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The psyche of development work: making sure development is done right Printable Version PRINTABLE VERSION
by Stacia, Canada Nov 20, 2008
Culture , Human Rights , Peace & Conflict   Opinions
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The psyche of development work: making sure development is done right The greatest danger involved in development work is not the projects themselves, but the mindsets of the people who implement them. For one who is only barely acquainted with development, the entire development project is seen as a ‘good’ thing. Development of poor countries using resources from wealthier nations is moralized as the ‘right’ thing to do. However, there are problems with this conceptualization of development which need to be addressed. In brief, some of the consequences of this kind of mindset are that:

a) Development projects often characterize the situation as ‘Us’ (the developed world, the Northerner) helping ‘Them’ (the underdeveloped South, the Southerner). This instantaneously categorizes people as the rich or the poor, the strong or the weak, and the capable or the helpless. This degrades and insults the people in the latter categories. Who would want to be called poor, weak and helpless? Who would allow themselves to be labeled by these terms? If you don’t want to be known by such terms, why would you categorize others using them? Simply by saying, ‘we are going to help them’, the North is demonstrating its belief in its own superiority. Recall the colonization of the minds technique that was used by invading countries who occupied foreign territories. If ‘we’ are capable of helping ‘them’, yet they are not able to return the favour, then we are superior in our ability. If one is superior, the other must be the inferior. So the playing field is unequal. Similarly, if one says, ‘we are going to help them help themselves’, we are still dividing people along the lines of the powerful and the weak. This is the equivalent of saying that, while conceding that eventually the Southerner will also become powerful, they can only do so with our help. So again, the Northerner is positioned as the powerful.

b) These divisions are often taken for granted. Rarely do those using these characterizations associate historical events that took place with the creation of these divisions. Even if the terms strong and weak, rich and poor, powerful and helpless, etc, are accurate, it is important to note that the origins of these situations are historically based. They are not innate. And the history that caused these circumstances to be arrived at are not easily forgotten by all, so it is important to remember the past, because it should determine the actions taken in the future. Even worse, when one doesn’t consider the historical past which caused inequalities to arise it is extremely easy to assume that people’s circumstances and poverty are caused by the individual themselves. We may end up blaming people for their own poverty, believing them too ignorant to improve their own circumstances.

c) If the theoretical basis of the Us vs Them dichotomy is not understood, then the material division between the Northerner and the Southerner will reinforce the power divide. That is, once development workers enter a community, the difference between the rich and the poor becomes clear. To an individual who is unhappy with their life, who lives in poverty, who is prevented from moving or living as they wish, when a wealthy person enters their community, all of their differences are brought into sharp focus. The freedom and advantages that the Northerner enjoys become apparent to the Southerner, which can result in anger, embarrassment, and a loss of hope. For a person trapped in an overbearing state, stripped of their rights and freedoms, struggling to achieve the basic necessities of life, the ability of a foreigner to come and go from their country with ease is an affront to their dignity. Imagine their shame when a wealthy person views their poverty with curiosity. Imagine their anger with someone who has little understanding of their dire circumstances, whose wealth and rights allows them to travel freely in a nation where the majority of people live in dire straits. In these cases, simply entering a country without any understanding of or respect for a country’s background can become a means of flaunting one’s western rights and ‘superiority’.

d) The race to the bottom. If we apply art to life, our actions would follow the archetypal model: the strongest wants to help the weakest. Thus, the affluent only want to help the poorest of the poor, as this will demonstrate their extreme strength. This forces some individuals, communities, countries and so on, to seek the most extreme poverty possible, to desire a situation even worse than their actual reality, in order to ‘merit’ the attention of the rich. These individuals race to the bottom, seeking to be the worst off, because it may increase their chances of receiving external aid. This mimics the argument used by conservative politicians when arguing against unemployment insurance.

e) ‘We’ often assume that we know what ‘They’ want or need. The Northerner looks at a community from an outsider’s point of view, decides what is needed to improve the situation, and then insists on doing it. Consultation with the Southerner may be non-existent. Or, when communication does occur, the Northerner may not understand or appreciate the Southerner’s desires, and may dismiss them as superfluous or as the result of ‘Their’ ‘ignorant’ understanding of the situation. This disrespects the knowledge and wisdom of the Southerner, and again reinforces the mindset that ‘we’ are better, and ‘we’ know best.

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As my work shows, I am an advocate for development projects, yet am somewhat tormented by the best means of accomplishing them. The dignity, agency, and abilities of people in need are often undermined by development projects, or more accurately, by the mindsets of the people implementing them. I'm hoping that by writing about these issues I'll be able to work through these concerns, and find a middle ground where development work can be done without disparaging those who are the recipients of it.
If you have any answers to this dilemma, let me know - it would save me a lot of stress and guilt!

some thoughts
tara | Feb 28th, 2009
Dear Stacia, I feel your guilt. I am working in Dhaka, Bangladesh and my project has me living in a diplomatic zone where most apartments strictly say “only for foreigners” while one-third of the city lives in the slums. I am a Nepali and my short hair is the only feature that keeps me from completely blending into the predominantly Muslim society here. But I can be mistaken for a Bangladeshi who has been "abroad" and I can arouse even more anger and the feeling of injustice among the locals. I hate it. I hate that I like my apartment. I hate that I even have a caretaker who must hate me because he has to serve someone who comes from a poorer country that his own. So, I hear you! Believe me. And it works on different levels too, the guilt. As for the dilemma of a development worker—the modern world is moving at such a fast pace that it seems like there is no time to question the package deals of development, because if the Southerners don’t follow what the Northerners did, they will be left behind, unmodernized and unbenefited. In my opinion, we all need to step back and question where we are headed. Where this ship of development is taking the Southerners and is the ship well prepared to cope with the wave of challenges that the developing world presents or is it going to sink and take with it the traditions, the knowledge and the wisdom that the South possesses, leaving the South in a worse state than before? I agree with you on fair trade being one of the best development endeavors for the South because not only does it guarantee fair wages and bring a sense of equality, but it also allows the developing country to be self-reliant and build up on its industries for future security. Partnership with a democratic government is another good idea; however, transparency and accountability to the grassroots cannot be stressed enough. As for the controversies of working in a post-conflict situation--the term victim I think is still not very appropriate. The word automatically brings a feeling of sympathy or pity to the ‘giver’, while making the ‘receiver’ feel more helpless and in need of others’ recognition, thus, undermining the bravery and the courage that a lot of them have shown in order to survive--the courageous act of saving a neighbor’s child or sharing the little food that’s left with a stranger often goes unrecognized. I was in northeastern Sri Lanka in 2008 while the conflict was almost equally sparked from both sides. And to be among the people who have been internally displaced for up to 19 times (and they still manage to smile) just made me feel small, like I was in the presence of something great and unachievable. That’s why I think the word victim does not seem to do justice to these heroes. Victim implies lack of action. The mere fact that they survived and are willing to go on symbolizes boldness and courage. The word survivor, in my mind, seems to be more appropriate. What do you think? Great thoughts overall. I’m glad I’m not the only one still confused about the concept of development and the vast range implications and consequences it has.

Mahamed Osman | Feb 19th, 2009
Dear Stacia thank you very much for your descovery panaroma, This case is parctically dominated just like my country Somalia. I share the same ideas with you , and will contineu my efforts. Mhamed Osman Jama A development worker in Somalia

great article
Carina Bleuer | Mar 3rd, 2009
I loved your article Stacia. It's great to see articles on the ethics of development. So many times development work is carried out without incorporating ethics into development projects. I also strongly agree with Tara's comment about replacing the word "victim" with "survivor". Although it's just a word, it evokes ideas that help development workers approach their work in a less condescending way.

Development work
Luis Gonzalo | Mar 3rd, 2009
Again, your words are pressing a very important point. Generally poorly defined, development work is sometimes the crown stone un the unequal relations between developed and underdeveloped world and, as you presented, its practice generate controversial positions and the objectives and aspirations of both parts are, commonly, not congruent at all. It is more painfully for the one directly involved, the field worker, as some of the commentaries about your article make very clear. I think that the central point is about knowledge and respect. This must not be only the responsibility of the foreign social worker who is helping in a natural catastrophe emergency, post-war situation, famine or basic needs development, but the clear policy of the organization the worker is representing. But, those organizations, meaning a NGO, an international organization or a nation, have agendas that not necessarily coincide, or simply cannot stretch enough, with the principles and practices of social equality, common humanity, the fair raising of opportunities, local democracy or even elemental justice. And that is because, the history of hegemony and domination, as much as from the richer economy over the poorer countries as from the stronger over the weaker into the same country in need, are the ones that generates the political and social situations that ended in tragedy. And that fact, creates historical responsibilities hard to assume or accept. Knowledge and respect. This two elements, which acquirement sometimes represents a shock, a earthquake to our minds, are the basic tool to create the only effective mean in our quest of equality and justice, equality and justice that must begin in ourselves, and it is a sense and practice of common humanity.

change that u can bring
Sourav Roy | Mar 3rd, 2009
u know it just doesn't matter what u feel or what u say, cause someone like u who do have the power to make a change (believe me u do) will not come forward and take part in active politics, and unfortunately that is the only place where u can implement your thought. pls post when u complete your paper and think about a career in social science, cause we desparately need people like u to step it up and take the center stage. until then all the best and godspeed

Respect and cultural understanding
Spreitzer Roland | Mar 4th, 2009
First I want to thank you for your inspiring article. It's people like you who are able to put development work on a new level. Personally, I haven't worked for development projects yet, but I was working in refugee homes here in Austria. I saw myself confronted with similar issues as you described it. My clients had a hard time during their first years and month in Austria: limited civilian rights, ambiguity, no right to work, no money, a sometimes racist and prejudice environment, inappropriate treatment from the police,... And I was 'one of those Austrians! Understandably, some of my clients let me feel their disstrust. As I started in refugee support, I was insecure, ashamed of being part of such a system and ashamed of some of my fellow countrymen. Nevertheless, I soon got very good "feedback" from my clients. I think it was because I respected them as individuals with a cultural background which usually was different from mine. I was interested in who they are. Asked them "How would you do it?" instead of solving every problem the "nothern/western" way. I tried to work with them, not for them. I asked about their homecountry, their family, their traditions,... was truly interested, not just pretending. It was not just smalltalk, it was a mutual learning process. I think that this was a way to clearly state that none of us is superior or inferior. Of course there were conflicts, of course not every refugees story had a happy ending, but every cooperation was carried out with respect for one another. I guess, development work is carried out in a more complicated setting, than to help refugees in your homecountry. Nevertheless, I think that an understanding for cultural differences might help. There are different ways to do things or handle problems and none of them should be labeled right or wrong, their just different. As soon as somebody stops to take the northern/western perspective as the one and only truth, as soon as somebody accepts that there might be other ways to handle things, as soon as the development worker starts learning - then we stop to "colonize" . Sociologist might come up with the "going native" problem. I think "going native" is only a problem, when I don't want to be a part of "them". And if I feel so, it's propably because I think "they" are inferior?

Thanks to all
Stacia | Mar 29th, 2009
I just wanted to thank everyone for their comments on my piece. It's nice to know that people are actually reading it! And also it's nice to know that there are others who are thinking about these issues and trying to deal with them constructively. I think overall it's something that each individual has to come to terms with on their own, and deal with in their personal life and careers. I don't think we can convince every development worker of the benefit of abandoning that saviour mindset, because for some that's what drives them to do development work. I don't know if that causes more harm than good, but atleast some people are trying to deal with this issue. And even if this article helps to make other development workers aware of this and think about it, then I think it's achieved something.

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