Wednesday, September 15, 2010

Listen to Your Neighbors

During my recent job search, I had to make the hard (but privileged) decision on where to focus my scope of work: domestically or internationally. Two years ago, this wouldn't have been hard. I grew up fascinated and horrified by the stories of need abroad and always felt drawn to help those living on less than a dollar a day. In college, I studied global development and was introduced to Muhammad Yunus and his concept of microfinance as poverty alleviation. Setting out into the "real world," my goal was to do my part to end global poverty.

Instead, for a variety of reasons, my first job out of school was at a community health center with a hyper-local focus. I also ended up living only two blocks from where I worked. For the first time in my life, I was living and working within a community. When it was time for me to move on from the community health center, I again started to look into global development work, but kept in mind what I could do on a local level. I saw myself going down two paths, not knowing which one was right for me.

My reasoning for focusing on global poverty has always been that internationally, there is more absolute need than on any domestic cause. Income levels and standards of living are so low that, fiscally, it does not make sense to use resources for social good elsewhere. Lives can literally be saved for a few hundred dollars (as many international charities remind you in their advertisements.)

However, as I looked into the international development field, I learned that many problems arise when foreigners attempt to help the less fortunate abroad. Little to no awareness of local cultures, lack of understanding of local needs, hidden domestic interests and slow responsiveness to unsuccessful projects can cause more harm than good at worst and perpetuate the status quo at best. These problems have become (or always have been) so rampant that some have dedicated their careers to fixing the international aid system.

As you can see from my bio, I ended up choosing to continue to work on the local level, but it was not because of these intellectual and academic arguments. I'll deal with accountability issues with any sort of philanthropic work, regardless of location. What instead pushed me to consider focusing my time back home (besides my aversion to frequent trips abroad--I don't do airports well), was the feeling of connection I get from knowing that the time I spend at work effects the people I live near and the places I go to when I'm not in the office.

On my last day at the community health center, which served Latino immigrants, I was given a beautiful poster that read: "Ser revolucionario: Hablar con sus vecinos," which translates to "Be revolutionary: Talk with your neighbors." It is a quote from the 1968 Paris uprising. I've always associated the summer of '68 with an international push for peace/love/harmony and that quote--imploring the young, radical minds to learn what's going on right next to them--seemed out of place. But now, through my community work, I realize that any local initiative can be radical. A global push to eliminate poverty is revolutionary, but so is listening to your neighbors to see what they need. In either case, you are doing something, you are trying to change something for the better.

Ultimately, my decision wasn't based on where I was needed, but where I belong and what I understand. If you need someone to listen to you, you want to talk to your neighbors, not a foreigner. I feel that I am better equipped to listen to the people around me than someone in Botswana, as I am sure a woman in Botswana is better equipped to listen to the people around her than I am.

So, for now, while I live in DC, I will learn and do what I can to make it a better place. If I can one day get over my repulsion to airline food and jetlag, maybe I'll end up as a foreigner living in a foreign land, listening over there.

Thanks to Saundra at Good Intentions Are Not Enough for talking through this with me. (And apologies to all my global development professors in school.)

Disclaimer: The postings on this site are my own and do not represent the positions, strategies or opinions of Venture Philanthropy Partners


  1. You are so right. I have been a volunteer in Hanoi, Vietnam for one year now. My placement is as business developer. I am living through exactly what you write about. It often feels like clumsy interference rather than true help! And we foreigners are so results driven we alienate our hosts.

  2. Thanks for sharing your process. I'm in the job-hunt as well right now and also contemplating this question of where I can achieve the most impact. One thing you didn't address that's driving more of my decision is salary, but this might be because I have two small kids. Good childcare in DC will be about $30K a year for them. (!!) A nonprofit may do phenomenal work but I can't consider working there if the salary won't allow me to address my children's needs.

    Side note: if followers of your blog are interested in international development jobs, I believe Alanna at has a monthly newsletter they can sign up for.