Walking away from today’s colonialism

In Ursula Le Guin’s short story The Ones Who Walk Away From Omelas, she describes a nearly utopian society, where people dance in the streets, kids play in the fields, and a magnanimous triumph “swells the hearts of the people of Omelas, and the victory they celebrate is that of life.”

It’s a place that sounds close to paradise, until halfway through the story, when Le Guin introduces one more thing: that Omela’s happiness is dependent on the unbearable suffering of a naked, malnourished, sore-festered and no-longer recognizable 10-year-old child who is enslaved in the dark basement of a locked and abandoned tool closet. And that all of Omelas knows it’s there:

They all know that it has to be there. They all understand that their happiness depends wholly on this child’s abominable misery.

As we discussed this reading at Acumen’s first Global Gathering last week in Kenya, our group couldn’t help but make the painful connection of Omelas with today’s development sector, which of course is completely unfair in thousands of ways, but is also tragically relevant in a few.

This post is an attempt to sort through the few.

On the flight to Kenya, I listened to a podcast about the early decolonization process in Kenya, which also highlighted how many of the initial colonizers were actually middle class citizens in the UK who moved to Kenya for a life where they were relatively much better off, now living with servants and luxuries they couldn’t afford in the UK, and around people much worse off economically than them.

Although colonization mostly ended in the 60’s, there are many who believe that the development sector has become a modern day colonialism. Indeed, just two nights before flying to Kenya, a friend working on a $20 million internationally funded development project in Pakistan estimated that 70–80% of their budget was completely wasted, lavishly consumed on $900/day consultant fees, SUVs, apartments, 1st class flights and meals that no one eats. The modern day Omelas, where the poor don’t become equals, as we proclaim, but stuck in a continuous cycle of hopelessness, injustice, oppression and otherness. As fodder for the happiness of an unequal society:

It is the existence of the child [the poor], and their knowledge of its existence, that makes possible the nobility of their architecture, the poignancy of their music, the profundity of their science.

Realizing that these thoughts are quite extreme, I tried sorting through them during the week in Kenya. Initially, I was hoping that market-based social ventures might prove to be the solution, where the poor are seen as customers and not as open-handed beneficiaries with nothing to offer (other than a sense of do-gooding).

But I quickly became skeptical, during a panel discussion when the investors/donors of these very social ventures chuckled casually about having funding targets on their backs, complaining about not receiving enough recognition or stage time, and showcasing their great work as if they had singled-handedly managed to eliminate poverty in Africa altogether.

Just as this tragic notion of “the development sector as the new colonialism” was getting reinforced, Bryan Stevenson argued that incarceration has become the new slavery (as he shared a story of a 14-year-old boy who was ganged raped in an adult prison). And on the flight back to Pakistan, as I was trying to sort through these emotions, I watched a movie about the original US slavery, hoping to find some answers, which came in the form of Nat Turner’s attempt to violently overturn the slave system.

Initially, this seemed like a potential insight/solution, that we need to take a more extreme approach in a way not unlike how Mandela’s ANC evolved into a politically violent movement after 30+ years of a seemingly futile toil. But as the slave rebellion was crushed and both my tears and the film’s credits began to roll, I realized that even this revolutionary film was actually financed by a hedge fund manager in New York who is seemingly a part of the same system I was mentally trying to overthrow.

But slowly I’m beginning to realize that perhaps this film actually does represent a better way of doing things: of telling the story of the oppressed in a way that gives light and love to their plight. And also doesn’t involve the glorification — or Omela-ification — of the investors, other than a subtle hat nod (eg. short film credit) when it’s all said and done. In a similar way that we, at Amal, have received support from investors (ironically related to this same hedge fund manager), who haven’t asked for any type of recognition or stage time or power structures, other than just accompanying us along the journey.

“The Ones Who Walk Away From Omelas” ends with the people who walk through the beautiful gates of Omelas, across the farmlands, ahead into the darkness and do not come back. Although the story seems to suggest we should strive to be “the ones who walk away from Omelas,” I’m not so sure. For are they not just merely walking away from the child, rather than trying to do something to change her situation?

Although it’s not clear in the story what can be done — just as it’s not yet clear to me what to do about the power imbalances and injustices in the development sector — I think we have to hope that the answers are out there. And that perhaps those answers start with reframing how we approach giving, with reconsidering how and what types of funding we pursue, and with reshaping how we recognize those that do give.

Images in this post were taken during this trip in Kenya