Saturday, October 21, 2017

American culture and international development: a primer by J.

This is a series of four articles written a few years ago by J., the leading author/blogger/bard of international development workers.  The first article alleges that something in US culture makes it difficult for us not to focus on the donor but rather on the needs of poor aid beneficiaries.  The second article expands on this idea, claiming that we are inclined to see as paramount the right or even destiny of Americans to offer aid to others, even if that aid is ineffective or harmful.  We are more concerned about this right to give (and to feel good about giving) than the right of the recipient to dignity and effective help.  The third article looks specifically at donation of gifts-in-kind by regular people, from giving your old clothes to Goodwill for someone else to buy, to packing up nasty old socks or shoes or whatever to send to hurricane victims that don't really need them.  I am embellishing a bit on J.'s thesis here, but the problem is basically that this type of aid is usually more about my need to get rid of stuff (and not feel wasteful about it) than about meeting the real needs or desires of anyone else.  The last article is a bit of a departure from the thread of the prior three, but I think it's the most important for those of us who are serious about doing good development aid (or really good policy-making or governance or anything).  In it, J. discusses the American penchant for seeking simple explanations, and regarding with suspicion any explanation that seems too nuanced, or even the acknowledgement that something is complex.  We seek easy answers, and love to flock to the seeming straight-shooter with a quick, confident answer, even to the point of going for snake oil salesmen over scientists (witness our political preference for people who are totally unqualified, immoral, and corrupt, as long as they seem to shun complex thought and the ever-dreaded political correctness).  But this is not the way to get good results in any field.  The world is complex, increasingly so as we become more socially and technologically advanced.  Would you want someone inexperienced to offer a "simple" fix to your computer bugs?  Or a qualified, thoughtful technician who can recognize complexity and work with it?  Why would we answer any differently when the issue at hand isn't our computer but rather the wellbeing of the poor or the social ills of our society?

Anyway, I would highly recommend these four quick pieces as a great primer for anyone interested in how international development should work, and why it often falls short of this ideal.

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