Donor Centricity – RANT I

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Since touchdown in Lebanon, I’ve been sharing photos of the beautiful scenery, rich history, delicious food and heartwarming encounters on my social media accounts. I haven’t spoken much about what I’m actually doing here. Though it may seem that I flew all the way to Lebanon to eat all the tabouleh, this is not the case. In a recent post, I mentioned that I’m working as a Project Manager and Communications Advisor for an INGO. This has meant I’ve been working quite a bit with the donor for my project, as well as wining and dining donors for our other projects and I’ve learned one lesson along the way that I would like to share.

 Because I can be quite critical, and even unreasonable sometimes, I will once again leave out the name of my organization and the donors involved in our projects.

Now that formalities are out of the way, I wish to paint a picture for you. You’re a 25-year-old Syrian woman with 3 children. Your family fled to Lebanon from Homs 4 years ago because of the war, and has been living in an informal tented settlement in Lebanon’s Bekaa Valley ever since. You have many needs… cash assistance, education for your children, basic hygiene, medication… but your greatest necessity is clean water. NGO’s regularly visit your settlement, assessing your situation and writing profusely onto their clipboards. You’ve even had to entertain Europeans/Westerners entering into your wretched home, so that they can ascertain whether or not you’re worthy of their funding. And for all of this nonsense, you end up getting a baby kit as assistance. Not something you’ve asked for, but something someone else decided you were in need of. A blanket in the middle of summer, pajamas that are too small for your 9 month old, diapers which are also too small, and two bibs. What the hell, right?

When I was in South Africa, something similar happened with a ridiculous Canadian donor who visited the Township school we worked with, saw the children playing on muddy ground (just being kids for heavens sake), and decided that her hard earned dollars should go toward purchasing artificial grass turf for the school. Meanwhile the school had a long list of immediate needs directly related to increased access to education… but instead they got some fake grass. But how do these royal fuck ups keep happening? How do millions of dollars in humanitarian aid go to waste every year when they can be used toward life-changing interventions? In this case, and the case of the baby kits, the answer is donor centricity.

The donor centric model is pervasive in humanitarian aid, especially if there isn’t a focus on human rights. From my little experience working in development and emergency management, donor centricity helps perpetuate the very inequity the sector is attempting to address. The examples I gave of the baby kits and fake grass are both instances of donor centricity, though they are very different. For the baby kits, it was the decision of the NGO to purchase them because it was something the donor “would be interested in” especially when it came to visibility. And yes, visibility is literally being able to slap a huge logo on something to shout that this item was donated or funded by so and so. Though the beneficiaries prefer cash assistance (especially the case for refugees in Lebanon), cash isn’t sexy enough for the donor since they can’t stick their logo on it… hence the baby kits. For the turf, it was the donor’s direct decision to intervene so specifically… without conducting a needs assessment, asking the school’s board of directors or the NGO’s board of directors what her thousands should be spent on. The NGO knew this was a waste of money, but rolled with it because at the end of the day, the donor must always be happy (according to the donor centric model). When we do this… we are literally reinforcing the donor’s sense that they are experts when they are not. It not only damages the work the NGOs are doing, but diminishes the voices of those most affected by injustice or crisis.

“This model works… the money always comes.” This is the argument I’ve heard over and over, and it’s true in a sense. If the donor is happy, funding appears. I witnessed this in Bolivia back in 2012… when a truly horrible volunteer plastic surgeon wanted to “better his life” or whatever, and made his way to an impoverished indigenous community in Santa Cruz. He came without any preparation, except for his camera and a vomit inducing speech on his good works. Seriously… no cultural sensitivity whatsoever. He was offensive and self important, yet when I asked the leader heading the center for the community why he was tolerating all of this without a word of protest his answer was simple and clear, “he brings with him lots of money.”

Whether the donor is a voluntourist, a clueless self-made connoisseur, or the visibility police, they should not be in the center of nonprofit work. Donor-centrism gives donors the belief that they hold the solutions… when in truth, the people on the ground and the beneficiaries hold the solutions.

I will leave this here for now, as this is part one of a three-part rant. I just wanted to share that this issue of donor centricity has really affected my future involvement in humanitarian work. I thought Emergency Management would be different from International Development, but my frustrations are the same… from a grassroots NPO to an International NGO… not much has changed. My next move will therefore be to look for a human rights based organization in either sector. But before even looking at future projects, my priority will be checking up on the donors.

Until next time.

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Today is World Refugee Day

Dear friends,

In a world where one in every 113 people have been forced to flee their homes because of war or persecution, it’s vital we the global community dedicate a day to commemorate the strength, courage, and perseverance of millions of refugees. Today is World Refugee Day, and since so many of us in the west are far removed from the devastation facing so many refugees, I decided to share a story from Lebanon. My intention is not to play to your sympathies. In the same way that you’ve read stories about people climbing everest, you will read this woman’s story of life in Beirut, because her life is no less significant than that of a world class climber.

Statistics and numbers are desensitizing, and bad-news fatigue breeds apathy. I literally started this paragraph with numbers and figures, and when I caught my mistake I decided to leave the opening sentence the way it was to acknowledge my mistake. Let us take a moment, and do an exercise together. I want you to say “Mariam” out loud. That’s it, “Maariiiaam,” make sure you enunciate! She is a person, like you and I. We are of the same make, though her story may suggest otherwise. Mariam is in the situation she is in not because she was born into poverty, lazy, uneducated or unintelligent. She’s in this situation because 5 years ago, the Syrian war made its way into her hometown, Daraa, forcing her to flee to neighbouring Lebanon. She’s in this situation because of a series of unfortunate events… events that could have happened to you or me.

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Living conditions are as tough for urban refugees as they are for rural. Syrian refugees living in Beirut are harder to locate, and therefore harder to reach with aid and support services. Urban refugees are also expected to pay astronomical rent prices for substandard living conditions, and are often times confronted with a hostile host community (especially in Lebanon because of a complex history between the two countries). This is especially true for 30 year old Mariam, who lives in a concrete factory just outside of Beirut with a 9 month old baby boy, 4 daughters, and her husband. 

This factory is also home to 4 other Syrian families. Mariam’s husband worked in the concrete factory before the war in Syria began. Once the war was underway, he continued sending money home, while his family moved around Daraa for safety. At one point, Mariam and her children were living in a 1- bedroom apartment with 5 other families, which she described as “literally being piled on top of one another.” She didn’t want to come to Lebanon, because she had hope that the war would soon end, but as we know, things worsened. Her husband decided that bringing his family to Lebanon was the only option for his family’s safety, so he and a few colleagues made an agreement with the owner of the factory to live on the premises rent-free with their families so long as they built the homes themselves.

Having a conversation without raising voices is nearly impossible in Mariam’s makeshift home. The noise from the factory, coupled with the copious amount of dust hardly makes this an ideal place for a family to live in, especially for her baby boy. The factory doesn’t pay her husband well, and what little pay he does receive goes toward food, which she says “disappears as quickly as it comes.”

There are much more details that Mariam shared with me, which are really horrible and will make you hate the human condition. Instead, I will stop here, and paint you a contrasting picture. Five years ago, she had a house in Syria, and the little money her husband made went a long way for her family. She lived well, and woke up worry free everyday. Fast forward 5 years, and she literally lives in the middle of a factory with a growing family, an unending war on her mind and an exceedingly desperate situation. She described her situation as being unbelievable to her younger self. Even so, Mariam counts herself as lucky since her family doesn’t have to pay rent. Lucky to live in a concrete factory. To think… this could have been me had my parents stayed in Sudan… had there been a war, this truly could have been my life. Would I ever count myself “lucky” to live in such conditions? 

Say this woman’s name again. Mariam. Acknowledge her, honour her, and remember her every time you walk on concrete. She is out here, living, breathing, the same way you and I are. When discussing refugees, never forget that they too are humans who love, fear, laugh, cry, and feel in the same way that you do.

Absence

Greetings from Lebanon!

I owe you all an explanation for my extended absence from this space. I haven’t written on here since I was in South Africa, which is due to several factors. First, my final 6 weeks in SA was a very strange time. It was important for me to wrap things up properly at work, with my friends, with the student I was tutoring and with my adopted family. I spent every last moment with people I cared about, and had little time to write about it. Second, I didn’t want to write about it. Those last moments with the country and people I’d fallen for seemed way too intimate to share online. Third, I wanted to be selfish. I relished living fully in those moments, knowing that I didn’t have to share them with anyone… that they were for me, and me alone. I dreaded my return home by the time December came around. After months of stumbling, I had finally found a rhythm to my work, my social life, and was tuned in to the local culture at the right frequency.

My contract technically ended after arriving in Canada, because of a week-long reintegration debrief in Victoria, BC. I knew I wasn’t ready to face an onslaught of family and friends in Toronto, especially since Christmas was quickly approaching. The thought of everyone asking, “SO, HOW WAS IT?” made me apprehensive… mostly to how I’d react, so I came up with a ploy. Under the ruse of travel, I convinced my people in Toronto that since I was already going to be in BC, it would be ridiculous not to stay and explore since I had the time off. So yes, I spent Christmas with a lovely Russian family, I rode the sky train to all the corners of Vancouver, and I spent a weekend in a cabin on the gulf island of Galiano with my dear friend Alex, her dog, and her gracious family. It was the perfect descent back into reality, and looking back, I would do it exactly the same.

There wasn’t much to write about after that, since I was home for 4 days before taking off to Australia for all of January. My flight was booked 9 months in advance, so the excitement wore off, and I was still on a BC high until landing in the Melbourne heat of January. I didn’t blog about my month down under because once again, I was treading on personal territory. All I will say is that my month was absolutely perfect… I caught up with my dear family and friends in Victoria, New South Wales, and Queensland. It was honestly the most wonderful trip I’ve ever taken. My parents were with me for half of the duration, which facilitated a necessary catch up after 7 months of my absence. As for my friends in Gold Coast… what can I say? I truly believe that I won’t ever find such precious camaraderie anywhere else. No shade to my friends worldwide, but there’s something about my GC lot that makes me all warm and fuzzy every time I reminisce.

I made it back to Toronto, which according to my timeline, places us in the beginning of February. The first two weeks I was busy working on the two photography exhibitions I was co-hosting for international development week. I also created promotional material for 18 exhibitions across Canada, which I probably should have blogged about because it was an incredible Canadian youth effort! I’ll include a photo below, should you have a case of FOMO. The rest of February I was applying for jobs [mostly abroad], and interviewing. I kept a relatively low profile and only caught up with my inner circles (no cults!) after 8 months of being removed from Toronto life.

This went on for several weeks until I found myself in Beirut, Lebanon on March 23rd. I’m still not quite sure how I got here, but I can say with certainty that my internship in South Africa almost single handedly helped me land this awesome gig. I’m currently working for an International NGO that I cannot name (thank you, HR policy!) as a Project Manager and a Communications Advisor. It’s a 4-month contract, following the project duration. More on my job and life in Lebanon in the following posts, stay tuned!

Below I’ve shared one photo from each month of my why-I-was-absent timeline.


My last week in SA… I wanted to say goodbye to everyone so I hosted a farewell, which was meant to be an afternoon picnic, but went on till midnight. The three pictured are AJ, Percy and Troy, 3 strangers who hit it off like brothers. A few of the girls and I met AJ at a local concert, Linda and I met Percy at our friend’s birthday party, and I met Troy at a bar in Durban while I was on a tinder date with his buddy. #OnlyInSouthAfrica


One with the wind, after a beautiful hike to the cliff on Christmas Eve. #GalianoIsland


Surprise ambush by my Gold Coast family, after Rachael tricked me into thinking we were having an Aussie “Bush Tucker.”


One of the two photo exhibits for “CLICK!” an IYIP photo exhibition for International Development Week.


Greater Beirut as seen from my apartment. That’s the mediterranean in the back, and the yellow haze? That’s the smog. #noemissionstests