Thursday, February 5, 2015

Slim Chances in an Aid-Ridden World

If you are in development work and do not speak the local language and do not understand in-depth the local culture…despite the best of intentions (which are not in doubt here), it is likely that your ‘aid’ and ‘development’ work will have a detrimental effect on the very society that you are trying to heal.

I respectfully offer a small bit of polite advice for anyone in the aid business — anyone attempting ‘development work’…first, it is essential to learn the local language, next, it is necessary to study the local culture. Then and only, after fulfilling these prerequisites, then it might be possible and appropriate to attempt to ‘change’ or ‘fix’ another culture/people/society.
Chances are still very low of doing the right thing (many ‘developing’ countries rank in the bottom tiers on corruption and transparency indices – this makes the probability of malfeasance and being taken for a ride all the greater). That is, chances are high of making critical, harmful errors where real people suffer and continue to suffer, even when the ‘aid’ worker is fluent in both language and culture.
However, if workers do not speak the local language and do not understand much of the culture and underlying features and causes of political, social, ecological and economic troubles, then it is likely that they will cause more problems than they might solve and will prolong issues, especially by indirectly supporting a deviant bureaucracy and current regimes of power and the status quo.
The best thing to do, if absolutely necessary to do something and if one cannot resist trying to help, then the best action to take will be to aim energy and resources at changing governance -- not try to fill-in for or take on the role of (unethical bureaucrats and) government itself.
Additionally, please keep in mind that it will be extremely difficult to reach and to offer anything to a culture and people when the ‘aid’ worker has a pay rate and lifestyle far above 99% of people they are there trying to ‘help’…and consequently, difficult to give up such a cushy tenure and perception of its relevancy. Please do not hold on long after it is time to go.
In sum, if a ‘development worker’ cannot relate and communicate with local people about the issues at hand, then more likely than not they will make mistakes that harm the fabric of society and already suffering people that they are trying to ‘save’ – yes, even when filled with positive intentions.

Note: Certainly there are aid organizations and aid workers having a positive effect in the scope of development. However, these I/NGOs are relatively few and far between and in the minority. If you are working for one of these organizations, then please do not be offended by this post…and congratulations, you have succeeded where most others have failed. 
The following insight might seem to be from and unlikely source, the frontier novel High Lonesome (by one of world’s bestselling authors, Louis L’Amour):
“Failure to understand Indian standards and ideas had done as much harm as had well-meaning but uninformed people, do-gooders and such, and the political appointees who were the Indian agents.
One of the basic mistakes in dealing with people of another cultural background is to attribute to them the ideas one has oneself.”
This photo is typical of the highly paid double-speak (program was at the five-star Yak and Yeti Hotel) that is prolonging  chances for real progress in Nepal. Perhaps the local people simply do not want change foisted on them by outsiders. It is better to leave it in their hands and if anything, work to free them from oppressive governance and part of that is not inadvertently assisting the bureaucrats by dumping funds into a deviant system, thereby propping it up and complicating the process and prolonging troubles.

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