On a drive back to DC last week from my home town I took a brief stop in Gettysburg, Pennsylvania (I know – not exactly the exotic locales you might be expecting from this blog). Still wearing the rather unkempt hairdo I’d grown while in Senegal, I used the opportunity to find a local barber.
After a few wise cracks 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 a development intern, and that of the organization that employs me. Deeply interested, the barber prodded for more information. As he tamed my wild hair I gave him what information I could – really not all that much. Nonetheless what I had supplied was ample justification for a firm handshake 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 looked in the mirror I found myself admiring the haircut, yet wondering if I’d earned his praise.
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.The disturbing truth is academic and professional evaluations of the development industry have been largely, if not entirely, negative.
Very reputable research has asked if our nominal development efforts have made any advances in the “third world,” or even accused those efforts of having detrimental effects. A stunning example every practitioner should know is a 2008 study that found that used clothing donations (Ed: sometimes referred to as Stuff We Don’t Want – SWEDOW) caused a 50% reduction in employment in the textile industry throughout much of the continent of Africa.
Some scholars argue the development apparatus, with its “developed” and “undeveloped” labels, seems to depict not just a hierarchical view of the world but an oversimplified time-line leading away from poverty. This discourse crushes our collective imagination and stunts our capacity to adapt. Is there really only one route from poverty for all people?
Others argue global poverty is a result of the very model of liberal capitalism we are pushing on the “third world.” Capitalism demands inequality and some might suggest our efforts to expand markets (with agribusiness programs or tariff reductions) will only magnify the degree of disparity.
As development interns we need to be aware of these criticisms. When you are considering patting yourself on the back for your noble career choice (or having someone like my barber friend do it for you), remind yourself of these all too real critiques (and there are quite a few more I have been unable to cover here).
That is not to say I recommend leaving the development industry behind – for all its flaws it still may be our best hope at combating global poverty. Nonetheless I am unable to provide a way to recognize these concerns and continue on as a practitioner without a healthy dose of cognitive dissonance.
As such, I have taken to labelling myself, and my like-minded colleagues, self-loathing development interns .
Perhaps some older development practitioners have some insights they can provide. I have noticed an almost comically prevalent culture of self-resentment in the development community. It seems some of development fiercest critics on blogs and in academic journals are practitioners themselves.
How do you level this uneasy recognition of flaws into your professional identity?