I’ve been working for a small, grassroots NGO in a notoriously underdeveloped urban area of Jordan for about a year now. It wasn’t really something planned. I don’t have an education in development, and I’ve only worked for one refugee charity in the past. That was direct response mentoring for a Ukrainian teenager, to introduce him to Norwich, the British city he had been placed in. I bit my lip and acted cool about not being assigned to a refugee. I could deny my disappointment, but that just feeds insincerity fire that I’d love to stomp out. Naturally, working with Alex was very different to the communications and report writing work I am now doing. But in both positions, I recognized a specific power dynamic playing out.
I was matched to Alex, I presume, because of our similarity in age. He was just a couple of years younger than me, but our interests were so different, and our language barrier so present, that there was little we could do in our meetings other than to use them as a careers advice session. Immediately I was an authoritative figure, to whom he would both apologize profusely when he was late, and stare sullenly at when I suggested paths he could take. He was a sweet boy, but our specific ages, positions, and even nationalities, meant that we couldn’t be equals, and his teenage pride spat out against me without him even realising. As for me, I was horrified to find myself in a position of responsibility for a troubled teenage boy, when all I’d wanted was to meet a nice refugee lady, practice my Arabic, and add an altruistic accomplishment to my CV. Yeah, I know. Vomit.
Five years on, I’m fully immersed in the development sector, and working a totally different position, with entirely different people, on a different continent, and I’m seeing the same dynamic play out. As I said, I write the reports, and that means I have a general overview of all the women we work with, how we work with them, and their backstories. Strangely, I couldn’t name them by eye, which perhaps is a good thing. Recently I was taken aback by unprecedented emotions when I realized the person I’d been talking to was that girl who was taken by ISIS. I’m naturally used to distancing myself from people, but anonymity protects both of us at the end of the day, however insincere it might feel.
What I do encounter on a regular basis is banal evaluations from the ladies we work with on their experiences taking certain classes or activities. ‘I thank you a lot, I really thank the Center and all you do for us, I love you so much. Thank you.’ It’s pretty much the same every. single. time we take an evaluation. I drafted some suggestions for more probing questions into the course structures or how the activities have affected them personally, but the responses were more of the same. The gratitude is very real, and is poignant, but from a writer’s perspective, the answers are far too telling of a charity-beneficiary performance, in which the beneficiary responds with Pavlovian obedience. It must reflect the insincerity they perceive from their ‘benefactors’.
I want to shout, we’re asking for criticism, not gratitude! Don’t be grateful for the bare minimum! Demand better service!
I have this anxiety that when our backs are turned, the women roll their eyes, faux-curtsy, and mock our perceived faux-philanthropy.
It’s telling of why the development sector is putting so much effort into hiring local people, and getting the beneficiaries involved in more managerial, autonomy-inducing endeavors. The colonialist pantomime has played itself out, and the development sector now has serious imperative to join the 21st century in working on meaningful, lasting development, rather than the more enticing philanthropy of ‘hands on development work’ undertaken by lustrous blonde volunteers with healthy Instagram followings.
As for me, I’ll continue to try and level the playing field whenever I get the opportunity to do so. The ugly face of development is only a turn-of-the-head away, and we need to face it head-on, alongside our vulnerable brothers and sisters.
Featured image: From the Philanthropy Age highlighting Lessons in giving from the Global South (credit: http://www.philanthropyage.org/node).