Q&A With Tori
What inspired your original interest in humanitarian aid?
As a college student I was initially planning for a career as a geneticist, but after spending time in a refugee camp in Lebanon I felt deeply called to the field of humanitarian aid. I was able to witness the injustices that are associated with both poverty and forced migration, and I wanted to use my life to help in some way.
How did your experience with Save the Children affect you?
When I signed up to intern for Save the Children in Dadaab refugee camp I was full of naïve ambitions to change the world. I assumed I would be able to make a positive impact in East Africa. Unfortunately, I soon faced the reality that a lot of the aid projects weren’t working, the ideas being implemented weren’t sound, and the organization’s impact was negligible. I felt both cheated and jaded, vowing to spend the rest of my life uncovering how the international aid regime could be reformed.
What was the moment that changed your life and turned you into an aid critic?
The catalytic moment that prompted me to leave the field of international aid occurred in the summer of 2002 when a Somali boy stood up in a class of refugee students I was interviewing and boldly told me, “A lot of aid workers come and go, but nothing changes. If the aid was effective we wouldn’t still be living like this after all these years. Do you really think you have the answer to our problems?” It was the wake-up call I needed. That boy, who I would find out years later was named Ahmed, changed the path of my life.
What inspired you to write Beyond Good Intentions?
I never guessed that I would write my first book by the age of thirty, but after returning to East Africa in 2010 to find and thank Ahmed for changing my life, I knew I had a story I needed to share with the world. I wanted to open up the topic of aid effectiveness to a broader audience by writing about it from a very personal perspective.
What is the hardest part about being an aid critic?
Being an aid critic is a tricky role to play because while some people are willing to engage in a dialogue about how aid can be improved, there are far more people who would rather not consider the issue at all. Many people I’ve met would rather not talk about the possibility that their donations abroad might not have made any impact or, worse yet, might have even had a negative impact. It can be a very lonely place to be speaking out against the so-called “good industry.”
What is the Beyond Good Intentions film series?
The Beyond Good Intentions film series was my first project aimed at uncovering how international aid could be more effective. In 2006/2007 I embarked on a year-long, round-the-world journey to eight different countries and had the great fortune to meet and interview countless aid workers and recipients for the film series. The resulting ten-part documentary series was released in 2009 and has since been viewed by over 100,000 people in more than 165 countries. Each episode covers a different topic related to aid effectiveness with the hope of helping to spark a meaningful dialogue about how aid can be improved. (visit www.beyondgoodintentionsfilms.com to watch the series).
Describe some of the biggest problems you’ve witnessed in international aid.
Some of the biggest problems I’ve seen include the imposition of ineffective aid “solutions” on recipient communities, the lack of accountability between aid organizations and the people they’re serving, a tendency for aid projects to follow the latest trends instead of the proven approaches to successful development, short budget timelines that don’t allow for long-term strategic planning, and a system in which the donors tend to control the decision-making processes.
Where does your hope come from?
I used to be extremely jaded when it came to my thoughts about international aid, but I’m starting to find more hope. International aid as a system is still tremendously broken, but there are inspiring individuals in all corners of the globe who are making a difference in their own communities. People are changing the world in small but meaningful ways every single day. My hope also stems from the fact that now, more than ever before, it seems that a larger number of people are willing to step back and examine the aid industry with a more critical lens.
What have been some of your favorite experiences during your world travels?
I’ve had the incredible fortune to see much of the world, both through my work and my own explorations. In fact, to date my global adventures have taken me to every continent and more than seventy-five countries. My favorite experiences always center around connecting with the local people in some interesting way such as learning how to dance the frevo from the Carnival queen in Brazil, living with a family on a chicken farm in Uganda, or making new friends on long boat rides in Cambodia.
What advice do you have for aspiring writers?
My first advice is to make sure you really want to write a book. Writing Beyond Good Intentions was undoubtedly one of the hardest things I’ve ever done. Surviving the writing and publishing process required an enormous amount of discipline, perseverance, and patience. Luckily, it all paid off in the end because I was able to share my story with the world– but it’s no cake walk! Some additional advice I would give aspiring writers includes 1) find a schedule that maximizes your productivity (I got up at 5 a.m. everyday to write), 2) be ready for lots of isolation (as an extrovert I wasn’t prepared for how lonely the writing process would be), and 3) surround yourself with supportive people who can guide you along the way (including a dedicated agent, editor, and publicist).
What advice do you have for aspiring aid workers?
Be humble. Humility is probably the most important trait to possess if you’re considering a career in international aid. You also need to be an excellent listener because the only way you’re going to do great work in international aid is if you’re able to deeply listen to the people you’re aiming to serve in order to truly understand both their needs and their ideas for how to create change. I also encourage aspiring aid workers to double-check their motivations to make sure they’re getting into this field for the right reasons (you’d be amazed at how many people sign up as aid workers just to have an interesting way to see the world). Also, be open to the possibility that international aid work might not be for you– you might be able to make a bigger impact through another field or in your own country where you have more legitimacy operating.