When are aid ceremonies appropriate?

When people find out I’m writing a book on aid, they often regale me with stories of their favorite charity. Just last week a woman told me of a project helping elderly Navajos. The program provided assistance by selling rugs woven by the Navajo at an art fair without taking a cut, as well as donating either in-kind goods or certificates that could be used to purchase goods from a store. Although I am always concerned about in-kind donations, what really disturbed me was the ceremony.

If I understand correctly, three times a year donors travel to the reservation for a traditional Navajo ceremony. During this ceremony the donations are given, and the money from the sale of the rugs presented to the weavers. Although my acquaintance described the ceremony as very moving, I question it on several levels.

First, this ceremony would appear to be part of the disaster/poverty tourism issues that both William Easterly and I have both addressed in our blogs. Having lived on the Navajo reservation for two years and learned the history of the Navajo people, I know they are very cautious about inviting non-Native Americans to their ceremonies. I was eventually invited to ceremonies near the end of my two years, but I do not recall any of the other teachers attending ceremonies. Thus, I can only think that this ceremony was done to please donors at the cost of turning the aid recipients into cultural curiosity pieces.

Second, this ceremony diminished the work of the aid recipient. The weavers earned the proceeds of the rug sales, why not just give it to them. We wouldn’t expect Expedia to hold a ceremony each time they pay a hotel their portion of the bill? You might argue that that’s different because Expedia takes a fee for their services. However, if the weavers were given the choice between paying a commission on the sales or receiving charitable assistance to sell the rugs, I bet most of them would choose to pay the commission. With a commission it becomes a business deal where they are paid for their products and maintain their dignity. Selling the rugs as an act of charity requires them to be grateful recipients of the largess of others.

Third, the ceremony highlighted the generosity of the donors at the expense of the dignity of the recipients. A key part of the ceremony was the giving of either in-kind donations or certificates. Giving in this way may meet the needs of the donors, but it can be demoralizing for the recipients. If you were poor enough to need to use a food pantry, how would you feel if the people that had donated the food watched as you filled your shopping cart. Although this would allow to donors to see that the food they gave made it to people in need, it might cost you your pride.

For those three reasons I question the purpose of the ceremony. I understand that aid agencies need to please donors, but must it be done at the expense of the aid recipients. Although I question that particular ceremony, I’m not against all aid ceremonies.

Ceremonies are appropriate if the aid recipient earned the assistance through either their past accomplishments or through hard work on the current project. These ceremonies should highlight the efforts and achievements of the aid recipient.

Water projects where the community had a large part in creating the design of the project as well as contributing either partial funding or labor and in-kind donations. I have been to several of these opening ceremonies where the contribution of the school or the community were proudly displayed.

Scholarships earned through a competitive process and based upon student achievement. I personally struggled to afford college and received a competitive scholarship based on my academic record and community service activities. My family attended a dinner held in honor of all of the scholarship recipients.

Livelihood projects where participants develop and display their skills. I attended a ceremony for students of an intensive year long livelihood training. In addition to studying computers and English, they learned to lead dive trips and had to pass the PADI test. This ceremony focused on student accomplishments, although several donors attended, they were not the focus of the event.

In all of these cases the ceremony celebrated the hard work and achievement of the people receiving the aid, rather than focusing on them as recipients of largess.

Ceremonies are not appropriate when it requires the recipients to share their culture with donors. If you would not expect a similar ceremony or cultural experience in your neighborhood, then do not expect it in another country or culture.

Ceremonies are not appropriate when the aid that is given does not require anything of the recipient other than poverty. These types of ceremonies celebrate the generosity of the donor at the expense of the dignity of the recipient.

My Navajo students received shoes and coats based on need. There was no handover ceremony and no photos taken. Parents simply filled out a sheet with the size and style they wanted and the students picked them up in the cafeteria a month later. Had their been a ceremony it would have embarrassed the students by highlighting the fact that they were too poor to buy their own clothes.

I attended a ceremony where a group of Mokens were given boats. The Moken went to the ceremony under duress. They had not been consulted, and although they needed boats, the ones they were given were too small for seafaring and therefore of little use. In addition the boats were improperly caulked and sank during the ceremony. Even though this ceremony was done solely to meet the needs of the donor, the aid recipients were still expected to show up and look grateful.

Another gift to the Moken was that of school supplies from students in the US. These could have easily just been given to the teachers, but all the students were rounded up, the supplies were formally presented, and the children were all made to thank the donor and have their picture taken. This was just one of many unrequested donations given to the Moken, and for each one I’m sure they were expected to show their “gratitude”.

If aid is given purely on the basis of poverty, then ceremonies giving aid to individuals should be avoided. It is hard to retain your sense of self-worth while publicly receiving handouts.

If the aid recipient has accomplished something that needs a celebration to properly mark the achievement, then by all means celebrate. Make the recipients and their work the focus of the ceremony.