Tuesday, August 9, 2016

Antigua, Guatemala: The Dilemma of Good Intentions

Seeds on a map, Marina's balcony, Tbilisi, Georgia. 2012.

Humanitarian and development aid seems to be a big business in Guatemala. 

I say "business" because when you have a location that is NGO-rich, there is a corresponding growth in commercial enterprises to serve the aid tourists:
  • Restaurants and other eateries;
  • Hostels, hotels, and home-stay families;
  • Internet infrastructure;
  • Souvenir sales; 
  • Construction materials for the bricks-and-mortar projects; 
  • Office supplies, school supplies, medical supplies, and other supplies for the educational, health, etc. programs; and
  • In-country staff employment. 

Some enterprising folks know that tourists will pay for the privilege of volunteering, and thus believe the aid biz to be a lucrative one. Whether or not the organization succeeds at its mission may not be a priority.

Certainly, one could make a good argument that the auxiliary benefits of being an NGO-intensive destination is good for the local economy and, therefore, good for its residents.

On the other hand, this doesn't ensure that the abundance of NGOs results in an overall increase in the majority of residents' emotional, physical, or self-determinant well-being.

Local business owners may also have an incentive to support and attract as many NGOs as possible to protect their financial interests, regardless of an NGO's effectiveness or if an NGO actually does harm to a community.

Nuts and seeds, Tsalaskuri, Georgia. 2011.

So many times I have heard of a group going down to Guatemala for a week or more to build a school or build a church or build something else. Most of these are church groups. Or I hear of doctors and nurses going down to do surgeries for a week or two; some doing so every year.

While in Antigua, I met quite a few expats living there. Almost all seemed involved in one humanitarian endeavor or another. At lunch on the mountaintop restaurant, El Tenedor, I shared a table with a group of health care providers from the US who were in Antigua as part of an annual medical aid trip.

On one hand, I feel so impressed with the generosity in spirit, time, expertise, and money that such folks share with Guatemalans.

On the other hand, I feel some discomfort at the ubiquity of these aid operations.

This is because every act of aid, no matter how small, is an intervention

Coffee berries. Gorgora, Ethiopia. 2011.

All interventions have consequences. 

There are centuries-old adages that speak to this:
  • The road to hell is paved with good intentions. 
  • No good deed goes unpunished. 
  • If you save a life, you are responsible for that life forever. 
  • First, do no harm. 

And a more recent caution, said in various ways by various thinkers: Every solution creates new problems. 

I'm not anti-aid. Not at all. Interventions can produce glorious results.

Magnolia fruit, Opelousas, Louisiana. 2015.

I am for aid that meets the criteria described by the now-defunct organization, Family Services of Greater Waterbury in the UK: 

... all aspects of individual, family and community life are intricately related. Each member of a community exists in relation to their physical, mental, social, economic and spiritual well being. The helping endeavor, as well as agency organization, values and programs, must reflect this holistic reality. Therefore, helping must be:
  • Strength-based
  • Empowering
  • Embedded in a healthy, holistic agency culture
  • Provided within a holistic approach that respects the complexity and diversity of individuals and families
  • Designed to build community capacity to serve individuals and families
  • Effectively integrated and coordinated
  • Culturally respectful
  • Continuously evaluated for outcomes and accountability
  • Provided by competent staff
  • Accessible and comprehensive
  • Individualized
  • Fiscally responsible

Indian corn and chiles, Santa Fe, New Mexico. 2008.

Some others' thoughts on aid in Guatemala and elsewhere: 

Ingrid Nanne, who works in the aid field, and is currently in Guatemala, has written several thought-provoking articles, such as:
  1. What Happens When NGOs Break the Law
  2. Good Enough for the Poor
  3. Idealizing and Preserving "Traditional" Culture

Beyond Intractability is a wonderful library of essays on topics related to extremely difficult conflicts. The University of Colorado Conflict Information Consortium fosters this magnificent website.

The 2004 essay by Amelia Branczik, Humanitarian Aid and Development Assistance, is long, but worth the time investment in reading about the serious challenges - ethical, political, fiscal, social -  faced by people and organizations who want to do good.

Plum harvest, Gurjaani, Georgia. 2011.

Actions to consider

When traveling to a country where a large majority of its people lack access to a decent education, safe housing, sufficient quantity or quality of food, health care, and individual self-determination, I think it's a natural reflex to want to Do Something. 

This is not a bad reflex, regardless of one's motivations. Are you driven by guilt, compassion, ego, love, faith  - who cares, really? If I am responsible in my choice of action (see all of the stuff above), does it matter why I'm doing it?

The question is: What's the most effective, results-oriented act of Doing Something? 

Here are some ideas

Contribute to an overlooked, under-served need at home. For example, there are public schools in America that don't have the basics to give their children even a minimally-acceptable education. Check out: The Problem We All Live With, from NPR's This American Life. 

Before you go or after you return, consider Kiva. You can choose which individual or group, in which country, will receive your loan money. Kiva gives you the opportunity to recycle one donation every time your loan gets repaid.

Before you go, research some in-country NGOs to check their work against criteria for good nonprofit management, then send a donation in advance of your trip.

Seek out some groups that produce low-cost, but life-changing tools for living, and give to them. Wheelchairs. Water filters. Solar chargers. Light sources. Heat sources. Cooking sources.  


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