Working in development is a political act

I feel that I can’t conclude this development career series without touching on why one might consider working in development in the first place.  The desire to assist people who have less than oneself is commendable – but this doesn’t make it unproblematically good in all situations.  It’s important to think carefully about how you conceptualize and want to engage with the people you’d like to help.  Doing so doesn’t guarantee that you’ll be able to do good in the world, because human society is large and messy and often resists even the best of intentions, but it does lessen the risk that you’ll end up unintentionally doing harm.

Now, notice who the active and passive people were in the last paragraph.  You, the Anglophone, Internet-enabled, probably wealthy-by-global-standards reader, might “assist,” “engage with,” “do good” or “do harm” to others – all transitive verbs.  The people you’re helping, on the other hand, are implicitly assumed to be poor, and to be the passive receipients of the “good” or “assistance” (or, sometimes and unfortunately, the “harm”).   This way of thinking about development is not just a neutral description of a world where the citizens of some countries are rich and others poor.  It is deeply political.  It suggests that development workers, by virtue of “trying to help,” should naturally and unquestionedly get the right to make decisions about the lives of other people.  This is the type of power that’s often reserved for elected officials.

It’s also problematic to suggest that citizens of low income countries (only some of whom are poor) are simply waiting around for aid to show up.  It’s insulting, but even more critically, it’s untrue.   People everywhere take active steps to get their children better educations, access quality healthcare, organize their communities, find meaningful work, voice displeasure with corrupt officials, practice their religion as they see fit, and of course relax and enjoy themselves.  The results may look different in places constrained by poverty, discrimination or violence, but this doesn’t mean that people aren’t actively managing their environments to improve their quality of life.

This has important implications for why and how people ought to work in development.  If you want to work for an aid agency because you feel that the developed world ought to do something, anything, for people in low income countries, pause for a moment and think about why you feel this way.  How do you know that the issue you perceive to be a problem is also seen as such by the people it affects?  If your agency has a solution in mind, how do you know that it will fit well into the lives of the intended beneficiaries?  If the beneficiaries don’t like your plan, how will you respond?  No matter the moral clarity you feel about some issue, you must first keep in mind the people you’d like to assist are people – not disaster victims, not refugees, not persecuted minorities, nor any other collective noun or essentialized “other.”  They are individuals with their own complex lives which existed before you came onto the scene and will continue after your organization leaves.

I still believe that people around the world can work in partnership to change their societies for the better.  But any such partnership has to be, in a fundamental way, about being respectful.  It must be about being vividly aware of the limits of one’s own knowledge, and of the power dynamics inherent in being a foreigner or a wealthy citizen distributing goods and services in places where they’re not otherwise easily available.  It must be about realizing that every place is complex, and that even successful development interventions will only change a small part of people’s larger lives in society.  It must be, for all of these reasons, about humility.  If you let these principles waver over into some type of white savior complex, or serve primarily to impress your friends with photos of cute kids in remote towns, you will give up the desire to see the world clearly, and that doesn’t help anyone.

6 thoughts on “Working in development is a political act

  1. I want to give you an Internet high-five for this.

    The ethics of development seems to be something many newcomers take for granted, and I’m so pleased that you’ve written such a reflective piece on it.

    I believe humility in thinking about development (especially on the research/eval side) is hampered by the organization’s self-sustaining effort to raise funds and attention. It’s not very sexy to tell potential funders and policymakers that their ideas will have minimal impacts on their target community…

    Keep up the great work!

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  2. This is great, and I wish people were forced to discuss this stuff in Northern schools, let alone afterwards. But I think the thing that’s holding me back from working in “development” is the question, maybe, that – it’s not just about you and the people in the country you go to; do you want to be a part of the wider economic and conceptual world that aid and development is a structural part of?

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    1. Completely agreed! That’s a large part of why I’ve ended up on the research and evaluation side of the spectrum rather than implementation. There are many goals of development which I would like to support, but I’m A) concerned about the limits of what practitioners know, and B) afraid to get put in charge of some program which affects people’s lives and perhaps not have the knowledge, funding, local support, political ability, etc. to do anything useful.

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  3. Excellent essay!! A viewpoint which is critical to doing effective work in foreign countries/cultures – but one which is often overlooked. – Anne Strohm

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