The past few days there has been a lot of discussion about effective aid and good intentions. It was triggered by the plan to send one million used t-shirts to Africa.
There is widespread agreement amongst international development professionals that this is not good aid. In fact, it has the potential to be quite harmful.
The few voices from the ground that I’ve seen in this debate (which is to say, the few voices from Africa) are also in agreement that this is not a good way to help reduce poverty.
The good news is that the people behind the idea have responded. The latest update on their site reads:
We have heard you and we are making sure we are doing the right thing. There are changes coming … Please understand we are listening and we care about making a difference around the world.
I was tweeting about this the other day when a follower of mine challenged me. She didn’t think it sat well with my ‘zen’ approach to life:
“Zen teaches us to take with gratitude what we are offered. “Give us cash only” is not exactly honouring the spirit of giving.”
It is true that one of the vows of the Zen priest ordination is:
Now, I’m no Zen priest, but as a Zen Peacekeeper I wholeheartedly embrace this vow and I practice it every day. It’s the practice of ‘dana’ or generosity. It’s the principle behind my yoga classes, for which I invite you to pay what you can afford and at which I accept what I’m given with gratitude.
I also fail at it every day.
I guess that’s why we call it ‘practice’.
But when I tweeted: “Your old stuff is not good aid”, I wasn’t saying “I don’t want your old stuff.”
What I was really saying was “Our old stuff is not good aid.” (This seems to bear repeating over and over again, so here are 6 questions to ask before sending things overseas)
So here are a few thoughts about a Zen approach to effective aid.
1. Aid is about more than generosity.
Firstly, aid is not only about generosity. Aid is also about the first ethical precept of Buddhism (which is also the first yama of yoga) – ‘do no harm’.
As Karen Maezen Miller put it:
The slightest trace of self (in the act of giving) and it is not dana, it’s self-aggrandizement and it always does harm.
Aid is also a process of rebalancing an imbalanced and profoundly unjust global economic system. In Buddhist terms, therefore, aid is also about the second ethical precept – ‘do not take what is not yours to take’. It’s about recognising that we have taken what wasn’t ours to take, and acting to redress that.
Of course, it’s only because of the illusion of separation that we’ve allowed these injustices to happen in the first place. Injustice relies on the illusion that what happens in Uganda isn’t happening to me.
So international development is about awakening to the reality that we are not separate, that what happens in Uganda is happening to me. It’s about realising that importing one million used t-shirts from the US could destroy small local clothing manufacturers. It’s about recognising that all of this is connected.
2. Generosity is about a particular kind of ‘good intention’
One of the most common responses to criticism of ideas like the 1 million t-shirts is that the people behind the initiative had ‘good intentions’.
Others have already written about why good intentions are not enough in the context of international development. I agree. Effective and sustainable economic development is a complex equation. If poverty reduction were easy maybe we’d have done it by now.
Good intentions are not enough. They are not an excuse for causing harm.
But I also wonder what we mean by ‘good intentions’?
If we took the Buddhist principle of generosity, or dana, as our starting point, then good intentions would require us to have “the desire for someone else’s well-being”.
The desire for someone else’s well-being is not the same as ‘the desire to do something that feels like it might be good”. It implies a desire to give what is needed for that person’s well-being.
This principle is the flip-side of the vow to take what I’m given.
So I’ve come up with my own variation on the dana teaching (I’m not claiming originality here, just walking this path in my own time and learning what I need to learn as I go).
I vow to take what I’m given and to give what is needed.
3. Six magic words: “What do you need from me?”
If we vow to give only what is needed, then we need to know what is needed. This doesn’t only apply to international development. Let me bring it a bit closer to home.
A week or so ago I was sitting at my kitchen table with a group of friends. One of my friends started talking about a situation in her life that was causing her a lot of pain. As I listened I noticed a part of my mind whirr into action, trying to think of what I could do to be of help to my friend. Thanks mostly to my meditation practice I actually noticed this happening and was able to bring my awareness back to my friend in front of me.
Instead of trying to predict what she might need, I simply asked her, “What do you need from me? What can I do to help?”
Her answer was something I couldn’t possibly have guessed. I also suspect it was something that she would not have told me had I not remembered, in that moment, to ask this simple question:
What do you need from me?
This is a fundamental principle of good development. It is the foundation of generosity. Generosity is giving what is needed.
If what I think I have to offer isn’t needed and yet I insist on giving it, then I’ve got to suspect that something other than generosity is at play.
Laura wrote about this in a great post proposing alternatives for the 1 Million Shirt guys to look into, she said:
Find out what the community needs. … Direct your efforts as a response to needs the intended recipients have directly expressed.
It’s that simple really.
Generosity starts with the desire for the well-being of another (not with the desire to ‘do something’, which is more about me than anyone else) and therefore requires some insight into what is needed for that person’s well-being.
In our all my relationships, I vow to keep asking:
“What do you need from me?”
PS: One of the respected international development bloggers who has weighed in on this debate is Alanna Shaikh. I’m really excited to announce that I’ll be hosting an interview and then a follow-up live chat with Alanna in the next week or so. So remember to save your questions about effective aid for her!