By Renee HoFebruary 18, 2016

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Fighting in northern Syria increased last week. And consequently, so has the number of citizens trying to flee across the border into Turkey. Many of those who make it into Turkey look west, hoping to eventually enter Greece and the rest of Europe.

We see images of weathered women walking miles across borders, their arms appear limp from carrying their children. Surely, there is something we can give them to help.

Some in the United States have mobilized to donate used baby carriers. Carry the Future—as just one example— has donated 3500 carriers.

That’s stuff we don’t want (SWEDOW) but that we think others might.

Certainly, some good could come from this kind of donation. Maybe Syrian refugees want used baby carriers — I neither know nor purport to know because, frankly, I haven’t asked them.

I do wonder: if I asked these refugees, would there be something else they want instead? Would they say something I simply wouldn’t anticipate? Food? Water? Shelter? Medical care? A smartphone with messaging services to communicate with one another?

There is an active hashtag—#SWEDOW—on Twitter. That’s because there are many things given without consulting those in need.

Sometimes, we think of SWEDOW for just those peculiar individual donations like rollerblades to Haiti earthquake victims or TOMS Shoes to children who already have shoes. But in reality, the paternalism that these examples exude is not far from the paternalism of larger aid agencies and foundation.

A couple years ago, I traveled to Mongolia to investigate the progress of a project funded by USAID, USDA, and the World Bank. Mercy Corps implemented it with the assistance of American researchers who had developed the project’s technology initially for East Africa.

Sent in as an ad-hoc consultant, I found myself seated across from the stern-faced director of the National Agency for Meteorology, Hydrology, and Environment Monitoring (NAMHEM). There had been limited progress on the project even though it started in 2004 and received millions of dollars in initial and renewal funding. I wanted to understand why.

There was a long, uncomfortable silence in the conference room. I looked and felt quite young. Suddenly, the director spoke.

“It has been ten years,” she said softly, angrily. “Every year or so another one of you arrives here. Every year or so, I say the same thing.”

(long pause)

“I will say it again but I hope, truly, this is the last time. We have never wanted this project. Not in 2004, not now.”

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