Monday, October 31, 2011

A glass half empty?

Unfortunately, one of the things that I am best at is seeing the negative side of a situation. I used to chalk it up to 'critical thinking' but I do have a certain bent toward defeatism. This has been something that I have struggled with in learning more about development and poverty alleviation. The more I read, and especially when I traveled to East Africa, I was bombarded with hopeless sentiments - does anything we do actually make a difference? What say do I even have to try and change the way someone lives? Thoughts of cultural barriers, language barriers, corruption in policy and government swirled around my head. How could anyone do anything to make a real change, much less me? My first instinct was to throw up my hands - it is easy enough to numb oneself to the realities of the world in middle class North America - but as I interacted more with people and saw more of what was being done in the few organizations we visited, hope stirred in me. I still feel cripplingly helpless in the face of certain obstacles and defeatist thoughts creep into my mind often enough...but I stubbornly hold onto the idea that we can't not do now what?

There seems to be a lot of cynicism surrounding poverty alleviation, much of it well-earned. Television commercials are saturated with commercials asking for donations, depicting the poorest of the poor, their dignity forgotten. The United Nations is known for its thick red tape, and perceived as largely ineffectual. We hear rumours of inefficient or unaccountable relief organizations. There is even skepticism surrounding the effectiveness and intentions of the previously untouchable Mother Teresa. It seems that no matter what avenue is taken that the causes of poverty run so deep than any effort is thwarted, or at least a staggering step forward.

The problem with addressing poverty is that since it is often very complex and requires a great deal of long-term investment, without a holistic approach the efforts that fall short of this are often more harmful than if nothing had been done. This idea is fleshed out in When Helping Hurts, a book that emphasizes the importance of long-term development, enabling communities with good stewardship skills, and most importantly the dignity of the poor and mutual respect and cooperation. The model that is laid out in this book reveals poverty alleviation to be a long and arduous process. The goal here is not material results (improving crop outputs, building number of schools) but restoring relationships. This takes personal investment and involving the poor with the work. This of course is an incredibly arduous task. Even for myself, thinking of what actually has to be done to work effectively with communities fills me with dread.

I am going to endeavor to explore different ways in which poverty is wrongly addressed, why harm is done, and if there is anything worth redeeming from these ideas. Just because a task is daunting, seemingly insurmountable, and those defeatist thoughts seem to be all there is, just means we're going to be that much more creative, that much more understanding of where people are coming from, and learn that much more about our abilities. Not to mention all that is to be learned from those in the majority world. In taking time to learn from those we are trying to help we also greatly enrich our own lives. Once we realize the richness of the mutual benefits that are possible, why would we want to go about it any other way?