Waylaid Dialectic

January 3, 2012

Only human…

Filed under: Aid — terence @ 9:15 am
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Slightly faster internet and a decidedly slower pace of life mean I’ve finally had time to read over Stuff Expat Aid Workers Like. Two thoughts:

1. Unlike William Easterly’s crowd-sourced effort it’s actually funny (very funny).

2. The failings that propel the satire all feel very familiar. Not because I’m a development old-hand but simply because I’m a person. Double standards, the propensity to conform to group norms even when they’re daft, mixed motives, desire for status. These are all very human failings. And that leads, I think, to the most useful take-away point from this blog: development is a human endeavour. One that is prone, every step of the way, to human failings. This might be stating the obvious but I think it’s something that often gets lost in discussions of development, and it’s worth remembering. Worth remembering because:

* After all, it’s (often) you and me – everyone likes to point the finger at others as being the source of problems in the world of development. And often enough these others are, but it’s worth remembering that we ourselves almost never live up to the standards we expect of others, and so a little bit of humility is a great starting point.

* Development workers make their mistakes, but they do not make them under circumstances of their making (quote mangled from here). The aid world often seems crazy when viewed in isolation. But when you view it as a link in one of the following two chains of craziness it starts to make quite a lot more sense:

(usually) uninformed voters -> vote dependent politicians -> aid agency staffers working at the behest of these politicians -> developing country politicians whose own agendas are the product of a complicated domestic political economy -> aid recipients

or

(often) uniformed donation givers -> NGO marketing departments -> NGO staff -> recipient communities (who often have their own complex power dynamics) -> recipients

* Humans are too complicated for utopia (be that socialist or free market capitalist utopia), trade-offs exist, and the perfect really can be the enemy of the good (and when it’s not it’s often working with the good to pick on the better-than-nothing).

None of this is to excuse the most egregious nastiness of development – this needs to be fought. But the garden gnome variety of development badness on the other hand, that’s always going to be with us, for the simple reason that it comes from us.

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