A week ago, a good friend of mine who attends Harvard Law School asked me: “Why do development?” Why do development? Seriously?? To me, the question seemed impertinent. Those who would ask such a question I would like to immediately label as heartless, uneducated, tea party activists. But, as I’ve come to realize over the past two years, this automatic, irrational reaction doesn’t do anyone any good. In this current political climate, those who are passionate about development should avoid facilitating the polarization of the American public. We need our countrymen to understand what we do and why we do it. As Rajiv Shah and Andrew Mitchelltold me, and an auditorium full of USAID employees, back in September, we can sell development to skeptics like Vicki O’Keefe by using one of two strategies.
First, use the moral argument: Look, we can say, I know you think things are bad in America, but we don’t have THIS, THIS or THIS. We have not lost tens of thousands of children to famine; President Obama has not sent the military to kill peaceful protestors; and women who have been abused can seek a justice that does not entail the removal of their facial features. Is it not the right thing to do—to combat injustice? Especially when it exists in such pervasive forms?
Unfortunately, this argument isn’t always compelling enough. Many Americans are realists through and through. So we must make the national security argument. To these folks, we can say: Look, I know you think foreign assistance is a waste of taxpayer money. I know you think that is altruism is nice, but that it should not be a government policy. But the reality is that raising the quality of life in developing countries greatly decreases the likelihood of terrorist attacks on US soil. If people are educated, well-fed, employed, and happy, they will be less likely to embrace violent extremism. (You can read more about that here).
These are the two arguments that Raj says we should make. Nick K. and Melinda Gates are fully invested in the first. John Kerry and Senior Pentagon Officials are fully invested in the second. I am fully invested in both.
The problem is that Harvard was asking me, “Why Do Development?” from an entirely different perspective. “Wouldn’t it be more empowering,” he said, “if we were to let people solve their own problems? Isn’t development, in and of itself, a form of neo-colonialism?” That thought, I must admit, struck me. Development as a form of neo-colonialism? Maybe during the structural adjustment period, but not certainly not today. We’ve come such a long way since then….On the other hand, everything looks clearer in hindsight. In 20 years, will development look like what the pursuit of communism in Russia looks like today – a fool’s dream? The Soviets (and Mao and the Khmer Rouge) were pursuing – at least in theory – greater equality for all. Utopia. Isn’t that what we are aiming for as well?
Upon reconsideration, the comparison seems ridiculous. We aren’t slaughtering people who threaten our cause. We aren’t letting millions starve while we search for a better political model. The utopia we are working towards – the proverbial omelet we are trying to make – doesn’t require the breaking of eggs. We are constantly reminding ourselves to “DO NO HARM.”
But are we pushing “our” values on other people? Is that what makes some people think development is neo-colonial? If our values are to support human dignity by empowering civil society, educating women, curbing the impact of infectious diseases, mitigating violent conflict, and promoting good governance, well then yes, we are guilty as charged. But on the reverse side of the coin, isn’t it patronizing and paternalistic to say that these are "our" values? My response to any such assertion would be pose the following: Do you think women in Afghanistan don’t want to learn? Do you think civil society across the Middle East doesn’t want to be heard? Do you think Congolese civilians don’t want a functioning security sector and the rule of law?
Essentially, what I’m trying to get at here is that all of us in development must be prepared to answer these types of questions. We need to rationally and calmly address the concerns of our fellow Americans. I honestly do believe that the way forward is through constructive dialogue. It’s good for us to constantly reflect and question what we do and why we do it – even if it means taking a step back and looking at our field from a broader viewpoint. So thank you to those of you who ask us, “Why do development?” for reminding us about the importance of communication and for asking us to ask ourselves reflective questions.
I’ll leave you with some relevant quotes from the new MLK Jr. Memorial:
"Make a career of humanity. Commit yourself to the noble struggle for equal rights. You will make a greater person of yourself, a greater nation of your country, and a finer world to live in."
"Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere. We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly."
“I have the audacity to believe that peoples everywhere can have three meals a day for their bodies, education and culture for their minds, and dignity, equality and freedom for their spirits.”
Post originally released here: http://constructivedialogue365.blogspot.com/2012/01/selling-develop...