Rebuilding Foundations

An exploration of international development work in Africa

The Freedom to be Wrong

One of the most interesting comments from the development dinner came from a white, American man:

“There’s a fine line between trying to help someone and colonialism.  Colonial history is full of colonizers ‘helping’ and doing what they thought was best for the colonized.”

His statement reminded me a Star Trek DS9 episode I had watched recently.  The DS9 series begins with a peace treaty between two worlds: the Bajorans and their brutal oppressors, the Cardassians.  In this particular episode, Major Kira – who used to be a Bajoran guerilla fighter against the Cardassians – is upset that Kai Winn, the crazy religious leader of her people, has been appointed head of the provisional government.

She tells Chief of Security, Odo, “We spent so many years fighting the Cardassians.  We spent so much time hoping and praying for a Bajor that was free.  Now that we’ve won, how can we just hand over our freedom to someone like Winn?”

And how does Odo answer her?  With the usual Star Trek brilliance:
“It has been my observation that one of the prices of giving people freedom of choice is that sometimes they make the wrong choice.”

Perhaps a more relevant/less nerdy example is necessary.

At one of my first Engineers Without Borders meetings, there was a presentation from a Junior Fellow who had recently returned from his 4 month term in Malawi.  His project involved traveling to rural villages on a motorcycle with another EWB worker and helping each place set up a grain harvesting machine.

In one village, the people were so excited by the possibilities of this machine that they wanted to set it up in a place of honour right in the middle of their village square.  The two EWB workers tried to convince them that the machine was noisy and it would be better to place it on the outskirts of the village where it was accessible, but the people wouldn’t be as affected by its noise.

The villagers, however, were adamant.  They knew where the wanted the machine.

The Junior Fellow even took the motorcycle and started it up in the middle of the square.

“See how loud this is?” he yelled over the motorcycle’s engine.  “This is what the machine will be like every day!”

But they didn’t change their mind.  In the end, the EWB-ers helped them set it up exactly where they wanted – in the middle of the village.

It’s hard to stand by and let someone do something that you’re convinced is wrong.  But sometimes that’s exactly what development workers need to do.  We’re here as facilitators, not initiators or helpers.

Having freedom means being able to make mistakes and regret them – but hopefully also learn from them as well as fix them.


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