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 THISTHIS 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...

Views: 483

Tags: american, development, diplomacy, opinion, public


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Comment by Roselyn Mungai on January 23, 2012 at 5:08am

The crucial question from an African Development Practitioner stand point would be; To what extent are the American based development practioners connected to the context in the developing world?  Do we work with bonafide partners in the south with a proven constituency?  Does that constituency understand our development model? Does the model change with every partnership layer- especially when development practioners choose to work with intermediaries?

Roselyn Mungai



Comment by Hanna Carlsson on January 20, 2012 at 3:56am

I think that you have answer the questions very well. At the same time, you tend to mix development aid and emergency assistant. The later is for sure our moral responsibility and we can, as you do, argue that development aid is as well. I have worked in the developing world for some years now and I think that development aid has become a business in itself. We argue that we build the capacity of people to be able to claim their human rights, put pressure on corrupt and sometimes authoritarian governments etc. However, in the end of the day it is a vicious cycle. What most people needs in these countries is a daily income; an income so that they can invest in themselves and their kids. I believe that education and job opportunities are the keys to most problems in the developing world. If I am educated, I will understand that a good education is also important for my kids, I will know how to elect the right leaders, which in turn will generate a serving government.
In many of these countries education is very expensive; therefore I need a job so that I can afford to first put myself through primary- and secondary school, and then my kids. Hopefully, I will also be able to join university. With an educated mass authoritarian and corrupted leader have no chance to run over the people. My point is that, I think we should drive the development aid more into business investments, basically to create jobs. So much money is put into capacity training, and the money we invest in these people, will not generate any "profit".  For us who is working with developing aid, also know that most of the time it is the same people attending different organizations' workshops. Today, I attend a training in peacebuilding, tomorrow I attend a training in human rights, the next day a training in women’s right. There is even a name for these people, so called "workshop hoppers", who survive on hotel food and travel contributions and sometimes even sitting allowances. Maybe I have a skewed perspective on this topic spending to many years in Kenya?  
I know that we want to believe that our developing aid is doing good. That we are changing lives, which I still believe we do to a certain extent. At the same time, we cannot close our eyes to the facts that, despite all the money we have put into development aid, we have not seen the results we should expect.

Comment by Jamiu Tolani A. Alli-Balogun on January 19, 2012 at 3:45pm

The study of development is the currency of virtually every government vision and mission in meeting their primary obligations to the citizenry and core of their external relations with other countries.  The basis of interlocking and networking among nations in the contemporary world is anchored on "Development" Sustainably development, which is a working theory, as a lesson to be copy or replicated by other nations, most especially, developing nations.

Comment by Dr. Robin M. Chandler on January 19, 2012 at 3:25pm

These questions are critical and also being addressed by 'How Matters' on their recent 'race and development'. Personal transformation has to precede 'making a career of humanity', 'committing [oneself] to the noble struggle for equal rights'.

Comment by Jose Tenga on January 19, 2012 at 1:22pm



Thanks for such a wonderful contribution. When people question why we do development, it shows both how small our world is, and how large it is. My immediate response to such questions is: go see your world out there – it is yours to explore and appreciate.


Most questioners have had little international travel experience and their views are limited by that geography. But we should encourage them in the debate because ultimately, development is our collective responsibility. Just a few moments ago, I was listening to Canadian CTV news about how the Euro zone economic crises is causing anxieties for the Canadian economy managers in Ottawa. The Canada may lose billions of dollars in international trade returns! That is how inter-connected we are.


No one is should feel they are immune to the socio-political changes that are happening in our world. One way or another, we are going to pay for these changes, so it’s up to us to do something (or nothing) about them.


I do agree that the difficulties with development practice of relate to our approach towards developing communities and host governments. Development cannot be imposed. When our development strategies are driven by the urge to ‘push our values’ because ‘ours is better than theirs’, we adopt a distinctly neo-colonialist attitude of superiority and domination. This is unhelpful to those who deserve our service and ends up doing more harm than good.   


But there are a lot of good being done out there and we have to keep answering those questioners and keep them engaged in this debate.     

Comment by Jennifer Lentfer on January 19, 2012 at 1:13pm

Great questions. While the raison d' être of the system may be tough to understand, let alone navigate, what we can do as aid workers, is at least understand our own motivations for being a part of it. See "Aid Worker, First Know Thyself." 

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