That Awkward Moment

At a recent charity gala event, I met some lovely people working on development and health projects overseas. When they talk about their approach, they say all the right things:

  • They work with the local people on the ground, rather than dictating solutions to them.
  • They look at different ways to do things and pick the ones with the best chance of success.

They’re very positive and sincere. I really want to believe them, and in them. But I’m skeptical. Because every charity rep seems to have read the same articles. Everyone seems to know the same catchphrases. Ideas like the concept of doing things with the people we’re trying to help instead of for them are not new or revolutionary.

So everyone talks the talk. Everyone knows what kinds of values and practices they’re supposed to be embracing.

And yet – we know they’re not all getting everything right. We know there are degrees of quality in charity work.

So when we meet some new cheerfully enthusiastic charity worker, how do we tell the difference? What’s the savvy move in that situation? The path of least resistance is to get sucked in – to agree that their approach is more new and exciting and worthy than the rest.

For me, though, that feels fraudulent. I want social change efforts to be held to a higher standard. I don’t want to congratulate people I just met for good intentions and efforts that may (for all I know) be doing more harm than good.

It’s tricky to walk the line between being discriminating and being rude, expecially in the area of someone’s passion for change. I think that, for me, it’s a skill that will always be a work in progress.

But I also think it’s worth cultivating, because the alternative is to give blanket approval to anything that claims to be ‘for good’; perpetuating treatment of all do-gooding as equal, rather than elevating, promoting, and spreading what’s actually working.

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