Privilege, Reduction, and a New Paradigm of Development

Courtney Martin’s “The Reductive Seduction of Other People’s Problems” is a stimulating, well written, and urgently needed analysis of the relationship between American youth and the world of international development. Martin argues that privileged idealists often wrongfully assume that they can swoop into the developing world and solve its problems with their misguided innovations. As Martin demonstrates, the field of development is fraught with examples of outsiders underestimating the complexities of global poverty, wasting resources, and even causing outright harm in the process. Aspiring changemakers must internalize this lesson.

But from this foundation, Martin attempts to draw grander conclusions about the fight to improve the world, and in this she errs, falling into familiar traps that serve only to reinforce the status quo of global inequality. To simplify, she argues that, the vast majority of the time, those who wish to have a positive impact on the world should avoid the lures of international development, and instead focus on long-term fights for domestic social change. In presenting these options, Martin’s implicit assumption is that there are two choices: humanitarian do-gooderness abroad, or social activism at home.

Empirically, she’s right. Americans have largely decided that global poverty is an intractable problem — and “not our problem” at that. Attempts to address global poverty are typically seen through the framework of “us helping them,” like a form of charity. Domestic issues, on the other hand, are the domain of activists — rightfully understood for their systemic complexities and addressed accordingly through sustained political and social mobilization. Those who wish to have a positive impact on the world face little other choice than working for an international nonprofit (charity) and working for a domestic activist organization, fighting for systemic change. Martin simply argues that, given these two choices, we should opt for the latter.

But this presumed dichotomy is deeply tied to the same frameworks that perpetuate global inequality.

At its root, it ignores that we, as privileged Westerners, are profoundly implicated in the causes of global poverty. It ignores that non-involvement in global affairs is akin to propagation of the status quo. It ignores that the reduction of global poverty, as much as any domestic issue, is an issue of social justice.

The causes of underdevelopment are complex, but we in high-income countries are surely not without blame. It was we who enacted centuries of colonialism, usurping resources and leaving behind extractive institutions and instability. It was the World Bank and the IMF that, in the 80’s and 90’s, pressured the developing world into adopting devastating economic policies. And it is we who continue to prolong wars, fund rebels, and oust leaders based on our own interests with no regard to the resultant instability.

But even without these mistakes of the past (and present), the fact remains that we are on the fortunate side of enormous inequality and refuse most any degree of redistribution. “Underdevelopment” is best understood as inequality, and we are the wealthy. We are the 1%. We are the privileged, and the system is in our favor. But rather than address the systemic causes of this inequality, the only solution that we even consider is “handouts.” Martin’s right to say that this isn’t the solution. She’s wrong to say that we should therefore ignore the problem. There’s a third option.

Working for development doesn’t mean buying TOMS and it doesn’t mean inventing gimmicky water pumps. It means mobilizing, politically and socially, against the systemic causes of underdevelopment. It means fighting for an inclusive global tax body to prevent multinational corporations from hiding billions in tax dollars from the governments of developing countries. It means organizing against American agricultural subsidies that destroy the livelihoods of farmers in other countries. It means avoiding foreign policies that risk instability abroad in the name of protecting our narrowly defined economic interests. It means confronting our own biases, akin to any –ism, against the global poor. But most of all, working for development means recognizing that global poverty is our issue.

Courtney Martin presents a sort of common wisdom among highly educated progressive types. Working in development is for the well-intentioned, but ultimately wrongheaded, do-gooders, unintentionally proving and perpetuating their own privilege. It would be best if we simply didn’t interfere. At the moment, this is often the case. But it need not be.

Referring to a different, but related, type of systemic inequality, Malcolm X once said:

“Where the really sincere white people have got to do their ‘proving’ of themselves is not among the black victims, but out on the battle lines of where America’s racism really is — and that’s in their own home communities.”

He does not suggest that White people take no action. He suggests that they make change amongst themselves.

Similarly, ending global poverty isn’t about helping them. Fixing them. It’s just as much about fixing us. About fixing an unjust global system that we helped to create.

It is only once we understand this crucial point — that we begin to see development as activism, not charity — that the task of development can truly begin.