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.


Poverty Kills

Great tweet from Dave Peery this morning:

“It wasn’t the earthquake in #haiti that killed so many people, it was the poverty. SanFran ’89, we experienced a 7.0 earthquake – 63 dead.”

Poverty is the real killer in any number of natural and social disasters:

  • The 2005 mudslides in California killed 14. A year later, comparable rains in the Philippians cost at least 400 lives.
  • In the US, 7 of every 1000 children die before the age of 5. In Afghanistan, it’s 257.
  • In the US, a newly diagnosed AIDS patient can expect to live about 20 years. In Zimbabwe, they’ll likely be dead in a year and a half.

Weather patterns, viruses, and childhood are not inherently different in developing contexts, but scarcity or lack of resources from clean water to medical treatment, to building materials fundamentally alters how they are experienced. Poverty is like an exponent for suffering. The poor experience drought-squared, disease-squared, disaster-squared.

It’s time we figured out how to “square” our efforts as well.Dis

“Ye Have Need of Patience”

I’ve been vexed all week. Really, vexed.

Here’s a selection of the blog posts I didn’t write this week: “Why Open Education Won’t Save the World,” “Lurking and Ignorance in Qualitative Research” and “The Malignant Delusion of Educational Assessment.”

Like I said… vexed.

I don’t know how to take the mass of largely useless lecture notes that is open education today and turn it into something that will create intrinsic value for universities AND actually contribute to the self-actualization of a micro-entrepreneur in Mozambique. I don’t know how to get useful instructional direction from formulaic “objective” statements or how to write a test item that actually taps higher-order thinking (heck, the textbook can’t even do it!) Let alone how to change the morally and logically bankrupt system that says standardized tests somehow indicate the worth and quality of schools, teachers, and children. All the problems just seem too complex, too convoluted, too entrenched, too intractable, too freaking HUGE.

David told us a story this week about a time when everything got to be too much and Stephen Downes just sort of disappeared for 6 months. He got choked up talking about how it changed things, how he needed that foil, that critique. I haven’t struggled with these problems long enough, let alone come up with any ideas or opinions significant enough to be needed or missed, but I was vexed this week. And sad. And already tired.

Last night, I thought of that story, and I listened to this. I still don’t have any answers. Nothing is any clearer, brighter, or easier. But “we are not of them that draw back,” are we?


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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Castro on Globalization

“Globalization is an objective reality underlining the fact that we are all passengers on the same vessel, that is, this planet where we all live. But passengers on this vessel are travelling in very different conditions.

Trifling minorities are travelling in luxurious cabins furnished with the Internet, cell phones and access to global communication networks. They enjoy a nutritious, abundant and balanced diet as well as clean water supplies. They have access to sophisticated medical care and to culture.

Overwhelming and hurting majorities are travelling in conditions that resemble the terrible slave trade from Africa to America in our colonial past. That is, 85% of the passengers on this ship are crowded together in its dirty hold suffering hunger, diseases and helplessness. Obviously, this vessel is carrying too much injustice to remain afloat.”

– Fidel Castro

Touche, Fidel.

Don’t get me wrong, there were some classic Castro moments in this little speech; “The wealthy nations can afford to pay any price for the energy they waste to sustain
luxurious consumption levels and destroy the environment.” for example. But, there were some concepts that really rang true:

“In the hands of the rich countries, world trade is an instrument of domination.”

“A special and differentiated treatment to poor countries has been considered not as an
elementary act of justice and a necessity that cannot be ignored but as a temporary act of

…and so forth.

Still, I found myself questioning every fact and statistic he presented, looking for footnotes [and discounting assertions in their absence] and frankly wondering if I would be doing the same if it wasn’t Castro I was reading.

Country Mouse

I’ve been in Asuncion since Thursday morning, the longest period of time I’ve spent away from the school since I got here.

Despedidas for three of the city interns this weekend, [suerte Sarita, Florian, and Andrew!] a sunny afternoon steeped in terere and stimulating [English] conversation, and a much-needed laugh at Andrew’s blog reminded me once again how un-characteristic my experience here has been.

It’s hard to say definitively that it’s a country-city divide, given the other significant differences between me and the other interns, [most notably my incompetence with the language and the fact that I don’t drink] but it seems to me a reasonable approximation of the difference I feel from Paraguayans in general.

I live in the Chaco.

It’s a bone-rattling, deathly boring 12-hour bus ride from the middle of nowhere, but I’ve never felt more isolated by a mere 25-mile stretch of relatively well-maintained highway. Coming to the city is a bit disorienting for me. I’ve never been one to shy away from new experiences, and I’ve certainly not devolved into some timid, frenetic home-body, but I feel strange in Asuncion. The noise is distracting, the air is oppressive, and the social structures blurred and unfamiliar.

In my little world, two-thirds of the adults can’t even read, let alone discuss poetry. In my little world people take a photo when they have a 100mil guarani bill, while the smallest withdrawal denomination at an ATM in the city is 1 million. In my little world, and in laughing spite of the Internet, nobody has any idea there were riots surrounding the recall election in Bolivia, not even the Bolivians.

As in any country, the rich and poor of Paraguay live locked in an utter empathetic impasse. And this country mouse isn’t sure what to do about it.