Saturday, May 22, 2010

Giving is good...?

So I've recently come to the realization that the first thing people see when they Google my name is this blog. Which makes me embarrassed that I have not written an eloquent blog since December 2008. So...I apologize to friends and family...and hope that this is a step in the right direction.

The other day I was in the community of Santa Ana and saw a little girl on the stoop of a pulperia (corner store) with a bright orange shirt that read in English, "Kiss me! ...before my boyfriend sees…” I chuckled a bit, thinking about how cute that was, and remembering a shirt my mom once put on me as a little girl that read "I will not kiss the boys...I will not kiss the boys...I will not kiss the boys" in the chalkboard handwriting of an 8 year old. But then I realized, this little girls' shirt is in English...and she probably has NO clue what it says.

Humorous, sure, but doesn't it raise the question: where did this girls' shirt come from? Yesterday, my driver/assistant asked me what his shirt said. I translated "United Church of Christ Summer Peace Intern 1993" to Spanish for him. He nodded approvingly, and told me he liked the color.

It makes me wonder, you know. Where do these shirts come from? Why do so many of us think it such a good cause to donate our used clothes? Would you want to wear used clothes that belonged to someone from some other country? Would you want a shirt that you didn't even understand what it read?

So I got to thinking about donations, the phenomenon that it really is. People with excess donate, not knowing where exactly their donations will be going or the effects it may have on a person or a population. They feel good; they did a good deed…but what good is it really doing?

Faith-based organizations are probably the most responsible for perpetuating the phenomenon of donations. Faith-based groups will probably never stop donating clothes or other things because the act of giving is perceived as God’s call; a good act for God is nothing shameful, nothing that could cause a sense of racial, cultural, or economic inferiority. After all, GIVING is good.

But what’s the real context, destination, or circumstances of the receiving partner? What kind of paternalism or cycle of dependency could donations be creating?

Asking these questions reminds me of two things, first of which was my experience at the Dominican-Haitian border in 2007. Every Wednesday, the border of these countries opens up for trade and it is one of the most chaotic experiences I’ve ever encountered. Loaded with cargos of rice, eggs, beans, vegetables, mules, you name it, people raced back and forth across the bridge that crossed over “Massacre River,” where, ironically, tens of thousands of Haitians were killed about 80 years ago. Well, some things never change. The “flow” shall we say of trade was very directional. Every Haitian stand was filled donated items—t-shirts, cowboy boots, NYC caps, shoes—while every Dominican stand was overflowing with rice, beans, platano, spices, herbs, and vegetables. The difference in tradable goods is really stark. Haitians have little cultivatable land, little ability to grow or buy the daily needs to feed their families. But they sure do have a lot of t-shirts.

Haitians didn’t need second-hand clothes, they needed food. So what kind of markets have these donations created? They had turned the donation system into a market they could use to be able to purchase the daily basics to survive, which is creative and entrepreneurial, really. I did some research on this and came across a video I remembered seeing as a freshman in college: T-Shirt Travels. The documentary discusses this very issue, looking how donations as a phenomenon have created what is really a black market, with people from the receiving country purchasing barrels of donated clothes to be able to sell in the local marketplaces…sometimes even fighting to get the “good” clothes to be able to sell them at a higher price and make money to feed or educate their families. It’s really fascinating…if you wanna take a deeper look, here’s a link to PBS T-Shirt Travels. In sum, what happens in the simple act of giving or donating can be much more complex than assumed. What if it has created a sense of dependency or of inferiority or even a black market that perhaps even further marginalizes people? What good, then, is giving?

Now it’s time to play a little devil’s advocate. Through all this discussion, the simple fact does remain…if a little girl needs the shirt off my back, why not give her the shirt off my back? Isn’t that humanity? If there wasn’t North-to-South (developed-to-developing) country relations, what would international development organizations exist for? Though everyone likes to think development is heading towards East-to-West dynamics, acting more in side-by-side partnership rather than in hierarchies, the fact remains that “developed countries” fund “developing countries.” And financial relations are often not an equal flow. The need for program evaluation has been borne out of a desire for accountability to show results or get grants for projects funded by “Northern” partners. And the same “flow” goes for donations, inevitably…so why fight it?

The heart of humanity comes down to those moments when you, personally, sit down and have a conversation with a child from one of our rural communities, and you see that they’ve worn the same shirt for over a week and it’s dirty. It’s those moments when I think two things: 1) Why not give that child another shirt if we have it to offer? And 2) Let’s go talk to his mom about washing their clothes and bathing her kids regularly. Being poor does not mean you have to be dirty. That’s one of the profound lessons I’ve learned from an awesome Honduran teacher who many times has brought his students back home to bathe before returning to class. “Old clothes are one thing,” he says, “but dirty clothes are another.”

That sense of humanity in giving is also enhanced during one particular circumstance: emergency relief—but it’s a difficult situation post-aftermath. For example, after Hurricane Mitch in 1998, Honduras received so many donations and it was during this time when “brigades” really began--service trip to help with relief aid. Initially, it worked…get the aid necessary to the places who need it. But over time, Hondurans became accustomed to receiving relief donations, which has now changed Honduran-international dynamics entirely. Communities now EXPECT to receive goods, projects, seed capital for nothing in return, sometimes not even their effort. We like to call that, lack of sweat equity…and it’s a dangerous territory. How can an organization work on a project without the buy-in and collaboration of the community? If communities expect to just receive for free or without any time or sweat on their part, will the project will be valued, understood, and used appropriately in the future? Does giving create a cycle of dependency, or is one appreciative recipient worth whatever other secondary consequences that may arise? That’s a tough question.

I don’t have an answer. I think it’s a fascinating issue and one lots of international NGOs and governments have to face. At the end of the day, though I don’t have an answer, I have an opinion. And that opinion is that donations are inevitable because we as humans have a desire to give and receive. But they should be done personally and strategically, after getting to know the person or the organization to who you would be donating, really understanding where those items are going to and how they will be used, and having confidence that the people or the organization that receive or filter those donations will make the best decision as to how to use and distribute them appropriately.

Tuesday, April 20, 2010

Global Partnerships

Here's the link to the blog post I recently made regarding for the Global Brigades e- newsletter. Topic: Global Partnerships. Feel free to comment on the blog website or here :)

Also another link to an article I wrote a long time ago when I first started at GB regarding starting the Research and Evaluation unit:

Monday, April 5, 2010

My Job and a Lesson on Being Present

So to give just a little background information about what exactly I'm doing in Honduras this time around: I'm working with an organization called Global Brigades as the Director of Community Research and Evaluation. I work in all 5 of our disciplines in Honduras (Medical, Dental, Public Health, Water, and Microfinance) in building evaluation frameworks, strategic planning and implementation of needs assessments for the 120 different communities we work with, developing system for community selection, and then planning and executing baseline demographic health surveys in these communities. That way, we can have baseline health data to evaluate from after implementing all 5 programs holistically in a selected community.

That's my job, in a nutshell...and it changes with different needs along the way...

But another side-task I've been involved with recently has been giving classes at a school for young female domestic workers. We have started a new partnership with this project and have formed a new high-school technical course in Health Promotion. I've been asked to teach a few week-long courses in this program on international health/development NGOs including Global Brigades' work, as well as an "in-the-field" course on Research and Evaluation in Health-Based NGOs, specifically Global Brigades. It's been a cool experience getting to know these girls, their (somewhat difficult) backgrounds, but also their excitement for working in health in their country. Who knows, some of these girls might go on to be nurses, or doctors, or dentists...?

One thing that I have come to face with trying to juggle my own job along with teaching these classes in Health Promotion is that I find myself often jaded with these kinds of experiences. At first, teaching these classes was kind of thrown on me, as an obligation almost, which stressed me out and made me a bit resentful, which I'm sure a lot of people in the field experience. Why do I have to do this on top of everything else? I'm already burnt out! Needless to say my first class didn't go so well. As I came home, plopped down on my bed however, I thought, you have the chance to shape these girls lives. And you didn't do it.

I'm sure every teacher goes through this experience, and as you see the fruits of your labor in those kids, you feel that motivation to continue on...that becomes your purpose. It brought me back to last year, to a moment in which I remembered feeling like I knew I was making a difference in the lives of my workers with HIV, but deep down inside was worrying about one thing or another-my future, my friendships, my relationships, my career-and I wasn't fully PRESENT with them. I found myself doing that again...worrying about my own things I needed to get done with GB, with my own program development, that I wasn't fully PRESENT with these girls. I think that's extremely important and something that not only I, but a lot of people in the field do. We are so focused on getting a task done, or so entrenched in the work we are doing, that we don't take the moment to be PRESENT where we are. To have coffee with a community member, to smell the corn tortilla, to smile or greet your coworker in the morning, to listen to someone's story. I hope I can be more PRESENT to these girls as I continue to teach and build relationships with them. I don't know what my future holds after the next 9 months, but after having done this once, I hope to not burn out or worry about the future, but rather BE PRESENT where I am now...

back on track

So I realized recently that I haven't kept up on my blog in the last 6 months. After feeling sentiments of disappointment and discouragement (at failing yet another "journal"-like endeavor), I've decided I'm just going to start again. Anew.

I could try to catch you up on all the crazy experiences I've had in 6 months of my new job and life in Tegucigalpa...there have been many, between speaking at conferences, spending days copying health statistics in paper and pen, and very interesting car conversations with Global Brigades staff, along with personal let-downs in relationships, finding new amazing friends/roommates and enjoying incredible roof parties. However, the past is in the past. My new years resolution oh-so-long ago was to live in the present and do what I WANT to do. May seem selfish, but for a over-the-top was the next initiative I needed in my life. So, living in agreement with that, I'm just going to start from now. Skype me if you want to hear about the past.

I'll try to update every other week and I hope to keep this blog for interesting observations I encounter in the field. Living and breathing international health and development in Latin America. So...once again...enjoy!