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.


Optimism In Africa

A recent Gallup poll found that Sub-Saharan Africa is the most optimistic region in the world. Obviously confused by a result so counter popular perceptions, Gallup speculated as to the cause of such a strange result, concluding that “optimism may be more widespread in these countries simply because people cannot imagine that their lives could get any worse.”

Mike Mieson on Why Dev recently posted a great critique of that explanation, using Gallup’s data and some insight from the World Bank to depict a much more hearty explanation than this “well it can’t get worse” rationale.

Much of his explanation rests on trends of economic growth and strides in health that have been observed throughout Africa during the decade. Most of the nations that top the list of most optimistic countries, Mieson notes, have experienced periods of high GDP growth in the last five years as well as reductions in their maternal mortality rates.

I think Mieson hit the nail on the head as far as explaining the greatest contributors to this pattern of optimism in Africa. That being said, I think there is still something missing from his analysis.

The specific case of Senegal is instructive. There, a 2% growth rate and minimal reduction in maternal mortality rate do not seem to be sufficient enough to warrant Senegal’s place as the 9th most optimistic nation on the face of this Earth (especially when one considers the fact that Senegal shares this planet with nations like Turkmenistan that have experienced growth of about 20% over the last 5 years). Clearly some other mechanism is at work.

I would add to Mieson’s evaluation a third major contributing factor to Sub-Saharan Africa’s overwhelming optimism; improvements in governance.

This additional factor can help to explain Senegal’s optimism. The last decade has been characterized by some serious advancements in the legitimacy of that nation’s democracy. That is in no small part thanks to a growing youth social movement led by Y’en A Marre (Fed Up), a rag-tag assembly of reformist rappers and journalists. Y’en A Marre gained public support during the 2012 election by helping to dethrone then President Abdoulaye Wade, in favour of his former prime minister, Macky Sall. Turning down high profile government appointments following the election of Sall, Y’en A Marre has thus far been committed to building a Senegalese civil society and breaking down old procedures of reciprocity.

Shortly after losing power, it became clear that Karim Wade, the son of former President Abdoulaye Wade and a high minister during his father’s 12 year rule, had been stealing state funds in an embezzlement scheme of quite shocking proportions (the charges add up to about $1.4 billion). Many Senegalese have been surprised to see the trial proceed with what seems to be an intent to punish the politician to the full extent of his crime. It appears Karim Wade will serve some serious time, and rightfully so.

Both of these trends certainly give Senegalese citizens reason for a bit of hope. There remains some well-warranted distaste for the political system. A common joke in Senegal combines the French word for politician (politicien) and dog (chien) into “politichien,” to form a little less than subtle political play on words [Ed: see ‘Politricks’]. That being said, the last decade has seen the ousting of an unpopular President, and the imprisonment of a corrupt politician who likely thought himself above the law; both certainly reasons for hope.

Improvements in government help to explain the data beyond Senegal as well. A recent study using 57 criteria including measures of security, rule of law, and transparency found that governments have been improving in the vast majority (about two thirds) of the countries on the continent. Certainly this plays a part in the continent’s optimism.

Alternatively, factoring in government can also help to explain some of the less optimistic nations on the African continent. In a Pew survey that also evaluated optimism across the globe, Egypt was ranked as the least optimistic nation of the African countries surveyed. Political turmoil there, following the Coup d’Etat that ousted President Morsi, can certainly go a long way in explaining some of that nation’s pessimism.

Cleary government has a role to play in shaping the average African’s expectations for the future.

In a continent too often associated with corrupt officials and autocratic sensibilities, some governments are slowly reforming for the better. As a result Africans are feeling particularly positive about their future prospects, and that of their children. Citizens are noticing positive changes on their continent. It’s time the folks over at Gallup do too.


In the last decade ‘sustainability‘ has become a crucial consideration in crafting development policy. From the mega-conferences of the UN and the World Bank to the planning and evaluation documents of specific projects, ‘sustainable development’ is on the lips of development experts and amateur bloggers the world over.

A group of Fulani Pastoralists round a well in the Ferlo region of Senegal

It makes sense. Global climate change and natural resource shortages present perhaps the greatest obstacles to development in much of the world as well as challenge the continued feasibility of the ‘developed‘ life-style in the West. Wolfgang Sachs and his fellow development critics would argue the ecological consequences of development are of such a magnitude that they necessitate a re-evaluation of the Western model of growth oriented market capitalism as well as any efforts to export that model elsewhere with any development efforts. Sustainable development, he argues, is a term created to preserve development and the implicit model it bears, and not the globe’s dwindling natural resources.

He might point for instance to the World Bank’s 2008 Agriculture for Development report to support this claim. In describing the ecological challenges to agricultural development, it concludes,

“The solutions not to slow agricultural development – it is to seek more sustainable production systems”

Of course, aligning with Sachs leaves the empathetic practitioner in an awkward situation. Without global revolutionary social change, the Sachs argument leaves little room for any attempts at ameliorating the lives or livelihoods of the world’s poorest individuals.

A recent trip of mine to the Ferlo region of Senegal portrays this ecological challenge to development all too well.

The Ferlo portion of Northern Senegal is historically the stomping grounds of Senegal’s highly mobile pastoral herders (called generally the Fulbe or Fula). In the last few decades agriculturalists have slowly expanded into this semi-arid area, spurred on by both development organizations and the Senegalese government. Concurrent with that trend has been one of ecological degradation that is transforming this Sahelian strip between the Sahara and the lush grasslands of central Africa into an environment that looks much more like the latter than the former. Thus the Fulbe are struggling simultaneously with an increase in demand for, and a diminishing supply of, natural resources.

Further complicating the situation those new cultivators in the region are high privileged over the pastoralists, as agriculture is considered a main engine of economic growth. Agriculturalists are encouraged to claim new lands and expand cultivation. Pastoralists, under Senegalese land tenure laws, have been unable to make similar land claims, and have received only comparably minimal support from the development industry.

Clearly, something is wrong here. However, no easy alternative presents itself. One might argue not enough consideration has been given to sustainability and the current shortage of natural resources. By supporting agricultural as a means of development, we are further endangering a fragile environment as well as the people that have used it successfully for hundreds if not thousands of years. Alternatively, one could argue a halting of agricultural support would mean an abdication of one of development’s most powerful tools. Agricultural support might initiate wider economic growth in Senegal or help to reduce its need for food imports, thereby making the nation more food secure. While hurting the Fulbe and endangering the already ecologically weak region of the Ferlo are certainly not positive consequences of this development strategy, perhaps agricultural expansion is a necessary condition for development.

This brief portrait shows how crucial, and often unsettling, ideas of sustainability are in development tactics. Can development continue to march forward considering its ecological effects and challenges? Are these environmental effects a necessary and permissible condition for growth? How can we support poverty alleviation and still preserve our shared, and singular planet?

I would love to hear your thoughts.

Commentary, Platform

The Ecology vs #Globaldev Debate In Senegal

Advice, Support

Self Loathing Development Interns

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?