Author Q&A with Tori Hogan

  • February 5, 2013

Jeni Oppenheimer interviews Tori Hogan, author of Beyond Good Intentions: A Journey Into the Realities of International Aid.

Beyond Good Intentions is both a moving story of one woman’s personal journey and an urgent call to arms to change the way we offer aid overseas. Tori Hogan’s candid reflections on international aid shine a light on our ability to improve the lives of others, often in ways we would never expect.  (Questions by Jeni Oppenheimer)

Q&A for Beyond Good Intentions

In the past, you have worked in various mediums such as films and blogging. What made you want to switch to the book form?

I chose to share this story in book format because I felt that it would allow me to explore the issue of aid effectiveness in greater depth than I’d been able to do in the past. I also liked the idea of challenging myself to tackle a new medium. Writing a book was undoubtedly one of the hardest things I’ve ever done, but also one of the most rewarding.

Throughout Beyond Good Intentions, there is an overwhelming emphasis on local connections. How do you see this focus on local ownership working within the international aid system, and more broadly, a globalizing society?

Ideally, aid projects need to be locally conceived and locally driven to ensure that they address the community’s priorities in a way that makes sense for the local context. Also, local ownership increases the likelihood that the project will survive even after the international aid organizations have disappeared. As we become more globalized, there is often a tendency to apply a “one-size-fits-all” approach to development. However, the importance of local perspective when designing interventions should not be underestimated.

Part of the strength of your book was the breadth of perspectives you were able to incorporate. How do you keep in touch with so many people across the countries you have been in?

I am constantly fascinated by the array of people I meet during my travels. Everyone has a story to share, and it’s so rewarding when you’re able to connect in meaningful ways with the people you meet on your journeys. I’ve been able to keep in touch with many of the people I’ve befriended along the way through regular visits, letter writing and, more recently, through digital forms of communication.

Who is the target audience for your book?

The primary target group for Beyond Good Intentions includes readers who have had minimal exposure to the topic of aid effectiveness in the past but who are curious about how we can more effectively help the world. My hope is that by writing the book as a personal narrative, the topic can feel more accessible to a wider audience. I’ve also found that Beyond Good Intentions appeals to those who have been immersed in the aid industry before — including ex-aid workers and volunteers — who are now trying to make sense of their experiences.

What change would you like to see in people after having read it?

My hope is that Beyond Good Intentions inspires readers to be more conscientious as donors, volunteers or aid workers. I also hope that my story of traveling 18,000 miles to thank a refugee boy who changed my life inspires readers to express their gratitude to anyone who has made a difference in their own lives.

What do you see as the next step in your work?

This is the big question I’m grappling with at the moment. After 10 years as an advocate for improving international aid, I’m starting to wonder if it even makes sense to try to mend such a broken industry. I’m going to take some time to step back and reconsider my role in this work as I look for innovative ways to circumvent traditional aid for greater impact.

In the book, you discuss your personal relationship with Mark. What made you want to write your personal life into the book rather than writing just another development book?

I wrote Beyond Good Intentions as a memoir with the intention of opening up the topic of aid effectiveness to a whole new audience. There are plenty of political-science books on the topic, but very few personal narratives. I ultimately decided to include the story of my personal relationship with Mark in the book because I felt that it would make me more relatable as a narrator while also providing some balance to a rather serious subject matter.

To me it seemed that there was a theme of the importance of dignity in your discoveries. Do you see this as a trend that people are starting to grasp globally within the aid community?

It’s alarming to see how frequently aid organizations overlook the issue of dignity. I wholeheartedly believe that if an aid project doesn’t uphold the dignity of the recipients, it isn’t a good project. There are a handful of enlightened aid organizations that grasp this fact, but there are still countless projects that continue to treat recipients in paternalistic ways, that implement inappropriate projects or that force communities to put their hands out instead of enabling them to solve their own problems.

The book focuses on several large well known charities, such as Save the Children, UNICEF and the One Acre Fund, and critiques their methods. What do you think are three cost-effective solutions that could be implemented in line with your criticism of approaches within these organizations?

Three free solutions that would have immeasurable impact include: 1) listening to the needs of the people they’re trying to help (I can’t tell you how often this step is skipped!); 2) collectively standing up to the donor community to demand longer budget cycles and less donor control over projects; and 3) establishing feedback loops with the recipients so aid organizations can continually improve their approaches.

Jeni Oppenheimer got her B.A. in English with a focus on creative writing from the University of Puget Sound, and has written for the Daily Telegraph.

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