Monday, November 30, 2009

help? Hope.

After my last series of blogs, I got some very interesting feedback from a lot of you. I'll write more about those thoughts soon, but I did conclude that a lot of my frustration is with the particular situation in Timor Leste. Though a lot of you could relate to many of my frustrations, the particular set of disillusionments I've faced particularly reflect this country.

But, of course, I believe that as human beings we are all equal, and are in fact all created in the image of God. Which means there is good to be found in everyone... and in every context. So I decided to sit down and list ten encouraging things I have seen recently - things that give me hope for Timor.

1. The man dancing in front of the speaker store, and two days later the woman in front of another store, also dancing. Both of them were old, skinny and wearing traditional dress, and they looked so happy they might have been high. But they danced their hearts out, full of life.

2. Half of the runners and bikers at Cristo Rei, where I go jogging whenever I have time in the afternoons, are Timorese - and in the few other areas where people jog in Timor, even more than half the joggers are Timorese. For a country with an inordinately high number of expats, many of whom are military or police and so motivated to stay in touch, this seems significant.

3. The group of kids I saw jamming at the Cristo Rei parking lot. One guitar, lots of slapping and clapping, and all of them singing on and off. They totally had rhythm.

4. People here have a real sense of fashion. Everyone bathes before everything, even before exercising sometimes. And their outfits are FUNKY. Funky good, funky bad... I won't say anything about that, but it's clear thought goes in to what they wear.

5. The kids here are kids like anywhere else. They're not intimidated by the foreigners and they tease and make games like kids do. They aren't tainted by the eventful and traumatic, colourful, history of this country - at least not at too young an age. (Except for... no, I won't write it because I'm sticking with the good here.) How do we build on hope for a younger generation?

6. The family of my landlord took my loss personally, mobilised the whole neighbourhood in sympathy. Then they spent the next two days looking for ways to make it up to me, even if it wasn't their fault. Time will tell whether it was a cover or whether they truly have honour.

7. When you live surrounded by sea and mountains and beautiful weather, there is always some hope - right? People here have an ability to sit around and enjoy one another's company, to just walk across town in search of something interesting like a capoeira class. This culture is a master of just-do-it.

8. The country's politicians are dynamic personas and [mostly - relatively speaking] honest. They can be role models.

Sadly, I only made it to 8. I thought of some other glimmers of hope, but they were either repetitive or else they didn't seem very meaningful at all. I had hoped I'd get to ten and have barely scratched the surface. But nonetheless, eight signs of hope is still a lot of hope.

Saturday, November 21, 2009

Help? Part III

So the other day, I was feeling very stressed out by a project on which I was working very hard, and with very little assistance from anyone else. I'm not officially connected to the project, but the staff who is employed specifically to work on that project seemed happy to let me do whatever I could. Some of it they didn't know how to do, fair enough. But other components they definitely could have contributed. But we were on a deadline so, frustrated though I was, hard hard I worked.

Meanwhile, this project had a budget problem: it had overbudgeted for the activity I was working on. Whatever wasn't spent would either be returned to the donor, or else be used for more community activities (see yesterday's post for why I thought that might be a bad idea).

So all things considered, it seemed prudent to ask my NGO to transfer me to the nicest hotel in that particular town. (By Western standards, still barely worth 3 stars, but it's an icon in that particular location, and is in fact quite lovely.) They were very willing to do so.

One evening, I was exhausted, but work ended at a reasonable hour due to a cancellation. So I called up a friend to come over and go for a walk together. She had never been in the posh hotel before, even though she lives very close by, and so she was curious to see my room and the location.

We went for our walk, which was lovely, then came back to my room to drink some water. I was so tired from the busy day at work followed by an invigorating walk, that I asked her if I could take her home immediately. I was concerned I wouldn't have enough energy to take her later. She too was tired from the walk, so I took her home to sleep and then returned to my room alone.

But I felt a bit sad. I would love to share the relative wealth of this hotel with my friend. This would be a nice thing to do. I could take her to the restaurant, who knows even have her spend the night. But I was too tired from work to do any of this!

Isn't there something wrong with the world when we're supposed to be helping others through our work but feel we aren't - then because of our work we find we don't have any inner resources left to share with our friends?

Addendum: Just to clarify, this isn't a shout-out for help because I'm stressed out. It's meant to be understood in the context of my two recent blogs in which I point out the various reasons why I don't feel I'm helping anyone with my job in humanitarian aid (i.e. helping people). - It's not about knowing my limits, it's about keeping my priorities straight. And figuring out how to do that when I've already accepted the job handing out coins on a street corner.

Friday, November 20, 2009

Help? Part II

When an NGO applies to a big donor (like the US government or the United Nations) for funds, usually it's important to demonstrate that as much of that money as possible is reaching the community we want to help. So a good portion of our budgets include activities in the community. For community development and empowerment projects, that often means we are budgeting money to host meetings or trainings, feed the participants, rent meeting venues, pay the transportation of people to attend the meetings, etc. Sometimes people are even given a bit of cash to thank them for their time.

What I've seen, though, is that when everything is perfectly provided for by the donor via the NGO, members of the community start to appreciate and even take advantage of the perks. They may or may not be interested in the topic of the meeting, but the food's good! In very poor countries, what the NGO project provides may be much nicer than anything they could get on their own. Perhaps they are interested in the topic of the meeting, but the food and transport money becomes their real reason for attending. Then, after 2 years or so, the project ends. The NGO and the donor pull out, having taught and shared everything they could. The community may still be interested and is now very well trained to carry it on alone - but with no food?! The meetings cease and the cause is lost.

Example: A Health Education project, training community health assistants. Everyone in the village is concerned about how far away the nearest doctor is, so is eager to learn everything they can about how to care for each other. The NGO finds a government agency who is willing to send health trainers to this remote village - at the government's expense. The NGO, however, contributes by paying the community leader for use of the town hall, providing snacks and lunches during the training, paying for a bus to bring villagers to the town centre. The training is on-going for a year, and at the end of the year, everyone has learned something but there's still a lot more to learn. The NGO leaves because they have done their part. The government agency is willing to keep sending its trainers, but the villagers have grown accustomed to a bus picking them up and to being provided with snacks and meals. It just doesn't seem worth it anymore.

I'm seeing a lot of similar situations, and find myself increasingly considering the option of staying at a fancy hotel when working on a given project, for example, because then I know the money is being spent on something that doesn't do harm. If the money goes to the community, it could ruin the community forever!

Meanwhile, I am working very hard to organise the activities but am noticing that the staff and the community members are willing to let me just do it. They aren't really helping at all, and even though it was their idea and it is for their community, they've gotten so used to the outsider doing it that they don't help at all. It makes me wonder if perhaps the cause I am trying to support wouldn't be aided if I stepped out and they were able to (forced to) take over again?

Thursday, November 19, 2009

Help? Part I

My recent tweet generated some interesting questions. Here is what I said, following a couple of twitter updates about how frustrations of work: "Here's what it's boiling down to: If in all our attempts to help we only see a mess being made, should we focus on protecting ourselves?"

This started some interesting discussions with a few different people, so I'd like to clarify here what I meant, in the hope that I can get more interesting input from more different people.

Here's an illustration a friend helped me come up with:

- If you're on a street corner and a homeless man comes and asks you for a coin, but you suspect he might use it to buy drink, do you give it to him?

- Now, let's say you decided to give it to him because it's the nicer thing to do. And you watched him walk straight to the corner store, buy a bottle of booze, and drink it. Now he has come back and is asking you for another coin. Do you give it to him?

- What if you came to the street corner, knowing there were homeless people here, and you brought a bunch of coins with the express intention of handing them out to homeless people. Do you keep giving them out?

- And what if, actually, someone gave you a job to do exactly this: they hired you to go to the street corner and hand out coins to homeless people. So you came with your bag of coins, handed some out, watched the recipients buy drinks... What do you do now?

Enough for now... further thoughts coming later!

Tuesday, November 10, 2009

living versus observing

I'm an observer. Here in Dili, parties are the social event of choice. Some weekends there are several back-to-back, and other weekends people are bored so go out looking for any party they can find. It's a small city, so I see pretty much the same assortment of people at all the big parties.

I'm not a partier. The parties here are full of dancing, hooking up, drinking and staring. While the dancing, hooking up and drinking have never been my greatest passions in love, I do love the staring. At the parties here, I have often managed to find a perch from which I can sit and watch the different types of people - and there are quite a few to choose from - and different behaviour patterns. Everyone is usually so busy focusing on themselves, their own pleasure, and their goal of forgetting their fears of boredom on this Pacific Island, that I'm left to freely observe.

But in the last few social events I've attended, that hasn't been an option. Too many of my friends are there, or distant acquaintances have engaged me in conversation - or dancing. I've had to actually live a bit, and it's fun! But it's also very, very hard.