You too, could be a recipient

Recently I saw a string of messages on a forum discussing whether we should still be using the term ‘recipient’ in international development.

It started me thinking of a conversation I recently had with a good friend in Rwanda. He told me about how one day when he was a child, he suddenly received a package full of toys. He had no idea where the toys came from or why, but nonetheless enjoyed them as any child would. It turned out he was a ‘recipient’, in this case from a child sponsorship program, and that a kind individual far away had sent him the toys.

Having this conversation, as two adults, was hilarious. What a day, when randomly, toys arrive at your door! And yet it got me thinking about these two contrasting images - the pictures of the children I had seen on some child sponsorship websites, and this grown businessman who had received the toys.

What assumptions did I have in my head when I saw those children? Why did it surprise me that here, a good friend of mine, was one of ‘them’?

Somehow, by seeing ‘recipients’ I had missed the reality. I had missed the individual. Where I saw a poor child that needed my help, I forgot about the happy child, the playful child, the child that hates vegetables and loves to pull Papa’s hair.

It may seem small – but this changed my way of thinking, and eventually my way of working. A ‘recipient’ can be so many things; so how about let’s just call them an individual? I believe that then we would be more likely to approach our work with open minds, and ultimately support solutions that reflect the reality of people that we are serving. 

What does that image of Alan Kurdi say about the state of our world?

I’m not talking about the refugee crisis; which is awful beyond words.

I’m talking about the image. That picture of the dead toddler lying on the beach. The fact that it went viral. The lack of questions around the morality of this. Sure — newspapers asked themselves whether they should post it or not, but ultimately decided that this child’s picture would mobilize people into action. Which initially, it did.

When I first saw that image, I was devastated and also — I was furious. I mean; shaking anger. The decision to use this image, by people who had never met this boy alive, had not grieved with his family, knew nothing about his background; disgusted me.

I could not stop asking myself two questions; 1) If this was a white child from a Western country, would people have freely shared the image — with no question of the rights of his family to grieve, and remember their child alive? And 2) what on earth does it say about our world, where we have got to as humans, that this is the only way we can force people to care?

Both of these questions kept me awake at night. And to this day I believe that both of their answers point to a dangerous lack of connection and empathy in our society. It seems that we are so separated from people that don’t look like us, speak like us — that we don’t even question using their death and grief to make us feel something we should naturally feel on our own; responsibility for our fellow humans.

At the time, I posted my feelings on social media and received a lot of comments from people arguing that this image was a necessity, and it was the only way people would act. Now, here we are — two years later, and the refugee crisis remains. The image moved people for sure, they FELT the crisis for those moments, and then they went back to their lives. But the image of Alan Kurdi’s corpse can still be found at a click of a button.

If this doesn’t strike a chord with you, please take a moment to step into this Father’s situation: He will forever see his child’s corpse when he turns a wrong corner and runs into an old newspaper, Google’s past an old blog, or scrolls back in his Facebook feed. He can never, ever, get rid of that image from the world. It will live on way past him, and that is how his child will forever be remembered. A dead body on a beach.

Is it morally right that he should go through that, to make sure you act in support of ending the refugee crisis? Or could we — as humans — find a better way?

I would love to hear from anyone who has thoughts on how movements can be created through positive images, or on how we can shift ourselves closer to truly valuing lives as equal. If there is any time to do this work — it is now.

Blurred lines: Are corporations beating the social sector at the sustainability game?

It's no news to most that the old 'charity' vs 'business' lines have blurred significantly. Corporate Social Responsibility is moving from simply 'greenwashing' to being an integrated part of value chains, as customers and the planet demand change.

However, what does still come as a surprise to me, is when I see businesses outperforming the social sector on matters of sustainability.

An example of this that I saw recently was with waste. When attending a meeting at a large development organization's offices, I noticed that their cafeteria offered no recycling options, and the plates, cups and cutlery were all made of plastic. Their trash cans could hardly contain all the landfill waste accumulating as people ate their lunch. Contrasting this, a visit I made to a well-known corporation's campus revealed that they had decreased waste associated with dining by over 10% by getting rid of all take out boxes and offering all left over food to homeless shelters. Not a plastic fork in sight.

Perhaps strangely, instances like this fill me with hope. In my opinion the traditional 'third sector' exists to fill gaps that standard corporations and government ignore. But given that the financing structure tends to breed dependency, and relies on exit strategies - the fact that corporations are starting to fill certain gaps themselves can only be good news.

Add to this the fact that we are now in the age of new types of business, new ways to finance innovations, and any number of ways individuals can engage with issues of sustainability - the lines are likely to keep getting more blurry. I say thank goodness for that.

Empowering people? Not in this case...

 A conversation I had recently left me stunned to find out how little has changed when it comes to empowering people within the countries we are serving.

A lady working for a development agency explained to me how, in order to get $100 reimbursed, she had to wait for numerous people in various countries to sign off on the expense, which took months.

We're not talking about an intern here - this lady was at the top of her game. She worked directly with the country government, and headed up her area of work. And yet - clearly her influence didn't go as far as being able to make a decision worth $100.

What type of work can get done in these set ups? This lady was spending her entire time in the office, dealing with ridiculous bureaucracy, while problems of poverty, disease and conflict ravaged the country around her.

I truly believe that most of the solutions to the challenges in countries, lie with the people that spend their lives there. Not in some far off HQ; even if it is filled with PHDs and a ton of cash. The latter's job is to serve the countries' people with the ability to work - not tie their arms behind their back whilst paying them a salary.