Wednesday, March 03, 2010

Activists need more than good intentions

Some warnings about misplaced good intentions are found in an article today from the Wall Street Journal.

Especially with the recent natural disasters, we are seeing many stories of people who are trying to help. Some of the ways they help are better than others. Even people with good intentions can carry out ineffective actions and their efforts end up being wasted.

From the Journal article, writer Jeffery Zaslow talks to a couple of organizations that train and advise those who want to do good. Advisers say that activists need to first ask the people they help what it is they really need.

Every day, we see reminders of the limitations, and even the dangers, of good intentions. In Haiti, U.S. missionaries who said they only wanted to save orphaned children ended up arrested on child-trafficking charges. In Asian countries hit by the 2004 tsunami, residents still shake their heads over the warehouses filled with unusable donations, including winter coats and stiletto shoes. And earthquake-ravaged Chile is sure to receive its share of "useless aid" in the days ahead.

The steady procession of such stories would have us believing the old axiom that "no good deed goes unpunished." How can we better calibrate good intentions in our own lives?

The answer, from activists and academics who study the human impulse, is blunt. Throw out any ideas of winning praise for your work—be honest, most of us want to be stroked—and build up some armor to take hits. A growing field of organizations has sprung up to advise people looking to donate, time or money, to help potential donors achieve these steps.

"Throw away your assumptions about what people need," advises Tori Hogan, a 27-year-old activist who has traveled the world studying the effectiveness of aid programs. Beyond Good Intentions, the Cambridge, Mass.-based charity-watchdog organization she founded, posts videos on its Web site that evaluate aid projects.

Ms. Hogan tells of going to a village in Peru where an aid group brought in tourists to help build public toilets. The group ran out of money and time, the tourists ended their volunteering vacations, and the toilets were never completed. The aid group had thought access to restroom facilities was needed to boost living standards, Ms. Hogan says. "But when I asked people in the community what they wanted, they said, 'What we really needed was irrigation, and to have our bridge fixed, so we could take our goods to market.'"

The never-completed toilets were gaping holes that had to be covered. Villagers feared their children would fall in.

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