Authors and panelists discuss the meaning of ‘doing good’ abroad

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Connie Newton and Fran Early — Courtesy Fran Early

“Doing Good … Says Who?” a provocatively titled book, resharpens focus on the blunders and assets of work done by well-intentioned Americans in efforts to help residents in poor and undeveloped countries.

The authors, Connie Newton and Fran Early, well-seasoned in life and in fieldwork in poor countries and communities, brought their experience and their book to the Island on Wednesday, May 25, at the Vineyard Haven library for a book signing and panel discussion about best and worst practices related to helping out in cultures different from our own.

Vineyard resident panelists included Pam Benjamin, operator of Sense of Wonder summer day camp, documentary filmmaker Georgia Morris, and author and writer John Sundman. They shared their volunteer experiences with an audience of about 40 people, several of whom offered similar experiences during the discussion portion of the event.

The book is straight-talking, a how-to primer with a core message that knowledge of conditions, culture, and local people is essential to successfully helping others. The authors know their territory, citing surveys on what the word “poverty” means, and the differences in the definition of the word “poverty” between haves and have-nots.

The authors met in Guatemala, where both have worked. Ms. Newton has lived there for 30 years, and Ms. Early has an equally long career in helping work here and abroad. The book, based on three decades of their work, required seven years of research.

“We just thought it was time to evaluate our work,” Ms. Newton said; “how to know we were doing something without devaluing those we are helping.”

“This book is about applauding good works and about provoking all our thinking to provide better outcomes. We wanted to put the reader on the ground, to see what we did and how, so they could put whatever they received [from the book] to work in their own efforts,” Ms. Early said.

The book’s genesis came from an evening conversation on a porch in Guatemala about frustration with a microfinancing project which was not going as planned. Microfinancing is a popular financing vehicle that offers business startup funds to people without access to conventional lending and investment sources.

In their book, the authors identified five elements, each a chapter in the book, that are critical to successful intervention in the lives of others. Discussion of each element is illustrated with true anecdotes, some heartbreaking and wince-provoking, that underscore the point:

Respect and value people

Build trust through relationships

Do “with” rather than “for”

Ensure feedback and accountability

Evaluate every step of the way

Two anecdotes from Ms. Newton encompass the five elements:

An aid volunteer in a small Guatemalan village slipped $100 into the backpack of a teenage girl from a poor family who was working with us. Her mother concluded so large an amount of money had to come from the girl prostituting herself, cut off her daughter’s hair, shamed her in the village, and banished her from the family home.    

Another well-meaning volunteer, seeing the poverty in the village he was visiting, wrote a $10,000 check on the spot. “Most of the villagers had never seen a check, let alone one probably equaling half the annual income of the entire village. It was simply a piece of paper, valueless, and there was no bank in which to cash it.”

Mindless patronage gone bad is not a new phenomenon. Panelist John Sundman’s tale of his 1983 Peace Corp days in Senegal described a large-scale farming project that went bad in a drought-ridden country. “What the people really wanted was a school. Eventually we bought cement to make blocks and the villagers hired a mason to build it,” he said, bringing to mind an era when the term “Ugly American” had traction in the world as a result of brash, uninformed U.S. aid efforts.

Sadly, there is a new texture to self-centered helping. One audience member spoke of volunteer aid workers competing with each other on European docks this year to take charge of Syrian refugees. “That kid is mine!” one volunteer shouted at another, she said, which made her wonder if the volunteers “were there to build their résumés.”

On the positive side, panelists offered examples of ways that work. Pam Benjamin and her husband Nat, owner of Gannon and Benjamin Marine Railway in Vineyard Haven, took boatbuilding supplies and rigging on the first of their two trips to earthquake-torn Haiti. On their second trip, the couple worked at an orphanage on an Island off Haiti with an eye to meeting basic needs, including an ingenious method of providing personalized textbooks.

Documentary filmmaker Georgia Morris showed how the pull of the desperately needy can change the lives of observers. Ms. Morris said that she and her husband, awardwinning documentarian Len Morris, went to Nairobi, Kenya, to make a film about street children, and wound up making a film called “Rescuing Emmanuel.”

Their experience resonates because they are awardwinning documentarians who have made films about some very tough subjects while maintaining objectivity. “We’re filmmakers,” Ms. Morris said. “We didn’t intend to cross the wall between filmmaking and affecting change. We wanted to make a film about street children. A little boy in Kenya grabbed me and said, ‘I want to go to school right now.’”

“He was dirty, irritating, showed up in every shot, trying to get someone to notice him. No identification, there was no proof of his existence. The streets of Nairobi are filled with kids like Emmanuel. He attached himself to me. Wore me down. These kids are canny. He called me ‘mama.’ He became a person to me, not one of masses. We did break that wall of filmmaking,” she said.

The filmmakers rescued Emmanuel. Saving him was another matter. He was enrolled in a school for street kids run by a Kenyan couple. “This couple were doing what they could at their school,” Ms. Morris said. “They personally adopted 150 kids so they could stay in the school. Sometimes they had only water to give the kids, sometimes not even water.”

Emmanuel got his wish for schooling, but struggled with the social transition, and drifted away. The filmmakers have been unable to learn anything more about Emmanuel, but they learned how to help. That was the lesson being taught at the Vineyard Haven library.

“The Kenyan school is a success because Kenyans run it,” Ms. Morris said. “We can send money. They use it.”

For more information, visit doinggoodsayswho.com.