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.
I 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.