The Do-Gooder Complex: Holier than Thou

Quick Background: My name is Arnav, a Canadian/Brit from Indian heritage. Since graduating from university, I have worked for a UK aid-funded NGO and Dutch Impact investor in Nairobi, Kenya, in the hope of doing ‘good’. The experiences, relationships and stories from my time here informs my critique which, as always, speaks to the averages and recognises the international development space is vast and multifaceted. I come from a place of ignorance but also humility.

In January 2020, on my return flight to Kenya I found a loud group of young Americans bustling about with shirts emblazoned ‘INVADE KENYA 2020’. Yes, you read that correctly. I could not believe my eyes but with the dangling crosses, I discovered these to be budding missionaries. Intrigued, I approached one leader to inquire: their Missouri Bible group had partnered with a community in Busia, Kenya, and over many years their engagement had brought money, books (bibles) and schools to Busia. Eager and earnest in their belief that this was doing great good in the world, I was less convinced. It seemed manipulative as these Christian do-gooders waltz into communities to impose their hymns and candle waving in exchange for funds. ‘Voluntourists’ are much the same: rich kids enjoying a safari full of wildlife and poverty shows with enough time to build a short-lived public utility and feel good about oneself. These opinions are shared amongst the international development community which looks down upon such do-gooders that encapsulate what is wrong about development work: ignorance, vanity and ultimately, little impact.

However, upon reflection, I began to question my own role in Kenya. Working in the international development space, we, as expatriates, are easily lionized by society as being altruistic for leaving our lives of comfort and ‘success’ to take the path less trodden (but muddier). Our moral superiority derives from our image of making great sacrifices, notably distinguished from immigrants by our name of ‘expat’ in this aura of ‘giving’ rather than ‘taking’ (but also for the colour of our skin). And yet, from what I have seen, the realities of ‘expat life’ consists of a lot of privilege, vague intentions and little sacrifice. Like these missionaries, we too come with an external organisation and from a high-income family to a lower income community. We, too, have a set of beliefs of what ‘progress’ looks like and how to do ‘development’ correctly, dismissing what locals may consider best for them. The dividing line between ‘us’ and ‘them’ is narrow. Through honest reflection I wish to challenge this superiority and offer ideas on how we can do more to contribute. Remembering, we (including myself) are not holier than thou.

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The system of African Dictators and our role in it

Our Western narrative on African dictators is incomplete. By focusing on the well-documented atrocities of Africa’s ‘Big Man’ Leadership, we neglect the system which created and enabled them – a system that, in part, we continue to play a role in. We need to examine the origins of this system – not merely to apportion blame –  to help us begin the work of uprooting it and making way for better systems of African governance to take form.

Disclaimer: The problem of African dictators needs an African perspective and voice more than any other. However, this is also a problem created and enabled by outsiders, I write from this angle and many of the sources that have informed it are also from foreigners. The ‘we’ is therefore for Westerners. This brings limitations to my understanding and nuance. For this and for any inaccuracies, emblematic of my amateurism, I apologise. I hope, however, the larger point still stands and I greatly welcome thoughts to the contrary in the comments below.

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Uninvited

Uninvited, they arrived in their droves.

At first by land, followed by sea and then by air.

They made different sounds but spoke the same gestures, “We come in peace”, they said.


Only, at each turn, their “peace” stood for the imposition of their belief system, for soon:

Guns captured bodies in the name of racial hierarchies, 

God captured minds in the name of civilising, and 

Greed captured wealth in the name of capitalism.


The names, the eras and the perpetrators may have changed but the underlying belief remained the same: inferiority. An inferiority which imposed a foreign system for value and justified the subsequent robbery of it.


And today, as an expat, I ask: “if they are not us, how are we not them?”

Photo credits to my flatmate Scott, instagram: @scott.fagerstrom. Can you spot me?

Judging for the Common Good

When I read Ayn Rand’s ‘The Fountainhead’ at the age of 16, I fell in love with the novel. Set in New York City in the 1920s, the novel centers around Howard Roark, a young architect who aspires to design architecture in his own style. When he refuses to compromise his values to comply with the architectural norms of beauty, he is mocked and made an outcast. Bowing neither to public shame nor pressure, Roark stands with an unflinching commitment to his values, creating masterpieces that are later recognized for their brilliance. I greatly admired Howard Roark (my mother soon regretted giving me this book).

In Fountainhead, Ayn Rand was painting a world where Roark, an individualist, reigned supreme over collectivism. Today, her world has arrived. Removing the constraints of community, the individual has been emancipated from conformity. But this has come at a cost, as inequality reaches new heights, as humans become each other’s greatest threat and as we recklessly damage the earth, the individual has lost the duty of communal morality. We need to bring it back to solve the communal problems we face today and for this, I believe, we need to judge and shame. It sounds harsh, I know, but let me explain.

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Money-Unconscious

There seems to be a trend in society, particularly among the ‘millenials’, to shift from being money-minded to money-conscious. To see money as an enabler for a certain lifestyle rather than an object of life itself. This cultural shift belies the fact that our fundamental attitude towards money remains unchanged: money remains at the forefront of our minds and thereby our choices.

I don’t want this to be the case and so I have chosen a different approach: to not accumulate money at all. Since last year, as a rule, I donate at least a third of my pre-tax income, save little and do not invest. This initiative comes on the back of years of reducing the meaning of money in my life and has liberated my ‘life’ choices from being money-conscious, enabled me to follow my passion and (better) live by my principles. I would not be living in Kenya were it not for this.

Disclaimer: It is very important to note that I can take this approach thanks to a great deal of privilege I have been lucky to receive: no ‘living’ responsibilities (other than my house-plants), no debt, a family that can support themselves as well as myself in case of an emergency, a citizenship that guarantees a basic livelihood and safety, employable skills, good health and (although not a privilege as such) no partner.

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Podcasts: my answer to boredom

I love podcasts as a wonderful way to learn and engage whilst also doing something else: walking, cleaning up, cooking, eating, travelling and even working (when appropriate). I have likely already bothered you with suggestions and rather than perpetually do so, I thought I would outline the podcasts I listen to with different regularity and for different purposes. This list is broken into thematic sections and each is ordered in rough order of preference. Let me know if enjoy any of them or have things to add!

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Tell me, what is it you plan to do with your one wild and precious life?

When terrorists attack or natural disasters occur, we are reminded of the brutal finality of death: that one day we will fall and there will be no one there to catch us. As I see it, we will have lived but one life and we shall exist just as we did before our short time on this earth: nonexistent and insignificant. This amazes me, confounds me and troubles me.

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Japan: the land of the rising sun

(Disclaimer: A creative writing piece so please forgive the generalisations and mischaracterisations! Also a big thanks to my parents for making this trip possible.)

The plane took off from Tokyo and carried over the sea as cargo-ships drifted away on a black mirror. Japan lay awake; restless at night, its endless sprawl burning the clouds auburn. Peaceful, respectful and unique.

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My 2019 New Year’s Resolution: Don’t Set a Resolution, Set a Habit

When the earth (roughly) completes its rotation of sun by some arbitrary point tonight, the Western world finds an opportunity to reset. Reset the year, the clocks, the wrongs and plan for the upcoming ‘tour de sun’. We take this opportunity to pause and set New Year’s Resolutions. Alas, if only they were effective. New Year Resolutions may be fantastic for gym owners and diet-sellers, but they rarely achieve what they set out to do. This year, I have one resolution: don’t set a resolution; set a habit.

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The Existential Questions

Humans are spiritual beings and as the wonderful poet John O’Donohue wrote, “we all have an inner sense of mystery”. Such mystery is thanks to our consciousness and as we search, we are unsettled by the big questions that arise. For what is the relevance of one amongst infinity? What is the meaning of life?

Where do the Existential Questions come from?

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An Evening in Casablanca

A more creative style of writing for me, let me know what you think in comments below!

The train pulled into the station at 10:15pm. The journey had taken me through the arid Moroccan hills from the ancient ninth century medina walls of Fes to the big city lights of Casablanca. My cabin was already crowded with life when two young Moroccans arrived carrying with them a small puppy who defiantly poked her head out of their backpack. She brought an innocence to the cabin; the mood became light and smiles abounded. We began chatting, in French, and by the time we had reached Casablanca, we were ‘frères’. They insisted on walking me to my youth hostel and offered food, accommodation and company if I ever returned to Morocco. The authenticity of their offer surprised me – in the “West”, such displays of generosity were to be met with suspicion – but here it was customary.

It was 11pm now, I found my dormitory and set down my pack. Exhausted and famished. I needed food but unfortunately not any food, vegan food. Restaurants had closed for the night but the equivalent of corner shops remained open, their offering limited to cookies, dairy snacks and bread. Late-night sandwich and deep-fry shops appeared but were only serving animal flesh. A cubby-hole shack wafted smells of something sizzling but my plea of “Végétarien?” was quickly dismissed. This was not hopeful.

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Don’t Embellish your failures, Regret them

When Einstein wrote “failure is success in progress”, he was (probably) hoping to diminish the stigma around failing and emphasising that failure is inevitable and should be accepted. Today, failures are indeed accepted. We fail, embellish them with a positive spin and move on to try again: ‘Don’t dwell on and regret your failures in the past, look forward’. My blog posts have echoed this by complementing a brief recognition of my failures at self-discipline with a redeeming justification that, hey, at least I tried!

I now regret this. One’s own failures should be exposed, dwelled upon and be painful. For without the pain, we will not regret and without the regret, we will not change from the mindset that led us to fail in the first place. Continue reading Don’t Embellish your failures, Regret them