Is helping hurting you?

There was book published in 2009 called “When Helping Hurts” which was about how lots of the development work we in the west undertake to reduce poverty actually does more harm than good.  Ouch. Its particular focus was work done by Christians. A further ouch.

It was familiar territory for Tearfund because we talk about that kind of thing a lot – in an attempt to work in a very different way. The main destructive habits the book identified were:

a) thinking we know what people need better than they do;

b) only addressing people’s obvious physical poverty rather than the more complex web of which it is factor;

c) doing things for people that they could do for themselves;

d) short-term thinking.

When I was in Sierra Leone last year (read the blog here), our Country Rep told me that millions of dollars had been thrown at the problems in the country in the last decade, and little had changed. It’s a tragedy, for the people of Sierra Leone, but also for the people giving that money. (And then I made a little film about a really exciting process that is helping people change their circumstances…)

Bad development hurts more than just people in Africa. It’s bad for all of us. Let me explain.

Last year Bond & Oxfam did a big piece of work around its communications with the UK public.  The Executive Summary of the report says this:

Simply put, people in the UK understand and relate to global poverty no differently now than they did in the 1980s…By many measures [the NGOs] have made amazing strides forward in recent years but the public have largely been left behind.

Maybe that sounds a bit cocky (although I love to think we make “AMAZING strides”), but as part of the process they also did a bunch of research into their own communications, and in fact the communications of many UK NGOs.  They found out that the responsibility largely lay with them (us).  We are telling the same story about the problem of poverty and how we can fix it, even though we might have come to believe a more nuanced and empowering story ourselves.  As a sector we still tell this story: ‘ here is a poor sick child, and here is how much you can give to fix it.’ (forgive my generalisations for now…)

So then there’s a big practical problem of how long are people going to keep believing you when the problems aren’t disappearing despite the cash invested.  And there’s an integrity problem in organisations not telling the same story as the one they’re outworking in communities.  And these sit alongside the already-identified problems of when organisations just do things badly, despite all their good intentions.

BUT, and here is my point, I think it diminishes the humanity of everyone involved when we buy into shabby stories about how the world changes.  For someone living in poverty, wherever they are in the world, it diminishes them when their circumstances and the behaviour of people around them tells them that they are worthless, and powerless, and can only hope for somebody else to give them a handout.  But it also diminishes us when we believe that ‘just £10 can change this child’s life forever’, or that the circumstances that keep people in poverty are independent of us – our consumer choices and the trade laws of our own country, for example.

No-one gets to move forward by believing shabby stories.

So let’s all believe a better one, please!  (Further posts may expand on that. Do tell me what you’d like to hear about).


5 responses

  1. Jen,

    thanks for this – its a really important issue that you are highlighting here and something that fundraising and communications teams need to take on board. I think that fundraising is a tricky issue because people are tempted to use ‘any means necessary’ and it is a lot easier to sell a simple story of change.

    Its the same in my field of homelessness where so many charities sold themselves on curing rough sleeping – it brings in the cashola but so often the reality is 1000 times more complex than the story being told. It leads to instutional insecurity where fundraisers become detached from the front line because they are occupying different worlds.

    I think the message of books like and ‘Dead Aid’ are helpful to make us more self-critical and understand the oppressive potential of charity and the long road to social transformation. We need to talk up the good – but also need to watch the bullshit!

    thanks for your uplifting blog!

    • Thanks Jon. The question of the gap between frontline and fundraising is a huge challenge, and requires real courage I think to pursue integrity. I really do think there is a good story to tell though, so there is an alternative to the bull**t!

  2. Hello Jen,

    Thanks for your inspiring post and for telling it like it is… I’m an independent documentary filmmaker and also head up UK Operations for a US-based charity called The Peace Project. Myself and my colleagues are constantly looking for ways to build mutually beneficial relationships between donors and recipients. The main recipients of our programmes and fundraising efforts are amputees, polio survivors, women and children. We work in Sierra Leone with local NGO, the Community Association for Psycho Social services (CAPS). I’m interested in building a coalition of partners to explore best practice on how we can use video and digital media to tell nuanced and empowering stories that have the potential to shift people’s belief systems about aid.

    • Hi Michele
      Thanks so much for responding – I’m really passionate about exactly that – telling nuanced and empowering stories that change how we think (although it also goes beyond aid/development for me). I’d love to hear more about your coalition ideas – and would also love to see some of your films. WHere could I find them??

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