The Realities of Development Work

Let’s roll up our sleeves and initiate our savior complex.

If you would have told me two years ago I would be in Africa doing development work, I would have chided you with a grin and deemed you crazy. Dispositions of the younger, slightly arrogant and definitely naïve Keith would now laugh at the man I’ve now become. They say the only permanent thing in life is change. This maxim reverberates through my life every day, echoing in the doldrums of my conscious and penetrating the contents of my being. I pray it has the same effect on you.

. . .

It has been just over five months since my arrival on this beautiful continent. Next month I am to make an arduous journey to the Malawian capitol, Lilongwe, for In-Service Training (IST). This training is meant to hone a Volunteer, setting the cadence for the rest of their tour of service. Leading up to this training, Volunteers are expected to put the tools learned in Pre-Service Training (PST) to use by undertaking an in-depth assessment of the community in which they live and creating a framework for future projects to help co-facilitate. Such is the work I’ve been doing since I moved to site here in Nsanje, the southernmost district in Malawi. This work comes with mixed feelings.

Two months ago I wrote a journal entry. It was a contemptuous indictment of ‘development’ work and my frustrations that I was having at the time. I didn’t publish it because I’ve learned to sleep on an emotionally charged decision before I make it. Too many times in life I’ve been burned by a decision that I went into hastily because of heated passion. At any rate, I decided it was best to not publish the entry and to wait it out — let the frustrations dissolve into the many joys the work I do brings. Knee-jerk, emotion-driven rhetoric burns bridges that otherwise should be left suspended.

After I decided not to post the entry, I needed a morale boost. I thought perhaps my frustrations were because I didn’t internalize a very important piece of advice and instruction at PST. I knew Peace Corps wouldn’t just leave me hanging — they know the struggle of Volunteers and nothing is new under the sun in terms of challenges Volunteers face. I thought if I just reread all my PST materials that it would spark a light to lead me down the dark tunnel I felt I had navigated into. So I reread everything and came to the end of the tunnel safely. I felt better. Every little thing would be alright.

It would be mendacious for me to say that these contemplations about development totally eluded me then. Days like today keep them soundly buoyed in the forefront of my mind. At PST, Peace Corps briefed the cohort ad nauseam that we would have these thoughts of doubt. They thoroughly explained why being a Peace Corps Volunteer is the “hardest job you’ll ever love” and encouraged us to scrounge up mental fortitude and endure during these times of doubt and tribulation.

This withstanding, why do I impulsively cringe when I hear the word ‘development’ in the context of the work I do? Every time the word is said or I read it my brain pauses for a minute and hangs onto the moment, adding a few lines to the ongoing narration in my subconscious.

The narration goes something like this: when I think of the word ‘development’, for some preposterous reason I think of an ornate dining room framed by a crackling fireplace and a large, oak table with a grand dinner upon it. Seated around this table is a bunch of Monopoly Guy doppelgängers laughing at their pompous musings of how they must rescue a people from themselves — they must ‘development’ them to conform to their Western definition of what well-being constitutes.

Don’t ask me why I have this imagery. Hollywood perhaps? Your guess is as good as mine.

At any rate, I felt compelled to do some research on development with the hopes of pacifying some of my prevailing anxieties.

So what is international development? The answer, it seems, is 42. The definition and very concept of development have always garnered heated debate.

The history of modern international development and its related academic field, development theory, root itself in the Western plans for reconstruction after World War II. There are many theories about how change is best achieved in society. These include the modernization theory, dependency theory and world systems theory — all of which are now being considered ‘historical approaches’ to development.

In 2000, the UN signed the United Nations Millennium Declaration which includes eight Millennium Development Goals to be achieved by 2015 or 2020. This was the first time a holistic plan had been adopted with major world powers agreeing on measurable targets and defined indicators.

According to many international development professionals, economists and politicos, since 1970 all the key indicators of human well-being have all improved. This includes access to water, freed countries, GDP per capita, life expectancy, illiteracy, extreme poverty and war deaths. Proponents of international development work will insist that a major cause of this improvement in the human condition is due in part because of the work of organizations like US AID, UK AID, World Bank and the countless non-governmental organizations (NGOs).

Usually in development, the aim is to reduce or alleviate poverty. Defining poverty is as tricky a word to define as international development. Many include economic factors into a definition of development while others push to include a definition that manifests human dignity into the equation.

For the record, Peace Corps’ definition of development is:

“In its broadest sense, ‘development’ is any process that promotes the dignity of a people and their capacity to improve their own lives.”

The concept of participation is when beneficiaries of development projects and programs are themselves involved in the process and in theory, empowered — thereby removing a culture of dependency. In international development circles, words like ‘capacity building’, ‘sustainable development’ and ’empowerment’ show up time and again. Participation is widely considered the most important concepts in modern development theory and indeed, the Peace Corps does in fact make this a priority of Volunteer training and ongoing evaluation of Volunteer work.

So what do the critics of development and foreign aid say? What kind of concerns are they raising?

  • Does development work ignore issues of wealth distribution and the lingering effects of colonialism?
  • Is it nothing more than the last stage of imperialism — neo-colonialism — to further Western hegemony?
  • Is this new wave of development nothing more than NGO-colonialism?
  • Is development an ideology?
  • Does development work actually work?
  • Is development work actually work?
  • Have the benefits of global markets and modern technology been the real reason that the human condition has improved?
  • Will there always be a ‘need’? Can poverty really be sustainably reduced or alleviated?
  • Is there a need for public sector development programs? Could the private sector do a more efficient job, barring various constraints are lifted?
  • Is the current system of charity and tax benefits (especially in the US) really a way a system of goodwill should function?
  • Is there a grain of truth in the writings of Ivan Illich, Arturo Escobar and Gustavo Esteva?
  • Is ethnocide a valid concern in relation to development structures currently being worked?
  • Are development workers social engineers?
  • Is it money well spent?
  • Is this the best we can do?

What say you — are these concerns legitimate? What are the realities of development work?

. . .

Forget the romantic ideas of a wanderlust spirit saving the world one Facebook profile picture with a group of cute kids at a time — the life of a Peace Corps Volunteer is not glamorous. It is mentally, physically, and emotionally taxing. Pretending it is a riot of fascinating adventure and heroic events is disingenuous. It’s tough.

It is times like these were perspective is so vital. I have so much to be grateful for. It is a privilege to serve others. I do enjoy being here. I wouldn’t swap this experience for anything.

But this experience doesn’t mean it is void of valid or reoccurring doubts. It isn’t all rainbows and apple pie.


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