“How is one to live a moral and compassionate existence when one is fully aware of the blood, the horror inherent in life, when one finds darkness not only in one’s culture but within oneself? If there is a stage at which an individual life becomes truly adult, it must be when one grasps the irony in its unfolding and accepts responsibility for a life lived in the midst of such paradox. One must live in the middle of contradiction, because if all contradiction were eliminated at once life would collapse. There are simply no answers to some of the great pressing questions. You continue to live them out, making your life a worthy expression of leaning into the light.” – Barry Lopez, Artic Dreams
“What kind of person does it take to facilitate development?” This is a question I asked myself recently, when I left my site to run an errand and took advantage of the opportunity to treat myself to Chinese food and groceries from the Lebanese market. After only a few weeks in site, I felt to need to leave, to see other Americans, and to eat another cuisine. That got me thinking, “Are there who can truly adjust to life in a developing country; people who can leave their homelands and be happy living a place with fewer amenities, culinary options, and intellectuals?”
Maybe that’s why the majority of development workers are posted in capital cities, to keep ourselves from going campo-crazy. If we need to remain in the capital however – far-removed from the poor in the interior –, then can we ever really be effective in combating rural poverty? My friend pointed out homesickness, loneliness, cultural isolation, and losing our grips on “civilization” are exactly the reasons why we need natives implementing development in poor countries. If that’s the case, then the development efforts led by wealthier nations would by necessity be limited to training trainers.
Training trainers sounds like a great idea. We have all heard more than once the idiom “Give a man a fish and he eats for a day. Teach a man how to fish and he eats for a lifetime.” Despite the fact that development organizations and governments strongly advocate education as a solution to poverty, it has been proved ineffective over and over again. Look at Peace Corp’s development record for example. We are supposed to work ourselves out of a job, yet, 40 years later not only are we still in Paraguay, but we are expanding our program. We are here to explain how to employ the most-advanced technology and most-expensive technology available to do the simplest of tasks because in the U.S. even a child knows how to use it and access it, despite the limited availability of it in Paraguay. We are here to teach the Paraguayans how to plant species of trees plants native to their own country. We are here to share the lessons learned from our sophisticated societies’ climbs from rags to riches. “Teaching the uneducated masses” has rightly been criticized as a derivate of the condescending attitude implicit in the way rich countries conduct development. Investments in education do not necessarily result in increases in income or advances in freedoms.
People respond to incentives. Giving government officials loans to pay for new school buildings and teachers’ salaries is useless unless incentives exist to better educational systems that outweigh the temptation to pocket the money. Decreeing mandatory primary schooling will not result in a better-educated populace without guarantees that more years of education will result in higher-paying jobs.
Microfinance works because the emphasis isn’t on training the clients; it’s on training the bankers. The poorest of the poor don’t have any compelling rationale to study banking, but they are in need of credit. Muhammad Yunus and the Grameen Bank had tremendous success because they focused on creating a workforce that knew how to manage an illiterate clientele and provide them with the money needed to profit from work that used the complicated skills their clients had already acquired (from embroidering traditional dresses to selling homemade foods). In fact, after taking out several loans, clients, of their accord, sought out financial management classes. Yunus didn’t need to ram that information down the throat of unwilling “savages,” saying all the while that he knew what was best for them.
If we want poor people around the world to have greater access to economic opportunities, we can’t be content to give our money to organizations that show TV ads featuring children with flies on their faces and squander their funds on their huge overhead costs just because it makes us feel good about ourselves. We can’t continue to engage in negligent consumption, insisting on buying the cheapest possible goods while closing our eyes to sweatshops, pollution, and poisonous pesticides. We can’t keep on allowing workers to suffer the burdens of [social, economic, and health] costs in order to save a few cents. We can’t remain ignorant. We need a paradigm shift away from educating people in poor countries and towards educating ourselves.