Donor Centricity – RANT I


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.



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


Equitable and Inclusive Quality Education Opportunities

Recently, I found myself doing quite a few double takes on my Facebook newsfeed. Here I was, scrolling through the clutter of status updates, what’s-her-name’s wedding photos, the practical joke that is the American elections, and other news stories from the many pages I follow, until I realized something was off! I didn’t click on news stories concerning South Africa because I either read it in the paper, or heard it on the radio. It was only when I realized that these stories were published by the Canadian and American news outlets on my feed, that I frantically scrolled back up. So it appears, the civil unrest in South Africa has not gone unnoticed by the rest of the world. The first major story I saw circulating (and heard on my favourite podcast, recorded in Oklahoma) concerned the black female students in Pretoria not being allowed to wear their natural hair out in high school. It made for interesting critiques and dialogues on race, and how apartheid-era tactics were still operating throughout the country. Another story that flooded my twitter feed was South Africa’s withdrawal from the International Criminal Court, to which many nations responded with censure. But the story that has carried the most weight on the international stage is neither of these; instead, it’s a story concerning SDG 4 (ensuring equitable and inclusive quality education, promoting lifelong learning opportunities for all).

I am of course talking about fees must fall, the ongoing struggle between students, public universities and the government of South Africa. Fees must fall started over a year ago as a rallying against proposed national tuition increases in public universities. Recently, the focus has shifted from stopping fee hikes to gaining free, decolonized higher education. There has been much controversy surrounding the fees must fall protests, resulting in the underlying goal of the cause going unnoticed. Since September, the South African media has bombarded the public with images of protesters throwing rocks and bottles, burning down university buildings and vehicles, while police guiltlessly march in impressive formation. The imagery portrayed by the media has given the campaign a bad rep; many receiving the message with much disapproval and contempt. The more the demonstrations intensify, the more the idea of fees must fall championing equitable and inclusive education is disregarded altogether.


At face value, fees must fall sounds like an unreasonable plea, but looking at the legacy apartheid has left behind for black education in South Africa, reparations in the form of education really don’t seem so bizarre. The more I read about fees must fall; the more I was reminded that SDG 4 concerns both developing and developed countries. Story time: when I attended the University of Toronto some years ago, there were [also] protests underway concerning university fees in Ontario. The opposing campaign was called stop flat fees, combatting an initiative put forth by the University of Toronto (the largest university in Canada), that later influenced 16 of the province’s 20 universities to follow suit. The new proposal applied a fixed tuition fee for enrolment in a minimum number of courses in a particular program or faculty, rather than charging tuition fees for each individual course a student took. For the students who didn’t (or couldn’t) take a full course load, the flat fee introduction was an enormous financial burden. Flat fees also forced students to rush through their studies, even though most learn more effectively at a self-determined pace. By 2010, Ontario students were paying the highest tuition in the country, and for this the stop flat fees campaign gained much momentum.

Student protests culminated and a lawsuit was launched in the Ontario Superior Court of Justice, challenging the integrity of the decision making process behind introducing flat fees. The protesting was peaceful, and asked that the Ontario Ministry of Training, Colleges and Universities prohibit the institutional practice of charging flat fees at colleges and universities for any threshold below 100 percent of a full course load and that they input regulations against universities implementing fee structures that side-step provincial tuition (UTSU, 2009). Flat fees were introduced in 2009, and although it took the Ontario government 4 years to respond, they did come up with a solution in 2013. The long anticipated policy requiring universities to charge students on a per-credit basis (for a threshold of an 80% course load or less) rather than charging a flat fee rate (for full time studies) finally came. It took protesting, lobbying, lawsuits, positive media coverage and the combined efforts of the Ontario Undergraduate Student Alliance and the UofT Students Union to make this happen (Dehaas, 2013).

The situation in Canada involved disputing a new regulation that would stifle many students from having an inclusive, equitable opportunity at education. Stop flat fees was therefore a reactive campaign. In South Africa, the situation has been precarious because it has gone from being reactive (reacting to fee hikes) to being proactive, demanding free public university tuition for all. Some say the protests are random and chaotic, while others say they are highly organized. Some say they are peaceful demonstrations, while others say they are violent and destructive. When comparing both campaigns, it would be easy for me to say that it all worked out in Canada because we went about it the “proper” way… we protested peacefully, we got organized and filed a suit, we had prominent alliances and bla bla bla bla bla. I won’t go on because the “who wore it better” line of thinking does a great injustice to the students who are affected by fees must fall, and the students who are risking their safety to ultimately fight for equitable and inclusive quality education, with lifelong learning opportunities for all South Africans wishing to pursue higher education.

Though many prefer the Canadian model to the South African one, I will say this: One cannot simply compare the way a nation in the Global North goes about resolving an issue to a Nation in the Global South. Present day Canada does not suffer from extreme violence, is not recovering from the legal segregation laws that stripped millions of their basic human rights, and does not have a corrupt, obscure government in office that was recently tried with over 783 charges of corruption (Blair, 2016). Though the University students of South Africa are ultimately fighting for SDG 4 like we have in Ontario, our challenges and solutions are by no means the same. I’ve heard many well-to-do South Africans share their strong opinions on fees must fall, and how they think these students are barbaric and contradicting in their campaigning for free public university. The majority of these opinions came from people who weren’t affected by the Bantu Education Act of 1953, and who were born into the privilege allotted to them by the apartheid regime, therefore being able to afford required school fees of primary and high school education. Coming from a place that would generally agree with their line of thinking… yet living in South Africa and working in a Bantu School, I respectfully disagree with anyone who is of that opinion, or anyone who shames this powerful movement.


UTSU (2009). “A Case Against Flat Fees”. <

Blair, David (2016). “Jacob Zume ‘should’ face 783 charges, declares South African Court”. The Telegraph. <

Dehaas, Josh (2013). “’Flat fees’ change and ‘deferral fees’ are done”. Macleans. <>.


Southern Africa Mashup

Hello friends!

I hope everyone is keeping well, I certainly am! Today, I won’t be sharing the usual opinion piece you’ve grown accustomed to. Instead, I’ll be sharing a silly video I made with my fellow IYIP amigas for the 2016 FILM4CLIMATE Global Video Competition. Not to be a downer, but we totally entered this competition knowing we weren’t in the running. There were over 800 entries submitted by film students, amateurs (like us), and film professionals. So why bother entering, you ask? Well, why not?

The girls and I met in Victoria, BC, for our two week pre-departure briefing. Ally is based at Women for Change, an organization in Jinja that works with rural communities, while Nicole is based in Bushara Island, where she and 17 others live and work together under the context of environmental sustainability. When Ally whatsapp’d myself and Nicole a week before the deadline pitching the idea, we were all too keen. I mean how hard would it be to come up with a concept, video tape it in three distant locations in Southern Africa, piece it together with terrible internet access, then submit on time?

We got to work promptly, and thanks to Facebook’s three-way-call option and Google Docs, our mashup was well on its way. Ally would record her part from Jinja, Uganda, Nicole would record hers from Bushara Island, Uganda, and I would record from Pietermaritzburg, South Africa. Our concept was simple: encouraging others to become global advocates rather than naysayers of climate change. The video tells the stories of three ‘naysayers’ whose lives are impacted by climate change, but choose to stay in denial. We came up with this idea when discussing how so many global citizens have had to make lifestyle changes to accommodate changes in climate, yet they refuse to acknowledge it as a global problem. Through role-play, we expose the denial discourse, and promote climate action. The “non-believers” end up educating the viewer, touching upon other SDG’s (goals 2, 6, 11, 12, 15 & 17) and showing climate change as a crosscutting issue that must be addressed if we wish to protect our shared planet and enjoy global prosperity.

Okay no more rambling, enjoy the video!

For more on the SDG’s click here. Also, make sure to check out Ally’s blog and Nicole’s blog for a totally different approach to IYIP. 


Hey Friends!

I am officially at the halfway mark of my 6 month passage through South Africa. It’s been 3 months of new cultures, languages, friendships, food, and adventures! Although December is creeping up way too fast for my liking, I am excited to see what the next 3 months will look like. Working in South Africa has opened my eyes to the complicated world of development. As many of you know, my educational background is primarily in professional communications; the majority of my work experience being with for-profit organizations. Apart from volunteering, signing petitions, and engaging in dialogues, I’ve never actually worked in the sector until now. Working with VIDEA and Ukulapha has introduced me to the complexities of fundraising, sustainability, inequality, governance and public policy. Above all, I’ve seen first hand how all of these components directly affect people’s lives, a confronting realization that has altered my career path moving forward.

lieFor those wondering why I’ve replaced my cheery ‘Music Monday’ posts with heavier subject matter (gender equality, education, race, colonialism, etc.) as of late, I owe you an explanation; Rewind to this time last year… I returned to Canada (from the best 3 years of my life) unemployed, unhappy, and regretting every penny I spent on both a diploma and degree that seemed totally worthless. I was literally “running through the six with my woes,” and if you knew me well enough you could attest to this. I wanted to work in the communications sector in Toronto, but they didn’t seem to want me. Having undergone two internships, it was the last thing I wanted to do… but my savings account was running low and my 3 months of unemployment suddenly became 9 months. My spirits were at an all-time low and I was in desperate need of a big change, so I swallowed my pride and applied for a position with VIDEA as an *cringe*  i n t e r n *cringe some more*.

Looking back, I really made a fuss over nothing. Applying to be an IYIP intern has definitely earned a place in the top 3 for best decisions I’ve ever made. I applied to IYIP with one underlying goal: to bring me one step closer to a career in communications that I so desperately wanted. Now that I’m halfway through the program, I realize that I had it wrong all along. A career in communications is not what I’ve been after all these years! Gone are the dreams of working with multi-million dollar clients and trendy corporate brands. Plain and simple, I want a career in social change. Now that I’ve seen firsthand the necessity of organizations like VIDEA and Ukulapha, I want to use my skill set to further the development narrative.

In the past 3 months, I’ve learned that I can use my background in advertising to change perceptions and start new dialogues pertaining to human rights development. I’ve learned that I can use my formal training in public relations for creating programs, fundraising and perfecting messaging. I’ve learned that public policy is shaped by the collective efforts of organizations like VIDEA and Ukulapha, meaning my work is impactful and important. I’ve also learned that winter in South Africa means chilly evenings with lots of bonfires and wine sipping. That there are several ways to express shock in Zulu, my favourite being ‘haibo!’. That South Africa has a difficult, complex history which I will never fully comprehend.. even if I moved here permanently.

In closing: I’ve learned a lot… about South Africa, and about myself. I am humbled to be here, and I so look forward to the next 3 months as an intern, a word that I now wear proudly, in this wonderful place.

Responding, Not Reacting to Racism

My internet connection has been erratic for the past two weeks… meaning I’ve had a lot of free time to frequent a favourite place: my solitude. On a side note, undertaking this six month passage alongside five other Canadians hasn’t been the most ideal context for digesting new surroundings. A lot of what I witness happens in a group setting, and is therefore interpreted in a group setting. The Randa many of you know may be expressive, assertive and sociable, but the Randa I know prefers to retreat to her mind palace for pondering. Having said this, my recent bouts of solitude have revealed a great lesson that I wish to share with you at the end of this post. What I’ve deduced along the way isn’t so pleasant, so if you’re someone who is easily irritated and/or has no tolerance for idiocy, you may want to skip this post.

– context –

I can totally pass as a local Indian (KwaZulu-Natal having the highest percentage of Indians on the continent), until I open my mouth. My Canadian accent makes me somewhat of a novelty here. I’ve experienced this phenomenon over and over again as a globetrotter… finding myself far more popular abroad than in Canada. I count this as a great advantage because often times locals feel the need to take care of me; creating bona fide experiences in foreign places. This has definitely been the case in South Africa, but being so approachable also has its downsides. In many cases, the more comfortable people are around me, the more my ears start [figuratively] bleeding. This comes with locals wanting to teach me something new, although often times what’s being taught is purely subjective. Subjective, racist, folly. 

folly |ˈfälē|
noun ( pl. follies )
lack of good sense; foolishness

The origins of the word are Old French, where folie once meant ‘madness’. I can’t think of a more true word to describe far too many incidents that have transpired since landing in South Africa with locals attempting to enlighten me with their racist bullshit. Is it something in the air? The water? I don’t wish to categorize all South Africans as lacking good sense, but I’ve had far too many ridiculous encounters to stay silent on the matter. As I mentioned in an earlier post, the topic of race is inescapable in this country. Unfortunately for me, this means exercising caution on when I should bite my tongue and when I should retort.

Of the many indiscreet conversations that I’ve had [with locals] over the past two months, there are three that I continue to mentally revisit. I’m still uneasy about how I reacted versus how I should have responded to what was clearly a lack of good sense presented in the form of polite racism.

1. “Rhodesia” For my first five weeks in Martizburg, I attended a church around the corner from my house. At first I felt reassured because the church was mixed race, something that was important to me at the time because it reflected the landscape of the country and in theory, would help me reach cultural competency. By week 2, I realized that although Zulus and Indians worshipped alongside the Whites, the church only scratched the surface of amalgamating races. I don’t wish to criticize a house of worship, but registering that the leaders and elders were all White did vex me. Although this didn’t stop me from continuing to attend every Sunday, a conversation I had during fellowship after service one day did.

I was sitting alone, enjoying a coffee in the church cafe, when I was joined by the lead pastor’s wife (a White woman). She was kind, and chatty. The conversation was going well until I asked her if she grew up in KwaZulu-Natal. Her response was, “Oh no… I’m from Rhodesia.” She then proceeded to tell me the fates her people (White Rhodesians) had to suffer in the post-colonial period under Black rule, and how difficult it was adjusting to life in “Rhodesia” after independence. Something so burdensome that she eventually sought refuge in South Africa.

My reaction: A lot of eyebrow raising and quick head nodding. I wanted the conversation to end, not attempting to further engage this woman.

How I should’ve responded: I should’ve asked her why she still referred to Zimbabwe as Rhodesia. Without correcting her, I could’ve asked questions to understand why she said what she said, and maybe through dialogue she too could understand how the conversation could make others uneasy… and just maybe, this woman might rethink her choice of wording.

2. “Rotten Apples” Luckily for the meat eaters in my cohort, one of the girls is a devout Muslim. If it weren’t for Omara, we wouldn’t have discovered the amazing halal butcher in town that’s a go-to for all our carnivorous needs. The butcher is a local institution, run by an Indian family that has shown us nothing but kindness for the past two months. It’s quite a way from our home, so we make our trip bi-weekly, buying in bulk and splitting the cab fare. This past week, all the taxi’s we phoned were busy and the shop was closing up shortly. The owner’s son insisted that he drive us home, and since we’ve known the family to be kind and honest, we agreed.Two minutes into the ride, and I was regretting our decision to ride with him.

He was a good driver, he didn’t go off course, and he didn’t hit on us… but the poison coming out of his mouth was hard to stomach. He was telling us about himself, how he grew up in Maritzburg, and we eventually landed on the topic of schooling. I asked him if he went to a mixed race school and he answered yes. I then asked, “Oh… so you must have many Black friends?”, to which he responded [laughing] saying, “Oh no! No… I don’t mix with that kind. Those are rotten apples you don’t want to get mixed up with that kind.” When we arrived home, he proceeded to commend us on how we chose a prime place to live since it was a predominantly White neighbourhood, and we’d have less interactions with Black people that way.

My reaction: I questioned what he was saying, by asking “what do you mean by that?” and I voiced that I didn’t think his assumptions were correct.

How I should’ve responded: I should’ve called him out on blatant racism, no matter how polite. His belief that all Black people possessed the same characteristics was racist. His distinguishing of Blacks as inferior to the other races in the city (Whites and Indians) was racist. Furthermore, since he was so interested in what we did for work and what we did on our free time, I should’ve actually invited him to my place of work (in a Township), a place he’s most likely never been to in his life. It would’ve been a great opportunity to educate this kind, very misinformed man.

3. “I cross the street” One of my more unpleasant run-ins with racism has unfortunately happened under my roof. I live in a mixed, but predominantly “White” part of town. The majority of houses have fences, barbed wire and large k-9’s. My next post discusses how gated communities and fences cause social division, dysfunctional cities, and lead to the further polarization of South African society. But until that post, this short tale can be your point of reference to the absurdity around bizarre security measures, and how they’re ultimately another form of racism. I know this to be true thanks to my bigoted landlords, a couple of White baby boomers who were very good natured and accommodating until they weren’t.

Everything seemed to go downhill after our visitors (all Zulu’s) became regulars. Our friends were being racially profiled and mistreated. We were angry, and our anger was met with bullying text messages from our landlords on how we’ve “compromised everyone’s safety” by having so many regular visitors, when really, it was because we were having so many black visitors. We asked for a formal meeting where we could discuss the contention, and it was very awkward indeed. One of them showed up defensive, dismissive, and uncomfortable as ever… ironic considering how confrontational she was via text message. When the issue of racial profiling was raised, it was met with denial, but not before we were told a cringeworthy anecdote about safety around black men. And I quote, “Racial profiling is unfortunate… but it happens because this is South Africa. Even I do it sometimes! When I’m walking to the shops and I see two black men walking toward me… I cross the street!”

My reaction: Silence. I was so dumbfounded by what was spoken I didn’t know what to say. At what point does a person stop caring about vocalizing their racist convictions? How deeply rooted is the racism that it’s so unapologetic? Keep in mind, this is someone who is fully aware of our positions as development practitioners working among the repercussions of a racist system.

How I should’ve responded: I wish I could rewind to that evening, and give my two cents. I wouldn’t have called her a racist, but I would explain how her comments were racist and uncalled for. I would’ve told her how I don’t cross the street when I see two Black men walking toward me, and how categorizing all Black men as dangerous is a racist notion that isn’t at all conducive to reconciling the dark history of this country catalyzed by colonization.

lesson learned 

These are just three of many shocking conversations I’ve had since being here, and I know many more are to come. Now that I’m aware of the normalcy of such dialogues in South Africa, I am far more prepared to answer accordingly. It’s important for me to live out my role as a conscious global custodian outside of work hours, therefore it’s more important for me to respond, and educate someone on why their comments are ignorant instead of reacting to what they’re saying. Folly can be combatted with good sense, ergo… my weapon moving forward.

The River Code

My first month in South Africa was spent trying to figure out clockwork. I had a mission: to integrate myself into South African society without causing too much commotion. This involved subsiding any indicators of culture shock, attempting to contextualize everything I’ve ever read or heard about colonialism, and working out the logistics of my job at Ukulapha. It has now been over two months, and I can safely say that I’ve discerned my surroundings. Throughout this process, I found myself subconsciously returning to something I read some months ago: the river code.

The river code is essentially a two-scenario model: The first scenario involves a development practitioner carrying someone on his or her back across a river. The second portrays a development practitioner holding someone’s hand to assist him or her across a river. Here’s the interpretation of the scenarios:

The Charity Approach to Development

  • Giving everything to the person
  • The person gets everything done for them
  • Inability to do own work
  • Creating dependence
  • Giving handouts without always consulting the recipient
  • Creating a power imbalance between donor and receiver

The Human Rights Approach to Development

  • Mentoring
  • Giving moral support
  • Facing challenges together
  • Showing appreciation and partnership
  • Encouraging communities to use their resources
  • Planning and moving together
  • Advise the community
  • Help half way and let them do it on their own
  • Increase in ownership, capacity building
  • Allowing communities to identify their own problems or needs
  • Analyzing causes and effects together to find solutions to those problems
  • Using local knowledge to combat problems and needs

The river code has everything to do with sustainable development. Though I am essentially here as a resource mobilization coordinator, my underlying goal being to raise as many funds as possible for Ukulapha, the more I suss out my surroundings, the more the question of sustainability seems to be my greatest challenge. In my quest to unravel how Ukulapha works as an organization, I’ve had to confront the organization’s approach to development, using the river code as an example to fall back on when preparing proposals for improvement. Currently, my work involves creating a strategic structure for Ukulapha’s operations so that the organization’s objectives, message and mission are intelligibly communicated to its publics. With strong communication also comes a necessary re-structuring of the organization’s many functions… a tricky feat with a grassroots non-profit organization. Especially with an organization like Ukulapha (positioning itself as a human rights NPO), which takes on so many projects that follow the charity model of the river code.

Instead of discussing all of Ukulapha’s projects and how there is much room for refinement (where sustainability is concerned), I will use one project in particular as an example of how to change the narrative from giving handouts to working in partnership and collaborating …falling back on the river code once more. Currently, a number of Canadian donors (many of whom are big organizations) have partnered with Ukulapha for a variety of different food programs. These programs include: providing extra nutritional supplements for school lunches, an end of term wholesome lunch for every learner, and a milk program for the younger learners. A Canadian donor also established a vegetable garden on the school premises last year. It is undeniable that these partnerships have filled many [otherwise empty] stomachs over the past few years. The question, however, does arise about the sustainability of these sorts of programs. Because the global partners of Ukulapha are all individual entities unrelated to one another, the result is that a lot of money and effort is being spent but no sustainable work is accomplished.

This sort of thing tends to happen in the charity model of development, which is what has happened at Ukulapha where food projects are concerned. As an intern who is new to the development sector, but not to the communications sector, it has been hard tackling this issue head on. It’s clear to me what needs to be done, but navigating the obstacle of boards, donors and a passionate executive director with a slightly different focus can be complicated. So the big question then arises, how can Ukulapha follow the river code, creating ownership, confidence, empowerment, self-reliance, sustainability and independence without getting rid of/offending its many global partners? I believe the answer to this question lies in the 2030 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). Goal 2 is to end hunger, achieve food security and improved nutrition and promote sustainable agriculture. If we fast forward to goal 17, which is to strengthen the means of implementation and revitalize the global partnership for sustainable development, you can see how an organization like Ukulapha need only connect the dots to turn its many endeavors where food is concerned into a holistic, sustainable, human rights based project.

The 2030 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs):

My proposition is that Ukulapha finds a way to combine its many food programs into one project so that the SDGs are being addressed, following the river code. Food handouts will soon be digested, forgotten, and are ultimately ineffective development catalysts. Claire, a fellow intern who has a Master’s degree in Social Work and Food Security, has started a “Garden Club” at the school. The Garden Club will allow learners to be engaged with the school’s vegetable garden, which currently sits as an uninteresting exhibit that is intangible to learners. Teaching the learners, educators and community members about sustainable agriculture is important, and can comfortably be implemented by Ukulapha. Actually using the vegetables from the garden in the school lunches instead of receiving extra supplements from Canadian donors is also something I see for the future of Ukulapha, which encourages the community to use their resources, increasing ownership and capacity building.

Global donors who wish to support holistic programs are critical for organizations like Ukulapha. That being said, partnership with the local community is just as important. This means that global partners who want to support grassroots NPO’s like Ukulapha must be more responsible and accountable in implementing their overseas programs, being careful not to fall into the trap of carrying someone on their backs across the river bank. If partnerships start and end with a cheque, sustainability can’t be achieved. Goal 17 is especially important not only for achieving food security, but for so many of the SDG’s. Strong, human rights based global partnerships are vital in addressing [and ultimately achieving] all of the SDG’s, therefore it is especially important that organizations like Ukulapha choose their partners wisely (and vice versa), employing the river code when undertaking such projects.

*The river code is a theory presented by Women for Change in collaboration with Irish Aid*