25 July 2011

Things I Like: Lessons I Learned

Daniela Papi, the founder of PEPY, keeps a blog sharing the lessons she has learned over the past 6 years since she started her education NGO in Cambodia 6 years ago. Her reflections are extremely honest and help to highlight what I believe is a problem with DIY aid when starting without any understanding of development and aid.

On Friday, she shared the short film "Changing the World on Vacation." The film gives a peek into NGO work and voluntourism in Cambodia. Daniela appears in the film at a point when she was just getting things going with PEPY.

Upon watching it a few years later, Danilea recorded this reflection:

As someone who has cheered on the idea of admitting failure, it is encouraging to see someone who is willing to admit where she has gone wrong and freely share what the journey was like. People like Daniela can help to prevent others from making the same mistakes.

This is not to prove that all DIY aid is inherently wrong. It would be too broad of a stroke to make such a claim. Rather, it is to illuminate the importance of knowledge. Daniela is not the first to make the mistakes that she shares in her blog and will not be the last. Efforts should be made to ensure that that mistakes are not replicated and projects are started with an awareness of what has and has not worked in the past.

That is not full-proof, but it can mitigate most of the negative outcomes that can be borne out of poorly designed and implemented interventions. It would be like stepping onto a a soccer field having only ever watched a few games. Nobody could reasonably expect to excel at the sport on the first attempt. It requires practice and time to hone skills and improve. Unfortunately, there are NGOs that are started under the same circumstances. If we would not put a first-timer on the pitch with Manchester United, why do we accept it in humanitarian work?

Daniela sums up the same point saying:
The attitudes and actions of us real human beings can not always be predicted well and we make mistakes. Let’s not brush them under the rug or not talk about them. Let’s admit them, work to fix them, change our behaviors so we don’t repeat our mistakes, and then let’s share the lessons we have learned with others so that they can learn too. Mistakes should not be what we are punished for, but perhaps for not being willing to research, listen, or learn, we should be.