Khaki-Wearing Westerners Do Not Have The Answers

Once a week this summer, come back to The Causemopolitan to read a guest post that will inspire you right up out of your seat to get involved and give back in a special series called Cause It’s Summer! Featured bloggers will be sharing their own reflections and stories, tips and resources, and perspective on philanthropy, social entrepreneurship and their own cause-filled life. This week welcome Milena Arciszewski, who I first met in the Philippines last summer where we were both Kiva Fellows. I have a ton of respect for Milena, her courageous story and journey creating her new venture, Pando Projects. From Westernized volunteer to self-aware activist, Milena’s story is one we can all relate to. What is the story that shaped you? Email me at sloane@thecausemopolitan.com to share your story in an upcoming guest post.


In 2008, I quit my job as an investment banker in New York and left to volunteer in Bosnia, Kenya, and the Philippines. I still remember the satisfaction of cleaning out my desk and leaving the office for the last time. The sun hit my face and I smiled a magnanimous smile - thinking that I was so brave and selfless to leave for a year to help people in developing nations.

For the majority of my time abroad I was a typical Western volunteer, wearing “sexless t-shirts and over-zippered khaki shorts” and thinking that I had the solutions to problems I couldn’t even begin to understand. It’s hard for me to admit this on a blog; it took me a long time to even admit it to myself. But I need to be honest about my initial superiority complex, because I think it’s a common problem among Western volunteers and aid workers, and is reflective of the larger problems of the Western aid model.

There was one specific experience that put me in my place and cemented my skepticism of Western aid. In Kenya I volunteered at an organization that trains teenage girls to be cooks, tailors, and hairdressers. These teenage girls live in the slums and many of them are single mothers, high school drop-outs, and/or sex workers. The program gives them an amazing opportunity to turn their lives around. Based on my experience as a banker, I was brought in to teach them business skills and raise money to pay for the equipment and supplies they needed to start their own businesses. I was ecstatic! It was such an amazing program and opportunity for me to make a real difference in their lives. I thought the program was a brilliant strategy for helping them break the cycle of poverty.

But nothing is ever as simple as it seems. The issues challenging these girls were so complex and so nebulous, that many of my initial assumptions for designing the program proved to be wrong. And despite my “expertise,” the program faced challenges I had never anticipated. For one, the girls didn’t want to work. As typical teenage girls, they showed up late, made excuses, and avoided responsibility. Secondly, the community rallied against the new businesses. There was already so much competition in their neighborhoods that the new center was perceived as a threat and attacked with salacious rumors that drove customers away. By the time I left Kenya, the program was a “success” in that we had trained the girls to be entrepreneurs and stocked a center with the equipment they needed to run their businesses. But the program was also struggling to survive, brought down by waning enthusiasm and the lack of customers. In my final days at the center, I felt overwhelmed and defeated. I had been so sure that the program would help get these girls out of poverty, but now it was unclear if we had accomplished anything more than pumping thousands of dollars into a program that no one even wanted in the first place.

I had tried my best, but as an outsider I had naturally overlooked major strategic challenges specific to those girls and that community. There’s no way I could have understood the complexities of their situation, so why did I ever think I could provide “solutions?” The only people that had the ability to develop an effective and sustainable program were the teenage girls themselves. They understand their needs, problems, and strengths - - they should have been the ones proposing solutions, not me. We did consult the girls, of course, but the program wasn’t their idea or their imitative. And I believe that is a large reason why the program wasn’t embraced. I believe that is a large reason why many Western aid programs aren’t embraced. For a program to work, it should be created and carried out by the people within the community, not by outside “experts” that don’t truly understand the issues. I was wrong to tell them what they needed; the best thing I could have done was listen.

I’m now starting a nonprofit called PandoProjects, which will help people develop grassroots projects to address problems within their own communities. Pando will provide all the tools, support and inspiration that people need to develop an idea for a community project, run their project effectively, and deliver their vision for a better future. I no longer think I have the answers; I simply want to provide the support that people need to develop their own.

As for those girls in Kenya – I wish them luck. I hope they realize that they don’t need a mzungu outsider to help them; they have the brains, beauty, creativity and spirit they need to help themselves. I still think Western aid is important, but I think it requires a major shift away from exported “solutions” to a model that simply empowers local people to pursue their ideas for improving their lives. I think John Wood said it best: “If you ask people to reach deep, to think creatively, and to produce extraordinary results, they usually will. But too often in our modern world, they are simply not asked.”


Milena Arciszewski graduated from the University of Virginia in 2006 with a degree in Economics.

She worked for several years as an investment banker at JPMorgan before becoming a Kiva Fellow and volunteering at microfinance institutions in Bosnia, Kenya, and the Philippines.

She now lives in New York and is starting a nonprofit called PandoProjects, to help Americans tackle the problems in their communities through grassroots initiatives. She loves backpacking, reading, travel, food, social entrepreneurship, and elephants.

She can be reached at milena@pandoprojects.org.

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