Questioning development

Two friends of mine have returned from a trip to Haiti. The devastation there is unimaginable, they have said – no surprise there. The mismanagement of aid is unimaginable – again, no surprise there. It could be argued that no one was prepared for a devastating earthquake that left hundreds of thousands dead. The same could be said of the 2004 tsunami that wiped out about as many people as Haiti’s earthquake.
What we – and by “we” I mean everyone else who is not directly affected by a disaster such as the earthquake – do to help and how we help is crucial. Donating money to humanitarian organizations is fine, as long as the organization is reputable and that you know the money will be well spent on creating and maintaining an adequate standard of living for those affected: basic access to food, water, lodging. Security as well – people need to feel safe. Organizations that send food or other basic necessities to Haiti are doing so in droves, but sometimes that kind of essential aid does not get distributed evenly or fairly. It sometimes falls into the hands of those who greedily control access to it, and demand payment in other forms, one example being girls as young as two and women who are raped in order to have access to food and shelter.
I have not been to Haiti, but if I were to go I’m sure I would be filled with hope seeing ordinary citizens continuing to live under pathetic circumstances, crushing chunks of concrete, living on the street, mourning loved ones, and probably wondering “Why isn’t anyone else in the world helping us?” It would warm my heart to see the fantastic work that countless volunteers are doing. And it would piss me off to see how some aid is being colossally mismanaged.

I visited Banda Aceh, an area horribly ruined by the 2004 tsunami, just over a year after it was destroyed. As I wrote in my journal back in March 2006 [the drawing, “sorrow,” was part of the entry], “The day left me hollow inside. I had begun to feel disdainful towards the international community’s efforts at reconstruction. My first exposure was an anti-malaria campaign, where I was handed a free cap and t-shirt seconds after jumping into the donor’s vehicle. Hotels in Aceh are fully booked, prices have increased tenfold. Rents gone up 400%. Prices for food gone up dramatically. INGOs [international NGOs] recruiting people who used to work for local NGOs, leaving them to suffer. Disorganization, mismanagement are words everyone is using concerning donor assistance. 

All true, however, looking at the devastation, the area is being rebuilt, and that wouldn’t be possible without the efforts of the UNHCR and others.”

In other words, it’s not unusual in my line of work to be totally psyched and excited about great development efforts and to be equally depressed and disheartened by bad ones. So here for me lies the one issue which has conflicted me the most during my years working in international development: how does one reconcile/live with/find balance with the tremendous disparity between well-intentioned but misplaced and mismanaged assistance/charity and development efforts which truly engage and empower those whose rights are not being fully realized? The former types of efforts have, in my experience, greatly outnumbered the latter. And I admit to having been part of development initiatives which, in retrospect, were not all that effective. I questioned my first posting as a volunteer teacher in Malawi back in 1993 (I’m writing about it here); was I not, after all, taking the place of a well-qualified Malawian teacher? It could be argued that I could have taught my colleagues some innovative teaching practices, but in fact I had none (or at least not many). On a personal level, my first experience in development rendered me aware of what could be done right and what had been done wrong. The organization that hired me the first time, WUSC, sent me out again two years later and their approach was entirely different: it focused on the often-misused-don’t really-know-what-it-means term “capacity building.” But it worked, because we worked with local partners, made decisions with them, and let them take the lead. I can’t help but think that if donor organizations in Haiti trusted local organizations to help them more in distributing food, organizing shelters, building schools, and distributing water, there might be a few happier people sleeping in their tents there tonight.

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