I freely tell anyone who comments on what I do in Nepal that I get WAY more than I give through my involvement with Samunnat and Sonrisa. I am upfront about the fact that I am not especially altruistic. I think most people involved in similar things would say that they get far more than they give. Of course there are moments of despair, anxiety, frustration, heartbreak, incomprehension and prickly heat but for me they are abundantly more than compensated by having the privilege of working with the people I do and by being meaningfully involved in something that is so much bigger than me and that makes a difference, albeit small, to people.
Acknowledging that there is something in it for me does not mean that I don’t take the whole idea of good helping very, very seriously. The minute you arrive in Nepal you are confronted with poverty, corruption and injustice on a massive scale and the longer you stay there, the more people you meet with profound and genuine needs. It is REALLY difficult to not automatically want to JUST DO SOMETHING to minimise your sense of helplessness. Or because I feel guilty for having when so many have not. A knee jerk response on my part is really a response to my feelings of helplessness and discomfort in the face of that need. For me, a more considered response is more likely to come from genuinely wanting to do something useful for someone else rather than just doing something so I feel better and I constantly have to think very carefully about how to help. Now when I hear myself or someone else say We just have to do something I need to be very careful about the something that is being proposed. It’s a red flag phrase for me now. It makes me check my motivation.
Living in Nepal we saw well intentioned projects that eventually fell over or didn’t work because the key person, usually a Westerner, left or couldn’t be as involved. Money was spent on what the donors wanted or what the funding body funded rather than what the people needed. Or solutions were short lived because of corruption, inefficiency, or ignorance. We saw local and international aid projects, health camps,training programs and short term interventions that didn’t really address basic needs. We saw dangerously out of date medicine on the shelves of general stores. We saw restricted medication being dispensed by locals with inadequate training. ( In one village general store where I hoped to buy paracetamol for a headache, I was cheerfully offered an antibiotic that is restricted in Australia! The long term consequence of indiscriminate dispensing of antibiotics is a big problem in Nepal as it is anywhere)
We saw expensive equipment languishing unused because no-one knew how to use it anymore. Or because there wasn’t adequate power to run it. Or because no-one could repair it when it broke. Or because it didn’t actually do what people on the ground needed. This happens so much with donations of equipment sent from abroad instead of obtained locally. (The lady pictured here is using a locally purchased treadle machine which runs independently of electricity and is easy for her to repair. She earns money doing simple tailoring and repairs to clothing in her small village near the border)
These projects read well in reports back home, make for great pictures, sounds bites and human interest stories but they sometimes actually do damage, undermining the role of locals, creating health problems, flying in the face of sensible village policies, threatening fragile network building or offering short term, unsustainable solutions that reduce the likelihood of long term community ownership of a situation. Or all of the above.
I am absolutely not wanting to be the cynical critic here. I am grateful that compassion in people makes them to want to help. I just want help to really help. Some projects are fabulous and really work. They empower local people, build up relationships over the years (even if they come from outside), are sustainable and effect the significant changes and train the skills that local people want. But some projects don’t help and some projects harm. Like I said…I want help to really help.
For me, that sometimes means steering clear of big or international based organisations. There are exceptions to this but I often observe that the larger the organisation, the more money is spent on infrastructure and administration and the less likely it is that anything is done in remote regions and well supported. It means not starting up ANYTHING on my own for the sake of doing it my way, and not reinventing the wheel if there is something established that is already working. For me, it means being wary of Kathmandu based organisations that say they help people in regions but never visit. It means finding out if there is someone else locally who has already been genuinely trying to do something. It means steering clear of fly in/ fly out type programs unless they have good evidence of a history of local involvement and consultation. It means running a mile when I hear a Westerner say I think what they really need is…. and feeling hopeful when I hear someone say The local people think….
There is a well known (but not well practised) quote in the international aid world…Don’t just do something, stand there…Listen. Wait. Watch. Learn. Ask what is needed. Don’t assume that you have all the answers.
Serendipitously, over my past couple of weeks of re-entry, exploring these issues, I discovered Marianne Elliot’s blog and she has written some great posts and has some terrific links that talk about these issues clearly and succinctly. If anything I have said has triggered your interest, these are well worth reading. Jennifer Lentfer gives great advice to ANYONE contemplating any form of international work on her site How Matters. And this article from the Huffington Post talks about things you should think about before sending goods overseas. Essential reading before you post anything off.
In the grand scheme of things, what I do when I go to Nepal is tiny but I still feel very vulnerable attempting it at times. What would feel like not much for others feels a bit audacious for little old me. I guess that is why I feel that a quote from this post well expresses what I feel:
I can find the audacity to do work that seems far too big for me because I know that the work is bigger than me and because I know that I’m not doing it alone.
And I remind myself (also from that post) that: There is so much work to be done right now and the question is not ‘Who am I to do this work?’, but ‘Who am I not to do this work?’ How dare I let my self-doubts and fears get in the way of the work that needs to be done.”
And we can’t be so daunted by the need to be thoughtful that we don’t help. But we do owe it to the people we want to help to be very mindful about how we help. La, enough from me. I’d love to hear your thoughts and experiences.