Bad Aid, Privilege and Doing Good to Feel Good

I used to like Teach for America. It sounded so promising, so good. And if you think about it, so do a lot of other programs that send privileged kids off to be great “helpers”. In fact, many of these forms of bad aid are rooted in paternalism, often because the people who lead them are scared of or oblivious to the concept of privilege.

Buy-one-give-one businesses like TOMS sell a “philantrophic brand” disguised as bad aid: they do nothing to address the problem at hand and are manufactured abroad, thus disrupting market opportunities for local suppliers.

Teach for America encourages people to apply for the sake of resume-padding (well-intentioned resume gods at elite schools instead of first-generation students who actually want to be teachers),  vehemently denies any failure or room for improvement like a PR machine, and neglects to question the long-term pedagogical impact of its education reform policy recommendations.

I believe we need to stop and look before we leap. I believe good intentions are not enough, and that there are plenty of options other than paternalism that organizations can invoke to influence their communities to act.

There’s empathy: Singer’s work shows that how organizations frame a prompt for donations affects whether people donate and how much, and Batson’s work on the empathy-altruism hypothesis, tests similarity and escape feasibility.

There’s offering a value-add: people subconsciously conduct a cost-benefit analysis when deciding to help or not, specifically, Darley and Batson’s Good Samaritan study in which aspiring ministers were supposed to lecture on the Good Samaritan were tested to see if they would practice what they preached on their way to the lecture given different time constraints.

There’s creating partnerships with sub-communities: religion and culture play a part, the community response to the Amish school shooting in 2006, when the families of the victims comforted and set up a fund for the family of the shooter, is one example that stands out.

And in the field of development economics, while the supply wallahs advocate for simply building more schools or providing more free vaccines, the demand wallahs champion finding out why people choose to go to school or vaccinate their children and why not, and then making use of that information.

When we travel, before we sign up to go on a “humanitarian trip”, we should be careful that the investments in these trips are worth it. We should strive for higher standards. Every corporation is has quarterly reports and performance reviews, because there is always room for improvement if you want to meet company objectives: maximizing shareholder value. Criticism of these organizations’ policies is not saying that the issues they are trying to address are not important (because there is a lot of work that can be done for absolute poverty, education reform, and human rights), it’s simply suggesting that there’s room for improvement if they want to meet their objectives: maximizing stakeholder value, and stakeholder value is not just delivering the value of feeling good from doing good to the donor, it’s also delivering value to the communities being served.

In order to get there, we need to stop listening to only good intentions. We need to be more critical of bad aid. And we need to stop being afraid to talk about privilege.

(This post is inspired by To Hell with Good IntentionsThe White Privilege ChecklistThe Male Privilege Checklist, and many many many late nights talking about privilege/reparations/affirmative action/diversity hires in the common room with best friends who are Black Studies majors)

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4 Responses to “Bad Aid, Privilege and Doing Good to Feel Good”
  1. Ryan says:

    it’s funny, a lot of these programs seem interventionist by nature…

    it’s always jumping into what somebody else is doing with a bunch of hapless college students who 25% of the time don’t know what’s going on

    participated in Project Shine back in City College and boy, it was made by a bunch of do-gooders who shooed us in when a teacher wasn’t even fully informed about the program

  2. Great post! One of my most commented-upon post this year has been “The elephant hasn’t left the room: Racism, power and international aid.” I have been wanting to write a follow-up but have been struggling to bring my thoughts and the comments together. Any ideas? Want to take a crack at it? http://www.how-matters.org/2012/01/17/the-elephant-hasnt-left-the-room/

    • Great article. We’ve got a similarly themed piece in the works.

      We’re a volunteer sending agency which constantly tries to rid privileged people of presumptions of usefulness and expertise. All the while, other apparently similar agencies compete for recruits with promises of “resume padding”, “boys own adventure” and a little bit of a messiah complex thrown in. Luckily we’re glad not to have the resume-padders on our books.

      The big challenge lies in getting donors to thoughtfully consider sustainability and effectiveness in a world where Kony2012 can dominate the public’s imagination so effectively with its slick simplistic premise.

  3. Great post Crystal. I totally agree- we need more ways for NGOs to actually be accountable to the communities they serve. Businesses are accountable to shareholders but do beneficiaries get any say into the work done by NGOs? Unfortunately, not, and that leads to a lot of initiatives that are more about making donors feel good rather than creating actual value.

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