Monday, 8 June 2009

Complex human problems not 'all about the children'

Freedoms are not only the primary ends of development, they are also among its principal means – Amartya Sen, Development as Freedom

There are many different approaches to development. Some of them are wonderful ideological projects which have horrible practical implications. Some simply entrench existing inequalities and exploitations. Some are, to a greater or lesser degree, effective in achieving something. But this is not a discipline with clearly articulated schools of thought and declared individual preferences and prejudices. Because it's about helping people. And many, many people believe that helping people (except perhaps where the rigorous requirements of sciences like medicine and nursing and civil engineering demand otherwise) shouldn't be restricted or controlled. That no-one who wants help should be prevented from helping. Which, as a pervasive premise for interaction in the field, tends to result in the desire to help being over-valued, so that more emphasis is placed on the need to show a desire to help than the ability to contribute constructively. This permeates the entire field, from grassroots volunteer involvement to senior leadership levels. Because development as a field is about helping people, the ability to profess, persuasively and loudly, the desire to help people – the 'all about the children' line – is a – perhaps 'the'- crucial criterion for success.

Unfortunately, when promotion and recognition prospects are so heavily weighted in favour of whether or not you are 'all about the children', there is a fairly strong incentive for time to be dedicated, fairly obviously, to showing that you're all about the children. This is a discipline where there is added value demonstrated by being willing to stop (on the way to an important meeting for example) to buy bread for a homeless child. Or by diverting funds from the original project plan because a need (say the need for shoes for school kids) became evident, even if that need was not in any way anticipated or intended in the original planning (for example in a project to put computers in schools).

It's important to acknowledge that the people who do succeed in being 'all about the children' very often do believe in the children wholeheartedly and really, really do want to make people's lives better. They're not putting on a show just to succeed. In fact, many of them would explain – much to the disbelief of others – that they are driven by the desire to help, not the prospect of recognition. Having worked with many of them, I think it's true. Many of them really are motivated by the desire to be helping others.

But that isn't always a positive thing. Altruism is held up as the core and reason for the development field, but all too often, altruistic urges are really about the need to feel that you're helping and others are being directly and immediately helped by you. Altruists very often need to be needed and need to feel that they're helping an individual right now. Their need. Not necessarily that of the beneficiary. For the altruist, the most important thing is seeing the joy on the face of the individual child he/she is helping right now. Almost as if the altruist were 'saving' that person. Even a little bit narcissistic. But these people really are all about 'saving' the world. It's all about the inspirational stories of the individuals directly touched by the single person.

Development isn't. At least, it shouldn't be. Charity is about that. Often. Charity, with it's roots in the church and it's strong dedication to help everyone reach a particular, predetermined level of 'civilised' living by meeting their basic needs. But that is an extremely paternalistic and, frankly, unsustainable and not particularly effective approach.

Fixing the world – objectively changing systems and structures that prevent people from making choices, for example – is far less emotionally uplifting than 'saving' it. An approach which doesn't have a stated outcome that everyone has to succeed equally and which is more interested in creating equality of opportunity through systematic and institutionally correction and reform doesn't have smiling children and happy mothers to make the days okay. It is hard work that has to stay focussed on long-term, measurable, often quite boring goals. Fixing the world sometimes means leaving the street child to go hungry so that you can get to the meeting on time and fix a system. Fixing requires distance and dispassionate objectivity. This doesn't mean not caring. It means caring more about the big picture than individuals.

Development is not about saving the world. Or at least it shouldn't be. It should be about fixing it. It nags at me, and upsets me, and irritates me that this field is so much more interested, recruiters, analysts and practitioners alike, in the saving than fixing. I start almost to despair a little if the only way to succeed, and therefore one assumes the fundamental premise and basic assumption of the whole industry, is to see everything as 'all about the children' instead of seeing development as what it is, as an extremely exciting opportunity to face incredibly complex, multi-faceted and very real human problems and try to find feasible, affordable, sustainable solutions.

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