…and something in between.
[In which I write the first post in my blog, and employ a lot of clichés (see if you can spot them all!) to explain how I feel about the idea of “development”, and why I’m involved in it.]
Hi, I’m Iris and I’m interested in international development.
At least, that’s how I used to be able to introduce myself and my primary interest, if someone asked. (In this hypothetical context, I apparently obnoxiously wear my interests on my sleeve even more than is actually the case – which is already pretty obnoxious. See for reference: this, my first blog post.) Since then, I have come to question pretty much every part of that sentence (apart from “Iris”, and I’m not always sure about that either).
International development used to seem to me to be a very simple concept, although a difficult goal to achieve. My understanding was: There is a lot of injustice in the world. There is a massive gap between rich countries and poor countries. In the poor countries, a lot of people suffer and die from hunger and other easily preventable problems, largely because of the rich countries. This has happened because the poor countries have been left behind in the progress that the rich ones have enjoyed. This is unfair, and we have to change it.
Oh, simplicity, how I miss you.
This concept of development is usually illustrated with pictures of children.
Because of this understanding, I decided that I wanted to get involved with international development, and began to study it (somewhat extracurricularly, though it comes up in Anthropology a surprising amount). And the more I learned, the more I realised how wrong I had been – and how wrong the concept of development and the way it is often practiced can be.
I learned that often, projects fail because they are based on faulty assumptions about what the problems in a given area are, how they can and should be changed and who should be doing the changing. I learned about cultural imperialism, about the idea of “progress” as a Western invention and imposition. I learned about the idea of charity as a continuation of the “white man’s burden”, manifested in voluntourism and the inherent arrogance of “development work”. I learned about the marketisation of aid, about the transformation of the third sector into a business, with market competition and selfishness like any other. I learned about unintentional harm caused by well-meaning interventions, about the danger of “development” as a concept, and the frustration and futility of any attempt to “do it right”. I learned about any meaningful shift toward better practice being reduced to a set of buzzwords, and employed dishonestly and superficially.
I learned, basically, that when it comes to “international development”, the road to hell truly is paved with good intentions.
How many have you counted so far?
And it made me very, very sad, and dejected and frustrated. It made me question all the things I thought I knew about what I wanted to do with my life, and why, and how, and where. It was, as much as anything can be, the cause of an identity crisis.
Why, then, am I still the president of my university’s International Development Society? Why am I involved in what could be described (though we try not to) as a development project in Southwest Uganda? Why am I writing my undergraduate dissertation about local knowledge in development, and why am I hoping to work in the third sector, in “international development”, when I graduate?
Because I know that change is possible - just look at the entire history of the human species. Sure, a lot of the time the world sucks. Mostly, when we try to solve one problem, we end up creating several others. That is inevitable. But we can solve problems, and we can create change.
The fact that the idea of “development”, in the sense of “here come the brave Europeans to save the world and bring enlightenment to the poor to raise them up to glorious, wealthy bliss”, is deeply problematic and highly invalid, does not mean that the problems that have prompted us to employ it as a goal and a practice are any less real. People are still starving, and suffering, and dying of preventable diseases, and there are still things that can be done to stop that from happening.
And they don’t need me. The people of the “third world” need me and other European and American do-gooders to “save them” like a fish needs a bicycle. (Which incidentally is approximately how much I need to be desperately needed in order to find doing something worthwhile.) I’m not here to burst dramatically through a door and announce “Never fear! Change is here!” – but the fact that other people are makes me think that there just might be some value in figuring out why, and how to change their minds.
This just makes me happy.
The way to do that, I think, is to learn not just about futility, but about hope and the possibility of change. It’s to try to work out not only what the problems with current ideas and practices are, but how they can be made better. It’s to see if there is anything I can do, even something small and unimportant, to help make that change occur.
And that’s difficult and frustrating and, by any account I’ve heard, a lot like beating your head against a brick wall. But it’s not impossible – so why not try?
Enough head-bashing could break it.