Good Intention, Good Practice

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Good Intention, Good Practice


(if you are just joining today, please read this post first: When Rich Westerners Don’t Know They Are Being Rich Westerners)

Today, as promised, one of my (many) failures and what I’m learning about intentions versus practice.

I remember once being with a group of homeless women, eating spaghetti with our fingers, keeping our children from stepping in human feces, trying to keep flies from entering my mouth while I shoveled in noodles and greasy sauce. One of the young boys had a badly burned hand, he had fallen into his mother’s cooking fire the day before and didn’t go to the doctor. The burn was deep and raw and oozing.

I took a picture.

Writing that makes me want to cry. I don’t want to write that, I don’t want to tell you. And I certainly don’t want to tell you what I was thinking as the picture was snapped. But I am practicing humility, confessing my own weakness, asking forgiveness.

I was thinking, “That picture, and the story of a homeless woman and her son, of keeping children out of shit and flies out of mouths, will surely motivate people back home to give money to our development work.”

No matter that this wasn’t our development work. Our development work is my husband teaching at the University, under a Djiboutian dean, within the Djiboutian system, partnering with local professors. Our development work is something I can fully throw myself behind, whole-heartedly support. This was a weekly meal with women, trying to care for the alien and the widow and the orphan. Also a good thing, also something that met a felt need, but look at how I turned it upside down, look at how easily I could have manipulated to people back home. (I didn’t.)

I’m sorry. I’m sorry I thought it, I’m sorry I took the photo. I’m sorry that this is the story people ‘back home’ seem to expect to hear about Africa. I’m sorry that people are more inclined to say, ‘yes that is what happens in that place,’ when they see a burned child than when they see a room of Djiboutians earning a university degree. And I’m sorry for the ways I have perpetuated that by manipulating stories or photos. There is pressure to keep money flowing and tugging heart strings with emotionally charged photos, though perhaps not culturally accurate or fully truthful, is tempting.

There is also pressure to maintain attention (both on the need and on the development worker), to keep my overseas experience the most exotic, my ‘sacrifice’ the greatest, the most dramatic, the most tragic, the most other, the most sure-to-garner-a-lot-of-traffic. But to be honest and authentic, photos, stories, and attitudes  need to provide a well-balanced perspective of the beautiful and the broken, both of which can be found in every neighborhood around the world.

I had good intentions with that burn photo – of raising money for medicine, of stirring up an emotional response that could lead to further involvement. But is that the best practice for this mother and her son? To use their pain? To take her out of her community, make her rely on a potentially compassionate western audience? That would have contributed to relational poverty, which I address in depth here: Contributing to Relational Poverty.

“Perhaps the only people with the right to look at images of suffering of this extreme order are those who could do something to alleviate it – say, the surgeons at the military hospital where the photograph was taken – or those who could learn from it. The rest of us are voyeurs, whether or not we mean to be.” Susan Sontag, Regarding the Pain of Others

Good intentions are just that, good intentions. They often leave a negative impact. Does that mean do nothing? Look at suffering and pain and do nothing? Absolutely not. It means we must work together toward good practice. This means we must listen to voices that don’t shout loudly, don’t have the largest followings or the most Facebook shares. This means listen to people who might not have internet, which would require personal, face-to-face engagement and probably a much longer time-table. Read books by non-western writers. Read history, be prepared. Dig deeper into cultural values than trying on a new outfit or going to an ethnic restaurant.

This also means donating and funding organizations need to think critically about their procedures, values, expectations, and their relationship with those they are funding. The relationship needs to be authentic, transparent, and the work should include local input and feedback.

“There is much more to doing good work than “making a difference.” There is the principle of first do no harm. There is the idea that those who are being helped ought to be consulted over the matters that concern them.” Teju Cole, The White Savior Industrial Complex

We have to be willing to apologize, clearly and often. We have to ask for help, confess our ignorance. We have to relinquish the reins of leadership and control and must learn to see the value systems of others as just that, valuable. I’m reminded of Barbara Kingsolver’s book The Poisonwood Bible in which the father refuses to plant the way the local people do, certain that they will learn from his expertise. His system fails. We have to take off our way of seeing the world and start to see a better way to plant, start to see a different story, a deeper story, the redemptive story.

“Where the world sees poverty, we want it to see a different sort of richness.

Where the world sees violence, we want it to see people longing for peace.

Where the world sees crime, we want it to see neighbors looking out for each other.

Where the world sees brokenness, we want it to see stories of hope and strength.

Where the world sees destruction, we want it to see signs of God’s redemption.

Amidst the darkness, we want the world to see the Kingdom.”

Peter Anderson

I, for one, have a lot of work to do in moving from good intention to good practice.

There has been progress, though, since the burned-hand-photo. Next Monday I will write about learning how to learn, learning how to be still. And I will try to get a bit more practical.

*image credit Janet Ramsden via Flickr


  1. SG October 14, 2013 at 12:08 pm - Reply

    Thanks for tackling this topic, Rachel. Last night, a teammate and I were discussing the concept of telling others’ stories that have been entrusted to you, of exploiting for the purpose of raising support or other manipulative reasons. I referred her to your blog. As I work in donor relations and send out reports on current projects, our large donor agencies want to hear the stories of transformation through our charity’s work that they fund. The beneficiaries agree to share their stories. Since these are “success stories”, the ending brings hope into the picture. Writing a proposal for funding for a new project generally means telling of the on-going struggles of a community and its members. There is a fine line somewhere of painting a picture for those whom you want to help or are helping (through support of us or our NGO), and exploitation. I could relate to your story of considering the use of the poor family’s story to highlight your development work, when that isn’t even what you do. Since my husband and I have desk jobs and are rarely out in the field, we don’t have the “sexy” stories to tell except second and third hand. Well, much discussion needs to happen on this topic. I’ll have to check out some of the books/ articles you’ve mentioned.

    • Rachel Pieh Jones October 14, 2013 at 12:45 pm - Reply

      I love that you mentioned the ‘sexy’ stories. This is exactly what I was getting at – some stories offer that sort of voyeuristic or titillating aspect that the more mundane, but true stories don’t. And yet those true stories, well told, can be so inspiring and beautiful. On another note – great work in seeking the ‘okay’ of the people whose stories are shared.

  2. CathyB October 14, 2013 at 2:00 pm - Reply

    I thought about your post (When Rich Westerners…) as I read today’s (Oct 14) My Utmost for His Highest:

    Oswald Chambers/My Utmost for His Highest: “The key to the missionary’s work is the authority of Jesus Christ, not the needs of the lost. We are inclined to look on our Lord as one who assists us in our endeavors for God. Yet our Lord places Himself as the absolute sovereign and supreme Lord over His disciples. ”

    When we take our eyes off Jesus, no matter how “good” the reason, we lose our focus. And I always seem to find a log in my own eye whenever I am looking for the splinter in another’s.

  3. MaDonna October 14, 2013 at 2:25 pm - Reply

    Thanks for your honesty. That is something I struggle with sometimes as well. I’m not a photographer, but there are pics I’ve thought about taking (or have taken) with that battle in my mind. Do I post? Do I write up the story?
    Love that you included that we should listen to the locals. It’s easy to think we have it all together, when they are the ones who know their culture best.
    I’m a “work-in-progress” as well. “Jia-you!” – in Chinese is a saying to cheer you on to the finish line, so I say to you. Keep going, He sees our hearts and will line up our intentions to make good practice.

    • Rachel Pieh Jones October 14, 2013 at 4:37 pm - Reply

      It is far to easy to make assumptions about something and to be totally wrong in how we’ve interpreted a situation. As an outsider I am learning to be more cautious in thinking I’ve grasped everything happening around me. Of course we learn over time and relationship, but it will always be important to know that I don’t know.

  4. Amber October 14, 2013 at 3:13 pm - Reply

    These are brave, necessary stories you are telling, Rachel. Thank you so much for sharing. Yours is a window into the world that consistently makes me reexamine my own thoughts and like. Thank you.

  5. Amber October 14, 2013 at 3:13 pm - Reply


  6. richelle @ "our wright"-ing pad October 14, 2013 at 5:06 pm - Reply

    so much respect for you and what you just shared. and… who among us hasn’t been guilty of this… the idea that the end somehow justifies the means. what i find even more heart stopping is the idea that i’m somehow engaging and totally blind to what i’m doing.

    there’s such a balance, though – between bravely doing exactly what we are being compelled to do and then accepting consequences/being accountable and responsible and/or being willing to change paths when additional knowledge/experience/etc. shows us mistakes and missteps even if it is humbling/humiliating… and allowing our fear of doing it wrong to paralyze us and prevent us from acting at all.

    oh… our need for divine discernment ~

    • Rachel Pieh Jones October 15, 2013 at 11:37 am - Reply

      Exactly, thanks Richelle. Discernment, not being paralyzed, humility, accepting the consequences…

  7. Cindy October 15, 2013 at 12:40 pm - Reply

    Thoughtful piece spoken from such a humble spirit. Thank you for the reminder to listen to the less-loud voices. I like when development organizations show us their work without the soundtrack. Because true change doesn’t occur through crescendoes or climactic moments, but by the steady beat of laborious day to day life – moving forward one step and another. Keep telling the unsexy, ordinary stories – they are the true melodies of life.

  8. […] More than good intention. […]

  9. suzanne October 20, 2013 at 2:40 am - Reply

    “There is pressure to keep money flowing and tugging heart strings with emotionally charged photos, though perhaps not culturally accurate or fully truthful, is tempting.” yes, i feel this. sometimes i even mention to a friend, “we could take a picture of that particular lot and that bare-foot kid just being a bare-foot kid and send it in a mission update letter and make our city look a lot worse off than it actually is.” it is tempting to tell people what they want to hear (what they assume) in order to get money.

    every time i come to your blog i learn something and/or am challenged about how i am living in a country where i didn’t grow up. thanks for going before me in wisdom and humility and sharing your thoughts and lessons!

  10. […] Good Intention, Good Practice) […]

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