Biting the hand that feeds me

Is this biting the hand that feeds me?

Probably, yes.

I’ve been reading all these posts about bloggers using “social media for social good,” and while I applaud this endeavor, it also makes me somewhat uncomfortable. Maybe it’s a case of knowing too much.


Here’s a conclusion I’ve come to: relief/aid/development veterans need the fresh eyes of newbie idealists, who dwell profoundly on the human worth of the “single starfish,” because it doesn’t take long to become a crusty, cynical, and bitter veteran of the field.

Because the development/aide industry is… well, it’s an industry (this link is satirical). I’ve also come to the conclusion that this industry exists largely for the benefit of those it employs. Which isn’t entirely a bad thing, right? I mean, where else are altruistically-inclined young professionals going to be spending their time and energy? This is the question Zana asked me once, when I was waxing cynical about the agency she and my husband work for. She used to run her own business, but it began to feel meaningless and self-serving to her. She wanted to do something more, for her country, for children, something that would have meaning and lasting value. So now she works to promote child protection in her own country.

And who could possibly be against child protection? Right?


Here’s a fact I’ve been contemplating sharing with you, and hesitated, for a number of complicated reasons, and then decided to tell you anyway: my husband makes eight times the salary of his Albanian colleagues working in the same organization. (I know that telling you this breaks all kinds of taboos.)

This is enough money for us to support two families at a modest level – ourselves, and our nanny. She’s the sole wage-earner in her family, and what we pay her (which is above the average market wage here) is putting food on the table for a family of four, buying school supplies for her two kids, and taking care of the assorted medical needs of her extended family.

But it still boggles my mind, how much money there is in aid work, and how it’s distributed. Apparently eight times the local salary is what it takes to attract foreigners to work here – and they need the foreign expertise for certain specific things, to run the organization. Which works for child protection.


So, am I saying that the purported beneficiaries of these aide and development projects aren’t actually helped? Well, yes and no.

Here’s a story.

Many of the children in the village where I lived and worked in Bolivia had sponsors, but not all of them. Sometimes only two or three of the kids (out of six to eight) in a family had sponsors. It was very well known which kids had “good” sponsors and which ones had duds – the ones who regularly sent large gifts (clothing, books, flashlights, toys) versus those who sent their monthly check to the organization and never thought about it again. There was intense jealousy in the families where only one child received gifts, and the mother was put in a position of having to divide these gifts somehow among all her children. There was often suspicion that the agency staff were stealing money or toys from the packages, when really it was about what was lost in translation – for instance, a mom once asked me to translate a letter written in English that her child had received from his sponsor. She recognized the words “toys” and “cars” in the letter, and wanted to know if the sponsor had sent toy cars to her child? Because he hadn’t received any. I read the letter and translated it for her into Spanish. It said, “what toys do you like to play with? My grandson likes to play with cars.”

Another day, I was visiting a mom – who had a plastic bottle cut in half wired to the side of her bamboo hut, filled with toothbrushes and toothpaste – when her children returned from their weight-and-height monitoring meeting, each with a “hygiene package” in hand. Each package contained a small hand towel, a bar of soap, toothpaste, toothbrush – and she said as they unwrapped their gifts, “Wow, someone must think you are a bunch of stinky dirty kids if they gave you this!” She was joking, teasing them, but it made me think about the meta-messages involved. I’m sure she was glad not to have to buy soap for a few weeks, nonetheless.

And I know, first-hand, that WV is working to mitigate some of these tangled issues that can result from the way sponsorship has been done in the past – working at the level of the whole school, the whole village, the whole neighborhood – while trying to maintain the humanizing individual connections between sponsors and registered children –  and I’m not going to tell you not to sponsor a child – just know that it’s not necessarily as simple as throwing a starfish back in the sea (because what happens when the next wave comes, and washes it back out again?)


Aid and development can be done in ways that respect the dignity, worth, self-determination, and self-respect of those living in poverty and dire need (and, for the record, I believe the bloggers I linked above are approaching it in this respectful way), but it can also be done in a way that undermines those very things. There can be a hidden cruelty in charity that puts the receiver in a one-down position, and keeps her there. Aid and development can be done in a way that promotes the very colonial power structures that created the poverty in the first place.

So yes, sponsor a child, put her picture on the fridge, remind yourself to be thankful for the excesses and distractions that fill your life. But please don’t stop there. Educate yourself about global poverty and injustice. Reduce your carbon footprint. Don’t waste food. Buy local. VOTE!!!!! “Live simply so that others may simply live.”

Above all – and I think this is the most important thing, and this is what aid blogging can do for us – remember that it’s about human beings.


p.s. I’m really nervous about posting this – I’ve seen some ugly controversy emerge before on these very topics, and I want to go on record here saying that this is not a criticism of Eden, nor a blanket criticism of bloggers who use their platform to highlight social issues, nor criticism of the humanism and love and compassion that move people to want to help others. All I want to say is that “helping” can be very complicated, difficult, opaque, and have unintended consequences down the road. So we, who are privileged and powerful, need to remember to tread carefully in these matters.


7 Responses to “Biting the hand that feeds me”

  1. Wordgirl Says:


    I love this post — and I think I’ll link to it in a an edited version of mine — because the issue is so complex — and we hear about the real way to create change is to have the mechanisms in place within the communities themselves — rather than, as you say, recreating the kind of colonial model in the aid organizations — a few people on Eden’s blog mentioned certain micro-lending organizations (is that what its called?) — and I’m wondering if you have any other suggestions of how charitable donations might be better spent? I agree that in the case of something like World Vision — my donation is a good reminder for me — a wake-up call for me — but too I do want to think that my money might be well-spent somewhere –I’d love your expertise! A follow-up post perhaps?



  2. St. Elsewhere Says:

    I read and re-read your post. It’s phenomenal. I think I will have to come back and read it again to make full sense of it.

    I do understand English, but there were some complex weaves you brought out here…for example, the pay difference of an expat versus local employees….

    I abhor the ‘poverty tourism’ thing that happens.

    I sponsor a girl somewhere. I don’t send her gifts. I just send her organization timely cheques that fund her education. I think I will not be able to see it the same way now…

  3. jjiraffe Says:

    Very thought provoking. My family always sponsored children, in Guatamala. My dad went down there for a story, and he met one of the girls we sponsored and brought her a doll i bought for her (we were pen pals). She had made a gift for me. A much-played with doll, with hand-maid, beautiful clothes. in fact, other than my fisher price record player, I don’t know that there was a toy that was more treasured by me. I kept it on a shelf, along with the letters she wrote me and a single photo of her smiling, holding my doll, that my dad had
    taken, most of my childhood. I often wonder about her: she finished high school when we lost touch. I like to think she graduated college and now has her own family.

    In light of Eden’s posts, I have been considering sponsoring a child, thinking that connection with my kids and a child would be a good thing. Because I think it IS hard to not feel helpless when you consider all of the awfulness in the world, but if you can connect to someone and understand their world and help them to buy books, clothes, food, an
    education, I don’t know. It seems good. I’m very curious what you recommend, how people can help.

    • Elizabeth Says:

      I love that you and the Guatemalan girl exchanged dolls – that kind of reciprocity is so important – it’s about human beings, it’s also about relationships. I think the kind of giving that becomes de-humanizing is that which doesn’t allow for reciprocity, when it’s all one-way, when one person is always in the position of being the recipient.

      More soon.

  4. St. Elsewhere Says:

    I remembered this supposed comical moment from a movie I saw:

    So, this tourist is moving around and the local asks him if he wants to see the popular local monuments…and the tourist says: “No, I want to see poor people, hungry people, naked people”…the comic sense went on to the next situation, but it struck me when I read your post.

    When I said that I won’t be able to see the cheque-sending in the same light, it was for the reason of the gifts you mentioned. From what I know, this organization receives sponsorship more for the younger kids than the older ones. Also, the person who introduced us to this organization was himself sponsoring a kid there. The first year, he and his wife not only sent cheque, but also a big care package with food items and clothes and toys. This happened for the first couple of years, and then I think for the fact that life got too busy, the gift sending did not really happen that much. It is exactly for this reason that I don’t send gifts. What happens to the kid when I get too busy and don’t follow up with as much enthusiasm as was shown before. The game of ‘distributing’ and sharing with others what a few kids receive…oh, how tricky can that be…

    Thank you for writing the post….it has left quite an impression on me.

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