Welcome to JP Melville's review, experience, and statement on foreign aid and the international development industry. A conservative faith in family. A love affair riding the riotous tensions between money, personal freedom, the majestic travesty of our specie's ecological footprint, and economic politics. Selected writing of both prose and poetry, anecdotal travel log to rhetorical essay, dating back from the 1980's to the present. Enjoy!

Thursday, 26 January 2012

Theories of Development

Ubolratchathani, Thailand

Theories of development, which I had been taught in academic institutions, have been a far cry from what I have experienced overseas.  From a trained perspective, my role in development would contribute to... well... I could choose a point anywhere along some ivory tower axis, perhaps reconstructive post-modernism, perhaps cumulative modernization.  In all cases, an underlying assumption drove my schooling : that a better world could exist.  Immersed in a world of hope, change, and progress I, along with many others, believed that in the name of development all kinds of great works could be done.  And I still believe that good work done for others and the world around us is as pertinent as it ever has been.  There is always something that one can do for others.  Doing good, however, is distinct from anything linear or progressive.
Why, then, such a special word like development?
On one side, development is simply a new word for a few, very old conditions.  A moral condition: the old testament is riddled with stories of purging people from their evil ways.  An environmental condition: Aeschylus, an old Greek friend of ours (500 BC), suggested that tillage and agriculture could be improved through what we call today, permaculture: "self-sown soils bear food unstinted for men".  A political condition: the great migration to the Americas since the 17th century has been a quest for human freedom and equality.  These are sentiments that any good old development professional would hardly argue against.
On another side, development folks have only claimed an appropriation of the values implicit in these observations.  Development institutions like churches, private charities, governments, and non-government organisations[1], while having presented themselves as being both purveyors and guardians of ideals, are merely pursuing a course suiting their own agendas.  Who decides on democratic form… or even the obligation to have democracy?  Who is the head of a household and who lives or has sex with who or pays for the children’s education – some kind of nuclear family model?  Who wants the pristine natural environment, parkland, and carbon offsets for an environmentally sustainable planet?  Whose god, whose reflection of theology, whose spiritual form governs the morality of any action?
Really, what is wrong with a dictator is that our politics do not govern a country.  What is wrong with extended families and domestic economies is that men and women may not have to work for the international economy… how to export those darn mangoes if there are no workers available for harvest?  What god does not instil the guilt of original sin and a people are not humiliated by their own history, by their presence in the world, nor by some wrongdoing that can never be undone? We are not all like sheep?[2]  We development types overcome our doubt by labelling ourselves as experts.  The other, those people to whom we do our development, necessarily must have a lesser body of knowledge.
Somehow, I got this pedestal concept wrong.  I kept finding myself, in the villages and communities in which I worked, surrounded by people with abilities.  Sure, their abilities did not always correspond to the objectives of any particular development project; they were abilities all the same.  But project objectives are pretty much wholly set by international organizations such as the Canadian International Development Agency or Novib.  Yes, the organizations’ experts consult and hire local people to help set objectives.  But for all the discussion, few will ever look a gift horse in the mouth.  It is simple wisdom to agree with those who are giving you gifts.
Objectives, the concept of objective itself, reflect an image and understanding of the world viewed through the eyes of individuals loaded up with coffee and caffeine.  If the glasses I wear are coloured with double cream, soy latt√©, and sugar, or are sized small, medium, large, and super-sized, how do I see abilities that are not my expertise?  Really, who are these people always turning up late for work?
On reflection, I am often convinced that the real purpose of having been invited to a foreign place was less to work than to mirror a status symbol.  Not the foreigner with wise ways.  But the foreigner who amply consumes, the ‘have’ with a much better life and all that might imply.  Politics schmolitics.  Just get me the stuff!  From a somewhat more discrete perspective, foreign experts might be a cut-rate deal in accruing benefit to those already established in the given society; why spend public funds on developing your own school curriculum when you can get funded by international institutions?  Foreign experts develop curriculum then applied in schools attended by students whose parents, by virtue of having the ability to send their children to school, already control surplus cash.  Education for enlightenment?  Hardly.  The classroom is a vehicle toward increased conspicuous consumption.
Development workers, we experts, are likewise devices in the machinations of international politics.  What is delivered through the development industry is superficially emblematic of those politics.  What any person or people may actually want is another story.
In this dim light, it is sometimes argued that development workers need not necessarily accomplish much in concrete terms while spending time in a foreign country.   Development, it is said, is ambiguous and projects do not always have to be successful in any obvious way.  The value of this argument depends on at least several assumptions: 1) that cultural exchange alone has intrinsic value, 2) that the development worker will return to their home and undertake activities which help educate the public about global issues, and 3) that the development worker will continue with a professional career and, over a period of time, be able to realize in concrete terms the values implicit in development work.  Well, the rich are getting richer and the poor poorer.  In the least, the bottom ninety-nine percent of us are increasingly stuck where we are, no?  Whatever the ideal outcomes, development workers  acquire more experience and information than has been disseminated.  The development worker acquires financial and political power.  Hierarchy has been maintained if not strengthened.  Ultimately, the institution of development, not the poor, is the beneficiary of development.
So, we invent some euphemisms.  Grass root development.  Participatory development.  Gender and development.  Integrated development.  Sustainable development.  What do these mean?
I am unsure.  There is a series of relationships to consider - between persons, between circumstances, between histories.  One fallacious response to this uncertainty is to assume that what we do as development workers is inherently right because what others are doing is so obviously wrong: the polluters, the war mongers, the exploiters etc.   But this distinction proves too easily to be artificial.  Development workers are undeniably members of the ‘others’.  We buy imported cheese.  We vote for governments that support the sale of armaments.  We fly on airplanes burning fossil fuels from who-cares-where.  We enjoy our privileges.
I am, however, prepared to offer one certainty.  That is our personal selves: individual feelings, thoughts, actions, imaginations.  I can make decisions.  I can act.  I can react.  I can have new feelings, new thoughts, and I can make new decisions.  In all cases, I can try to be responsible for myself, which, as implied in the old moral, environmental, and political conditions mentioned above, also means that I am responsible to those whom I know and do not know.
This is pedantic, I know.  But it implies an alternative.  One kind of development is that which accrues benefit to certain persons and institutions in terms of salary, prestige, and power.  Certainly, this kind of development also professes its intention to improve the lot of the poor.  It is a progressive, linear development.  The second kind of development emphasizes, not improvement of either myself or others, but my responsibilities to myself and to others.  The responsibilities require relationships of give and take, a process of passing on and receiving from others those things which I and they have come to have.  Reciprocity.  There can be accumulation here, but the intent is responsibility.  An < I am because of you > kind of thinking.
Paradoxically, it appears that those of us who have so many things, so much stuff, are the very ones who need to be developed.  Having what?  Jobs, housing, disposable incomes, balanced budgets, growth, professions, day care, resources, holidays, mortgages, investments, and matching cutlery.
So, perhaps this having is the one key problem in development.  That is, not having is not the problem.  The problem is having and not being able to give away.

[1] The term non-government organization (NGO) often requires explanation.  The NGOs are the OXFAMs CAREs, M√©decins Sans Frontiers of the world.  They obtain an incredible amount of funding from government sources, though they have historically behaved somewhat autonomously and without accountability to the general public.
[2] “We all, like sheep, have gone astray, each of us has turned to his own way; and the LORD has laid on him the iniquity of us all.” (Isaiah 53:6 – Bible.  New International Version.  1984.)

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