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Sexy interventions and development ego-stroking

Sexy interventions and development ego-stroking

I had the surprising opportunity to do some “sexy” and gratifying work, outside of my usual very structured development job, when my sister spontaneously rescued a street dog and her 10 puppies and brought them to the house we share.

My sister was volunteering with a dog rescue organisation in Guatemala, when she received a message about the Labrador mix mother (so much like our own dog) and her 10 puppies who were living on the streets with an impending rain storm and no shelter. We already have two senior dogs, which are more than a handful, but also a rather large yard at home, so my sister couldn’t stand idly-by and went to pick up the dogs. So here we were, with 11 extra dogs that needed feeding and care. *Note: this being a developing country there are few to no shelters or services for dogs in these conditions, depending instead on the kindness and generosity of individuals.

After a short puppy-spurred honeymoon phase, the problems began. One day the puppies’ mother began convulsing. After a quick run to the vet, we got the meds she needed and took her back home after a hefty unexpected vet bill. Then one of the puppies ate a semi-toxic plant during the night and needed emergency hospital care. Another day, one of my senior dogs decided to walk over to the puppies, and the mother being a street-smart dog who took nonsense from nobody, attacked her nosy schnauzer, who was bite badly enough to go to the vet (again), resulting in three weeks of care to close the wound, along with another bill.

Long story short, our altruistic spirit became burdened with bills, on top of the fact that we had to put aside a lot of work to care for our unexpected guests. Luckily we found homes for all the puppies and their mum, alongside numerous people congratulating us on having rescued the puppies.

But it was a gruelling experience that made us question if this was really the best way to help, especially since the problem is so big. Demonstrated by the fact that over the last month my sister has seen four posts of other dogs and their puppies living in the streets.

It’s in situations like this when you question your altruistic endeavours and how to really be helpful. It also made me think about the difficult situation of feeling good about helping, versus having a real impact in the work we do. Being one-on-one with the puppies and finding homes felt amazing, but the dent we created in the problem of street dogs in Guatemala was invisible.

I believe being altruistic is a complex ethical dilemma, which was beautifully presented by Bruce Wydick, where he touches on the question of whether a person would save a child they saw drowning in a pond, versus sending money to a starving child in “x” country. They are in theory the same thing but elicit very different emotional reactions. Oftentimes when we are faced with a dire situation right in front of us we are more likely to act, but not necessarily in a way that solves the problem in the long term.

Back to the drowning child example, when do we ask: why was that child in the water? Where are his/her parents? How do we make this place safer for children? Similarly with my own rescue experience, we talked about what the real issue was. Why was this dog living in the street? Her nice coat and healthy weight proved she’d lived in a home until recently, and we later learned the neighbours moved away and abandoned her. So, the question becomes, why is this happening in the first place? How did the situation become so complicated?

Since the dog was not neutered she became pregnant, and instead of one abandoned dog there were now 11. But, just rescuing and re-homing the dogs does not solve the problem. Yet, seeing the adorable puppies suffering in the cold did elicit a stronger and more urgent emotional reaction.

What I have seen over and over again is that a more hands-on approach, i.e. taking a litter of puppies home, feels very gratifying, receives a lot of positive feedback, and tickles that little thing called ego. On the other hand, emailing out advocacy pamphlets feels very detached and obscure, despite the fact that said pamphlets can be informing people of important issues like spaying and neutering pets.

Many times we try to imitate that emotional tug which comes with direct involvement, such as through “poverty porn” ads. Instead, maybe what we need to do is work on educating our audiences and donors on the impact slower, perhaps more “boring” work, has in creating real change, like advocacy or education campaigns.

Does the work you're doing just feel really good? Check out the hilarious Barbie Savior Instagram account @barbiesavior
Does the work you’re doing just feel really good? Check out the hilarious Barbie Savior Instagram account @barbiesavior

I have unfortunately seen many situations where people feel great about their philanthropy while having no impact or even causing harm, because they seem to be focused on having that rush and feeling good, and not actually questioning what would have long-term impact. For example, I’ve volunteered with American medical teams in Guatemala, who, without knowing the language or understanding the culture, come to the country and provide, for example, 100 surgeries – removing hernias or cleft palates – with little to no post-op follow up, and no regard for looking into what is causing the illnesses in the first place.

Meanwhile, Guatemala has the highest rate of chronic malnutrition in Latin America and the Caribbean, which won’t be solved by medical teams or food hand-outs for that matter, but by providing education on improved food consumption and hygiene; something I am yet to see one of these teams do. I believe the problem is that they want the “high” that hands on work provides and the very vocal gratitude people give after getting free surgery, but when do we stop to investigate why so many people have hernias?

There are many types of bad aid, and we need to re-evaluate not only cases of bad aid, but also the “meh”-aid, as I’ve written about in previous posts. We need check if what we are doing just feels good, or if we have the data to prove that we are having the impact we hope we are having, and if we are taking the project to the next level. Because, oftentimes, being charitable feels amazing, but that doesn’t mean that we are being helpful.

Going back to the rescue dog story, the amount of money we spent caring for these dogs could have been used to have impact at a much larger scale, on numerous activities, and although I wouldn’t take back the help I gave, in the long run, if I want to have impact, just trying to deal with the effects of a problem isn’t the solution. We need to look at the root cause. But, how many times does our ego get in the way of that? How much praise does one activity have over the other? Or how does urgency of an issues curve our activities away from what is really necessary?

I think in development work, we really try to look at the causes, but oftentimes solving these problems is less “sexy”, because it looks like emailing pamphlets, or education sessions, and it isn’t photogenic, and it has a very delayed gratification. But, maybe instead of trying to compete with sexy, we need to try to demonstrate that what we are doing has more impact, in the long run. Begin changing the people’s minds, and educating prospective volunteers and NGOs, as well as donors and general audiences, because if we do not bad projects will continue to crop up.


Featured Image: Barbie Savior/@barbiesavior

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Ingrid Nanne

Ingrid Nanne is a local development worker in Guatemala. She previously worked in West Africa, mainly focusing on evaluation and health programs in Senegal, Mali and Ghana. Ingrid holds an MPA in Development Practice from Columbia University.

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