Idealism versus Development

Today I had lunch with Andrew Krepinevich Jr., executive director of the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments and defense policy analyst. He asked me “Why Africa?”, and I instantly reverted to my typical job interview response. I explained how studied abroad in Uganda in 2007, that Africa was a complex continent full of complex people and complex problems, that I wanted to make a difference where there was the most challenge. As the words were flowing out of my mouth, I realized how idealistic my go-to response was. Did I even believe that I could make a difference anymore – after seeing some of the things I had seen?

Where does idealism fit in international development? It often seems like there is a mismatch between the dream of making an impact and the guts it takes to actually make an impact. In South Africa, one of my colleagues broke down because refugees lacked a source of lighting in their makeshift shelters. Mothers were fearful that their children would be stolen in the night. Meanwhile, the same camp had to use a lottery system to determine each refugee’s place in the dinner line because there was never enough food for those at the end of the line. When given the choice, I am sure the refugees would prefer more food over flashlights. These are the tough choices development and humanitarian workers must make. We have to be cold and calculating, yet sympathetic and caring.

It seems that other bloggers are thinking about the same issue. Shotgun Shack over at Stuff Expat Aid Workers Like wrote yesterday:

We all know about the role Expat Aid Workers play in stamping out corruption and building capacity in their primary target groups (local people and local institutions) but what many don’t speak of is the critical role that EAWs play in a secondary and no less vital effort: destroying idealism in their own kind.

Shotgun makes some important points in his post about being realistic and not believing in “fluffy bunnies” or that aid work is as sexy as Clooney. But I’m not naïve enough to believe the cynical façade that most experienced expats put on. They care beyond belief about what they are doing (in most cases), but know how to look at things with a critical eye for sustainability and basic common sense. Idealists often use their cause as a justification for stupidity, unattainable goals, and a lack of sustainability.

Meanwhile, John at AboutFog wrote about what $3 can buy you in Kisangani, D.R.C. – 1 liter of Minute Maid fruit cocktail or 1 day of clearing jungle. While I sympathize with the day-laborer who makes barely enough to buy juice, I also realistically see the need to pay the local wage rate. Part of sustainability is avoiding artificial inflation that comes from massive aid flows and more importantly, massive flows of aid workers into an area.

Still, I stand with John. We need to think more about the people who work for and with us on development projects. We can remain realistic without becoming cynical. How can we focus on “building capacity in [our] primary target groups (local people and local institutions)” while being increasingly cynical about the work we do?  This afternoon I realized that I no longer believe that I can make a difference.  Only local people and local institutions can.

But we can be realistic about development and still envision a happy ending. Otherwise, what the hell are we doing this for?


Jeanne Marie, local expert, teaches horticulture to FARDC soldiers. Kisangani, D.R.C., July 2010

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One Reply to “Idealism versus Development”

  1. Do not think that you alone can not make a difference.

    Surely, it is difficult for an individual to impact a situation involving a whole village.

    But there is no reason one should believe they aren’t making a difference. The impact that an individual can make is on a personal level with those locals you are attempting to bring aide to. You may not feel like you are truly making a difference, but all that one can ever hope to obtain is this personal connection with another human being. If you can even remotely improve a person’s status, or even educate them and improve their awareness regarding their current situation, you HAVE made a difference.

    You may have seen a lot in your travels that might make you doubt yourself, but I have no such doubt in you. I think maybe you’re just coming up with excuses. Get yourself back on a plane. Get your feet on the ground in a place that needs you. Then try and tell me that you can’t make a difference. I dare you.

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