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Things I Managed Not to Say for a Change

Got my bicycle repaired. I don't take gentle care of my bicycle. It's a steel-framed Raleigh, about eight years old, that I picked up new for around $100. I'm heavier than I look (and I look pretty heavy) and I always get up on the pedals to start from stop and I have a habit of going off the edge of curbs without slowing down, and cranking hard in high gear. So I ground down the rear wheel axle and bearings. This a couple of days after breaking the bearings on the right pedal and having it fall apart in the middle of a tricky crossroad (the pedal-standing start from stop that broke the pedal's bearing).

I really like the guy who maintains it. He's young; early twenties. Took over the business from the guy who held it for thirtysomething years. Always does excellent service. I take my bike into him every year for a tune-up, and it goes in wheezing, creaking and complaining and comes out clean and smooth and can't stand still. I've put at least five times the money into the bike as I paid for it with no regrets or complaints. There's little on it that's original equipment other than the frame.

When I came in with the pedal, he was really busy, but stopped for the three minutes it took to grab a used pedal out of the trash and screw it on so I could keep going and went back to his other customers who were haggling prices and picking and choosing gear. "We can settle up later" he says. See what I mean? Level head and deserves loyalty.

So I get a note from Cara Sposa saying that the bike's ready, half a day early, and if I come back soon maybe we can have a swim together. That sounds good to me, so I'm walking from the bottom of Princess (main) Street to the top, and up ahead I see this young woman bending over. She's showing a lot of attractive leg, which admittedly is what got my attention, but she's also incongruously wrapped around the middle in an Afghan shawl and has some kind of traffic-warden's vest on. I'm wondering what's going on, when she straightens up, notices me noticing her, and smiles. She's got a number of "ethnic" touches to her wardrobe, and the vest is printed with some logo and slogan. Then I also notice that she's one of a similar group of young women in similar blue vests, and I realize she's a canvasser and I smile "politely" (in that way which isn't really polite, but it's about as polite as it's going to get) while speeding up.

And there's that telltale blink which means she's got a statement prepared. I groan to myself. Trapped.

She smiles broadly and says "Hi, how are you?" with hints of Watchtower, and extends a hand. Just as I'm shaking it (I kid you not) she says "Don't worry. You're invited to the party, too." The hand is cool, and kind of clammy, and she holds on to mine just a little too long. I'm getting really uncomfortable at this point, and I let it show with a slight grimace and "What's this about?" I look at the ID card she has draped around her neck while asking, but she finally lets go of my hand to pull the vest over it because, well, there's a creepy heavyset guy looking at her cleavage, and because she's going to tell me exactly what it's all about... this party I'm invited to.


It's about PLAN, and I've not heard of PLAN, no. And they spend years breaking the cycle of poverty in less developed countries. And I hear the same words I've been hearing for years and years and years about every well-meaning NGO that takes young people and sends them out into the world like fertilized fish-eggs to do good and justice while still living on their parent's dole between college and getting a job, and I'm thinking of interns and thin staff budgets and high advertising budgets and then she asks "So, do you know what child sponsorship is?"

I say "Yes," so she prepares the next part of the speil, by crossing her arms and tilting her head to one side, just daring me to tell her what it is, and I rattle off: "It's a popular fundraising method for programs or sets of programs to offer personal investment in an NGO's mission by offering a personally-branded connection with a token member of the program's intended recipients."

She's startled by the answer, and while she's processing and talking about "all that stuff about programs and..." I interrupt and say that "Yes, I work with NGOs all the time," and this gives me the opportunity to get away. The unspoken agreement is that "I've paid my dues, so you don't need to target me for raised awareness, thank you." She asks which ones, and I mention two of the ones I spent the most time with.

What I don't say is... "and several others and every one of them condemn child sponsorship as a shameless, deceptive marketing gimmick that adds a burden of inefficiency to programs that are usually already disorganized and prone to manipulation by promotors of a proselytizing or political agenda. It's a continuation of the myth of "white man's burden", and I've had the bad luck of working for organizations where some of the people who came up with the idea in the first place were on the board of directors, and I wasn't very impressed with them or their leadership, either, and they've made fundraising for really effective, efficient organizations much harder by getting the public to expect some kind of personal service for their contributions." No, I didn't say that because, well, I'm classy that way....

So when I got home, it had started to rain, so no swim with Cara Sposa. Poop.

Which gave me some time to think. I've been thinking about ending this work for NGOs, and have never quite kicked the habit for a variety of personal reasons that I'm consciously questioning. I can attest that there's nothing wonderful about NGOs that can't be done by other, less "selfless" organizations. And then I read this article on LJ about Sick Systems. And I realized that I was reading a summary of my first NGO job, where I, like that young woman yesterday, was doing my utmost to make the world a better place, but I didn't realize until years later that what I was actually doing was working to support the personal careers of one man and his cronies. And their agenda and my own only intersected marginally. And then I ended the evening watching Argo which got my blood boiling in a whole new direction.

One of the reasons I have for ending this dysfunctional relationship with NGOs is because I need to do something that isn't driven primarily by anger.

But I also need to recognize that this young woman had probably still been in nappies when I was up late at night faxing around situation reports from Rwanda and Bosnia. Loyalty is important. But it's also important to know who you're being loyal to and why. So, perhaps, in a vague way, I need to recognize that some of this younger NGO crowd deserve loyalty, too. Not just marvellous bicycle repairmen.... I need to be loyal to the gullible idiots out there like myself-at-that-age, and warn them about the real creeps out there in the NGO world.

But that's a rant for another day. Today, I have neglected the vegetable plot for far too long and must go with Cara Sposa to weed it before my regular work begins.


( 16 comments — Leave a comment )
Jul. 30th, 2013 08:20 am (UTC)
I really like where you ended your thoughts--and I started typing out why, but it was getting long and was very me-focused,** so I'm going to stop.

I want to read the thing you've linked to on sick systems.

**But I want to try again. Walk for Hunger. A big event in Boston each May, involves 35,000 or more walkers, 20 miles, corporate participation, musicians performing along the way--it's like a huge great festival for the day. And yet (a) Project Bread is only moderately efficient in its use of money [though I really agree with the guy who disputes that as the one and only way of evaluating charities--but I think we've talked about that before] and (b) investing in food pantries and stuff is really perpetuating a broken system.


Organizing a citywide festival that gives musicians a chance to perform and companies a chance to think about doing something for the public good, and schoolchildren a chance to stretch their muscles and endurance for a good cause while thinking about those who go hungry--that, itself, is exceptionally worthy, I think. Even if you subtracted out the hunger element and just made it a festival celebrating walking--one with local performers on the route and corporate participation--it would still be a great thing, but this has the added element of turning people's attention to a problem that needs addressing.

So that strikes me as as good thing, even with all the flaws in the system. Those kids who are canvassing may come to your conclusions eventually, or other conclusions that still lead them to work for something other than themselves. So that's why I like your charitable conclusion to this post.

But I still admire your way of cutting that girl short. It's VERY hard to derail someone who's in the groove of their spiel. Both my older son and younger daughter tried canvassing as a job. Briefly. Son lasted a few weeks, daughter quit on first day; couldn't take the contradictions and what she saw as the unethicalness of the approach.

Jul. 30th, 2013 10:31 am (UTC)
I guess it's because it's the humanitarian thing, and I've gotten cynical about some aspects, especially the "development" (i.e. fundraising) system, and how it works in the time of big money big data. I see so much better work being done by organizations that shun this kind of gimmick, but so much time and effort going to the other.

But in the example you give, I'm not so hardline. Or to try a different view: I am fairly well convinced by the argument, for example, that we should let people scuba dive in the great reefs, because more awareness is much better for them in the long run than the damage that may result from people bumbling around in them. But there are many environmentalists who cringe at the notion, and would like to see all reefs off limits to people at all times. I recognize a parallel to my argument above in the latter, and I'm not sure I'm right or wrong there.

Edited at 2013-07-30 02:32 pm (UTC)
Jul. 30th, 2013 11:53 am (UTC)
And, too, there's being flexible about changing opinions and approaches as situations change and new information comes in (one reason why I don't like to hold people accountable for opinions they've expressed long ago--they may have CHANGED. It's been known to happen).

So for instance, in your reef example, one could try it and then tinker it or change it as information came in. But certainly people do become much more committed to things when they have some personal stake in them. We can't give everyone personal stakes, but if someone goes scuba diving at a reef and comes to care about coral reefs and talks to friends about them, etc., that's better than if they're only some conceptual thing, worthy of conceptual protection, because no one gets to see or interact with them. --At least, that's an argument that resonates with me. If I found out that divers were causing huge damage, then I'd change my mind and say, no, clearly they have to be off limits, etc.

And it's not like there has to be just one approach. In fact, thinking by analogy to monocultures and eco-diversity, chances are that things are better if there are lots of different approaches--for lots of reasons, not least that then you do get to see which ones succeed at what.
Jul. 30th, 2013 12:48 pm (UTC)
That's fair, but hear me out on this part: If there was a kickstarter for electric power, would you sign up? How about policing, or national security? If infrastructure was sexy enough to be funded, we wouldn't be in the crisis we're in right now, and if we had better infrastructure, we wouldn't be so wasteful and inefficient in our lives.

The big issues that are causing the major suffering are the ones we're not addressing: capitalism is incapable of creating sustainability on its own; split standards on human rights and law enforcement undermine justice; ready access to weapons technology far outpaces robust social institutions; nationalism is anathema to universal weal. Complex problems require complex, difficult solutions.

So, too, with the big humanitarian problems: When these organizations do child sponsorship, they create an environment where that particular kind of giving gains more attention and following than more effective forms of aid. Much easier to give five dollars a month to a face on a card than to rethink the big picture, especially when the big picture means making changes at home.

And that's the part that's the most insidious: it's "white man's burden" all over again. "Sharing the benefits of our civilization with the unfortunates far away." Better, I think, in this era, to live in such a way and to demand actions from your own government so that your style of life does not make theirs more difficult.

So rather than give x amount of money ostensibly (but not really) to a child far away, why not give the same amount of money to an organization with proven expertise in their field (may I suggest MSF, for example, if it HAS to be a humanitarian organization) that will pool it for one of those really big crises that are inevitably coming, so that they can address it in the way that is most effective without having to ask "but what will our donors think?"
Jul. 30th, 2013 01:36 pm (UTC)
I had a version of this conversation with younger daughter this morning, though with different emphasis, because she was in tears over climate change and how hard it is to get people to address the problem meaningfully.

I do agree that complex problems require complex solutions, and complex solutions don't generally give people a warm fuzzy feeling.

Complex solutions involve lots of separate moving parts, all of which must operate together to make the solution work. I come across this all the time in the articles I proofread for Communities & Banking, where they talk about complicated mixes of government, NGO, and private money coming together to support this or that initiative. Complicated timing, complicated matching-funds situations, yowza. It's a lot of work. In the best cases, when you're done, you end up with lots of people involved and committed to making something work. Any one person's part of this may be small--the person who proofreads the grant proposal, or the person who does the soil tests at the brownfield site, or the person who runs the numbers for the costs for the new building, etc.--but they are actually all participating in making something good happen (ideally speaking. not all projects work out and not all projects end up being good, but that's true of lots of things in life)

So one thing I was telling my daughter is that sometimes if you want to do good, it's doing these other things--working for a soil testing company, or working in a bank loan approval office, or working at the Boston Fed publishing stories about these initiatives so people know they're happening.

Even this doesn't get to the root of capitalism as a broken thing, though, and I do believe that deserves addressing. But man. Where to start with that one. Any ideas?
Jul. 31st, 2013 09:57 am (UTC)
Not that I could sum up on LJ before going on a road trip today, but I'm fond of the idea of converting de facto monopolies to public property.
Jul. 30th, 2013 09:20 am (UTC)
Excellent and informative.
Jul. 30th, 2013 10:18 am (UTC)
Thanks! I have friends who do the child-sponsorship thing, and I bite my tongue a lot.
Jul. 30th, 2013 09:49 am (UTC)
If there were a way you could recruit those well meaning, hard working young people to something that will do actual good, then you would truly have done a mitzvah.
Jul. 30th, 2013 10:20 am (UTC)
Oh, for a talent like that. But I'm sad to say that the evidence I have so far is that those who have the talent tend to abuse it. Not always. But too often.

No, my talent remains in "making it go" for a quantity of "it".
Jul. 31st, 2013 09:09 am (UTC)
Are you talking about things like the Christian Children's Fund where you sponsor a child? Or smaller, local fundraising type organizations?
Jul. 31st, 2013 09:55 am (UTC)
Yes, CCF as well.
Jul. 31st, 2013 09:11 pm (UTC)
So you're saying that all the "personal letters and photos from the child you sponsor" is the service provided for the contributions, and that the money goes, where exactly? Does any of it go to help out the intended country?

This is obviously new to me and I'd like to know more. If you have time and don't mind, of course.
Jul. 31st, 2013 10:49 pm (UTC)
Oh, sure, the programs are legitimate. They are real and actually do send your money to the program in question, and almost invariably in some way to the child in question whom you are sponsoring.

My problem is not that they are pure fabrication, but with how the requirement of having sponsor-able children limits the kind of program that can be offered, and makes programs that are probably not the best ones for the situation wildly more popular because they get you *here* in the heart.
Aug. 1st, 2013 09:20 pm (UTC)
Ah, I see. Thank you for helping me understand clearly. *Nods* That is a shame. But what is the alternative to reach the public?
Aug. 2nd, 2013 09:14 am (UTC)
Well, that's the problem, isn't it. If you can't make the case that your program is better than other programs, maybe you're tempted to sell stuff using children and puppies.

And directors of development (fundraising) get hired based on their track record for raising money, not for avoiding gimmicks.

My problem is that it "poisons the well" for everyone else. So the short answer is "don't do it that way, even if it's to your advantage."

It's one of those ways that the market way of doing things is FUBAR. And we do so love the market way of doing things in this day and age.
( 16 comments — Leave a comment )