In her Two Cents on Poverty, my fellow Scholar, Rachel wrote something that deeply resonated with me:
“IDS students are often paralyzed by their fear of doing something wrong. Of doing ‘bad development’. But then the problem is that we end up doing nothing.”
When I first read Rachel’s take on how IDS students respond to poverty I thought she was spot on. After all, we IDS students are blasted with the “do’s” and don’ts” of development work from the day we set foot in “INTD 2001 – Introduction to Development Studies”. Well, first we are blasted with the scent of weed, David’s Tea, burlap satchels and Lulu Lemon leggings – but that goes away after all the GTAers stop attending class. Anyway, even in our first minutes as little “IDSites” we learn that most of our actions actively contribute to a number of global injustices.
We are told that things like poverty, hunger, and malnutrition are not invented by tyrants in developing countries but rather by our white, colonial ancestors. We read that everything from the clothes on our backs to the minerals in our computers and smart phones contribute to war and crimes against humanity. We later discover that the ideologies which allow us to lead happy and comfortable lives (capitalism, liberalism, neoliberalism, neoconservatism, etc., etc., etc.) are the same ones that supress nearly 2 billion people every day. I think I lost my innocence on the day that I learned that IMF encouraged developing countries to divest in healthcare and education through a series of Structural Adjustment Programs (SAPs).
But wait, there’s more! After learning about how our way of life (informed by ideology, of course) directly contributes to widespread human rights violations, war, famine, and poverty we also learn that our ability to help is severely limited. At this point in an IDS lecture on “Bad Development” some student sitting in the back of the class will inevitably go on a rant about how they “saved Africa” during their two week Me to We trip in rural Kenya:
“I don’t know what you are talking about. I spent two whole weeks building schools in rural Kenya when I was in grade 12. The poor villagers did not have a school, so we built them one. I don’t see how that is harmful, now kids can learn…. Blah, blah, blah… I’m now a vegan…. Blah, blah… yeah, so what if I go to Kings, Starbucks will probably still hire me if I graduate… blah, blah, blah… I’ll have you know that my Dad owns the second largest Maple Leafs memorabilia store West of Ajax… blah, blah, blah.”
After a few more similar outbursts, the professor usually goes on to explain the instances where help can be harmful. The professor will point out the sustainability issues that are inherent in physical infrastructure projects, the paternalistic overtones of adopting a child, the colonial undertones of voluntourism, and the harms of assuming that the West is “developed”. Rachel does a fantastic job of outlining the harms that are embedded in simple acts of altruism, so please check out her blog for more on that. What I will say is that, in the world of development, everything must be examined with a critical eye and context must be taken into account. If not, even those with the best intentions run the risk of causing more harm than good.
Anyhow, my point is that IDS is a depressing program. It can make even the most idealistic person reek of cynicism. So in that regard, Rachel is right. Many IDS students would rather do nothing at all than run the risk of causing harm.
I am no exception.
My heart breaks when I see children begging on the street. When they follow me with their hands out and pull on my clothes, every part of me wants to pull out a 50 000 schilling note (or $20.00 CAD) out of my wallet and give it to them. At least that way they would have enough money to eat for the next few weeks. However, then my IDS brain kicks in. I remember that most of (if not all) the money that these kids receive from kind strangers is stolen away from them by the adults who send them onto the street. More often than not, the kids will not see a schilling of what you give them. Food donations are a little bit better, but still create an unsustainable cycle of dependency – not to mention the neocolonial undertones that the image of a rich white person feeding a poor street child conjures up. Not only do I feel like a bad person when I walk away from somebody who I could easily “help”, I feel negligent.
Anyhow, the fact of the matter is that, on a micro level, my IDS education has made me adverse to surface level acts of philanthropy. However, such an aversion does not mean that I “do nothing”. Quite the opposite, really. Rather, I seek out ways to help that do not simultaneously harm. For instance, some of the work that I have done in Uganda will indirectly benefit hundreds, if not thousands of Ugandan farmers. These are small things: write a report, help with a proposal, look over a document, or take notes at a meeting. It would be both naïve and fallacious to assume that these actions play a large role in enhancing Ugandan food security. After all, given the short amount of time I have spent in Uganda, my actions are unlikely to constitute even a drop in the bucket. It is, on the other hand, realistic to hold that these actions have caused far less harm to far fewer people than if I were to solely rely on one-off philanthropic acts to satisfy my conscience.
So yes, as an IDS student I am paralyzed by a fear of doing “bad development”. I refuse to give money to street children because I do not want to entrench cycles of dependency, I do not take my camera in public because I do not want to perpetuate an “extractive model of development” (that and it got stolen), I do not build infrastructure in rural parts of Uganda because I am not a carpenter, I do not draw blood at an HIV clinic because I am not a certified nurse, I do not work at an orphanage because I do not know the first thing about child psychology, I do not volunteer at a school because I am not a teacher, I do not work at an animal reserve because I am not a trained zoologist, and I refuse to sponsor a child because I think that it is paternalistic. I would much rather help with a project proposal that empowers thousands of women than give a street lady 500 schillings. I would rather I help in my own way – in a way that does not create more harm than good.
Dambisa Moyo writes an entire book on the harmful role that “help” from the West plays in “less developed” countries. Her thesis is simple: Development aid causes more harm than good on the African continent. In other words, many African countries are cyclically dependent on foreign aid which paradoxically inhibits their growth. Her solution: Africans need to engage in venture capitalism.
Moyo uses the case of an African mosquito net maker to illustrate the relative effectiveness of venture capitalism compared to the harm of foreign aid. I could appropriate her example, but that would not be much fun as most of my readers do not sleep under a mosquito net. Allow me to use a product that hits a bit closer to home, so to speak. How about shoes? Okay, here we go:
Tom is a shoe maker who lives in a small village in Western Uganda. Tom’s shoemaking shop supplies footwear for his entire village, as well as a few other surrounding communities. In addition to making shoes, Tom also repairs footwear. He buys his leather from a local farmer, his rubber from a local vendor, and pays a boda boda driver to distribute his product. People buy Tom’s shoes because they are fairly affordable to an average rural farmer. More, Tom’s shoemaking shop employs 10 mothers, each of which have nine children and take care of 10 nieces and nephews. Thus, in addition to providing footwear, the revenue from Tom’s shoes allow 190 children to eat three meals a day.
The sun is setting and a brave group of voluntourists emerge in Tom’s village. Bono is their leader. He stands in front of the 50 lionhearted white girls. Everybody (Bono included) wears shin-length khaki shorts, a white tank top with sweat stains, a rucksack, and a tight pony tail. Oh, and aviator sunglasses. Can’t forget those. Bono and his storm troopers (urrr, I mean voluntourists) have come to save the village, and they are not empty handed. They each carry with them a large bag of shoes.
Why? Well, a selfless North American shoe-making company has decided that they will donate one pair of shoes to developing countries for every pair that somebody purchases. It is a win-win-win. Wealthy people get to can go to sleep knowing that they did a good deed (and they get a pair of shoes out of the deal); the poor people get free shoes; and the North American shoe company laughs all the way to the bank.
But wait, now Tom’s village and the surrounding communities are flooded with shoes – free shoes to boot (pun intended)! People suddenly stop buying shoes from Tom (because they can get them for free) and he is forced out of business within a few months of the voluntourists’ arrival. The 10 mothers lose their jobs and their 190 dependants are forced to beg for food on the streets. Even worse, after two years everybody’s free shoes are worn out. Bono and his team of pony-tailed saviors are long gone and Tom does not have enough money to kick-start his business again.
So, thanks to the altruistic intentions of North American shoe buyers, a small village in Western Uganda is dependent on donations for shoes, an entrepreneur has been forced out of business, and 190 children have been forced into the streets. More, Tom’s leather supplier, rubber vendor, and boda boda driver lose out on his regular business. Win-win-win? Not quite.
Now, as a firm believer in a responsible and robust state structure, I cannot say that I wholeheartedly agree with Ms. Moyo’s solution to foreign aid dependency; however, the premise that development aid can be harmful if not done correctly holds true.
Alright, let’s take stalk of what we know. IDS students are so paralyzed by the fear of doing harm that they often do nothing at all. Their fear is founded in the fact that good intentions do not always lead to good outcomes. Micro level actions, such as one-off philanthropic donations, might feel good, but they hold the potential to cause harm. While some little “IDSers” believe they are doing good, if they undertake work that ignores the context of their community and their respective skill sets, they hold the potential to cause harm. While some little shoe shoppers believe they are doing good, if they undertake shopping endeavors without considering the implications of their actions, they hold the potential to cause harm.
Moral of the story: think twice before you sponsor a child, make a commitment at We Day, or sign up with a voluntourism company. Remember that your good intentions hold the potential to cause harm. Recognition of this potential should not stop you from helping; rather, it should give you an idea of how mitigate harm.
Epilogue: If you don’t find God, then He will find you (part two)
I sit on my boda and feel like a badass. A few minutes earlier me, Rachel, and Shelby decided to go for a run on one of our favorite hills. Ironically, however, we need to take a boda boda to the hill because it is located on the other side of the city. Anyway, I feel like a badass because I did not say one word in English to the boda boda driver when I was hailing him – only Luganda! Granted, I did not understand half of what he was saying, but still… badass.
We bump along the road that leads into Kampala’s City Centre. We reach the first round-a-bout and it is an absolute free for all. The boda boda driver accelerates and swerves left to avoid a taxi, he then slams on the breaks, does some weird swivel maneuver with his front tire, and then accelerates over the curbed area in the center of the round-a-bout.
While on the cubed area, we nearly hit an old lady who is screaming biblical verses at the top of her lungs. She stares at me, hisses, and then continues with her business. She must know my dirty secular secret. We continue over the curbed area, back into the round-a-bout where we swerve right to avoid a chicken and what appears to be a baby goat. After another few near-death moments, we finally emerge on the wrong side of the road, meters away from head-on traffic. I close my eyes and the next thing I know we are safely on the right (I mean left) side of the road. Well, actually by the time I open my eyes we are on a sidewalk on the left side of the road. No surface is out of bounds if you are a boda boda driver.
After another sketchy intersection – sans traffic lights or stop signs – we arrive at the bottom of a small hill. I’ve been down this road hundreds of times by now and everything appears to be normal. People walk, children play, and the odd chicken makes its way on and off the side of the road. Then I hear something. It is coming from the top of the hill, but I cannot quite make out the sound.
I wait a few more seconds.
My eyes double in circumference as the faint sound morphs into a wall of people coming over the crest of the hill. In front of the wall of people are two or three police trucks with armed guards sticking out of all ends. Additionally, there are a dozen armed police and Uganda People’s Defense Forces (UPDF) officers running in front of the crowd. The officers hold their shot guns in one hand and wave oncoming traffic to the side of the road with the other.
“F***, it’s a coup. Shit, f***, Stephen Harper, house cat, shit. This is not how I want to die. Pretty cool way to go, I guess. But still, not completely ideal.”
The crowd grows closer and I tell my boda to turn around and take a different way… this time in English. He ignores me and presses on. “Okay, Jeremy. You have a helmet on so if they knock you off the bike at least you won’t die from getting trampled.” The mob is less than 10 meters away at this point. All I see are guns, police, and more guns. The crowd is chanting something, but I cannot make out their words through my helmet.
5 meters away: “How are we possibly going to squeeze through this mass of people”, I think to myself.
3 meters away:” “Well, I made it almost 14 weeks without dying. I’m sure that’s not a high score, but better than nothing.”
1 meter away: I close my eyes.
When I open my eyes I am surrounded by a sea of people dressed in blue. “Okay, not dead, not getting trampled, probably not a coup. Looking good, Jeremy.” I can finally make out what the people are chanting, “WE ARE GOING TO CANAAN!!!!!” I pull up the visor on my helmet and I can hear them chanting louder now. People sprint by the boda in every direction. As people run by they grab by arm and say, “JESUS NEEDS YOU!!!!… “PRAISE BE TO JESUS”… “COME WITH US TO CANAAN TO PRAISE HIS HOLY NAME!”
I cannot help but let out a bit of a chuckle. I am not in the middle of a coup; rather, I am witnessing some sort of pilgrimage. Parents have children on their shoulders. Girls are singing and boys are dancing. Everybody carries a flag in their hand that says something about Canaan and “God”. People wave their flags in my face as they try to bring Jesus into my life. Granted, some of them make compelling cases, but for now I will stick to my “I believe in everything and nothing” approach to organized religion.
The crowd stretches down the road for kilometers. I stand up on the boda at one point to see just how many people we are dealing with and I lose count after 20 000. Actually, I lose count after 5, but you get the point.
My boda driver and I continue through the crowd for a bit before dipping off into a side-street. A few pilgrims find us on the side-street and start to spread the Holy Word. Lucky for me, my driver is just as interested in getting away from the pilgrimage as I am by this point so we speed off in another direction.
I think to myself as we travel down the street, “You can run from ‘God’, but you sure cannot hide”.