It’s rare that a book about international aid and charity reflects Spirit in Action’s core philosophy of partnership and responding to the needs of the community. (In fact, that’s why I’m working on a book of collected essays about the importance of small grants and true partnership. More details to come!)
When I read Doing Good..Says Who? by Connie Newton and Fran Early, I immediately recommended it to all of SIA’s Board members. This book, which came out of interviews with 430 Guatemalans and non-Guatemalan aid workers and volunteers, features stories that clearly demonstrate the importance of listening to community members and trusting local knowledge. I came away more sure than ever that that is the only way to create lasting change. And it’s also an enjoyable, non-technical read!
The book is organized in five chapters, each focusing on a principle that is, “at the heart of guiding good intentions into productive outcomes.” Overall, good intentions are nice, but they are definitely not enough to ensure the desired outcome!
Respect and value people.
The people in poverty described poverty in terms of powerlessness and voicelessness. In a poignant moment in this chapter, a donor marvels at how their project is like a three-legged stool. The donors raise money in the US. A program director in Guatemala runs the organization and communicates with donors. A woman from the area manages the school lunch program site. A sturdy stool. Then the local woman points out that the donor missed the fourth leg of the stool. The stool would not stand without the mothers who are cooking and making the program happen every day. And it is the mothers who know how to face and overcome the challenges on the ground.
Build trust through relationships.
A woman from the US goes to a remote village to establish a clinic. How successful do you think she is going to be on her own? She quickly realizes that she will only be able to provide help if she is ready to learn, respond to local customs, and work on local time. Her focus becomes, “how can I build their trust?”
When medical volunteers come from the US, she makes sure they also understand the important of trust. The trip is not just about North Americans giving to poor people, it was about a relationship of exchange where they all are students as well as teachers.
Do “with” rather than “for.”
“Never do for someone what they can do for themselves.” A group of philanthropists want to help people in Guatemala. Once they get there, they realize that they don’t know the first thing about how to invest in real change! There are a lot of potential negative consequences to giving money without understanding the larger systems in play. I love the stories in this chapter as the group makes a tour of several grassroots organizations. They see that the local organizations are able to challenge the inequalities in their system. This will do more in the long-run than a handout that only covers over the inequality.
Ensure feedback and accountability.
Evaluate every step of the way.
“I wish those human factors could show up on our spreadsheets,” laments an organizer of a microfinance group. They are getting pressure from donors to keep the program numbers growing. And this means that there is no time to really build relationships and establish the mutual accountability that is key to the group-backed loans.
The last two chapters show that checking in, getting honest feedback from workers on the ground (rather than pushing to match an outsider ideal), and constantly reflecting and trying new tactics will ensure a strong and sustainable program. (Read about our SBF coordinator conferences.)
The book ends with a discussion guide with some thought-provoking questions. For example: “Think about a time when you had a personal experience of someone doing good for you. What worked? What didn’t? What were your feelings?”
The overall take-away is that programs for lasting change are successful when there is dialog, humility, understanding, flexibility, and a true focus on local leadership. (See the example of the Manyamula COMSIP Cooperative and their locally led micro-loan program.)
I highly recommend the book to you, both in order to understand more clearly the work of our partner organizations and to see the potential pitfalls of only relying on good intentions. I hope, like me, you’ll come away with a renewed appreciation for SIA’s partnership focus. Once you’ve read it, drop me a line and let me know what you thought!