Wednesday, April 2, 2014

Relational Problems

There have been a lot of blog posts and conversations lately talking about service trips and the role of foreigners in international development. We talk about listening; about asking what people need instead of assuming we have the answers. Not to be a spoilsport, but I think this language is just as problematic…

So here we go… asking “what do you need?” assumes two things. The first is an inherent superiority where I surely have whatever you, the needy poor person, lack. I also assume your need is one-sided, forgetting that on the other side of that need there is someone who is obligated to fulfill it. Not you the NGO, not you the donor, but often a governmental institution or private business, or perhaps a community organization waiting to be born. But when we as international NGO or development workers ask this question, (or worse, as temporary week-long volunteers), and then seek to fulfill that need no matter how well intentioned, we perpetuate this superior relationship and create dependency.

The trouble is, we look at all the suffering around the world – the famines, the corruption, the massacres, the violence, the trafficked children – and we have the beautiful, empathic, very human response to DO something. This is that gut impulse that played a huge role in me quitting my job to work for Foundation Cristosal. The trouble is these are BIG problems. Ed Chambers (author of Roots for Radicals) talks about problems being insurmountable, oppressive, with no clearly identified goal or target. Examples: climate change, income inequality, the US economic system, the obesity epidemic... something that makes you want to sink down into your chair and take a time machine (Dr. Who style) back to the good-old-days when all you had to worry about was which kind of Mac ‘N Cheese Mom was going to cook for dinner (Rugrats KRAFT neon orange or Annie’s Shells with real Vermont cheddar… aaaah decisions decisions). The kind of problems where it’s just too big to even know where to start.

People who want to DO something therefore need an issue – an itemized, cut-and-dry option to take an action that will have a real, targeted impact. This is, again, a beautiful and honest response. But again, when we simplify, we miss the whole truth. NGO’s now talk about “teaching a man to fish,” about financing independent entrepreneurs and grass roots projects through local leaders, sponsoring individual children through High School and college. But taking each poor person or community as an isolated case apart from the social web in which they exist is a lie. It presents a false impression that 1. we can solve poverty with isolated actions from far away and 2. bears no responsibility for the unintended consequences, including increased dependency on the NGO itself.

So what should we do? William Easterly at NYU wrote a fantastic article in the Seattle Times (thanks to Jeff Gill at Trinity Church for passing it along!) about why sometimes large donors (in this case the Gates Foundation) need to change tactics: “Gates believes poverty will end by identifying technical solutions. My research shows that the first step is not identifying technical solutions, but ensuring poor people’s rights… democratic rights make technical fixes happen, and produce a far better long-run record on reducing poverty, disease and hunger than autocracies. We saw this first in the now-rich countries, which are often unfairly excluded from the evidence base.”

Easterly is essentially arguing for a drastic change in perspective. Seeing poverty as a relational issue, not as lack of material wealth, changes the whole ball game. Suddenly you are forced to recognize the complex social structures that contribute to poverty. For every person who expresses a need or a violation of his/her rights (the right to water, right to security, right to equality under the law regardless of gender, race or religion), there is an entity that is not doing their job. The two International Covenants on Human Rights were signed by nearly every nation in the world, yet when we provide aid and assistance to fill or smooth over undemocratic administrations in foreign countries, we undermine the democratic process in which citizens must hold their own governments responsible.

This is why NGO’s are great in emergencies… that guy bleeding out on the sidewalk needs 10 liters of blood Type A Neg and he needs it now. But NGOs often don't make good long-term providers for a few reasons; one being that there is no judicial process for citizens to make claims on an NGO. Donors can make claims, investors can make claims, but citizens? Not so much.

So rather than repackage the same old assistance or aid as grassroots empowerment because you're giving an Indian woman a cow she may or may not have asked for, I move that we force all international development workers to consider themselves not as benefactors or superheroes saving the world, but as community organizers. To inherently recognize that each person you come across is a member of a broad societal web; is a citizen with capacities and an active role to play in their community’s development. An organizer’s job is not to solve the problem, or even advocate for the solution they think is best (reality check – it doesn’t matter what you think is best), but rather to truly empower individuals as citizens. There is a role for internationals as mediators, as support staff, as connectors and networkers between citizen organizations, but ultimately our role is backstage. And that means accepting we are not going to end world suffering today.

Wednesday, March 19, 2014


On Sunday Noah and I returned from a 2-week excursion to the Diocese of Olympia and Vancouver, B.C., spreading the good word about Foundation Cristosal and all the swanky new programs we have planned for 2015.

To make up for the complete lack of photos in a long while, feast your eyes on all the glorious photo documentation below! Now yes, it may look like we worked little and hiked lots, but I assume it's rather rude to take photos while you're speaking at a meeting or on a panel. So you all get the photos of everything else.

Suffice to say, the trip was an extraordinary opportunity to not only reconnect with my host Diocese (and my Seattle family), but to truly appreciate the life I have in El Salvador and with Cristosal. My official title is now Program Development Coordinator, which wouldn't ya know, means I actually have to speak slowly and articulately about our programs. This is definitely harder than it looks, but with each meeting or panel event, I started to find a little confidence here, learn from a mistake or two over there... this process will never end, but it's encouraging to see progress.

Despite my temporary access to decorative lattes, organic kale, and my dearest friends, I truly feel at home now that I'm back in San Salvador. We talk about the quick pace of life in the States as something regrettable, intangible, but a necessary part of a day well done. Since I have been back, I can tell you this is very tangible. The best way to describe it is in the way I wake up. Here, I smell the sunshine (yes smell), hear the horns blaring, there is a breath in everything, and an openness, a welcome unpredictability to how the day will go. In Seattle, whether it's an artifact of old triggers or simply something I've made up in my head, there's always somewhere to go, something to get to, a go-go-go that brings on gray hairs early and stifles the pauses that make each day beautiful.

All that aside, Seattle and Vancouver gave us some extraordinary minds to work with. A huge thank you to all those who supported the trip with their hospitality and organizing efforts:
St. Mark's Cathedral
Bishop Rickel
Bishop Skelton
St. Luke's and the SERVE Fellows
St. Thomas in Medina
St. Mary's Kerrisdale
ImpactHUB and to Carrie Schonwald
the University of Washington Center for Human Rights
Seattle CISPES
Seattle Pacific University Business School
Bainbridge Graduate Institute
Global Partnerships
Seattle International Foundation
David Mesenbring
Jeff Gill and the Global Mission Commission
the Mayan Corn Connection
... and of course to my dearest friends who took me in, lent me a towel and a warm shower, took me out for a latte, or best of all, were willing to let me nap on their couch when I just couldn't move another muscle.

A group of capoeristas are biking from Berkeley CA to Brazil! It was wonderful to train and learn from some first class women.
Training with Mestre Acordeon (one of the few Grand Masters in the world)
The whole group feasting on pupusas.
Our first event in Seattle with the Faith Formation group at St. Mark's Cathedral (photo courtesy of 6 year-old Miles Roberts).
Touring the ImpactHUB Building in Seattle - a coworking space for social entrepreneurs.

Our host Carrie showed us around ImpactHUB and was an incredible help in organizing a lunch event on international social enterprise.
Red in the face from a one-on-one training session with my original Mestre, Coquinho from Capoeira Uncão.
My first outdoor jog since leaving the States!
Someone said it was supposed to be sad and dreary in the Seattle winter... they lied.

After being lost in the rain, we stumbled upon the El Salvador consulate. It was very exciting.
Someone (ok... me) missed the part where it says "Distance one way." No gear or water or food = one long, long hike.
When life gives you snow, throw it at people.

One of many brilliant book recommendations we received during the trip.
Lake Union in Seattle.
A must for anyone visiting Pike's Place Market- sit on pig.
Yes... that is a skull in my latté.
It's just plain exciting to see penalties for littering.
An afternoon walk through my old neighborhood, hitting all the best vistas as we go along.
Scooby Doo meets Monster Truck rally. Gotta love the Pacific Northwest.
In Vancouver, B.C., we met with Jose Figueroa, a Salvadoran who has sought sanctuary in a Church after immigration tried to deport him for being involved in a "terrorist organization" (a.k.a. the FMLN - the political party of current President-elect Salvador Sanchez Seren). Read more about his story here.
The cherry blossoms are out at the University of Washington where we held several forums in partnership with the University's Center for Human Rights. You can check out their human rights work here.

Wednesday, February 19, 2014

Long Overdue Announcement

Yes, I agree, it's been way too long in posting. Sorry about that one...

Since Honduras, we've seen a lot - Presidential elections (the cleanest and most transparent in the nation's history), the Board of Directors came to visit, the world's greatest capoeira master is now passing through San Salvador (!!), we've shifted to the truly dry and hot season... I could keep writing and the list would get longer (with increasingly diminishing importance) to describe the beautiful, the frustrating, and everything in between.

The strange thing is it's those small, unremarkable moments that have led me to this conclusion: I am staying another year.

We are still in conversations with the folks at the Young Adult Service Corps, but I am clear that I will do whatever it takes to stay put. For the first time my head has had to catch up with my gut - to recognize that no matter how many rationalizations or arguments or experiences I have, there has been no negative experience that did not turn beautiful, no moment when I could escape the inescapable conviction that here in El Salvador, with Cristosal, is where I want (and need) to be.

I love the woman I am becoming here. Simple as that. I am learning to relax, to have compassion for my weaknesses and inability to meet my own perfect standards. I am learning fluent Spanish, to take care of myself, to love strangers, to smile in the morning because it's beautiful if for no other reason.

I am also discovering how a white woman from the United States can be truly useful to an NGO devoted to community empowerment abroad. I will not be the organizer, the one to understand the nuances of a conversation in a rural Salvadoran community of ex-combatants who suffered unbelievable horrors for longer than I've been alive. Most days, that's like Dory trying to speak "whale" in Finding Nemo. ThaaaAAAAAATssss reeeeeDEEEEEkuloooooooos. I am not a fish. (Ok, metaphor over, I promise).

But yet I feel used up. Every day I exhaust my stock of knowledge, always building up new ideas and abilities, simultaneously throwing in my not-so-hidden penchant for spreadsheets with a pile of systems thinking mixed with spanish translation and a dash of chemistry (groundwater contamination due to mining operations doncha know).

I'd like to conclude with the words of someone who has always been able to speak to my soul. Like any individual with an overpriced University education under my belt, my go-to philosophy comes from a tried and true source, one oft quoted by the wisest of men and women:
Sir Calvin and his trusty tiger Hobbes.

While many days in El Salvador can look like this:
Calvin: You know, Hobbes, some days even my lucky rocket ship underpants don’t help.

I always come back to:
Calvin: Everybody seeks happiness! Not me, though! That’s the difference between me and the rest of the world. Happiness isn’t good enough for me! I demand euphoria!

Thanks for reading

Get new posts by email!