I have been involved with nonprofit work for over ten years now. Over time, it becomes so easy to be jaded by the lack of large progress in the issues I've work towards resolving. For example, I have fostered and adopted out hundreds of dogs and cats, yet there are still millions that die in shelters every year. I have seen hundreds of former refugees find happiness and success, yet there are still 50 million refugees in exile today.
It is easy to say that the individual interactions I have with people or animals in need make it worthwhile, but a huge part of feeling "successful" in the nonprofit world is doing work that actually allows those individuals to break negative cycles in their own lives.
There is incredible value in having an opinion in the work that you do. I am often most inspired by very opinionated works about community development because they allow me to create an argument. When you read or listen to something controversial, it sheds light upon what you do believe, what you don't believe, and why. I have had to read To Hell With Good Intentions a few different times over the past couple of years. I am always impressed with the way it makes me critically think about whether the work I've done is ethical, as well as my personal view on community development. Another short read that brings me clarity on this subject is Giving More Than We Thought We Gave.
My personal opinion is not particularly unique, as it has been influenced by many professors, co-workers, books, and essays. I mostly agree with the theory of globalization being a new form of imperialism perpetrated by money hungry transnational corporations rather than it being an organic, inevitable new worldly phenomenon. That being said, I recognize that having idealistic hopes for the third world, and believing that through community development, first world citizens like myself can create institutional change in countries plagued by poverty is not necessarily constructive. We are running against the big guys: corporations that hoard the bulk of the planet's existing wealth & power, and have turned us into complacent puppets who think this way is the only way. So why even bother, you ask? I bother because of my inherent belief that people matter.
It is true that I take many well-intentioned charities with a grain of salt. I am skeptical of foreign aid, unwilling to sell the idea of the first world's way of living as the best way, and not always hopeful for the lives of the deserving people I meet. However, I do believe in two things: 1) everyone's story matters, and 2) together, ordinary citizens can demand and galvanize change (check out The Liberty Triangle).
To explain how my belief that "everyone's story matters" relates to the work I am doing here in Uganda, let me tell you a little bit about HOCW. The organization's mission is simple: to improve the quality of life and access to education of refugees living in exile in Ndejje, Uganda. HOCW is run by refugees for refugees. It was established in 2008, and has seen its most exponential growth in the past two years. Over the course of six years, approximately 1,000 refugees have taken part in the programs here, and today alone, about 120 refugees are registered here at HOCW. On the compound that belongs to HOCW and doubles as my current home, English (the official language of Uganda) and computer classes are taught Monday through Friday, women are provided with tools to start their own businesses, and refugees are taught how to save money. Off the compound at a local clinic, HOCW staff provide refugees with access to medical care (including mental health care). The organization does not promise much to the people it helps other than providing them with the tools they need to improve their lives and have access to opportunities in Uganda. HOCW cannot make their students' home countries safe enough to return to, promise them resettlement (a mere 1% of refugees are resettled), or expedite the resettlement process (on average, refugees are forced to live in exile for 17 years). Just because hope for a better future is grim does not mean that refugees are not worthy of education, health, or community support. Everyone's story matters. I'm not here to change the fate of refugees or to promote western influence, I'm here to be another helping hand to the already very competent staff at HOCW--to learn from them and their students, not the other way around.
Lastly, together, ordinary citizens can demand and galvanize change. Transnational corporations and their powerful beneficiaries may rule the roost, but we are the fuel to their fire. Without consumers feeding into their agendas, they are powerless. Preach what you know, educate those around you, even if you feel powerless and defeated. Be conscious and aware in the choices you make because every choice matters. Know and stand by the products you buy, because each and every one says something about who you are and what you will allow to happen to everyone and everything living on our planet.
Note: This post is inspired by Melissa Fleming's TED Talk: Let's help refugees thrive, not just survive.