Doing Good … Says Who?


Here is a story that we have been told. . .

A doctor was visiting a jungle village. After ten years of treating members of the tribe, he was frustrated. He’d spent many hours each year impressing on the chief the importance of latrines. The chief would promise to build latrines, but on the next visit none were in sight. Instead there was more waste polluting the river, their only source of water. “Chief,” the doctor said, “I’m bewildered. For years I’ve been telling you how latrines will make your people healthier. Please tell me why you don’t build them.” The chief replied, “Estimado doctór, we do not understand. You want us to dig a hole, build a box, sit on it and fill it with mierda. We just don’t know why you want us to keep it.”

Despite a decade of camaraderie, there was much that the doctor and the chief were missing from each other’s perspective. Would the doctor have made more progress if he’d brought in a team of volunteers to construct the latrines? Maybe not. We know of another village where families were given outhouses, and those outhouses are now happily being used as storage sheds. How do any of us go about recognizing what we don’t understand in another culture? How can we know whether our efforts are actually “doing good”? Does it matter? In the stories that follow, it matters.

This book is about people of good will who want to improve the lives of others in a culture not their own. It is equally about the people they seek to help, and the complex interactions that occur across their cultural divides. In the western world, those interactions are often described as “givers” helping “receivers.” But this book is about a different model: partnership. We’ve seen better outcomes with collaboration, which challenges the effectiveness of the charity model.

The stories in this book take place in Guatemala, where we have lived and worked for a combined sixty years. Volunteers in Africa, Asia, and throughout Latin America have shared similar stories, as have volunteers from Boston, Denver, and all around the U.S., suggesting that the truths in these narratives go beyond borders.

Doing Good…Says Who? focuses on those who come and go–individual volunteers, donors, NGOs (non-governmental organizations) and mission groups–and the people they try to help in Guatemala. The outpouring of goodwill that fuels their efforts is inspiring. Ninety percent of North Americans believe it is important to be personally involved in supporting causes in their local community and globally1. Millions of everyday people are traveling to faraway places, or just down the street, to “do good.” They come for an hour or a week, a summer or even several years. Millions more make donations to organizations that “do good” and, perhaps, hope to someday volunteer their own time and efforts. As volunteers and donors cross the bridge from their side of the cultural divide, they meet locals with resources and strengths beyond their experience. This book is for all of them.

You’ll join volunteers on a medical mission team, who find themselves without patients when neighbors put a hex on the clinic. And you’ll accompany a U.S. businessman as he’s forced to confront the unintended consequences of his generous ten thousand dollar check to a struggling Mayan woman.

Guatemalans have their own stories to tell. A young Mayan mother pleads, “Please don’t give my children candy and coins; you are turning them into beggars.” And another says, “We are not less because we have less.” An Indigenous leader says, “We don’t much like NGOs, because we don’t want somebody telling us what to do.”

Two lifetimes of working in cross-cultural education, human rights, and community organizing plus volunteering at home and abroad have made us passionate about learning how to connect in more than one world. While living and learning about “doing good” in Guatemala, we’ve met hundreds of people of good will dedicated to improving the lives of other. We’ve seen some unexpected results from their efforts. For instance, we met a doctor who had just finished training a group of midwives. He left totally frustrated, telling us, “Most of them slept through the workshop. Maybe it’s their lack of education, or maybe they don’t give a damn.” Later we learned that none of the Mayan women were Spanish speakers, and he had no idea that they didn’t understand him.

Another example came when we met a six-foot, four-inch language student on his daily hike. He’d been noticing a group of campesinos (farmers) bent over their short hoes and shovels to work their land. Thinking about it from his angle made his back hurt. So he found long-handled tools to give them. When he delivered his purchases to the campesinos they seemed most appreciative. He went home feeling good, albeit broke. What he never knew was that the diminutive campesinos couldn’t get leverage with the new tools. They were nevertheless pleased, because they cut off the handles and used them for much-needed firewood.

When sponsors come to visit their scholarship students, they usually bring gifts. NGOs urge them to follow guidelines designed to maintain equity. However, program directors have told us that generosity often gets the best of donors, causing them to slip a needy family a wad of cash, which, unbeknownst to the donors, often creates jealousy and a myriad of other problems. In one case, a family claimed they needed to pay up six months of rent or they would be evicted. Without consulting the non-profit, the donor gave them what they asked for. He left without knowing that he’d been conned. He also didn’t realize his gift was more than the annual salary of the staff person who was translating for him.

We’ve seen the likelihood of “doing good” increase when foreigners listen and learn from the local people before they act. We want this book to bring their viewpoint to light. Yet, even with our years of experience in Guatemala, we know we can’t shed our Western worldview. The question is, Can we really get into the shoes of people in another culture with our big feet? We’re still foreigners to the Spanish speakers and the Mayan speakers. Realizing this hubris, while working on the book, we prayed for empathy and understanding as we interviewed and wrote.

We interviewed four hundred and thirty Guatemalans and foreigners, individually and in groups. Conversations were recorded with local employees of NGOs, people in the communities where they work, short- and long-term volunteers, donors, NGO founders, and board members. The interviews cut across a broad geographic swath of Guatemala with the majority taking place in Mayan villages and most within a fifty-mile radius of Antigua, Quetzaltenango, and Lake Atitlán.

Aware that Mayans in the more remote villages might be reluctant to tell us what they really think about foreigners coming to try to make things better, we worked with trusted locals who interviewed them in their own language and led group discussions with fishermen, healers, and young people. Additionally, Mayans who had suffered oppression seldom told their stories, fearing more violence. We wanted to shield all the people we interviewed from repercussions and assure their safety. So we promised anonymity and went beyond the usual precaution of changing names and locations, by deciding to attribute their experiences in different settings without losing their truth. That led us to combine the interviews into the stories you’ll find in this book. For example, in chapter two the narrative about the clinic comes from scores of conversations with local staff, villagers, and foreign professionals in and around five different clinics.

We took many additional steps to authenticate the meaning and spirit of what we were told. Consistently, the people who inspired these stories have confirmed that we “got it.” (See the Appendix for details of our methodology.)

Five guiding principles, fundamentals for doing good” in Guatemala or elsewhere, emerged from the interviews and provide the framework for each chapter. The stories that come from those interviews are designed to give the reader a realistic, on-the-ground, and often messy experience of each principle. The principles are at the heart of guiding good intentions into productive outcomes. While all five are woven throughout, one is a primary focus in each narrative.

1. Respect and Value the People. The reader will explore what a Mayan woman with a sixth-grade education can teach a donor who approaches poverty with Handi Wipes, and a retired U.S. school principal with years dedicated to helping Guatemalan school children. The three of them work together to create a nutrition program that changes the lives of mothers and children in remote mountain villages, despite the challenges that come with change.

2. Build Trust Through Relationships. When a young Mayan mother and her baby die in childbirth, tensions rise among older and younger generations, within families, and among local midwives. Will the new clinic be able to bridge these differences? The reader will follow a young volunteer through the ups and downs of building trust in the community, and in keeping well-meaning short-term medical volunteers tuned to the local culture rather than their imported standards.

3. Do “With” Rather than “For.” How much can campesinos in a coffee cooperative, an impoverished Mayan mother with a micro-loan, and a Mayan community working together on a reforestation project do for themselves? How do perspective donors see their work? The reader will struggle with Stanley, visiting with a group of business professionals, as he confronts the unintended consequences of his generous handout of ten thousand dollars. Where will this money go and why?

4. Ensure Feedback and Accountability. The board of a microfinance organization has done everything right…research, expert advice, and due diligence. Dramatic growth is underway and from where the director and the board sit, all indicators look good. So why does the local staff tell another story? What are they seeing differently? How will it impact results?

5. Evaluate Every Step of the Way. Stephanie, a New Yorker out of her element, takes the reader along with her as she learns by trial and error…who to listen to, when to act, and how to evaluate the impact of her efforts. Why can’t she convince the curanderas (healers) to start a business based on their expertise with herbs that will increase their income? What do the curanderas see that she doesn’t?

The Conclusion shows how the guiding principles provide a roadmap for “doing good” effectively. Here, we use our personal experience and examples from experts to substantiate each guiding principle, illustrating how doing good” applies across many countries and at home as well as abroad.

The Discussion Guide is a tool to assist readers in analyzing the stories from multiple points of view. We hope that the questions will provoke readers to ask their own questions and find their own answers to Doing Good.

[1] Poll, Orlando Parade, March 7, 2010.