The Correctness of Development Work

So many arguments fly back and forth across the dinner table. We each play devil’s advocate for the other side because, well, we consider ourselves development workers, but also, “enlightened,” and so we are cool enough to discuss as if we know what we are talking about. Some arguments are inhumane, others are unrealistic, others are filled with such pragmatism that they must not be effective. We talk, we argue. We get mad at one another as if it matters.

And ultimately I sit and as night creeps on and lie awake in bed, my mind racing a mile a minute about a million different things, I cannot settle. I cannot feel that what I am doing is effective. Parts of me get mad at people not, “pulling themselves up,” but then I get equally mad at the people pushing down on the others’ shoulders. Voluntourists cruise through on week stints painting orphanages and taking photos with starving kids, and I think to myself, “I am here for two years.” Then I meet the woman who has been doing this for twenty years and question the validity of my own arrogance. I wonder about those who are working here just for their resume, but then also at those that are so blinded by enthusiasm that mental collapse is only one social catastrophe away. And the pragmatists! Where do they get off thinking they know what’s going on!?

In all of this confuzzlement, I am overcome with indecision and non-answers. Each argument is successfully countered. Each graceful parry encountering an equally graceful ripost. For every corrupt government official, there is one who donates his time and personal wealth to his needing countrymen. For every obnoxious businessman trying to overcharge you, there is an overly friendly one who would even send you to his competitor’s place of business if it meant getting what you want. For every child shouting, “Mzungu, bring me sweets,” there is one sitting on your lap smiling, herself an essence of innocent sweetness, expecting nothing of you except your attention for the moment.

What is an opinionated person to do?! For every line drawn in the sand, there are logical and truthful arguments on the opposing side. Ultimately, I find that there are no external correctness in this. We are each humans exercising our own free will, and thus to feel correct here you must justify to only yourself, because ultimately even if you change the world here, if you haven’t felt that your actions were correct, what were they really worth?

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4 responses to “The Correctness of Development Work

  1. jesseosmun

    All valid points. I think what is an important distinction to make is that Peace Corps really isn’t a development organization in the traditional sense, but rather an outsourcer of labor to developing nations that need it. Any development work ( and I am sure Peace Corps fits into this model and is indeed structured this way for the most part) needs to be sustainable, measurable, and have a local impetus behind it to really effect change. It is part of why I am against the principal of Voluntourism, the gain from it is negligable at best, even if local communities get some small gains ( money from the tourists) in exchange. Overall,your point about confusion stands.. sometimes it’s more gray then black and white.

  2. You have explored both sides of the argument and described them well enough as to potray the understanding you have on both sides. Just a matter of which points hold more weight and you have yourself a stand.

  3. @Wyndago but that’s my problem, they are all holding weight equally. it leaves me flabbergasted!

  4. Good points, and I think that those who have the capacity should definitely assist in development, but this doesn’t mean just charity. I think it means being a better advocate – whether it is through social enterprise, capitalist solutions, or working with the government to come up with sustainable solutions.

    I don’t think aid is the way forward. More and more African people themselves are beginning to demand that there are at least some more strict rules on aid disbursement such as government conditionalities. The truth is that aid itself won’t solve anything – it has to be done and monitored in the right way. On the other hand, capitalist solutions can certainly foster growth but this doesn’t mean a completely hands on approach. The poorest in society still need a social safety net, and the developing world requires foreign investment which of course means developed countries have to play a larger role in seeking out these opportunities. At the same time, we can’t completely remove aid to many countries because aid CAN be effective. It just needs to be done in a more effective manner.

    I think there’s a middle ground between aid & trade and I really don’t think it has to be one or the other.