Dear Development…

(wherein @giantpandinha ends her relationship with Development and posts her open letter here….)

Dear “Development,”

By the time you read this letter I will be gone. We have been together a total of five years, with a long separation in the middle when I nearly eloped with social anthropology…. In our first stormy year, I was the “local hire” expat on a bicycle. The other four, I have been based at headquarters, where the biggest crises seem to revolve around lack of milk for tea.

I studied you, Development, at university, never really imagining myself working for an INGO. I was always more interested in culture, history, the lived experience of people coming out of colonialism than in “you,” the economic development part. Okay, so I was interested in human rights, but that was an indulgence – I always perceived that the rights obsession has its own perverse consequences in certain contexts.

I have been lucky in the two jobs I had – both allowed me to dodge the massive compliance edifices being constructed around me. These jobs allowed me to make other friends, they were not the jealous types.

In my last job, at an organization majority funded by individual supporters, people gave to us for who we were. Something I thought could free our hands to focus on the causes of poverty and to avoid what I have seen in many agencies. You know, the ones more dependent on government monies hence spend so much time bean-counting and measuring that they are unable to work with the people closest to the reality on the ground… the ones that treat development like a massive Rube Goldberg machine, where you put some inputs in, a series of technical and scientific interventions are applied… et voilà. People are pulled out of poverty, and “sustainably,” at that.

Thanks to Andrew Nastios, I learned that this approach is actually more Ford and McNamara than Rube Goldberg. That the reason “development” feels so bankrupt to me is that all of its tools, its systems, its approaches emanate from the managerial thinking that gave the world the car culture, and that made the Pentagon so powerful.

In my latest post, I worked in an environment of total cognitive dissonance. Where the language was of solidarity, of partnership, but in our day-to-day we tangled with massive compliance systems. Forcing them on social movements and NGOs in the Americas, Africa and Asia. All of these systems totally overdone, considering the level of trust our supporters had in our work. Obviously we needed strategy and to know partners were doing good work – but systems balloon and mushroom out of control. Even those creating them recognized their Frankenstein(s).

I was one of the only people given the slack to actually get to know our partners without jamming their words into required tools and reporting forms. I often wondered why people did not express greater envy about my job – the fact they did not was worrying in and of itself.

Against this backdrop, I was involved in trying to create a responsive, light monitoring and evaluation system that would “protect” the work we did on the crucial stuff that Duflo and co. cannot “randomize” – campaigning, policy influencing and social change. A worthy thing, and I feel almost like I am betraying those I have worked with on this by quitting now.

But our leadership does not really get what is at stake. Even in my relatively enlightened corner of the aid business, people are busy just simply being busy. Defending their little corner. Stuck building systems that are not for people but for abstracted automatons.

Our leaders are not serious about scanning the horizon, about admitting that the public is right to scrutinize aid. I hear none of the kind of serious soul-searching that the moment requires.

We repeat transcendent values like dignity and justice as mantras yet we are blinded by bureaucracy and relentless self-interest. We keep running into the breach and doing the work that governments must do for their own citizens. As much as Dambisa Moyo annoys me, why can’t we set a date for when this should be over? What would it look like if INGO staff actually dedicated themselves to the sensible cliché of “putting themselves out of a job”?

People all over the world want to feel good, or even maybe just more ok. Even though most know humanity is screwed in the long run, people yearn to go where the energy is. Yet INGOs keep appealing to them with the same negative images, and collecting cold data for their institutional donor patrons. Individuals, and I would venture even taxpayers, do not need experts to spew evaluation data at them. They want to feel a stake in what is generative, what is life affirming. Statistics have a role, but their role is a backstop. People in the US and Europe want to support others in their struggles to make things better, and they want to see the connections between here and there.

In the end, the truth is that I feel very exhausted. And hurt. How is that possible? I am not hurt because of a failure of leadership per se, or a lack of vision in the sector. (I am more than aware of my  borderline pathological disdain for authority, which I done my best to keep in check.)

What hurts is being there. Taking this daily battering of double-speak, seeing my peers stripped of illusions slowly becoming jaded, mercenary aid worker hacks. Or seeing them simply jump ship to do the same thing elsewhere, like a change of scenery will make everything better. Or even worse, seeing them bury their heads in the sand.

Oh, Development, no amount of earnest critique, satire, or wounded camaraderie can save our relationship now.

So while I am disappointed in you – I tried so hard to make it work – I am not bitter. In spite of this hurt, I remember back through the last couple of years. You introduced me to amazing people. Some of these mutual friends we can keep. (That is if you do not make a voodoo doll of me after reading this letter.)

I am going to be starting some projects with like-minded friends, that are not about the same old patron-client relationship, repackaged in managerial logic and dragged out for post-colonial generation after generation. These projects are about trying to link people of good will, with energy that does not come from a knee-jerk guilt reaction.

If I fail, great, but I have failed as a human and not a cog in a lop-sided machine.


About Shotgun Shack

INGO worker hailing from the crossroads of America, and so far from home in so many ways. I blog about life and the depths and ironies of INGO work. View all posts by Shotgun Shack

14 responses to “Dear Development…

  • angelica

    good luck and best wishes… let us know how it goes.

  • Stephanie White

    I think it would be a mistake to look at “development” as separate from the rest of the “system.” Development is carried out within context, of course, and is often motivated by the same things that motivate people who are working in other areas, and who are situated within the dominant paradigm.

    And, btw, I think it also a mistake to think/hope that governments will/should do what people should/already do for themselves. Social welfare is often part and parcel of cultural and social institutions. You take that away and make government responsible you undermine social cohesiveness and trick people into thinking that government is more relevant than it is. (I say this because in your post you allude the necessity of government doing for citizens what aid organizations take on instead)….we seem to think that people need to be ‘helped,’ perhaps, more than they really want or need to be. (and here, I’m speaking of run-of-the mill development…not emergency aid, necessarily).

    I hope you find your way….just remember that there is no right way of being. We all muddle along, and that’s how it has always been and always will be. Best of luck on your new path.

  • giantpanda

    I totally agree with you Stephanie. But it was quite impossible to disrupt the ‘dominant paradigm’ from where I was sitting! I am not looking for righteousness or enlightenment – I am great at muddling, I just want to muddle in a new way. Thanks for your comment.

  • Stephanie White

    I reread my comment and realize that I come off sounding a bit self-righteous my ownself. Sorry about that. I understand the frustration of working in development…A lot of people go into it thinking “well, I’ll change it from the inside,” and just get frustrated by it. There’s something fundamentally wrong with an industry that has as it’s goal Utopian notions of good. Life doesn’t work that way.

    All the best.

  • solemu

    All the best in your new endeavors! I have the privilege to work with like-minded people in the “grey” zones and I can only wish you the same!

  • mrwithers

    Hmm, a very interesting read, but I’m at odds with your understanding of ‘economic development’ – apologies in advance for the ensuing rant…

    Having worked for INGOs, but also having studied political economy extensively, I find that economic development is necessarily a project of government and not aid organisations. The biggest roadblock to such development is the array of structural constraints imposed on developing countries by the arbiters of ‘good government’ and economic orthodoxy – the Washington institutions. With developing nations burdened by an inherently diminished capacity to construct national economic projects, develop infrastructure and protect key industries any attempts at fostering sustainable development at the microlevel are fundamentally compromised. Granted, there might be insufficient political will to enact such policies even if they were viable, but that, I believe, is a consequence of the elite-favouritism inherent to prevailing paradigms of development.

    Given these systemically enforced handicaps, it often feels that NGOs and aid organisations are peripheral at best in playing a part in serious economic development – their role is similar, in effect, to applying a cheery band-aid to a severed limb. I can’t help but think of the entire aid industry as a slightly grotesque manifestation of conscionable Western individuals’ desire to ‘save the world’ by realising oft-superficial humanitarian goals (themselves defined within a Western human rights paradigm), largely to the end of ineffectively alleviating their own moral guilt originating from global inequities perpetuated by their own governments’ economic agendas.

    Bleak? Yes, but I’m sick to death of the naive optimism surrounding global development – until we can address the structural dynamic that entrenches underdevelopment the work of aid organisations is fruitless. Sure, we might enhance the livelihoods of a select number of individuals, but this in itself carries the danger of assuming that actual ‘progress’ is being made – when in reality such microlevel achievements are rendered insignificant by the bigger picture.

  • giantpanda

    I made a Storify with the #DearDevelopment tag, for posterity. Too bad @transitionland has protected her tweet, some hilarious stuff from her…

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  • Chris Rutledge

    There’s a lot of bleakness and darkness in the world, to be sure. And we’re just individual Maglight flashlights. It’s impossible to spread our beam wide enough to cover everything; and even if we could, it would be so dim that it wouldn’t do anyone any good. If Bill Gates were somehow able to evenly divide and distribute his total fiscal worth to every person in the world (not including the cost of actually delivering that money), everyone would end up with less than $10. That’s not going to bring about much change in people’s lives–even in impoverished countries–for more than maybe a month, tops.

    Instead, it’s our simple task (not easy, mind you) to find where we are supposed to be pointing and to just turn on. Find out what you’re good at, what your passion is, and turn your heart up to 11.

    “Gospel” is a term that is largely relegated to religious usage. But really, all it means is “good news”. And sometimes, people just need some good news. “Hey, good news! Someone thought you were important enough to fly halfway around the world for–on their dime–because they wanted your life to be better and to show love to you in a tangible way.”

    That’s kind of what I see this as all being about. If aid is not motivated by compassion and a heart for others, it’s going to be decidedly less aid-ful. The people in upper management might not ever get there, but us on the ground–wherever we are–can make that choice.

  • baileygreenspon

    I think the word “double-speak” just perfectly described your experience, and those of all of us abroad, and the industry itself. It’s perfect. I hope you don’t mind me reusing it in the future

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