Helpfully White

Doing Aid the White Way: Free to Run

There’s two ways to do aid: the right way? And the white way.

There’s a right way and there’s the white way to do things in a developing country. The right way involves supporting existing efforts in (NAME OF COUNTRY BEN CARSON CAN’T FIND ON A MAP) because the (PEOPLE DONALD TRUMP WANTS TO REGISTER) need your money and they don’t really need your ideas. Which make for great photo ops, but aren’t going to be sustainable mainly because they all think your ideas are too silly for words, and your program will end when your assignment does.

The white way involves putting together a team of experts whose cultural exposure to the country of choice ranges anywhere from a white paper they read back in the Peace Corps to knowing that it features some of their favorite food, which they insist on bringing to every office party and implying that it’s your white privilege that’s stopping you from enjoying a second helping of whatever that thing is.

The white way means you do things like putting together Kickstarter campaigns that feature a prime selection of hopeless looking children and their toys made from discarded AK-47 parts. Or you give a series of TED talks, where you celebrate the meaning behind some word you learned from a girl you mentor via Skype, teaching her to code, because what with the fetid drinking water and the AIDS rate, she probably needs to know how to make the next super disruptive app.

Or you invest enough time in a country to get the locals to do something outside of their comfort zone. And you raise money for this thing with your amazing feats of athletic prowess. And from there, it’s the next step to reaching the peak of White Way Awesomeness: you start an organization.

Afghan students run to class as teachers at the girls school in Kabul, Afghanistan, receive English language study classes from U.S. Forces-Afghanistan volunteers June 29 to help improve their verbal skills in the classroom as they teach the English language to a new generation of students.

Afghan students run to class as teachers at the girls school in Kabul, Afghanistan, receive English language study classes from U.S. Forces-Afghanistan volunteers June 29 to help improve their verbal skills in the classroom as they teach the English language to a new generation of students.

Which is pretty much the path taken by a group called “Free to Run,” which has used the kind of time and energy some of us put toward planning our Hulu binges and put together an organization that’s geared toward teaching Afghan women how to run, do yoga, and take dance classes. Which organization was founded by a superhuman UN worker who, when she’s not running distances that remind mere mortals why we invented the wheel, is changing the world, one runner at a time.

When women can engage in movement and reconnect their mind and body, especially when they have the chance to do that outdoors, they are finding new sides of themselves and reclaiming public space. It changes perceptions that society has of what role women can and should play. – Stephanie Case, founder of Free to Run

Case started Free to Run after raising $10,000 via fundraising for ultramarathons for battered women’s shelters in Afghanistan. Which are the kinds of places that need continued support. Also support for legislation that would make it harder for men to beat their wives. Or greater pressure on the Afghan government to provide opportunities for women in said government. But running’s nice, too.

Which is the kind of sentiment that former female Afghan Olympic runners would probably agree with, if given the chance to be a part of efforts like Free to Run. Except that those women aren’t…well…they’re not ultramarathoners, for starters. They ran much shorter distances, and didn’t do very well.

And it’s not like they didn’t have opportunities for success. Robina Jalalai competed in the Olympics in 2004 and 2008, where she placed poorly, then worse. And came home to run a failed political campaign in 2010. And in 2012, Tahmina Kohistani’s best efforts didn’t even get her out of the preliminaries. So it’s good that we have winning, white role models to show Afghan girls that you can run anywhere you want in Afghanistan.

And with that freedom, you should run all the way to Sri Lanka. Which is where, in February, a team of Afghan women, proteges of the Noble Order of White Helpfulness, will travel to compete. Because what a bunch of Muslim women from an arid Asian nation need more than anything is a shot at running an ultramarathon in a tropical Buddhist country.

At some point we need to get past the “might help, couldn’t hurt” approach to development work. Where we take a long view of aid programming, and think about building the kind of local partnerships that mean success in 20 years, not 20 months. When we start thinking at a generational level, so much of what we do changes dramatically.

We start thinking in terms of actual development, not just hitting our metrics. We start thinking about the future, not just tomorrow. We start planning for the kind of change you can’t get from another yoga class. And maybe then we start doing things the right way. And not the white way.


Also published on Medium.