26 February, 2009

Culture and Development

Scarlett Lion recalls her weekend:

This weekend I visited a youth center in Monrovia with a group of teen age girls. It had a small library filled with books donated by Americans about Americans. A few of the girls flipped through the offerings: Jacob Have I Loved, Nancy Drew, the Babysitters Club. They didn't seem too interested.

It made me sad. I wished they were reading books about Africans, books about girls like them. There's no paucity of
books about Africa. And maybe if donors bought text books locally instead of donating books their children discarded, then the publishing industry in Africa would grow and authors would have more incentive to write.

What drives this? Is it the arrogance that we as the 1st world know best? That only we have something to offer?

Culture: (n) the customary beliefs, social forms, and material traits of a racial, religious, or social group.

A book I was reading recently spoke of the need to honor and respect culture and work within the cultural confines of what society we are in. We are a guest in countries, not masters or superior beings come to impart wisdom on the lowly people who happened to be born "over there." We are not better because of where we were born and the fact that we got certain luxuries. We should be in a place to help, not dominate or infect it with our second hand stuff.

The idea of good development work starts with your motivation:

The “it’s better than nothing” argument is meaningless. No one is starting from nothing. If you find yourself saying, “our program/charity/intervention is better than nothing” that's more than just damning faint praise, it’s a sign that you have a problem.Good development work is based on the idea of more. Identify what people have already, and what they value. Work with them to figure out how they can get more of that. More education, or more money, or more food. More control over their lives. Whatever it is, the focus should be on getting more of what they need - not some of whatever we can find. (Blood and Milk)

I spoke with this woman on the phone today. Sweet woman. She is going to Cambodia to look at our work there - and while she had the best of intentions (which I think we all do) her comments were (unconsciously) littered with statements that screamed of her superiority and the Cambodians lack of, well, anything resembling common sense or decency. She at one time stammered, "People in America would never sell their children!" and I wanted to rebuff that, but didn't because there was no point. For every time I tried to make a point on how my organization's view of development (empowerment, partnership, sustainability) is miles away from her idea of saving Cambodia - she would talk over me and reveal she wasn't listening. She has been there before, sales of her purses allow her to go rescue girls from trafficking, that's all there is - we should throw her a parade and let her be queen of the world!

Arrogance is the worse trait in development.

You are not saying anyone, they don't need you to fly in like superman and fly them to a secure location. And to be honest, to behave like a elephant in a china shop because you cannot see the value of what you are destroying (it's just different that what you are used to) is wrong and ignorant. So, please, stay at home if that's you.

But then, and maybe I'll save my thoughts on this for later. How do you do development work that honors the culture, treats people with respect, empowers them to create their own sustainability so when (not if) you leave the work will continue and spread, and work against cultural norms that are destructive? How do you raise up the status of women in Muslim countries? Or make it very uncool to use child soldiers? Or promote fiscal responsibility within a household? Is that our place? Are those changes by-products of our work?

At the end of the day too much of our American culture is seeping around the world. Our music, dress, books, morals, deficiencies, stupidity is being exported and tainting and ruining other people's culture... Which leads me to perhaps an underlying question: why are we so afraid of letting other cultures develop and flourish?