Poverty, pain and the politics game

As a keen cyclist for most of my life, I’ve always been shocked at how little many car drivers care or care to understand the challenges of two wheels in heavy or fast moving traffic. This lack of respect is not only frustrating – it can also be dangerous. In my younger days I thought I had the answer. Force all learner drivers to spend a month on a push bike before issuing them their licence. There’s no better way than learning by experiencing, after all.

As I’ve got older I realise that my bike riding solution may not have been the most practical, but the “learning by experiencing” point is as strong and relevant as ever, particularly in the world of international development. You can’t beat experience. Pretty-much everyone I respect and turn to for guidance – both spiritual and practical – has got their hands dirty in the field at some stage. I feel at times that a stint in the field should be compulsory. How else can you truly understand the problem?

One of the down-sides to a discipline which doesn’t insist on “compulsory” fieldwork is the rise of a culture of politics. Losing sight of the bigger picture and becoming embroiled in competitive, overly critical behaviour can be a huge distraction and hugely destructive. Development suddenly becomes a battle of “a versus b” or “x versus y” and not about the alleviation of poverty and suffering that it should be. I steer well clear at every available opportunity, and draw on much of what I’ve seen and experienced over the past sixteen years to do so.

War DanceI also have my “War Dance” DVD. One of the toughest films I’ve ever seen, “War Dance” – based in the camps of Northern Uganda – puts everything into perspective. For those of us who have seen this kind of suffering it’s a stark reminder – and a cry – to remain focused. Get a copy and watch it each time you need reminding why you’re doing what you doing. Politics has no place in a world like this.

It doesn’t have a place here, either. Whether you agree or disagree with the approach, this recent Medecins Sans Frontiers video drives home a message not a million miles away. It may be messy, it may be challenging, and it may be confrontational – but if this is the reality for everyone on the ground then we need to be having these conversations.

Be warned: It’s difficult to watch (well, listen to), as is “War Dance”. But it’s powerful, and it’s a reminder to all of us that we need to focus on what matters, where it matters. Poverty is not about politics, and should not be driven by it. It’s about people. Every single one of them.

36 thoughts on “Poverty, pain and the politics game

  1. Ryan says:

    Wow. Powerful stuff. Really quite speechless. It certainly helps to stand back and reflect why each of us ever started working or getting interested in the development arena. Too often we forget, so thanks for spurring me on to remember..

  2. grant_t says:

    hi. are you saying everyone who works in development needs to go and work in places like africa? seems quite drastic!

  3. kiwanja says:

    @Ryan – No problem. I think we need to question what we’re doing, and how we do it, far more often than many of us are now

    @grant_t – I agree it would be dramatic to insist that everyone working in development cut their teeth in a developing country, but my point was/is this. If I were a drug user, and I wanted to talk with someone about my addiction, I’d personally rather talk with someone who’s been through it, else how would they really be able to understand and appreciate my problem? I think the same goes for the NGO world. If I’m trying to help NGOs in developing countries, I’d just argue that it’s helpful if I’d spent some time with them, understanding their issues. Seems fair enough and reasonable to me. 🙂

  4. Linda (@meowtree) says:

    Totally agree about mandatory ‘getting out’. And it should be for an extended period of time, on a regular basis, and without lots of fanciness.

    I think sometimes people who work in development care about making their organization bigger and better for its own sake, for their own sake, and lose sight of the end goal. Money and brand recognition is the means, not the end in this work. When you spend all your time in the office or at conferences playing politics and spouting off on theories, that is easy to forget.

    When you spend all your time in the office too, watching your own marketing commercials about all the hopeless, vulnerable and victimized people in the ‘developing world,’ you can fool yourself into thinking it’s true, that they need you to go save them.

    People need to get out more to see that people the world around are just people, like you and me. Yes, there is suffering but there is also strength and human dignity, laughter and love, family and friends. It’s a color photo, not black and white. Co-existing with people in other places and being open to life’s lessons is quite a humbling experience and makes you take a totally different approach to working with people — not for, or on behalf of, but with. It becomes about people, not ideas. People as subjects, not as objects.

    I think politics does have a role. Not sickening, self aggrandizing politics, but participatory political change, because politics is about power, and that needs to be shifted around in order to alleviate some of the suffering and poverty.

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  11. Brian says:

    Great post; that’s the next movie I’m going to watch.

    Also, Linda makes a good point: people are people all around the world. While underreacting to such imagery is bad, overreacting can be just as damaging.

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  19. April Donovan says:

    However hard it may be, people SHOULD have experience before they start influencing peoples lives. It seems totally crazy that anyone can just play in the development arena without really understanding what it’s like in a developing country. I also agree with Linda.

    Maybe this is one of the things which is wrong with development??

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  22. nathalie says:

    Relevant exposure is a fitting criteria, for any business. We’ve had several people go through the necessary trainings and immersion periods just to realize once they hit their post that this just isn’t what they really want to do. That doesn’t happen with people hired who have prior experience.
    However, many advisors / experts (decision-makers) with a lot of fieldwork under their belt but are now sitting in capital city desk jobs can be far removed from ground realities and make poor calls.
    Exposure is one of the main hiring criteria. Given my private sector background I’d look for business-side smarts that I rarely see in many people working in aid. To me, empathy to the plight of aid beneficiaries is less a consideration than is the ability of this person to successfully analyse the situation then design and execute an appropriate intervention.
    @nabejero

  23. Tonee (@ToneeNdungu) says:

    I could say lots and lots of things. But Linda put’s it best in 4 sections I have summarized.

    Linda (@meowtree) { 09.22.09 at 6:06 pm }

    … sometimes people who work in development care about making their organization bigger and better for its own sake, for their own sake, and lose sight of the end goal.

    …. watching your own marketing commercials about all the hopeless, vulnerable and victimized people in the ‘developing world,’ you can fool yourself into thinking it’s true, that they need you to go save them.

    …, there is suffering but there is also strength and human dignity, laughter and love, family and friends. It’s a color photo, not black and white.

    … politics does have a role. Not sickening, self aggrandizing politics, but participatory political change, because politics is about power…(not people)

    nuf said!

    Tonee

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  26. Chari Ratwatte says:

    YES to developing-country experience for development workers – ideally in the same countries/regions they will work in – and with the demographics they will be working for (note I didn’t say “with”). I firmly believe you need to feel the mud between your toes and get to know at least a few members of your demographic on a personal level. That empathy and depth of understanding can change what you do – and how you do it.

    More at http://diya-rakusa.blogspot.com/2009/09/should-people-working-in-development.html

  27. Kevin Donovan says:

    Why would someone working in development _not_ want developing world experience?

    (And if they already work in development, it shouldn’t be hard to get that experience if they desire it.)

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  30. Steve Mollman says:

    I think it’s important _in general_ to have experience in the developing world, whoever you are and whatever you do. So I most certainly think it matters for people who actually work in the field of development.

  31. Andrea Bohnstedt says:

    It usually helps to haverelevant experience in whatever job you apply for.

    Does development necessarily have to involve mud between toes? What about financial sector regulations, competition law, tax regime, customs administration, international trade negotiations …..?

  32. Nic Bidwell says:

    “and also at different levels – not just meetings with head honchos. Even if a person ends working at that level (and no critique intended if they do) very important to have some direct insight at some point of life for the majority.”

  33. 'Debo Ajao says:

    People working in development should have experience in developing countries in my opinion. though there are development issues in the west, much more abound in Africa. I think having experience in Africa/development countries will present a lot of challenges which will help stimulate the development of strong ideas as per solutions

  34. Brian says:

    Wow… Thanks for the tip; I just watched War Dance. We could all learn from the kids in Podongo who have lost everything, including their families, yet still press on with the will to achieve great things.

    Agreed: politics are potential poison for these kinds of endeavors, but (speaking as someone with no experience in Africa, but knowing what it’s like to depend on multiple organizations) they may be a necessary evil. It seems to me that as long as one can keep sight of what’s important, one can still make a positive impact.

    …or am I seeing the world through rose-colored glasses?

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