Good Intention, Good Practice


(if you are just joining today, please read this post first: When Rich Westerners Don’t Know They Are Being Rich Westerners)

Today, as promised, one of my (many) failures and what I’m learning about intentions versus practice.

I remember once being with a group of homeless women, eating spaghetti with our fingers, keeping our children from stepping in human feces, trying to keep flies from entering my mouth while I shoveled in noodles and greasy sauce. One of the young boys had a badly burned hand, he had fallen into his mother’s cooking fire the day before and didn’t go to the doctor. The burn was deep and raw and oozing.

I took a picture.

Writing that makes me want to cry. I don’t want to write that, I don’t want to tell you. And I certainly don’t want to tell you what I was thinking as the picture was snapped. But I am practicing humility, confessing my own weakness, asking forgiveness.

I was thinking, “That picture, and the story of a homeless woman and her son, of keeping children out of shit and flies out of mouths, will surely motivate people back home to give money to our development work.”

No matter that this wasn’t our development work. Our development work is my husband teaching at the University, under a Djiboutian dean, within the Djiboutian system, partnering with local professors. Our development work is something I can fully throw myself behind, whole-heartedly support. This was a weekly meal with women, trying to care for the alien and the widow and the orphan. Also a good thing, also something that met a felt need, but look at how I turned it upside down, look at how easily I could have manipulated to people back home. (I didn’t.)

I’m sorry. I’m sorry I thought it, I’m sorry I took the photo. I’m sorry that this is the story people ‘back home’ seem to expect to hear about Africa. I’m sorry that people are more inclined to say, ‘yes that is what happens in that place,’ when they see a burned child than when they see a room of Djiboutians earning a university degree. And I’m sorry for the ways I have perpetuated that by manipulating stories or photos. There is pressure to keep money flowing and tugging heart strings with emotionally charged photos, though perhaps not culturally accurate or fully truthful, is tempting.

There is also pressure to maintain attention (both on the need and on the development worker), to keep my overseas experience the most exotic, my ‘sacrifice’ the greatest, the most dramatic, the most tragic, the most other, the most sure-to-garner-a-lot-of-traffic. But to be honest and authentic, photos, stories, and attitudes  need to provide a well-balanced perspective of the beautiful and the broken, both of which can be found in every neighborhood around the world.

I had good intentions with that burn photo – of raising money for medicine, of stirring up an emotional response that could lead to further involvement. But is that the best practice for this mother and her son? To use their pain? To take her out of her community, make her rely on a potentially compassionate western audience? That would have contributed to relational poverty, which I address in depth here: Contributing to Relational Poverty.

“Perhaps the only people with the right to look at images of suffering of this extreme order are those who could do something to alleviate it – say, the surgeons at the military hospital where the photograph was taken – or those who could learn from it. The rest of us are voyeurs, whether or not we mean to be.” Susan Sontag, Regarding the Pain of Others

Good intentions are just that, good intentions. They often leave a negative impact. Does that mean do nothing? Look at suffering and pain and do nothing? Absolutely not. It means we must work together toward good practice. This means we must listen to voices that don’t shout loudly, don’t have the largest followings or the most Facebook shares. This means listen to people who might not have internet, which would require personal, face-to-face engagement and probably a much longer time-table. Read books by non-western writers. Read history, be prepared. Dig deeper into cultural values than trying on a new outfit or going to an ethnic restaurant.

This also means donating and funding organizations need to think critically about their procedures, values, expectations, and their relationship with those they are funding. The relationship needs to be authentic, transparent, and the work should include local input and feedback.

“There is much more to doing good work than “making a difference.” There is the principle of first do no harm. There is the idea that those who are being helped ought to be consulted over the matters that concern them.” Teju Cole, The White Savior Industrial Complex

We have to be willing to apologize, clearly and often. We have to ask for help, confess our ignorance. We have to relinquish the reins of leadership and control and must learn to see the value systems of others as just that, valuable. I’m reminded of Barbara Kingsolver’s book The Poisonwood Bible in which the father refuses to plant the way the local people do, certain that they will learn from his expertise. His system fails. We have to take off our way of seeing the world and start to see a better way to plant, start to see a different story, a deeper story, the redemptive story.

“Where the world sees poverty, we want it to see a different sort of richness.

Where the world sees violence, we want it to see people longing for peace.

Where the world sees crime, we want it to see neighbors looking out for each other.

Where the world sees brokenness, we want it to see stories of hope and strength.

Where the world sees destruction, we want it to see signs of God’s redemption.

Amidst the darkness, we want the world to see the Kingdom.”

Peter Anderson

I, for one, have a lot of work to do in moving from good intention to good practice.

There has been progress, though, since the burned-hand-photo. Next Monday I will write about learning how to learn, learning how to be still. And I will try to get a bit more practical.

*image credit Janet Ramsden via Flickr