There have been a lot of blog posts and conversations lately talking about service trips and the role of foreigners in international development. We talk about listening; about asking what people need instead of assuming we have the answers. Not to be a spoilsport, but I think this language is just as problematic…
So here we go… asking “what do you need?” assumes two things. The first is an inherent superiority where I surely have whatever you, the needy poor person, lack. I also assume your need is one-sided, forgetting that on the other side of that need there is someone who is obligated to fulfill it. Not you the NGO, not you the donor, but often a governmental institution or private business, or perhaps a community organization waiting to be born. But when we as international NGO or development workers ask this question, (or worse, as temporary week-long volunteers), and then seek to fulfill that need no matter how well intentioned, we perpetuate this superior relationship and create dependency.
The trouble is, we look at all the suffering around the world – the famines, the corruption, the massacres, the violence, the trafficked children – and we have the beautiful, empathic, very human response to DO something. This is that gut impulse that played a huge role in me quitting my job to work for Foundation Cristosal. The trouble is these are BIG problems. Ed Chambers (author of Roots for Radicals) talks about problems being insurmountable, oppressive, with no clearly identified goal or target. Examples: climate change, income inequality, the US economic system, the obesity epidemic... something that makes you want to sink down into your chair and take a time machine (Dr. Who style) back to the good-old-days when all you had to worry about was which kind of Mac ‘N Cheese Mom was going to cook for dinner (Rugrats KRAFT neon orange or Annie’s Shells with real Vermont cheddar… aaaah decisions decisions). The kind of problems where it’s just too big to even know where to start.
People who want to DO something therefore need an issue – an itemized, cut-and-dry option to take an action that will have a real, targeted impact. This is, again, a beautiful and honest response. But again, when we simplify, we miss the whole truth. NGO’s now talk about “teaching a man to fish,” about financing independent entrepreneurs and grass roots projects through local leaders, sponsoring individual children through High School and college. But taking each poor person or community as an isolated case apart from the social web in which they exist is a lie. It presents a false impression that 1. we can solve poverty with isolated actions from far away and 2. bears no responsibility for the unintended consequences, including increased dependency on the NGO itself.
So what should we do? William Easterly at NYU wrote a fantastic article in the Seattle Times (thanks to Jeff Gill at Trinity Church for passing it along!) about why sometimes large donors (in this case the Gates Foundation) need to change tactics: “Gates believes poverty will end by identifying technical solutions. My research shows that the first step is not identifying technical solutions, but ensuring poor people’s rights… democratic rights make technical fixes happen, and produce a far better long-run record on reducing poverty, disease and hunger than autocracies. We saw this first in the now-rich countries, which are often unfairly excluded from the evidence base.”
Easterly is essentially arguing for a drastic change in perspective. Seeing poverty as a relational issue, not as lack of material wealth, changes the whole ball game. Suddenly you are forced to recognize the complex social structures that contribute to poverty. For every person who expresses a need or a violation of his/her rights (the right to water, right to security, right to equality under the law regardless of gender, race or religion), there is an entity that is not doing their job. The two International Covenants on Human Rights were signed by nearly every nation in the world, yet when we provide aid and assistance to fill or smooth over undemocratic administrations in foreign countries, we undermine the democratic process in which citizens must hold their own governments responsible.
This is why NGO’s are great in emergencies… that guy bleeding out on the sidewalk needs 10 liters of blood Type A Neg and he needs it now. But NGOs often don't make good long-term providers for a few reasons; one being that there is no judicial process for citizens to make claims on an NGO. Donors can make claims, investors can make claims, but citizens? Not so much.
So rather than repackage the same old assistance or aid as grassroots empowerment because you're giving an Indian woman a cow she may or may not have asked for, I move that we force all international development workers to consider themselves not as benefactors or superheroes saving the world, but as community organizers. To inherently recognize that each person you come across is a member of a broad societal web; is a citizen with capacities and an active role to play in their community’s development. An organizer’s job is not to solve the problem, or even advocate for the solution they think is best (reality check – it doesn’t matter what you think is best), but rather to truly empower individuals as citizens. There is a role for internationals as mediators, as support staff, as connectors and networkers between citizen organizations, but ultimately our role is backstage. And that means accepting we are not going to end world suffering today.