Critique the current system of international aid and you are bound to make some people angry. This is something that Tori Hogan has gotten use to as she’s taken her recently completed film “Beyond Good Intentions” on the road for a series of screenings that involve conversations revolving around each of the short, webisode-style videos that comprise the work. Under the banner headline “What Works In International Aid?” each vignette examines a different aspect of the do-good game in developing countries including microfinance, disaster relief, faith-based aid and more. Global Washington sent Tori some interview questions after attending her recent screening in Seattle, where the conversations following each episode ranged from inspiring to downright contemptuous. Whatever your opinions are regarding the state of international giving there is one thing that’s clear: conversations like this are a vital component of improving how countless NGOs, governments, and foundations do their work. Here are some of Teri’s thoughts.
GW: In all of your travels and work in international aid, what do you think are some key elements of the system that are just plain broken?
TH: I’ve been working in the field of international aid for nearly a decade now and some of the most serious problems that I’ve continued to witness include: the challenges associated with current donor structures, the lack of accountability to the people being served, an absence of real innovation, and a shortage of truly critical assessments of what works and what doesn’t.
GW: On the flip side, what are some parts of aid that work really well?
TH: One of the greatest things that the field of international aid has going for it is that it is typically motivated by true compassion. There is no shortage of well-intentioned people around the world who are eager to help those in need. The ethic of giving seems to be universal, and the generosity of millions generates the necessary capital to make these aid projects run. Also, aid projects often have the flexibility to adapt to changing situations in the field and to fill in holes in government services (for better or worse).
GW: As a follow up, and this is a question I ask people all the time– if you had A Million Bux to hand out to an aid group, and NGO, a business, etc., who would you chose and why?
TH: I really can’t advocate for just one organization. But, on the whole, if I had a million dollars I would probably either give it to an organization that strengthens opportunities for social entrepreneurs, or I would invest it into a social business that is creating innovative, life-saving products to market to the poor.
After filming my series, I became more convinced that innovation is one of the keys to success in international aid (which is why I am so excited by the work of social entrepreneurs). I also realize that “profit” should not be seen as a dirty word in the development sector—turning “aid recipients” into “clients” provides an enormous amount of accountability and it’s amazing what happens when “customer satisfaction” trumps “donor satisfaction”.
GW: You seem much more comfortable as a filmmaker asking questions from the sidelines rather than rolling up your sleeves and trying to fix what’s broken. Is this cheating?
TH: Anyone who has done even the slightest bit of research on my life and my work would know that I am not merely operating from the sidelines. I started working in international aid in 1999 and I have been intensely involved in serving on the ground and working to reform the field ever since. But I also realized very early on that reforming the problems with aid from the inside of organizations is nearly impossible (After being disgusted with what I was witnessing in the field while working for a large international NGO, I wrote a scathing memo to executives which was never taken seriously). It became clear to me that I needed to invest my time and energy in more powerful methodologies.
I am not a filmmaker for the art of it; I am a filmmaker to make an impact. My films have already reached thousands of people in over 100 countries and they are stimulating a much-needed dialogue about the realities of aid among students, practitioners, and recipients. However, beyond my film work, I am also involved in providing educational programs on aid for the next generation of changemakers including workshops, training sessions, and summer research fellowships in aid effectiveness. I also am beginning to get involved in the policy side of this work through an array of advocacy campaigns. I also write a blog about these issues on SocialEdge, I provide pro-bono consultancy to existing and start-up aid organizations who are eager to improve their approaches, and I have just wrapped up a 16-city nationwide tour to promote these issues on a national level. I can hardly call this “cheating”. I made a decision in 2005 to dedicated my life to “fixing what’s broken” and I have been doing that ever since.
– Editor’s Note: We don’t think Tori is ‘cheating.’ But we do think this is a criticism that any documentarian, artist, or writer often faces.
GW: One thing I noticed at the screening is that your films actually started to fire some people up with your critiques of the aid situation. Is this something you experience often, and why do you think people take your suggestions so personally?
People are often fired up when they see my films, but the screening in Seattle was unique because it was the first time that I have ever had so many past and current aid workers in one room watching the films. By questioning the effectiveness of aid, many of the older viewers probably felt that I was also questioning the legitimacy of their life’s work. The other half of the audience, which was full of young college students, reacted in the opposite way. It was extremely interesting for me to see.
I have been showing these films all around the country and I am always thrilled when viewers get fired up. The purpose of this series is to generate this dialogue—I feel that I create a more powerful impact when I am able to stimulate strong reactions. One of the primary reasons that I get such reactions to my films is because many people want to believe that the aid world is now and always has been the “good industry.” They want to be assured that their time and donations have made a positive impact on those in need (it can be disturbing to have this questioned). But I continually remind viewers that when providing aid we are dealing with peoples’ lives… it is absolutely irresponsible to rely on our good intentions alone and never question whether or not we are really helping.
GW: What’s next for you? More films? More school? A new career all together?
TH: I am dedicated to reforming the field of international aid. I see it as my life’s calling. The next steps are still to be determined, but it will likely involve a combination of filmmaking, educational work, and advocacy.
And we wish Tori the best with her work. Here’s one of the webisodes below. You can watch the ten-episode series at Beyond Good Intentions online.