building relationships is important but I feel like there are much better ways to do it. Part of my frustration is that I'm not sure any of it is really about social and cultural norms. These 'beneficiaries' are generally intelligent people who know perfectly well why the foreigners are there and they'll do whatever they need to do to encourage further support. And what they hear (from friends, neighbours, local NGOs) is that foreigners expect signing and dancing. Perhaps if they're an arts and culture group, but for most groups the work they do is far more interesting than empty performances, at least to me.