Riffing on Development…what does it all mean?

A good old friend, someone I knew in elementary and high school (ok, first real life crush, but whatever, that was ages ago!), recently contacted me to pick my brain about development, AKA my biz. Development is on my mind a lot. I doubt I’m as committed to eliminating poverty as Frank Underwood is committed to collecting owed favors and increasing his political capital, but it wouldn’t be too far off to say I eat, sleep and breathe development.

And of course, I naturally thought just slapping my responses down here would make a good (read: easy) blog post.

Later (maybe next week?) I’ll rip my heart open over a bottle of wine re: what the Ugandan presidential elections have taught me about the price of freedom, but for now, enjoy totally ‘on message’ musings about my field of international development, or ‘int dev’ as we say when we’re feeling extra douche-y.

Q: Where is the balance in development work between choosing priorities that are statistically sound (read: objective and western) and those that are community-chosen, community-based, and community-led?

You’re right that there is and should be a balance. I struggled a lot with cultural relativism as a PCV in Niger and then Malawi. Take polygamy for instance. If women were choosing this situation for themselves, I could see how being the 2nd or 3rd wife of a (relatively) rich guy in rural Africa could be preferable to being the 1st, maybe only, wife of a poor guy.

But this wasn’t just a thought exercise: I was friends with people who were polygamous. How did this western feminist square that? It was hard, and I thought about the issue a lot. Ultimately, I acknowledge that whether and when to marry is often NOT a woman’s choice. First of all because, especially in Niger, she’s often married as a child (3/4 of Nigerien girls are married by age 18), to a man of her father’s choosing. Her consent is rarely sought or considered.

Even if a woman is willingly entering into a polygamous relationship, think of all the factors in her society that contributed to her willingness. If you grew up in that society, you would have learned to respect your elders, especially your father, and his wishes. You would have seen aunts, cousins, and older sisters married off as children, that many women are in polygamous marriages or at the very least in marriages with severe power imbalances, and that few women are encouraged or allowed to pursue higher education and work outside the home. You would probably also have a very real sense of extreme poverty, and maybe being a second wife is a small sacrifice for food and a stable income. If you grew up in that reality, would you even question that there could be a different better way? Maybe it’s not so bad. Or maybe it IS total bullshit, but a lesser evil. Probably it’s different things to different people.

We development people need to do our due diligence to seek the community’s input and ideas. In Peace Corps I learned about PACA (participatory analysis for community action), a tool for engaging community members in the process of development. I think a big value in this activity is getting people to not only identify problems but rank them. When we westerners visit the developing world, we see poverty poverty POVERTY and problems problems PROBLEMS, but what do community members themselves perceive as their biggest, most pressing concerns? And that’s what we should be focusing on. Otherwise we’re the assholes teaching yoga in Kibera to people who don’t have toilets. I mean really, priorities.

It is arrogant/paternalistic to assume that we know best, but sometimes we DO know best. And that is the permanent catch-22 struggle we expat western dev workers deal with on the daily.

I would argue that there are issues community members themselves may not identify or prioritize but which are vitally important. Take girls’ education and empowerment. We know that educating girls is good and promotes positive long-term development. So yes, part of our job should be to advocate for change in this area, to make the case for girl’s education, whether or not the community itself recognizes girls’ education as a priority issue. Just like we KNOW that washing your hands and vaccinating your kids is unequivocally good and right, we shouldn’t (talking to myself here!!) feel bad/guilty/like a white savior when we proselytize about the wonders of girls’ education.

If you’re doing development right, you won’t feel comfortable. Ever. You’ll be questioning your project design, your own motives, (some of which, at least for me, are not altruistic: I work in development so I can be an asshole in my off time…not really, but sort of; perhaps more accurately, I work in development so I can sleep at night), the scope of your work, your assumptions (if you train just girls, will that be enough to keep them in school and delay marriage for a few years, or shouldn’t you aim to change the hearts and minds of the boys and parents too?), your overhead (which is necessary! The business of development requires overhead, and also on the personal level, you gotta fill your own cup up first before you can tend to others), etc. In short you’ll be questioning your EVERYTHING. ALL THE TIME!

At the end of the day I’m out here trying, and while good intentions are not enough (and in fact on their own can have disastrous consequences), at least I’m not sitting on my ass watching Netflix and never thinking beyond my own couch. You know? (I mean, I watch my fair share of TV and it’s great, see my earlier reference to House of Cards, but it’s not all I’m doing with myself)

Q: Would you say work involving the west that attempts to do community-led work while not physically present is a farce, flawed, or perhaps more empowering to local leaders?

This is where capacity building/strengthening of local staff is key. You need someone there doing the work, but it doesn’t have to be you and in many cases will be more successful if it isn’t you.

Empowerment, AKA capacity building (though my friend in DC tells me ‘capacity strengthening’ is the en vogue term these days) has to be a core tenet of any development work we do. Ultimately we need to be working ourselves out of the job. With a good solid (read: well-paid, well-trained, resourced) local staff, all sorts of fabulous work can be done!

Q: What side of the scale do you tend towards re: interventions that are explicitly focused on community organizing/empowerment activities vs. focused on building specific skills based on specific outcomes/targets? Would you make a distinction or would you just say, “both!”?

You gotta do both. The work I’m doing right now is both. Hopefully most development activities are aiming for both (giving hands up is better than giving handouts…better = more “sustainable”, hopefully). We are imparting hard knowledge and skills (for example, in an asset-based approach), but also simultaneously empowering girls. An empowered girl will be more likely to make healthy decisions, stand up/speak out against injustice in her life, and have a healthier family.

I think the concept of empowerment is so fascinating because of the development biz’s (mostly justified) obsession with measurement. We have to be able to prove to our donors, ourselves, but most importantly our beneficiaries that what we’re doing is A. Having any impact at all, that’s B. Positive and not harmful.

But how do you measure such an abstract concept as empowerment? I would argue that it’s more than just access to and control over finances, as it sometimes is narrowly understood. It’s much more complicated than that.

We can’t just do development anymore. We have to do it well. It’s not enough anymore to talk about how much money we’ve spent. We need to share and celebrate what has actually been accomplished with that money.

Thanks for the questions, crush-from-Christmas-past! If anyone else has questions, shoot. Apparently I appreciate prompts.

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