A great read for anyone wanting to make a difference in another culture

by Mary Ann McGivern

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A new book, Doing Good … Says Who?, offers a clear and creative analysis of our middle class efforts to help the poor. The authors, Connie Newton and Fran Early, have lived in Guatemala for decades. They interviewed 323 people, some several times. These Guatemalan Ladino, Mayan and foreign NGO workers told the stories of working together to make contributions to the community -- the things that went wrong as well as the successes.

Connie and Fran distilled the interviews into five chapter-length stories that illustrate these principles: Respect and Value the People; Build Trust Through Relationships; Do “With” Rather than “For”; Ensure Feedback and Accountability; and Evaluate Every Step of the Way. An essay at the end of the book cites much of the research, analysis and evaluation that undergird these principles, but the method of presenting them, story-telling, is a fine teaching tool.

Investors, medical personnel and missionaries all travel to poor countries to make a difference. But that does not mean we necessarily respect and value the people we work with. The authors quote a study of how the middle class view being poor as being without goods, while the poor are more likely to feel that their dignity has been taken away. This gap in appreciation of the other’s feelings makes it hard to accomplish much across the cultures. And that’s just one of the problems explored in chapter one.

Chapter one, Respect and Value the People, sets that insight in a deceptively simple account of establishing food programs in three villages (when it wasn’t quite what the local community had asked for) and then the donor-driven attempt to expand a successful program by ten-fold the following year. Family pressures on the community organizers, a newly hired accountant who rejects the informal receipt system that had been developed, and the insistence of the donors that the program must grow because the need is great -- all these elements are embodied in characters we like, who are trying to do good. There is no villain here. Their story unfolds slowly, developing subtle aspects that helped me to appreciate a complexity that is not transparent.

I’m shepherding a Spanish-language fundraising course in Denver next week with participants who’ve come from different Latin American countries. I’m setting up the schedule and coordinating all the activities. Reading Doing Good … Says Who?, I kept reevaluating the match between what the fundraisers are offering and what the participants want to learn. We will ensure feedback and accountability and we will evaluate every step of the way.

Similarly, I’m thinking about my participation in events around the Ferguson rebellion. There’s a Beloved Community conference this weekend I’m registered for, and as I read Doing Good … Says Who? I thought about how different black funerals are from white ones, how different our experience of the police is, and how different the Ferguson actions are from the peace demonstrations I’ve planned. The five principles developed for southern rural Guatemala apply here too.

All five of the stories told in the book are lovely. They reflect the deep affection of the authors for the people of Guatemala. And the persons the stories were modeled on all read the accounts and agree that the meaning of their experiences rings true.

Doing Good … Says Who? is a book to put in the hands of anybody who wants to make a difference in another culture -- church leaders partnering with villages, small giving clubs, do-gooders with a yen for travel. It’s a quick read but long on afterthoughts.

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