Development…Huh! What Is It Good For?

Many critics of globalization and/or Western imperialism have wrestled with the terms used to describe the difference between places like the United States and Bolivia, where I’m from and where I currently live and work. For a while the terms used were the First and Third world (which always made me wonder where the second world was). This seemed to imply that one was ranked above the other or perhaps more important. Some began using the term Two-Thirds world to refer to the fact that those outside of the First world actually represent a majority of the planet’s population. We seem to have now settled on the terms Developed and Developing world, but this poses the same problem by defining the world primarily in terms of the Western nations and setting them as the goal to which everyone else must aspire.

In a conversation with our Country Representatives for MCC in Bolivia, they pointed out that MCC focuses primarily on development, while other organizations, also working with Low German Mennonites, are focused primarily on evangelism. Now, I reject the dualism between evangelism and social action, but that deserves its own post another time. The point here is that MCC as an organization has chosen to focus its efforts primarily on development. The question is how to define “development”?

The reality is that people are living in various degrees of poverty that we consider unacceptable as Christians, or simply as compassionate human beings. The problem is that our definition of poverty is just as slippery as the definition of development. If people lack access to adequate nutrition, sanitation, water or basic necessities, there is a clear problem. If people are suffering from preventable diseases because of these conditions, then something should be done. However, before we decide how to solve these problems we should ask why these conditions exist in the first place. Solutions or development work that does not address root causes of these circumstances, may in effect be perpetuating the conditions contributing to the problem.

But our work at “development” does not end with meeting basic needs. On the extreme end, some have a vision for the whole world to have some version of the American Dream and concomitant lifestyle. Even if we understand that this vision is not only impossible, but ultimately destructive, we continue to harbor other versions of this same way of thinking. Does poverty include lack of access to the internet? Is someone poor if they don’t have a car? What constitutes adequate housing or enough food? Where do we draw the line between extreme poverty, just plain old poor and the almost poor? Who gets to define what exactly “development” means?

When I was an intern at World Hunger Relief, there was another intern from Papua New Guinea. There were particular issues that she would often rant about. One of these was the idea of development. She talked about how her people were doing just fine before white people came and told them that they were not “developed”. They were told that their children needed to go to school in order to get an education. This meant that the farmer who previously had all of his needs covered for his family now needed to pay for books, uniforms, transportation and whatever else went along with education. Jarrod Diamond profiled Papua New Guinea in his book Guns, Germs and Steel as an example of a culture that has existed for thousands of years without developing western style civilization. They continued as tribal cultures with a very simple agriculture, but all of their basic needs were met. Who decided that they needed “development” and defined what exactly that meant?

Notice that the problem with defining both poverty and development really has to do with our understanding of the telos, or purpose, of wealth and life on this planet. Are we really only exporting freedom, democracy and free trade across the globe? Or are we transmitting our consumerism, unhealthy lifestyles and uncritical faith in technological progress along with it like a mosquito carrying malaria or dengue fever? Studies are showing that nations adapting to a more western diet with higher meat intake and more prominent processed and fast food industry are also beginning to experience the same health problems with obesity, diabetes and heart disease as Americans.

Our assumptions about what the good life is underlie our definitions of both poverty and development. Whether we are aware of it or not, these assumptions guide how we view the poor, what we think they need, how they should get what they need and the process by which change should happen. The definition of development should come in the form of principles rather than concrete terms.

1. People should be able to control their own lives and future. There are certain limitations that even democracy places on this principle through the rule of the minority by the majority. There’s a tension between the needs/desires of the individual and the community that has to be worked out.
2. People’s cultural and religious values must be respected. This becomes difficult when dealing with issues like genital mutilation that are difficult to condone. However, I see this example as the exception rather than the rule.
3. People should have access to the basic necessities of adequate food, shelter, health care, clean water and proper sanitation. According to principle 1 above, people should also be in control of the definition of adequate and proper.

These principles raise questions concerning what the foreigner’s role is (if at all) or should be in development. I hope to address this in the next post with my current position in Bolivia as the context for exploring these questions.

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2 thoughts on “Development…Huh! What Is It Good For?

  1. Pingback: What’s Wrong With the Red Cross? | What Would Jesus Eat?

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