Experiences

Cognitive Dissonance: An Unspoken Qualification for Aid Work?

This post was published originally on WhyDev

Wearing the rather unkempt hairdo I’d grown while studying abroad in Senegal, I used a brief stop in Gettysburg, Pennsylvania (I know – not exactly the exotic locale you might be expecting from this blog) to get a dearly overdue haircut.

After a few wisecracks about my receding hairline, the barber and I drifted into the familiar realm of aimless small talk that accompanies a haircut almost anywhere. Before long, I was describing my work as an intern at Roots of Development. Deeply interested, the barber prodded me for more information. As he tamed my wild hair, I gave him what details I could – since I had taken the position only a few weeks prior, it was really not all that much. Seeking to describe the organisation fairly, and hoping to avoid industry jargon, I oversimplified and murmured something along the lines of, “We help poor people in a small town in Haiti escape poverty.”

I cringed as I repeated silently the organisation’s chosen discourse. “We work WITH communities who choose, build, manage and maintain their own projects. We support development without dependency.” Nonetheless, the clumsy summary I had supplied was ample justification for a firm handshake from the barber when I rose from his worn-in leather chair.

As he squeezed my hand, he hardened his gaze and said, “Thank you for the work you are doing. You are making the world a better place.” I smiled, returned his firm grip and walked out.

The next time I peered into the mirror, I found myself admiring the haircut, yet wondering if I’d earned his praise.

Working in development. By Ahmed El-Mezeny.
By Ahmed El-Mezeny

Certainly the intent of development is noble. At face value, the notion of alleviating human suffering, of improving living conditions or elongating lives, is unarguably good. That said, the disturbing truth is that academic and professional evaluations of the development industry have been largely negative.

Pondering these critiques, I stopped short of patting myself on the back.

In that moment of self-reflection (cue dramatic soap opera music and flashback effect), I recalled a particular conversation I’d had the previous spring in Senegal, with a group of five Peace Corps Volunteers serving there. They had diverse areas of work, two focusing on sustainable agriculture in rural areas and the other three partnering with small businesses in some of the country’s cities. A curious undergrad with similar interests, I used the opportunity to inquire about the Peace Corps experience, eyeing it as a potential post-grad plan.

“Do you feel as though you are getting a good cultural experience? Are you learning the language and finding a place in Senegalese society?” I asked.

They replied with a resounding yes. “The most powerful cultural experience of my life,” answered one. “It’s an opportunity like no other to spend some time in a country I might otherwise never visit,” said another.

I coughed awkwardly, knowing my next question was a tad stereotypical and would be less enthusiastically received. “Do you think you are making a difference here?”

A long silence followed, broken at last by a muffled, “Well…” Each articulated to me a well-processed answer, indicating it was a question they had received prior or, even more likely, frequently asked themselves. No answer was absolute. Soft, uneasy yes’s and very tentative no’s. Obviously, like me, they had gazed uneasily into the mirror a few times. Like most development practitioners, the Peace Corps Volunteers had chosen this line of work with a healthy dose of self-doubt and cognitive dissonance, or at least developed it during their time in the field.

A great wealth of criticism has come from professional, academic and institutional circles in the development community, forming a chorus of impassioned, and persuasive, condemnation. The age of unbridled optimism (or perhaps hubris) among development workers concerning our capacity to affect change is long, and rightfully, gone.

Most practitioners know aid can be problematic and that development rhetoric tends to oversimplify the causes of global poverty. They know the minimal funds that emerge from the “developed” world have a tinge of political interest or a bitter ideological after taste. Most are well-versed in development theory and criticism, having read books like The White Man’s Burden, Dead Aid and The Anti-Politics Machine.

Yet, despite their knowledge and concerns, most practitioners will, from time to time, be lauded for their compassion and praised for their generosity. Many – like me, following that overdue haircut, and my Peace Corps buddies in Senegal – will take a hard look in the mirror and wonder if they deserve such accolades.

Though I’ve given this topic a lot of thought, I’ve yet to reach a satisfying conclusion. I’m still not sure how to continue on as a practitioner without a healthy dose of cognitive dissonance. So instead of leaving you with some profound realization, I’ll end with a question to older, wiser (just take the compliment) development practitioners.

How have you integrated recognition of the industry’s flaws into your professional identity? How have you learned to recognize development’s problems, while continuing to work in the field or advocating for its expansion? How do you motivate yourselves on tough days when you doubt the impact of your efforts?

I hope dearly it’s more than the dual tides of time and apathy that have allowed the leaders of the field to remain there for a decade, or a few.

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2 thoughts on “Cognitive Dissonance: An Unspoken Qualification for Aid Work?

  1. Pingback: An Internship For Hypocrites | Development Intern

  2. Pingback: White Interns Vs. Brown Babies | Development Intern

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