Rebuilding Foundations

An exploration of international development work in Africa

No one will tell you, “Bad idea.”

Today I’m going to consider the first point from Parker Mitchell’s philanthropist “traps” that I posted yesterday.

No one will tell you, “Bad idea.”

I think one of the biggest (perceived) downfalls in philanthropist, charity, and development work is the tendency to pat ourselves on the back without asking each other critical questions.

I wrote “perceived” because a lot of people discount or ridicule development work as a means for rich westerners to feel good about themselves, regardless of whether it makes a positive difference in Less Developed Countries (LDCs).

Last year, when I told some of my friends that I was moving to Africa for a CIDA internship, the response was often along the lines of, “Are you going to go dig a well for a week then spend a month on safari?”

“Uh… no.”

“Oh good.  Because I had a friend who did that a couple years ago who still brags about what a difference he/she made, but I think it takes more than a photo of yourself surrounded by black kids to make you a good person.”

I understand where my friends were coming from.  I, too, have always abhorred the idea of being the rich white kid who goes overseas completely ignorant of the local situation, ignores local knowledge, and pushes one’s own ideas of development onto an unwilling community.

On the other hand, even though we can all come up with examples we’ve heard about development work gone wrong (such as a group of American women who decided that a certain African tribe needed its women to cover themselves decently so they fundraised money to send them T-shirts.  The women loved them, but they cut out holes for their breasts to hang out so they could easily feed their children), it’s important to remember than anecdotal evidence isn’t valid at all.

More compelling is that data that show some African countries’ GDP decreasing since the 1990s or the wealth becoming increasingly concentrated to a minority while the majority live in abject poverty – but these phenomena usually aren’t happening because of development work.  Development work is the band-aid on the gaping wound that governments (both First and Third World), international organizations, transnational corporations, and rich stakeholders have been stabbing at since colonization occurred hundreds of years ago.  The methods of injury are constantly evolving, but most LDCs are still hindered their post-colonial condition.

All that being said, never stop asking critical questions.

Since moving to South Africa, I had the privilege of going to monthly “Development Dinners” hosted by a group of amazing people concerned about South Africa’s conditions and progress.  I’m usually quite shy in big groups, especially when I don’t know anyone, so I stayed quiet during the discussions and took notes – like the nerd I am.  I often found myself oscillating between not knowing enough about the subject matter to comment (like the intricacies of South African government policies) or completely disagreeing with the flow of conversation.

Despite my disagreements, however, I stayed quiet.  I wanted to learn more about the group’s dynamics before I jumped in and stirred things up.  Also, I hate controversy.  I love discussing things one-on-one, but I’m not confident enough in my opinions to defend them against a large group.  Even in one-on-one discussions, I often stop talking and listen to other person if he or she has strong beliefs that I don’t believe I’ll be able to change.  If the person is open-minded, I love debating.  But it’s not worth my time to repeat theories and data to someone who isn’t listening anyway.

My awesome roommate, however, doesn’t share my approach to group dynamics.  I invited her to a Development Dinner because she works in the mining industry, but is also incredibly concerned (and opinionated) about South African development.  She and I disagree on everything from ideology to the role of consultants – but it has never hindered our friendship.

So I invited her.  I thought she’d offer a different perspective to the dialogue.

Which she did.  I thought she was fabulous!  She questioned everything!  She loves an audience and monologue-d for hours.  A couple times during the evening I thought maybe she should let other people talk, but I also really admired the way she walked into a room full of strangers and dominated the conversation.

Unfortunately, however, not everyone agreed with me.

The next day, the Secretary of the group sent out a hurt and angry email defending the role and purpose of the group as a safe place for people to share development ideas.  Obviously my roommate had hit a nerve when she kept asking, “But what is the point?”

Furthermore, the Secretary has done other things to show us that we’re not welcome anymore.

My roommate and I laugh about the group’s passive aggressive response.  If you have a problem with someone’s opinions, fight it!  Prove why they’re wrong!  Don’t shut your ears to something you don’t want to hear.

It made me grateful that I didn’t voice my disagreements over the past few months.  Like when we were discussing environmental degradation and how nothing can currently compare to cheap oil.  One woman said, “Here’s a story that will make you feel better!”  She then told us about her friend who is generating electricity from old tires that would otherwise go into landfills.

I wanted to argue that even though it’s a cool story about innovative technology, schemes like that aren’t going to make a significant difference to the world’s energy dilemma.  That’s not to discount her friend’s work – every little piece helps.  But we need to move beyond technological solutions and examine the underlying problem.  For example, is “sustainable development” even possible?  I personally don’t believe we can sustain growth without environmental degradation.

Consequently, instead of looking for technological solutions for producing different kinds of energy, we need to use less energy.  We need to completely rewire our brains so that stuff isn’t so damn important.  We need to forget about planned obsolescence and change our socioeconomic system so that success isn’t measured in dollars.

But that’s a huge puzzle.  How do you address it?  How do you live sustainably in a system that’s inherently unsustainable?

So instead we focus on little victories that make us feel better about ourselves.

And then we pat ourselves on the back, throw an award party, and hand out plaques.

Sustainable development, international development – what does this word “development” mean?

I don’t know.  But I’m trying to figure it out.  And I’m meeting other people who are asking questions as well.

I agree that we all need “safe places” to discuss new ideas.  But, honestly, if I’m going to eat dinner with a bunch of passionate people from different fields, I want them to feel comfortable saying, “No.  You are wrong – and here’s why.”  I want to chat with people who are sure enough in their opinions to discuss them critically (something I need to work on).  I don’t want the number one concern to be everyone’s feelings – I want it to be whether the discussion is evolving critically.

Maybe this is the pragmatic, engineering side of me rearing its ugly head.  Do I care more effective solutions than the people involved?

It’s a balancing act – you can’t discount individuals.

But those individuals need to understand that disagreeing with someone’s beliefs is in no way a judgment on them as a person.  At least, it shouldn’t be.  Maybe some people believe I’m ignorant or weak to be a socialist.  Maybe I judge capitalists a teensy bit as selfish and greedy – but I really, really try to acknowledge and fight against my own prejudices.

So go ahead.  Say it.  Tell me, “Bad idea – and here’s why.”

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