Dirty Development?

Got a note the other day from one of our donors:

I think this site is a great idea, and I went ahead and added my drops to the bucket, but I have to admit that I feel a little funny giving money to a country whose government is so violently homophobic. I know that’s all too common in sub-Saharan Africa, and it’s certainly no reason to deny children clean drinking water, but it left a bit of a bad taste in my mouth.

And there in a nutshell is one of the great dilemmas of development work. In most of the countries with the greatest need in our world, social conditions are–shall we say–less than ideal.

By giving anything–money, resources, volunteers, even attention–to these countries, are we not somehow complicit in their corruption, their repression, their cruelty? Are we not somehow saying that it’s okay to be violently homophobic, to treat women like cattle, to make those who oppose you conveniently ‘disappear,’ to rule by fear and perpetuate idignity, to live in splendor while millions around you starve?

On the other hand, should all citizens of a country suffer because their government embezzles millions from the aid they receive? Should children continue to die of malaria because the government oppresses their mothers? Should peasants remain landless and destitute because their courts can’t be trusted?

Where’s the line? and how do you know when you cross it?

I don’t really have an answer–and the deeper I get into this world, the more often I get that “bad taste in my mouth.” Still, I believe in compassion, I believe in cooperation, and I believe that it is better in the long run to dig in and engage with a problem (even if you get your hands dirty) rather than standing on the sidelines waiting for the situation to be less messy.

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H.O.P.E.S. Development

Disclaimer: This is the response to another prompt on the Third World Development final–about what advice you’d give president-elect Obama about turning around the dismal and disintegrating reputation of America abroad and conquer poverty, hunger, and social injustice at the same time. It’s a bit long, but I’d honestly love feedback.

Hopes are what the American Dream is built on—what brought, and continues to bring, millions of immigrants from every continent by land, by sea, and by air to this country. And despite our own past specters and present demons of corruption, hypocrisy and injustice, the American Dream is still real. We still hope that children of all colors and creeds will live together in security and respect. We still hope that opportunity and hard work will open doors and break generations-long chains of poverty and oppression. We still hope that this grand experiment of liberty will indeed enlighten the world.

But this liberty was meant to enlighten the world, not subject it. The shackles at the feet of Lady Liberty are broken—it’s the torch she holds high. This is the embodiment of soft power, as much as the so-called “gun-barrel democracy” of recent decades is the embodiment of hard power. Both types of power can be used to “export democracy,” but they accomplish it in fundamentally different ways. Where hard power seeks to command and coerce, soft power seeks to co-opt. The tools of hard power are force, sanctions, payments and bribes; the tools of soft power institutions, policies, culture and values. Hard power is authoritarian and self-serving. Soft power is neither. And HOPES development is built on soft power.

It’s not a cookbook recipe for poverty eradication, and it’s not a step-by-step guide for building world peace. HOPES development is an approach, an ideology based on bits of diffusion theory, behavioral change theory, world systems theory, and development theory (not to mention the blood, sweat, and tears lessons of some of the world’s great change agents) about what it takes to make a lasting difference.

HELP : Meet immediate needs, Give them what they ask for!
ORGANIZE : Design holistic solutions to authentic challenges.
PREPARE : Address financial, social, human and conceptual capital gaps.
EMPOWER : Confront social and structural barriers.
SUSTAIN : Implement long-term solutions for evolution and growth.
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How to “Help” Zimbabwe?

“Draft a plan to help Zimbabwe if Mugabe were removed from power and your NGO were invited in to help.”

That was the prompt for my Third World Development class final. No joke.

As of 9am this morning, cholera deaths in Zimbabwe have officially topped 1,000. UN health officials estimate more than 16,000 are infected, but hospitals have run out of medications and supplies for treatment. (Oh, and Mugabe is claiming that the outbreak—soon to become an epidemic—is the work of British terrorists.) Unemployment is climbing toward 90%, life expectancy falling toward 30 (it’s really difficult for me to imagine having 2 years left to live at this stage of my life) and the price of basic goods like bread, milk and sugar doubles every 24 hours, thanks to an inflation rate near 2,000,000%. More than 3 million Zimbabweans have fled the oppressive regime, causing refugee crises and escalating tensions in neighboring South Africa, Botswana and Zambia. And in a nation formerly known as “the breadbasket of Africa,” exporting agricultural products across the continent and around the world, 5 million people (half its current population) face eminent starvation. Short of adding systematic genocide to the rising tide of political “disappearances” and arrests, it’s hard to imagine the situation getting much worse.

What would you do?

(If I’m not still near-hopelessly behind, I’ll post some of my musings later)