Why Did You Walkout?…From International Development

by Jamie Beck

I had a natural assumption, as many others do, that international development programs lead to direct improvements in lives around the world. Decreasing rates of under-five mortality from malaria? Absolutely. Improving lives in the wake of unimaginable destruction from natural disasters? Without question. It was under these obvious assumptions that I entered the workforce as an international development specialist in a large government agency, confident that my work was in line with my values. Initially, the world travel and large grants I signed dedicated to wonderful-sounding efforts convinced me that I could feel good about my work, knowing I was contributing to good in the world.

However, sometime during the seven years I spent in this line of work managing development projects from India to Tanzania, I began to feel uncomfortable. The impact of my work seemed less and less in sync with the reasons I had gotten into this field in the first place. Slowly, I realized that instead of empowering people, cultures, languages and local solutions to development problems, I found myself furthering a Western approach to what progress looks like and applying it to people in all parts of the world regardless of their own values. With time I saw clearly that in addition to building health clinics, schools, and green revolutions, I was in some cases unknowingly contributing to the creation of a Western monoculture and the destruction of beautifully diverse cultures and languages that hold immeasurable value. My walkout-walk on journey had begun.

In retrospect, there was not one conversation or one moment that began this change in perspective and started my walkout walk on journey; rather the combination of conversations and observations that built up over time. I began to see a disconnect between conversations shared with local people in the countries we served, and directives given from headquarters in Washington, DC. I began to realize that development programs did not typically value the vast storehouses of ideas, creativity, practice and knowledge that indigenous communities held. Traditional healers in Africa, for example, were rarely consulted on their treatment of ailments using medicinal plants; yet their ancient practices would provide important insights that might be incorporated into the design of health projects. I wondered why we Western development workers assumed that we knew the needs and solutions of indigenous communities better than the community members themselves.

Our failure to take local insights into account seemed to have dire consequences. I spoke with a farmer in Bolivia, for example, who mourned the loss of his sacred coca crop in order to plant quinoa, a much more desirable crop to his Western donors. A local leader in the Chittagong Hill Tracts in Bangladesh similarly told me of the slow destruction of his language and culture from “international development.” These conversations, along with the work of inspirational leaders such as Dr. Luisa Maffi and Helena Norberg-Hodge, helped me come to the powerful realization that this was the source of my deep discomfort: development cannot be sustainable, meaningful or respectful when it does not embrace cultural and biological diversity.

I ultimately decided to walkout of this development paradigm, despite the vast improvements in quality of life that many development programs may have. I had to ask myself tough questions about my values and what I would be willing to compromise. In the end, despite the risk and insecurity that comes with leaving a secure job, my questions about this approach to development proved too fundamental, too consequential, that I could not dedicate the rest of my professional life to the field.