Altruism or Egoism, an Elegy for Development Projects

A few days ago I was watching a late night Dutch talk show (Knevel & Van den Brink) in which politicians, scholars, writers, artists and other generally well known persons discuss current events in the world. In this particular broadcast two self-proclaimed development workers operating in Kenya were invited to join the table . A few days ago they had been violently assaulted and robbed of their money, phones and digital cameras by a bunch of, what they accuse to be, local people. Supposedly the same people who are benefitting from the hard efforts of the couple in improving the educational sector in the area. They narrated the event with profound self-pity, it must have been a horrible experience for them indeed, and they could not possibly understand the grave injustice that has been brought upon them.

Were they not working for the society? Should the local police not have searched the area thoroughly to find the attackers? Should the whole community not have bowed down before them and collectively mourn the inconvenience caused? Should the policy officer, or even better the Home Minister or perhaps even the Prime Minister not have publicly apologized for what has happened? Did their voluntary work not earn them eminence? Nothing of that kind had materialized and the two victims did not hide their disappointment with the lack of local support, empathy and assistance provided to them. Their facial expression displayed disillusion if not a total loss of trust in human kindness.

The reason for me writing this is however not their emotional retort. After all they had given birth to the project and had worked on it for the last twelve years. This piece is because of the measures they have sanctioned upon the communities they have worked so tirelessly for over the last decade or so. They have not only left Kenya directly after the incident but also immediately cut all the financial assistance to the projects. The salaries for about twenty teachers have been abruptly discontinued and the local people better not expect any financial support, or their physical return, before the assaulters are caught and brought to justice. Only then, if total safety and some comfort and sense of appreciation will be assured, they would consider a return to the area and continue the project.

It was already late evening and the earlier panel discussions had not prevented me from feeling sleepy. Yet their announcement to put off their projects kept me awake till deep in the night, pondering on a fundamental question of development aid. Who is helping who? Is it about supporting those people who are powerless, those who have no means at all or is it about the comfort, safety and feelings of a development worker? Perhaps William Easterly was gentle in calling the development sector a White Man’s burden? Perhaps it is even worse. Developing countries as the playground for people willing to do good, whatever that may include. So-called third world countries as a kind of open clinic for ‘developed’ people trying to give meaning to their existence.

How can you justify ceasing to give salary to twenty teachers, not only employed but also trained by you in the first place, because some evil-minded people have intruded your privacy? Is it proportionate to stop supporting multiple schools because of some harm inflicted on you? The main question is of course if the personal convenience of a self-proclaimed development worker should be of any influence to a project at all? What should the teachers have done? Should they be punished for what has happened? Should they have guarded the house of their foreign well wishers at night to protect their own jobs? Control their food to assure that they won’t get stomach problems? Who knows, if they get sick they may change their mind and stop the project.

If development projects are getting intrinsically linked with the personal situation of the persons who have invented them, or are financing them, then were is the line? If so, we better redirect our development assistance to parts of America, a bounty beach in the Caribbean or to Iceland, is that country not bankrupt? Probably the argument that poverty is always relative would go for most of the donor organisations. If we follow the argument of the couple, who I hope not but I am afraid seem to be the embodiment of the motives of many a modern self-proclaimed development worker, then we better provide only assistance to those countries who are safe (better not care about people affected by warfare, civil war, insurgencies or other violent acts of that kind), preferably not too poor (a development workers needs some luxury right?) and also a convenient temperature would be an advantage.

So-called privately founded development projects are on the rise, and, fair to say, the personal dedication of many a worker is worth noticing. It seems even true that small scale and grassroots projects, without carrying a whole bureaucracy on their backs, are among the best ways to make a difference for those people in need for a change. In fact, even government departments of developed countries have started to not only appreciate but also monetarily sponsor such projects run by individuals. Yet the example of the volunteers in Kenya tells us that some caution needs to be applied. The advance of a development project can never depend on the arbitrariness and emotional state of a self-proclaimed development worker. Private development initiatives are fine, even something to be celebrated about, citizens stepping in were their governments or international institutes have failed. Yet it is just wrong to collate the advance of a development project with the emotional state and sense of convenience and esteem experienced by the development worker. If the latter is a determining marker it seems that privately founded initiatives have moved past their purpose.

Let there not be any misunderstanding that this piece of text is not a lamentation against privately run development projects, not the least. My argument, or perhaps ‘sincere request’ is a better way of putting it, is that self-proclaimed development workers should seriously contemplate their motives for setting up a project. The so-called third world has for so long been devoid of any significant progress, they have been  (are being) suppressed, marginalized if not thwarted in their economic growth. Let’s not reduce them further to a place were ‘developed people’ go hunting for comfortable places to get a ‘feel-good’ sensation.

By Jelle Wouters, anthropologist and since a few years active in the board of the Foundation Care For All in Nepal, which works primarily to stimulate the education sector. Jelle finished his Bachelor studies in anthropology at the VU University in Amsterdam. Next year he will start his Master’s in Anthropology at Oxford University.

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