An unfortunate side-effect of pity in international development


This post has come out of my innocent and naïve meeting with international development projects. I was not prepared for what I met there. Behind the sincere joy and excitement of being given the opportunity to study yoga with me, something else was lurking too. Overall, the experience was absolutely amazing and I will continue to train locals to teach at the community yoga clubs, start their own clubs and implement yoga in the schools around Uganda. However, there is something in the approach that will be different next time, and I will tell you why.

I am not writing this to make you stop believing in foreign aid and the importance of it. I am not writing this to make you stop supporting projects. I guess I am writing this to make you consider more what happens to your money. To make you start demanding to see actual results of the efforts being made. Seeing reports of real people winning ground through their projects, changing lives and communities through the knowledge that they have shared and gained in trainings. It may seem counter-intuitive for me to write something like this, since at first glance it may look like I may be talking you out of supporting the very projects that I am currently running in the developing world. However, consider this as a “shedding of light” more than talking anyone into or out of anything. After all, this is only my experience with one project and not a scientific report or any research worth basing anything on.

Why is poverty still there?

I have been asking myself millions of times, how come poverty is still there when so much money and so many talented people are working to change it? I have been wondering what happens to all the money that is being collected and why on earth nothing seems to change. The easy answer is corruption. That the governments take it all to themselves and make sure to get themselves five big cars and three houses before they start caring about building a road to drive on. This may be a very good explanation, but while rolling out two trainings in Uganda for yoga teachers something new and unexpected caught my attention.

I am, as always, trying not to judge anybody or make anybody feel that I am being unfair in my description of my perspective and experience. It is, indeed, only my perspective and my experience of a situation. It is what I have wondered about and it is what my twisted mind makes out of it.

How the big fish ensure attendance….

When attending trainings run by the big fish (big international organizations) participants receive what is called an ‘allowance’ for attending. This ‘allowance’ is supposed to cover the loss of income that the participant will have while attending the training and not being able to work. By first glance this seems like a great way to ensure that the participants attend and make sure to be there for the full duration of the training. I might even add that it sounds like a necessary intervention for them to even be able to join the training, since they, otherwise, will lack income and not be able to eat for those days. So at first, I figured that this was a necessary and presumably well functioning way of handling it.

However….. they place people on the pity pottie!

All this is done and seen from a perspective of pity. This view assumes that people in the developing world have no option to prioritize their time, no ability to save income to cover for costs later on, no ability to think for themselves and do as I, and many others I know, have done several times when paying for our private tuition ourselves, having to live on special offers and vouchers for years to be able to pay it off.

This practice of exaggerated consideration to their vulnerability as “poor” or “disadvantaged” people is most likely done out of true concern for their survival and the well-being of their families. However, if we look at it a little closer, it may also be done because the project has to succeed. How do we measure whether a project has succeeded without having to make too much of an effort? We count how many people have participated in our training.

Well, there you go.

It sounds like a fast and easy way to make sure that people attend and sit in for a training. The project team can report a high number of participants getting a certificate in hand and they will reach their target for the reports.

The consequences of this practice is rather unfortunate, though.

When paying people to attend a training, there is no way to tell whether they are there because of the payment, or “allowance” as it is called, or if they are actually there because they have genuine interest in the subject that is being taught or have any intention of using the skills acquired once they leave the room with a certificate in hand.

You may most likely be thinking, “…well of course they will!”. This is definitely the case for some of them. However, spoiling participants with bottled water, big lunches and allowances when they are attending trainings makes them expect the same treatment every time they sign up for another training. Honestly, I would, and actually have attended a paid training knowing that there were benefits and delicious food waiting for me. Several times, I have been counting hours until the training was over because it didn’t teach me anything new. Without being inside of their heads, I would guess that for many of the participants at the BIG FISH trainings, this is the case. They are there because it is easy money and then they might get inspired or hear something new, but the chance that they will feel ownership and commitment to implementing and using those skills later on is minimal.

How we (accidentally) approached the dilemma

In a way, we were lucky not to have been able to fully fund our project before finalizing the budgets and allocating the funds. This showed a clear picture of how a budget usually looks and what it looks like when we cut to the bone.

During December 2017, we conducted two Trainings of Trainers (ToT) in yoga in two different locations in Uganda. The majority of the participants were primary school teachers and the training was meant to enable them to use yoga as a tool in the classroom instead of using physical punishment, hard discipline and endless repetition. Yoga in the school setting is about being a detective and sensing the needs and condition of the students in the classroom and thereby helping the students to learn tools to stay focused, regulate their energy levels and boost their brains.

A ToT is a concept widely used by development organizations in the developing world. Training locals to be able to share their new skills and knowledge enables the community to take ownership and spread knowledge from one teacher to many in a very short period of time. Becoming a yoga trainer takes a great deal of commitment and personal practice and at our location in Busia, Uganda, it was a requirement that the trainees attending the training had shown commitment and attended weekly yoga classes for 3-6 months before being accepted at the ToT. This was all brought up through the commitment and initiative of a few attendees at the initial yoga sessions earlier the same year. One student felt her calling to yoga so deeply that she volunteered to lead the four weekly trainings and set up a yoga club.

We have conducted all of our trainings without the usual allowances, primarily because we didn’t have the funds to pay them, but also because we want the trainees to attend because they are interested and want to invest their time and effort in learning these new skills. We believe that is creates ownership and commitment and ensures that the team of teachers attending will be able to and willing to carry the message out to their communities.

It was not without resistance, though…

During our two trainings we made it possible for the participants to speak their mind anonymously. They were asked to ask questions that could be answered by their fellow trainees or by us, and we asked them to mention positives and improvement points. Even though we had explained early on that the training was funding by friends and family and that we were literally trying to make ends meet, at both trainings two participants raised the questions about allowance and suggested that we include that for the next trainings. Since the notes were anonymous we had a chance to repeat the reasons and made it very clear that we didn’t want anyone to attend the training for the money.

We will never know if this explanation was enough and whether the authors of the notes were satisfied with the way we decided to do it, but the way we are planning to measure our success in this project is not through the number of certificates given, but through the efforts made by the trainers. We will observe their classes and follow up on questions, concerns and efforts made.

I have already learned a lot from being so close to the local community and trying to get under the skin to understand how foreign aid and development projects are seen from the other side. It is an ongoing process of listening, observing and respecting other perspectives and experiences.

Nothing good has ever come out of pity. When acting out of pity for others, it becomes too easy for them to stay on the pity pottie and get spoiled, lazy and expecting others to come save them. This goes for development work as well as in any other circumstance and situation in life.

We bring empowerment, not pity.

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