If only I had known…

Named as one of Foreign Policy Magazine’s “100 women to follow on Twitter,” Jennifer Lentfer (@intldogooder) has worked across southern and east Africa over the past decade. Focused on organizational development and learning, she has served with various international organizations and foundations in Zimbabwe, Malawi, Namibia, and the U.S. As the creator of how-matters.org, she works to place grassroots-driven development initiatives, which can be more genuinely responsive to local needs, at the forefront of international aid, philanthropy, and social enterprise. 

Last year Jennifer was invited to speak at her alma mater.  In preparation she jotted down some bits of advice for international development students and social good career seekers. Here’s a collection of those thoughts for Everyday Ambassador readers…

When I came out of grad school, I was programmed to think macro, think sustainability, to think that development economists had a clue (do they?). In other words, to think, think, think. Nothing in my training prepared me for what I would feel as an aid worker.


When I first saw this graph, I thought, “Gee, this would have been helpful” as I worked to discern my ‘calling’ from what the aid industry was requiring of me, i.e. think-think-manage-manage, and what was actually happening on the ground. The difference between helping, fixing and serving presented below is intended for health care providers, but I think it has real relevance for aid workers and do-gooders alike:




Perceiving person as “weak,” helped by the “strong.” Perceiving person as “broken;” their brokenness requires me to act. Perceiving person as “whole,” which I see and trust.
Based on inequality of strength. It incurs debts. We may inadvertently take away more than we could ever give. A form of judgment that creates distance. Experience of difference. Mutuality. We can only service that to which we are profoundly connected, that which we are willing to touch.
Experience of strength. Experience of mastery and expertise Experience of mystery, surrender, and awe.
Bases of Curing Bases of Curing Bases of Healing
Rachel Naomi Remen, 1996. “In service of life.” Noetic Sciences Review.


A quote I always keep nearby:

“If you believe if you’re going to…change the world, you’re going to end up either a pessimist or a cynic. But if you understand your limited power and define yourself by your ability to resist injustice, rather than by what you accomplish, then I think reality is much easier to bear.” ~Chris Hedges


Even when real changes in people’s life conditions are not imminently possible, our role can be to enable hope in the face of adversity.


No matter how self-aware you come into this work, most people in the beginning will be operating from a worldview in which change in poor people’s lives is possible with our help and that it was something that can be “managed.”

In my mind, the jury is still out on this.


What is required of aid workers to serve rather than help, is illustrated further by a concept my friend Silvia brought to my attention, that of “cultural humility.” She works in hospice in California, working with healthcare professionals to offer more appropriate and compassionate care to the Latino community. In healthcare settings, cultural humility involves active engagement in self-reflection, bringing power imbalances into check, relinquishment of the role of expert, becoming the student, and seeing a patient’s potential to be a full and capable partner in their recovery.

The most effective and inspiring development practitioners I’ve ever worked with embody cultural humility.


Do you have the courage to battle the modernist viewpoints, privilege and racism at the roots of international aid, as well as to question your own personal prejudices, stereotypes, and agendas? Be prepared to go deeper to examine your own beliefs, values, assumptions, and biases. Karen Armstrong describes the “hard work of compassion” as constantly “dethroning” yourself to challenge your own worldview.


I do think there is room for aid workers and do-gooders to redefine our role as translators. Not as providers of what people need. Not as enforcers of policy, or rules, or regulations. Not as helpers or saviors or martyrs. We create the space for conversation between what people on the ground really need and the demands of donors.


You will have to fight hard to not let the overly technocratic, abstractionist tendencies of aid work pull you under.

You will have to fight against “charitable” urges towards impoverished and marginalized people you encounter, which can ultimately debase their dignity.

You will have to fight to experience the full range of our human condition.


Anyone can identify what’s wrong. It will take much more skill and strength to wake up everyday and help identify what’s right, what’s possible, and where incremental changes can occur.

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