I’m reading two books in parallel right now – Ben Ramalingam‘s ‘Aid on the Edge of Chaos‘ and Kentaro Toyama‘s ‘Geek Heresy‘. With both books I’m finding myself regularly pausing for a nod of approval or a wry smile. Both books are spot on in their identification of the issues – Ben in global development more broadly, and Kentaro in ICT4D, a sector/field/discipline/specialism of global development.
A while back when Bill Easterly published his ‘Tyranny of Experts‘ I started to wonder what impact his previous book – ‘The White Man’s Burden‘ – has had on the practice and policy of global development. I have the same question for Dambisa Moyo, too, whose ‘Dead Aid‘ is another classic development critique. Both provide strong arguments for a new aid world order (or, more to the point, no aid at all).
Suffice to say, if you’re not a fan or supporter of big development there are countless books out there to feed your anger, frustration and despair. But for all the hundreds of billions of words written over the past decade or two citing the challenges, problems and issues, have any forced any kind of change in how those hundreds of billions of Pounds, Dollars or Euros of development aid were spent? Almost everyone I meet who works in big development has at least one major frustration with it – many have several – but the one that drives me to despair the most is that no-one seems to be able to change anything.
I published my first book – ‘The Rise of the Reluctant Innovator‘ – because I wanted to help steer young social innovators-to-be away from expensive university or design thinking courses and encourage them to firstly get out into the world, meet the people they wanted to help, gain some empathy, and find their passion. Before they did anything. I can’t speak for Ben or Kentaro, but they probably hope something might improve or change as a result of their writing efforts, too.
It’s easy to rant, but far more productive if we also offer solutions and ways forward. Obama made this point recently when talking about the Black Lives Matter movement, and what he said could equally be applied to international development:
“Once you’ve highlighted an issue and brought it to people’s attention and shined a spotlight, and elected officials or people who are in a position to start bringing about change are ready to sit down with you, then you can’t just keep on yelling at them.”
Last week I stumbled across a BBC News article provocatively titled Barbie challenges the ‘white saviour complex’. It’s a brilliant example of creative – innovative? – thinking in how to challenge much of what many see is wrong in our field.
If the purpose of Barbie Savior was to draw attention to the ‘warped concept’ of volunteerism, poverty tourism or what many would see as the ‘condescending nature’ of many aid efforts, it has undoubtedly succeeded. Just a selection of headlines include:
‘White Savior Barbie’ Hilariously Parodies Volunteer Selfies In Africa
Instagram’s White Savior Barbie neatly captures what’s wrong with “voluntourism” in Africa
White Saviour Barbie’s world of orphanage selfies and charity startups
‘White Savior Barbie’ brilliantly mocks insincere volunteer selfies in Africa
Barbie Savior: The parody that makes aid types feel good, but does nothing
“Barbie Savior” Instagram Account Brilliantly Skewers White Savior Complex
As with the Barbie account, there are plenty of other examples of books, games, conferences and campaigns that seek to raise awareness around the issues in our sector, but few seem to be able to drive change to the same degree that they’re able to raise awareness or anger, or laughter, or point fingers. The same tweets get sent out conference after conference, and retweets abound, and heads nod – but again there’s very little sense of what can be genuinely done to address the challenges so beautifully described in many of these 140 character outbursts, or in those cleverly Photoshopped Instagram images.
After more than two decades working ‘in’ global development, my question remains unchanged. What to do when the yelling stops?