In between and among the aid world

I work in social media… so it’s nearly impossible for me to escape emails and Facebook updates about TOMS One Day Without Shoes (last week on 10 April) and Invisible Children’s Kony 2012 Cover the Night (this week on 20 April).

But there is something else happening, too. A little resistance, and the efforts of a small (but boisterous) community on the web initiating their own (counter) campaign day: A Day Without Dignity.

I’d like to be able to tell say that the reason I embarked on this journey to better understanding the world of humanitarian aid and the affects Westerns have on the lives and well-being of those we “help” was because I went looking for it…with heaps of passion and burning desire to know the field I “work” in. Actually, that’s not true at all. It found me.

It found me and ruined me in a turn of odd blogging events last year. Ruined me in a good way, the kind of way that means you get to start over with all the broken fragments of yourself and your naive perceptions spread out on the floor, choosing which pieces to keep, which to let go of, and which to throw in a pile labeled “refine these, big time.”

I’m glad for it. I know it certainly hasn’t made life or work or good intentions easier, but it has challenged them to be better, think better, do better.

This year’s A Day Without Dignity topic is #LocalChampions — not the Snow White’s and Iron Man’s of the aid world, but the local voices who see and feel “aid” in their home, their communities, and their culture.

I’ve met several people in my travels and work that are deserving of a such a title, certainly I’m not. But perhaps of all the likely candidates, there is one that has had a greater impact in my life and fragile understanding of humanitarian aid. Having spent time discussing communications and marketing, social media and writing, good aid and bad, Christianity and culture, and things in between with her, I am certain she has come into my life as a sort of gift of iron. Her spirit, passion, and example sharpen me.

I met Andrea in La Paz, Bolivia, her home country where she lives and where she witnessed me puke my brains out at the mercy of 12,000 feet above sea level. Her work with NGOs has included communications and marketing, program management, liaising with first world donors and fundraising offices, but more importantly — knowing and feeling and living with the recipients of humanitarian aid.

She writes at In Between And Among, which is a perfectly fit concept for this guest post that I asked her to write, from her personal perspective as a local voice. The header of her blog reads: In between and among…is the place we stand, where we walk and live trying to get to the place we dream….It is where I stand among others, and next to no one. // A poet’s description of the aid world, I think. Thank you, Andrea, for your voice, for your fire, for your dedication.

*          *          *

(Words for Andrea R., aid worker in Bolivia)

Every time I went out to the field I could see it — just a small difference between the people I was trying to help, and me. We were born in the same country, with the same laws and same culture, but somehow our realities were completely different.

I saw girls my age trying to draw life and strength from literally nowhere. Trying more than anything to escape from conditions of poverty, oppression, and injustice. And thankfully, we had the ability and resources to help some of them (but, sadly not all of them).

As an aid worker I have the opportunity to work as a link between my “needing to develop” country and our “saviors”. During time I have come to realize that aid is not like a coin; it has more than two sides, and ignoring either side is probably the biggest mistake of aid workers and donors themselves.

I have come to understand that the best way to help and represent the people we want to help and the people we advocate for is to stop ignoring them and their realities and start respecting them as individuals; instead of seeing them as statistics. We need to respect who they are and we need to understand that they did not choose their living conditions. None of us do. But if you have more than others, even 0.1% more, you have a responsibility to help and stop indifference.

Once I met a little girl whose parents were trying to give away. Since no one wanted her, they left her on the street and walked away. Later, a woman was walking by this street. This woman had no money at all, three kids, a very sick husband, and literally living in the worst conditions you can imagine. She found the little girl eating noodles from the ground and asked whose daughter she was. No one knew and no one wanted her. She decided to take her home and adopt her. The lady had almost nothing and yet she chose to help and give a better life and family to this little girl:

In between and among the aid world | Lindsey Talerico-Hedren

That is the real spirit of aid work.

But if we don’t see and acknowledge those suffering from poverty, injustice and oppression — the way this woman could’ve walked away from the little girl — then we can’t even begin to help. If we choose to act, then donors, support offices and governments can better see the poor and oppressed; and together, we can win more battles, we can help more people and we can get better ideas on how to keep fighting for people’s dignity and for change in communities.

Working in development in your own country and your own community will lead you to admit that injustice and oppression are present in every single step in life and fighting them is going to be an eternal war. You might not win all the battles but you can step forward every time you try.

In between and among the aid world | Lindsey Talerico-Hedren

Andrea pictured above.

This post is part of A Day Without Dignity, hosted on the Good Intentions Are Not Enough blog. You can find a full list of posts hosted there.

This is an open, honest conversation about what it means to “do good” and how to do the best good for those in less fortunate situations than ourselves. But only by sharing our thoughts and challenging our presumptions can we begin to move forward. Please share with us what you think: what does helping the poor mean to you? How does it look? How can Westerns be of the greatest help?

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