Rebuilding Foundations

An exploration of international development work in Africa

EWB Application, Question 1

I just applied to Engineers Without Border’s Governance and Rural Infrastructure team for their project in Ghana and thought my answers were relevant to my blog’s purpose as well.  Moreover, after all this typing, I’m too drained to write a decent blog post!

What do you feel is the role of western development workers overseas? Make sure to fully explain your answer. (no word limit, but please be reasonable)

I believe western development workers have a significant role to play oversees.  On the one hand, I understand the argument that the Global North has occupied the Global South too long: it is time to let developing countries find their own path.  However, I do not agree that “aid” is another form of colonial suppression.  On the contrary, aid can be a powerful tool for helping countries advance their own agendas.

The West has a responsibility towards developing countries to be a role model in sustainable development.  At the same time, progress is not linear.  Developing countries need to have enough autonomy to decide how they want to address development.  Therefore I believe that the role of western development workers is to work with local governments, NGOs, and citizens to augment their own knowledge and desires for their country.

At the EWB National Conference 2012 there were many discussions about moving from “Working for Dorothy” to “Working with Dorothy.”  I believe both mottos are necessary for western development workers.  It is important to always remember one’s goal and who you are specifically hoping to benefit with your work.  It is also important to remember that we are visitors; local people know their home best.

Sometimes the discussions regarding western development workers remind me of “Traditional Ecological Knowledge” (TEK) dialogues in Canada.  TEK is a tool for incorporating Aboriginal expertise into modern environment policies, but there has been little success integrating TEK in practise.  Although there are arguably various reasons for this lack of success, one of the main problems is power differentials.  TEK is often treated as just one technique in a toolbox that can be employed by modern scientists.  For Aboriginals to be empowered, however, the balance of power needs to be switched so that instead of using modern science as a tool they can choose to incorporate their own practices as they see fit.  Similarly, western development workers overseas should understand that they are facilitators – a tool to be used by developing countries – and not directors.

I also think it is important not to underestimate the impact one person can make.  It never ceases to amaze me how quickly change can happen.  Vast developments can occur from each generation to the next.  My own family’s history on my mother’s side illustrates these relatively rapid changes.  My great-grandparents immigrated to Vancouver from China.  They were rural peasants whose daily hardships in China convinced them to seek dangerous railway construction employment in an unknown country.  Both my Chinese grandparents were born in Canada and had significantly better lives.  Although they tolerated extreme racism and prejudice, they owned a house and could comfortably support their family.  My mother went to university and has a Ph.D. in chemistry.  I am also fortunate to have a university education.  I doubt my great-grandparents could have anticipated how much a difference their sacrifices would make for future generations.  I still have family back in rural China whose lives are now quickly changing as China’s development accelerates.  My family’s story helps me remain optimistic about development in the Global South.  Western development workers may be single individuals in a complex political and economic structure, but they can still bring about significant change.

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