Lessons from a brown paper lunch sack

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The lunch that started it all

I spent the last week in NYC and last Sunday I had bought a loaf of bread, PB&J, chips, some fruit and a pack of granola bars so I could take my lunch each day and save a bit of money.

Packing today, I realized I had four pieces of bread, leftover PB&J, three granola bars and two apples.

Short of wasting any food, I decided to pack a lunch for myself and a lunch for one of the random people asking my food and money I had passed on the street throughout my week. I even packed their lunch in a little brown paper bag.

I set off to catch the bus to the airport and figured I would offer the lunch to the first person I saw.

Except that I didn’t see anyone. Because it was cold and rainy. And who wants to sit outside when it’s cold and rainy (even if they do need money and food)?

I also felt myself getting slightly annoyed that there were no people to take the lunch I had so nicely prepared. I mean I spent five minutes making it, the most they could do is show up and accept it, right?

Disenchanted, I put the lunch sack in my book bag and boarded the bus to the airport. And sitting on the bus I realize I had been thinking about my “lunch to a person who needs it” project in the wrong way.

I just did this project without ever asking if this project is really needed. How do I know people even like peanut butter and blueberry jelly? Why did I not think about the weather when I planned my project? Are there more (and better) resources for folks to get what they need rather than a single brown bag lunch?

Thinking about it in broader, international terms, I think my problem is applicable to a vast number of non-governmental organizations (NGOs, essentially the 501c(3)s of the world community) that work to solve world problems. The NGOs rush in, usually from another country, and start up their programs without consulting the folks in the local community. And then the programs become ineffective at best and harmful to the community at worst.

Other issues include the NGO programs not being sustainable which can create a cycle of dependency, more donation money being used for infrastructure rather than for programming and the program folding after just a few years.

My thought is that NGOs need to work within the current structure of a community to enhance it and to have the community members actively involved in creating their own change.

Contrary to popular belief, most people are already empowered to create better lives for themselves, the challenge is to remove the barriers that prevent them from do that.

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