Sweet Dreams (are made of this)

11 Dec

This post is no longer available on this blog.

This post is now part of J.’s book, Letters Left Unsent, available on Amazon.


20 Responses to “Sweet Dreams (are made of this)”

  1. Joe Turner 11 December, 2010 at 6:12 am #

    I’m sorry to sound dim – but aren’t those choices the kind of thing that we all have to wrestle with in our lives? What do you want – a Nobel prize?

    Even when we’re working from the best motives, we face compromise. We see everything we’ve worked for dashed to the ground, we are frequently forced to make a binary choice between what is morally right and what is expedient – and try to convince ourselves that it is a war not a conflict and sometimes we have to sacrifice pawns for the hope of some greater good somewhere down the line. This is the human condition.

    • J. 11 December, 2010 at 8:32 am #

      You’re forgiven.

  2. Peter F 11 December, 2010 at 8:41 am #

    Dear Tales From The Hood,

    Thank you for sharing with us an emotive and honest piece. I’m going to respond because in some ways you seem to be addressing the piece to people in my position (someone who is thinking of starting in aid work next year). My response is more about that than about the difficult choices that you’ve faced — and so what I write might be insensitive to what you’re going through emotionally.

    I’m planning to start development work not to solve the world, and not because I believe INGOs are necessarily a positive force in the world. I already know about many problems the system (relationships between INGOs, governments, civil society in the country they are operating in, “beneficiaries” etc) and I’m sure that I’ll see more.

    But the unfairnesses and injustices of the way the world is structured is not the fault of the smaller cogs in the machine — the individual people that work in it. In this post what worries me is the way you make it about yourself, or (if it was more than rhetorical) about “you” — which is me. You or I, whatever our histories, do not have responsibilities to save the world, and imagining ourselves as doing Good is a happy fantasy that is too easy to construct.

    One of the problems with the dream of doing Good is that it makes the world’s problems about us. They’re not, and imagining oneself as a hero doesn’t help. At best we can hope for is to have positive local differences (which start with treating our family well, our friends well, the people we meet).

    Beyond that, yes, I do hope to be a positive influence within the system I am planning to work. I hope to do that by working in countries where I speak the language and know, to some extent, the culture; and by developing relationships that allow me to see what’s going on, and the ways in which I might be able be a positive force. But also, by recognising limits in what I am responsible for, and having these limits defined by what I actually know about.

    Now I’ve no idea how relevant what I’ve written is relevant to the moral dilemmas you’ve faced. But it does seem a response to the first part of your post: we are not in the position of a teenage girl protecting our chastity. We are parts of a system, and so of course we’ll be involved with things that don’t directly (or indirectly!) do any good, and maybe waste a lot of time and money (or worse). Surely you were already aware that things like this went on? This is the kind of thing I’m preparing myself to work in. I’m not sure why you weren’t already prepared.

    As I said at the beginning, forgive me if this post is insensitive. And it is of course based on an ignorance of what you’ve been through, and how these things are done. I look forward to hearing what you, and others, might think about it.



    • emily 12 December, 2010 at 7:34 pm #

      Correct me if I’m wrong, but it might have been harder for people to be aware of a lot of these issues before they began their careers in aid work – without blogs and other new media sources, open and honest assessments of what the field is really like aren’t really that available. I doubt this kind of media was available when many popular bloggers began their careers.

      • Peter F 12 December, 2010 at 9:59 pm #

        Good point; and I should’ve acknowledged in my question that if I was saying anything constructive at all then it was built on J.’s post.

        As you say, we have a lot of information in the open. I think it’s a really exciting to opportunity not just to show that bad stuff happens, but also to change the way we think about the system as a whole. That’s some of what I was trying to do in my first comment.

  3. Mark Petersen 11 December, 2010 at 9:28 am #

    Hmmm, was it mosquito nets?? Or water wells? I loved your post! Thanks.

    This is my first time on your blog and I’ve subscribed and hope to return.

    I represent “the other side” … the donor. I work for a foundation that invests in international development work. Fortunately, I’ve had several years living in the developing world, so I hope our grants are a little wiser, and involve greater dialogue with the experts at the charities we support before launching into some hare-brained idea that puts the charity in an awkward position.

    I was just in SE Asia with a group of donors and witnessed a few potentially dangerous grants being offered. It frustrates me when I see money and our own cultural viewpoints and efficiencies being imposed on a community in another country – a community with few physical resources who jump at what could be provided, even when it isn’t in their best interest. In one case, the recipient boldly urged the donor to rethink the offer. I admire her chutzpa and wish charities would be bolder in educating donors. They are, after all, the experts in the field. Is this in your job description? Charities need to develop strategies for educating donors to give well.

    However the wealthy have made their money, it involved taking risk, having guts, and a dose of charm was also likely in the mix. They may be experts in making money, but in the work of giving, donors need to take a deep breath and learn to listen to those who have paid the price and who already have clear strategies for advancing community health.

  4. lu 11 December, 2010 at 9:48 am #

    i would agree that people in all industries and situations must contend with similar moral/ethical dilemmas of varying scales and with diverse implications, some worse than others.

    but i think your voice in the field of aid and development is a rare one and there are many people who wouldn’t even allow this conversation in their offices, in my experience. challenging the status quo in a international or nongovernmental organisation is not encouraged or supported nearly enough and that is why your posts are so poignant for those of us who work in the field/industry.

    it might not fix anything by writing about it, but it sure as hell makes me feel like i am not the only one who gets exasperated, frustrated, or feels as though i have had to make compromises that could have negative effects on the outcome of the initiative.

  5. Petunia 11 December, 2010 at 5:46 pm #

    I feel you. If it’s some consolation, at least you acknowledge the dilemma instead of convincing yourself of the party line being fed to you. The aid industry is like any other – people making choices trying to do the best they can with the mans available. To believe that the system and the people in it are somehow morally and ethically pure is just silly, really.
    Anyway, thanks once again for clearly articulating much of what is swirling around in our heads!

  6. pineappleskip 12 December, 2010 at 1:58 pm #

    thanks, great post. Not a veteran at this game but been in plenty of these dilemmas. Already. Thanks.

    As for the cog in machine argument, I don’t think it worked @ Nuremburg

  7. emily 12 December, 2010 at 7:31 pm #

    This post makes me want to drop out of my master’s program in ID and never go into the aid field. In fact, most of the blogging done by aid workers makes me feel this way. I’m a few months away from beginning my career in aid and I feel cynical about it already. These blogs are all very enlightening and have taught me more than some of my coursework, but they make me wonder if I’m going into the right field.

    J, I know a lot of graduate students who read your blogs. How about some advice for those of us about to start working in this field? Not “how to get a job” advice…advice on dealing with all the crazy BS you guys deal with, especially since we’re going to be in entry level, bottom of the food chain positions?

    • J. 12 December, 2010 at 8:18 pm #

      That’s a great idea, Emily. Will give it a shot… stay tuned.

  8. Ian Thorpe 13 December, 2010 at 6:26 pm #

    Great post, as always you are able to say what we are all thinking but are afraid to admit.

    Just to say though that what you describe isn’t only development work – it sounds like working life in general. The only difference is that unlike many doing other jobs, if you take a long term view you can still say that you have helped people, and made positive change, even if it doesn’t seem that way each and every day.

  9. Dr. K 16 December, 2010 at 5:46 am #

    Fair to say you don’t need a “toolbox” to know that you do work for HRI?

    • J. 16 December, 2010 at 8:56 am #


  10. Lorne Parsons 16 December, 2010 at 8:45 am #

    I represent the full time volunteer in the field ‘side’. Just spent 10 years living in a developing nation and currently on a 8 months sabbatical. I’m the bridge so to speak between the donors and the end receipients, where I hopefully deliver the goods in a way that enhances, not tries to change existing culture from a superior other world attitude.

    For example, the Cdn government directed some 50 gran to this http://www.mehonduras.org/wtsp.html as did a Lutheran Fdn give 20 gran, from whom we did not solicit a dime. As this project still exists and is in need of further capital, I am discovering new avenues that hopefully will make greater longer lasting impact locally to globally.

    On the drawing board is the idea of networking international artists to encourage local sources (Political, Finance, Intellectual, Ecclesiastical sectors) from within the ‘third world’ country to unite and give from their heart, their time, $, expertise, land etc. that will effect significant advancement in their own nation. (First Youtube link/upload hopefully coming soon!)

    Curiously I found that my ‘next door neighbor’ for the last 5 years in one particular country recently became the political president ( http://lifebridge.ca/honduras/2010/10/08/up-against-the-wall-buddy/ ) and for some reason ‘Destiny’ has brought me shoulder to shoulder with such people from various corners of society, even street kids, gang leaders etc. I consider my self someone like a ‘nobody from a little obscure fishing village in Canada’ somehow Sent on a curious journey that at times seems like an unfolding movie in 3D documenting the 3P’s’s as they collide with 3 S’s and sparks fly as the United Nations Millennium Development Goals are fulfilled and global society soars to ‘Center’ where ‘Red’ and ‘Blue’ dissolves to curious crimson colors of a royal Lion King, metaphorically and perhaps even literally speaking.

    One of many questions I have is how has / will all this blogging and commenting effect real change and unite a growing network or circle of friends face to face? Are your comments influencing me to alter my thinking thus changing/improving my tactics…? Do I excess with time Facebooking, time perhaps better spent like advancing organic farming to feed hungry tummies by cutting a literal trail with a machete or with a donated tractor i need from some company in the ‘first world to grow this – http://www.treesforlife.org/our-work/our-initiatives/moringa – in order to combat rising global food challenges?



    So it’s like I’m on a strange journey with a piece of the puzzle in my hand looking for others with pieces of the same puzzle. Serendipitously on this sabbatical I’ve met 3 top musicians on different circumstances, one was this guy http://www.davidharsh.com in an airport who sat and asked me to play him a song. Don’t know where it may or may not lead, but I’m having fun.

    Yesterday I came home from Banff Canada after visiting face to face book with this piece of the puzzle holding, book writing friend whom I’ve not seen in a few years. http://www.clairvauxmanifesto.com I can say that 2 days was better and more impactfull than 3 years of Facebooking and blogging comments. The Circle of Friends is widening and deepening from which tactics/work will be accomplished more effectively, not to mention more enjoyable and longer lasting.

  11. Lorne Parsons 16 December, 2010 at 8:55 am #

    J, I’ve experienced all that you’ve listed. I was shot at once and another time mugged with a trembling hand holding a cold 9 millimeter to my temple. All he got was playing marbles I use to shoot from my wrist-rocket slingshot….. and marbles to give to street kids. He didn’t get the (2 hundred USA that was located in the bottom of my sock🙂

  12. Ash 19 December, 2010 at 6:13 am #

    Hi J,

    Love your blog. But I think you’re a little off-base on this one. I understand it leaves a slightly nasty taste in your mouth if you don’t believe in a certain intervention, but as you know very well, in this field we don’t make single decisions in isolation, but complicated, messy decisions, weighing up the pros and cons and including short and long term factors.

    Pretty much every decision I make every day is sub-optimal if you look at it from one angle or another. But I know why I’m making the decisions that I make, and I do believe that in the end my work and my decisions make a positive difference.

    If I had to make decisions like the above every day, I’d quit, no doubt about it. But the fact that we have to make ‘for the greater good’ decisions that we don’t really believe in every now and again, well that’s just part of operating in any kind of bureaucratic system. Look on the bright side, in our jobs almost every day we get to make decisions and actually do things that we are convinced make the world a slightly better place for at least some people – how many people can say that?

    • J. 23 December, 2010 at 7:19 am #

      “Look on the bright side, in our jobs almost every day we get to make decisions and actually do things that we are convinced make the world a slightly better place for at least some people…”
      This is what keeps me with the aid industry, warts and all, for this many years.


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