Good Intentions are Not Enough

Last week John W. Yettaw, an American, swam across a lake and into the compound of the Burmese Democracy leader Aung San Suu Kyi. As a result of this thoughtless and illegal act the Burmese government have put Suu Kyi and two of her servants on trial for breaking the conditions of her house arrest, which bans visitors that have not received official permission.

“Unaware of the problems his actions could trigger”

According to the Associated Press

“Yettaw’s family have described him as an as well-intentioned admirer of Suu Kyi, unaware of the problems his actions could trigger. Her supporters have expressed anger at him for getting her into trouble.”

Suu Kyi and her two servants face the possibility of five years imprisonment. This comes just weeks before May 27th when, after six years of house arrest, Suu Kyi was scheduled to be freed.

He did not believe there would be any negative ramifications to his actions

What was so important to Mr. Yettaw that he risked Suu Kyi’s freedom? According to news reports he was writing a book and wanted to interview her. Apparently he did not believe there would be any negative ramifications to his actions as he had previously swum across the lake to give a bible and Book of Mormon to Suu Kyi, but was refused entrance by her servants.
According to the BBC

“Irrawaddy magazine criticised the ‘activists, experts, apologists, lobbyists, scholars, opportunists, do-or-die religious zealots and mercenaries’ who have attempted to make a change in Burma on their own…. The ‘naive acts cause more harm than good’, it says”

“Naive acts cause more harm than good”

The quote ‘naive acts cause more harm than good’ could also apply to many aid projects. In Thailand after the tsunami, I would discuss the myriad of problems caused by aid with donors and researchers. In response people would often say – But they had good intentions. My answer to that was always – Yes, but the road to Hell is paved with good intentions.

Just as Mr. Yettaw’s actions have a real cost Suu Kyi and her followers, well-intended but poorly executed aid projects have a real cost for those they are meant to help. (see related post)

It is time for all international aid to follow best practices

It is time that all aid agencies, large and small, are required to use established best practices (see related post). Without a regulatory body overseeing international aid, donors are key to making this happen. If all donors were to only fund those projects that are implemented following best practices then following best practices would become more the rule and than the exception. We must become more professional in our work, good intentions are not enough.


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