I recently returned from a work trip to Africa. It was an excellent trip and one that provided me a great deal of food for thought. I’ve also been in discussions with friends about projects they are undertaking in developing countries in Latin America. I’m using the trip and conversations as a launching pad for a series of posts here, on topics both heavy and light.
To start: I’ve been confronted quite a bit lately by the challenges faced by people in developing countries, and the role we as outsiders – and Americans in particular — have in supporting them.
Part of our American birthright is a baseline expectation of things working, people trying hard, corruption being a rarity. Certainly, things fail, but we see those cases as exceptions, and expect them to be fixed – in fact, we often take it on ourselves (as individuals or communities) to rectify perceived failures.
If you spend your whole life learning the opposite lessons, you see the world in a very different way. In many countries, even if they know competence/honesty exists, people have also internalized that ‘these are qualities we don’t have.’ It is, tragically, part of their birthright. It’s easy to underestimate the gulf between these two perspectives, and thus to be surprised when they come into conflict.
So when we go in and ‘fix things,’ the good news is that people are benefiting – which in the case of HIV/AIDS, for example, means they are staying alive rather than dying. Staying alive is rather fundamental for any success in development! Yet our efforts can reinforce the deeply-held understanding in the recipient population that outsiders are capable, while they themselves are helpless.
One expression of the difference between the outsider perspective and that of people inside a community is the following: as outsiders, we have the ability to define the scope of our engagement. We can choose to focus in our ‘can do’ way on this development issue or disease, and define metrics of success in terms of that alone, and describe other concerns as ‘not our issue.’ And finally, we outsiders always have the ability to leave, perhaps when we feel we’ve met our goals, or have despaired of meeting them, or simply because things changed at home and we lost our funding.
Defining the scope of engagement is a luxury that a recipient community (or country, or person) doesn’t have. They have to deal with the entire range of issues at play in the place – they don’t have a choice. It’s their world.
Every society has its dysfunctions. But when the context is a place where most people are living in poverty, disease, and despair, we can’t simply shrug off incompetence and corruption that preserve the status quo. But going in and ‘fixing it’ American-style can do little to change the unhappy dynamics in a lasting way.
Friends from one of these countries described the pervasive corruption of public life there, the expectation that anyone who obtains a government job will steal for the benefit of their family, home village, tribe, etc. This theft from public health programs literally costs lives. Yet the norm of corruption is so widely accepted that my friends said that for the foreseeable future, they believe that only programs run by outsiders should be funded. What a tragic commentary.
In our engagement with such situations – as individuals or communities who want to help, or even as a nation – it is so difficult to truly understand the dynamics at play. Deep relationships are part of the solution, as is a commitment to build capacity and an understanding that it will take a lot longer than we think it should. But even with a lot of experience, strong relationships, and every other advantage, it will never be easy to overcome norms and perceptions that are often held at a subconscious level. It took a long time for things to get this way, and it will take a long time to reverse the situation.
A good starting point for engagement is a spirit of humility. That starts with admitting that we don’t even know how much we don’t know.