Kevin in Liberia

Its Purpose: to raise awareness of current social, political, ethical, and spiritual issues within a relief and development context in Liberia. Its effectiveness is simple: It relies on me, the author, to provide insightful, and often debate-sparking material that will encourage you, the reader to get engaged through comment contributions, emails, and promoting others to read, re-think, and respond to the important issues discussed.

I know not which is most profitable to me, health or sickness, wealth or poverty, nor anything else in the world. That discernment is beyond the power of men or angels, and is hidden among the secrets of your Providence, which I adore, but do not seek to fathom. ~ a prayer by Blaise Pascal

Friday, August 03, 2007

Smacked Upside the Head by a New Paradigm for Development

This chunk of text is so relevant for each reader yet ashamedly embarrassing in the fact that I even have to put pen to paper if you will. Its purpose is to hopefully show an unadulterated attempt at presenting the modern world’s full-hearted, yet retardedly inefficient attempt at addressing the ‘poor’. The word ‘poor’ is put in parentheses because, in specific cases, adjectives in the modern English vernacular have evolved into forms that often put meanings to words that don’t adequately do justice or describe the common use of the word under scrutiny.

In the context that I currently find myself (a 26 year old male working in Liberia and studying an MA in International Development) there is an avid common vocabulary that I have come to learn has been either adulterated or in which the meaning isn’t fully, or arguably, even partially understood in their correct context: ‘development’, ‘developed’, ‘underdeveloped’, ‘poor’, ‘poverty’, ‘leadership’, as well as many others that I’m sure unknowingly exist. This vernacular is as much a lens, or way of viewing the current framework or paradigm of the ‘poor’, as ‘profit’ is a lens of viewing success in the highly competitive business world of the North. Ashamedly enough, what I have been recently convicted of (hold onto your seats folks) is that the way the entire world views the poor is, at the very core of its existence, dehumanizing, unquestionably not merited, and fundamentally wrong! To qualify the last statement I must say that the entire world (because of its power and influence) is a rudimentary yet appropriate generalization of the situation currently faced by those in the ‘developed’, ‘underdeveloped’, ‘undeveloped’ worlds, those holding power, struggling to gain power, and those without any misty vision of what the word power means (except in the context of it being exercised against them), those in the North, South, and somewhere in the middle, and those in other polarities not mentioned.

Spending an intense two and a half weeks at the residency portion of my Masters program has irreversibly opened my eyes in a way very much like that of a new believer in Christ. I have to attribute the new lens to the learning environment created and ideas disseminated by Professor Lindy Backues as well as the ideas presented in the highly revolutionary Daly and Cobb book For the Common Good. The fact that these ideas were disseminated in an Economic Development of Developing Countries course seems somewhat contradictory because, like many others, my initial instinct is to think of conventional economics as the maximization of short-term self interest and the allocation of scare resources. That in and of itself may indeed be correct because this newly enlightened paradigm is as conventional as it is currently implemented or understood by those in the ‘developed’, ‘underdeveloped’, and ‘undeveloped’ worlds, those holding power…you get the idea. This new paradigm transcends most modern, scientific thought, and will arguably receive increasing attention and critique as it gains much-needed notoriety and trust amongst common people as well as intellectuals.

So by now you’re most likely wondering what exactly this new paradigm entails and how something can be so revolutionary, life-changing, and thought provoking. In order to best understand the new paradigm and what changes it can potentially bring to the common understanding of the ‘poor’ it is, no doubt, necessary to understand just exactly what paradigmatical umbrella under which we are currently living, working, and breathing. Ultimately, this will enable us to see its fatal flaws and how we have come to our current state of approaching the ‘poor’ the way we do.

Currently, all humanity, not just those of us who find ourselves working and living in Africa, unknowingly finds itself operating in a very contradictory world. A Western world often commonly known for their social marketing strategies and corporate responsibility towards humanity is currently part of a paradigm that, to its core, is dehumanizing.

Following WWII, our post-war, neo-colonial world, has been defined by often confusing terms such as ‘development’, ‘developing’, and ‘developed’ – just to name a few. These are terms that are common to most lay people, not only people in an international context and although we might think we have an idea of what these words mean, we are probably kidding ourselves. What I have come to learn is that the current framework in which we live and operate is not nearly adequate or representative of the reality faced by its recipients or actors. Taking the word ‘developing’ for example, and all the others listed above could be analysed in a similar manner, let me present some hopefully though-provoking questions that will ultimately lead into how our current paradigm is fundamentally wrong.

What initially comes to your mind when you hear the world ‘developing’? Perhaps acquiring new technologies? Something related to eradicating economic poverty? My question would be “…developing towards what?” In order to be ‘developing’ there must be a goal in mind. The paradigm in which we currently find ourselves has defined our goal as economic maximization and the creation of ‘wealth’. If anyone questions this notion, one only needs to look at the use of indicators such as per capita GNP as monitoring tools or gauges of the ‘development’, or financial success, of a country. I would argue that there are more factors at play that ultimately determine the well-being of a country. On numerous occasions I find myself questioning our current paradigm when I see local Liberians, a lot of whom have recently lost family due to the fourteen year civil war, markedly happier than our brothers in the ‘developed’ world whose per capita GNP is arguably far higher. According to 2004 statistics, Liberia was tied for having the second lowest per capital GNP of any country in the world - $110 USD/capita ( GNP lacks in the sense that it does not account for the social, physical, and spiritual well-being of a nation and therefore is not an adequate indictor of the true well-being of a nation.

Separating the world into the ‘developed’ (the North – Canada, the United States, Western Europe, and arguably parts of Asia) and the ‘undeveloped’ creates a reality in which the citizens of ‘undeveloped’ nations are placed on a lower pedestal and therefore looked upon as objects needing to be ‘developed’. Ashamedly enough, us as NGOs often carry the same mindset into projects that are implemented on the ground and at the community level. For many reasons, but I believe largely due in part to this current paradigm we find ourselves in as well as the fact that African culture is not a written culture and therefore we don’t know much about its history, we often approach communities with a God complex thinking that our projects have the solution to some or all of their problems they are facing.

A large reason why projects and programs are looked upon in this manner is that in many ways they are strategically driven by large multilateral organizations such as the United Nations. Their various development arms each carry burdensome development agendas of their own and ultimately misjudge the true problems faced by communities in the field. I have always been sceptical of the UN Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) and these recent insights I have discovered have cemented my previous thoughts on the subject. I find in them a weakness in that they do not directly address the issues of social and spiritual well-being.

So if you are reading this and wondering to yourself, “…who is this guy and who does he think he is? If he is so critical of the current paradigm then let him suggests some changes.” Well, and hold onto your seats folks, I don’t have a magic wand and I’m not going to pull rabbits out of hats because I believe that if anyone in the world had the formula to ending global poverty they would have written a best-seller book about it by now. Up to now, what has been exercised in the past 50-60 years as far as ‘development’ in its known context has not worked!

Some discussion, please.

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  • At 7:21 PM, Blogger Unknown said…

    Funny thing... As I read this post, I not only had "For The Common Good" on my lap, but I was also sitting in one of Dr. Backues' classes. We're talking about 'land' today in Economic Development. I am studying Sociology at Eastern, but would love to do grad work in something economic/development focused. My name is Ben. I think my e-mail will be posted with this. We should talk. I'll go back to listening to Lindy now! God bless!

  • At 7:22 PM, Blogger Unknown said…

    Oh by the way. FTCG is blowing my mind.


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