Update from Adrian Tasistro-Hart, Senegal
Since coming to Senegal, the concept of “development” has cropped up thousands of times. I’ve read about it in The End of Poverty, The White Man’s Burden, The Bottom Billion, and Dead Aid. I’ve heard it in speeches given by various Westerners. And I’ve spent hours talking to Babacar, one of my instructors and a first-hand witness of “development”, or more specifically, attempts at it. But what is it really? During these past six months, my eyes have opened to the complexity of an issue that I had never before thought about. I’m certainly no expert, however, and the limited reading and research that I have done have produced more questions than answers, but here are some of my thoughts anyway:
The books claim that development, whatever it is, happens if rich countries do a combination of things for poor countries. Jeffrey Sach’s The End of Poverty outlines a long-winded series of utopic goals expressed in numbers, such as the percentage of children enrolled in school, which are to be accomplished by 2015. These so-called Millenium Challenge Goals are supposedly the answer to the end of poverty, and all the rich world needs to do to achieve these goals, according to Sachs, is double the amount of money that they give to aid organizations. William Easterly and Dambisa Moya, on the other hand, claim in White Man’s Burden and Dead Aid (respectively) that “development” won’t come from the current aid system in which inefficient aid agencies have stronger incentives to appease wealthy donors than to actually make sure that donations are appropriated properly. Money apparently is still the solution to the mystery of “development”, but in this case, they call for less rather than more, at least unless the aid system is drastically reworked. Paul Collier in The Bottom Billion describes a multi-faceted approach to “development”, including monetary aid as a tool to be used alongside military interventions, international trade agreements, and international charters that all are applied in different amounts depending on the given situation of a particular poor country so that the country can have the best possible environment to “develop” in.
The speakers, mostly from TED Talks and local NGO’s, all say in one way or another that the current scheme for achieving “development” has failed, that they were part of the scheme and part of the failure, but that they have also seen the light and now know the solution. For one, the solution is finding people in Africa with ideas, passionate and motivated individuals entirely aware of their own problems and their own cultural context who simply need resources to put their ideas into action. For another, the answer is educating those who are eager to “do service” in poor countries before they actually go abroad as volunteers afflicted with the so-called “savior complex” and totally unaware of the wider impacts of their well-intentioned efforts. Yet another sees the solution as scientific aid: research and rigorously test which methods of distributing aid, such as schooling and mosquito nets, were the most effective, and then implement them.
And what does Babacar, supposedly one of the individuals who should benefit from this thing called “development”, have to shed light on the mystery? A sad smile, shake of the head, and simple explanation: “It doesn’t work”. And I’m inclined to do the same. A cynical and pessimistic attitude seems to overcome many of those who study development, who begin to see the infinitely complicated web of connection and causation overseen by attempts at aid that have ended with disastrous consequences, who realize that doubling aid may very well mean doubling the balance of an African leader’s Swiss bank account. But what is “development”, or what would it be if attempts to achieve it succeeded?
It’s difficult to formulate a definition for development, even though books, articles, and TED Talks take the concept for granted on a regular basis. Thinking about it took me back to one of the seminars at the pre-departure orientation at Princeton during which the topic of “service” was discussed. I realized that even if a room of one hundred people could easily agree upon a single definition for service, there would still be one hundred different ways of doing service, and it could be possible that several would be in direct conflict. A conservative nun, for instance, and a progressive female health worker would both agree that volunteering time to learn about others’ problems and effort to help solve those problems constitutes a major part of the definition of service, but while the young health worker might campaign in support of using condoms to prevent the spread of diseases such as AIDS, the nun could very well do the opposite. To my eyes, development seems similarly subjective; the path a country takes may be for one person an example of excellent development but for another an example of flawed development, and maybe for another person all development is inherently a bad thing to be avoided at all costs.
The paradigm of development also seems to imply that there are two parties involved: the developed and the developing. The developed have made it; they are the rich, the ideal, those that have achieved something that they pity the rest of the world for not having, and those that no longer have the need to develop themselves. The developing, on the other hand, are inferior, deprived, they lack something essential to modern existence and therefore must undergo this apparently arduous process of development to attain their ultimate potential.
At least that’s the impression that I get, and I think that it’s wrong.
Firstly, the US and Western Europe, for all of their new cars, televisions, and organic produce, have certainly not reached some developmental plateau where the latest and greatest is the next generation iPhone. We still burn coal to make electricity and steel, we still can’t provide healthcare to millions of our own citizens, and we still haven’t figured out a better solution for used stuff than burying it with other used stuff in a landfill. The assumption that life in “developed” countries is better than in developing countries is horribly wrong, and the process of development has no right to impose that assumption. The entire world has to develop together, and for an ultimately sustainable relationship between all parts of the world to exist, the status quo has to be radically reworked. If every country in sub-Saharan Africa along with all of Southeast Asia, China, India, and Bangladesh became like the USA, the already strained planet would keel over.
It would be a pity if Senegal became like the USA. Cultural diversity, like any type of diversity, should be protected and cherished. While cultures are always in flux, changing with every generation, I believe that the process of change should be natural and self-directed, not mandated by an artificial process like development. Perhaps Western medicine is a perfected science with curative results for anyone of any culture, but yet I don’t think that this necessarily gives the wealthy West the right to eradicate the colorful and unique medicinal practices of Senegal. The shift should come from the Senegalese themselves; if they choose to accept Western medicine at the cost of some unique aspect of their own culture, then this is natural and fine; if they choose not to and remain with their own ways of healing even at the expense of ten or twenty years of life expectancy, then this is natural and fine too, and the West ought not to have a say in it. Otherwise, one has a city like Dakar where cultural identity exists in a twilight haze, where French and Wolof give birth to a hybrid lacking the depth and color of either language, where the youth emulates rappers in American music videos without understanding the cultural context and at the same time loses the ability to read the ocean that their ancestors fished in for generations. It may be that one day there are no longer any Wolof people or any Pulaar people but only Senegalese people, but the process should be natural, and cultural diversity must be preserved.
There are millions of ways of living life in the world, and most of them existed long before the West ever achieved any level of development. Each way of living approaches the world with a different perspective; a Wolof village in Senegal lives in a world unique from that of a Serere village, but both share a space that is itself unique from the world of an Argentinian cattle rancher. The differences aren’t just geographical, each group of people perceives and interacts with the world around them differently, and each way of living works for each group. Villages in Senegal existed centuries before any contact with the West occurred; they don’t need aid or development to live and be happy. In fact, just like an ecosystem becomes fragile and susceptible to change if its biological diversity decreases, so too does the realm of human cultures. Each way of life and approaching the world offers something different that others can learn from, and if development is a process of “educating the backwards” to bring them up to speed with the rest of the civilized world, then it’s more destructive than anything else.
So those are some of my thoughts of the mystery of development. It’s easy to become skeptical of the goals and methods of development, and the issue really hits home when I consider my role as a volunteer from the West, only 19-years-old. Could it be that I’m part of the very problem I’ve been contemplating for months now? Or worse, could the basic thinking behind the Bridge Year Program have inherent flaws? But I believe that the answer is no. If anything, this opportunity and these past six months have opened my eyes to a host of issues that had never been anywhere near my radar. The environment of cultural immersion and support from the six other program participants and our instructors provides an amazing educational and life experience that I believe makes us part of the solution. We are aware of the issues and in tune with the people facing them, and simply knowing about the complexity of what “development” entails better prepares us for future encounters. Most importantly, I remain optimistic. There are moments of happiness and success, which happen more and more frequently now that I have really settled into my work site and my projects. I can see my efforts coming to fruition, and I truly feel like I am contributing to the community that I am now a part of.