We Try Hard to Do Good — But Sometimes We Make Mistakes
By Mary Ann McGivern
Connie Newton and her co-author Fran Early have written Doing Good … Says Who? to help us better understand the flaws in our middle class efforts to help the poor and how to work together instead of “help.” It’s a deceptively simple book, five chapters where each tells a story about founding a clinic or establishing a program to feed hungry children or marketing indigenous goods. Sometimes the efforts yield a wonderful benefit, but sometimes they go awry because of something like a lack of transparency about where the money comes from or assumptions about good bookkeeping processes.
Connie and Fran have lived in Guatemala for decades. To write this book, they interviewed 323 people, some several times. These Ladino and Mayan Guatemalans and foreign NGO workers told the stories of working together to make contributions to the community, the successes and the things that went wrong.
Connie and Fran distilled the interviews into five chapter-length stories that illustrate these principles: “Respect and Value the People,” “ Build Trust Through Relationships,” “ Do ‘With’ Rather than ‘For,’” “Ensure Feedback and Accountability” and “Evaluate Every Step of the Way.” An essay at the end of the book cites much of the research, analysis and evaluation that undergird these principles, but the method of presenting them, story-telling, is a fine teaching tool.
Investors, medical personnel and missionaries all travel to poor countries to make a difference, and we travel across town to the poor section to try to make a difference there, too. But we don’t necessarily respect and value the people with whom we work. The authors quote a study of how the middle class view being poor as being without goods while the poor are more likely to feel that their dignity has been taken away. This gap in appreciation of the other’s feelings makes it hard to accomplish much across the cultures. And that’s just one of the problems explored in chapter one.
Chapter one, “Respect and Value the People,” tells about establishing food programs in three villages (when it wasn’t quite what the local community had asked for) and then the donor-driven attempt to expand a successful program tenfold the following year. Family pressures on the community organizers, a newly hired accountant who rejects the informal receipt system that had been developed, and the insistence of the donors that the program must grow because the need is great are all elements embodied in characters we like who are trying to do good. There is no villain here. Their story unfolds slowly, developing subtle aspects that helped me, the reader, to appreciate a complexity that is not readily visible.
The Guatemala Sister Community Committee hosted a Spanish-language fund-raising course in Denver Nov. 8-12 with two Guatemalan sisters and other Spanish-speaking organizers in Denver. (See photos, p. 8.) I set up the schedule and coordinated all the activities. While reading Doing Good … Says Who? I kept re-evaluating the match between what the fund-raisers were offering and what the participants wanted to learn.
During the course, we evaluated every step of the way, and we will continue to evaluate.
Similarly, I’m thinking about my participation in events around the Ferguson rebellion. As I read Doing Good … Says Who? I thought about how different black funerals are from white ones, how different our experience of the police is and how different the Ferguson actions are from the peace demonstrations I’ve planned. The five principles developed for rural southern Guatemala apply here, too.
All five of the stories told in the book are lovely. They reflect the deep affection of the authors for the people of Guatemala. The persons the stories were modeled on all read the accounts and agree that the meaning of their experiences rings true.
Doing Good … Says Who? is a book to put in the hands of anybody who wants to make a difference in another culture — church leaders partnering with villages, small giving clubs, do-gooders with a yen for travel. It’s a quick read but long on afterthoughts.