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

Thursday, March 29, 2007

The Paradox of Development Work – Is there Any ‘Relief’?

I recently looked at the last time I devoted time to sit down and write a contribution to my blog and was almost appalled at what I saw - thirty five days and counting. That happened to be a few days ago so today it must be closer to forty now.

In the Bible, there is an un-refuted significance of 40 days because, after all, it was 40 days that Jesus spent in the wilderness and 40 rain-filled days and nights that Noah spent floating about on the ark. What is it about that 40-day time frame that offers such significance and potential relevance in our daily lives? My own 40-day hiatus from the blog-o-sphere has allowed me to ponder various thoughts to a level that I feel comfortable sharing with you all. A lot has happened in these past 40 days – major events that will inevitably change the course of my life.

In the beginning of March I was accepted into a Masters of Arts in International Development through Eastern University. The program is such that I will be able to study the paradoxical issues that I face on a daily basis. Every July I will be attending a 3-week residency at Stellenbosch University just outside of Cape Town, South Africa. If anybody ever thought that my love for international work was an infatuation, think again. On one hand, this is a program that will invariably open many doors with regards to the type of positions I will be able to secure. On the other hand, and I think more importantly, this program is going to assist me to better under stand the paradoxes that I face on a daily basis while in the field. Often, field work can be so strenuous and tiresome that if often doesn’t allow for time to sit, reflect, and ponder the significance, or lack thereof, of the work that you carry out. My last 40 days has given me the opportunity to formulate thought, but not necessarily come to a conclusion, around the idea of the goal of ‘development work’. The argument is as follows:

A very basic understanding of the problem is that there are tens of millions of people around the world in a situation which is being coined ‘extreme poverty’, or earning less than one USD/day – be it in part to corrupt government, lack of infrastructure or adequate social services, conflict, natural disaster, and the list could go on and on. A commonly understood rudimentary idea is that there are two types of assistance/aid that is given by various organizations, large and small alike: relief aid and development aid. One could argue until the cows came home about relief vs. development, and that is part of my discussion today, but before that happens, a brief description of how they differ I believe is necessary.

A ‘relief’ scenario would be typified by a disaster or conflict situation, post or present, where death is imminent or even at hand. These situations are usually characterized as chaotic and filled with very intense emotions due to the circumstances that most people find themselves in. There is a very fine line between the realization of life and the inevitable arrival of death. Economist Jeffrey Sachs, in his book The End of Poverty: Economic Possibilities for Our Time, paints this portrait of ‘development’ as being a ladder with societies moving up the rungs of the ‘development ladder’. I’m proposing that if development is a ladder then people in a relief situation are at the bottom of their ride down the snake’s tail.

The term ‘development’ on the other hand can be characterized by a situation where a society is getting back to living a normal life, people are grabbing hold of the first economic rung, institutions are being put in place, and the idea of imminent death is being erased. There is a common understanding that the transition from ‘relief’ to ‘development’ is a very grey area and often misunderstood and misread by many professionals in this field of work. With the transition comes a transition of organizational strategies which are based on profoundly different needs of the population.

So how does this discussion lead us into the personally-experienced paradox between relief and development? Here’s the paradox in a nutshell, a rather large nutshell at that:

Relief and development work seems like a very ‘sexy’ job from the perspective of North Americans, or those of us in the Western world. You’re usually in an exotic location, the pay isn’t very good, but after all you are serving the poor and that is usually viewed upon as a ‘good’ thing to do – you’re bettering society and reaching out to a world in need. Some of us in the relief/development field doing this type of work find it reassuring that we can leave the materialistic Western world behind us and come serve a people who actually have genuine needs and less materialistic wants. Let me take this time to clarify something – wants still exist in Africa. Having said this, there is a profound difference between a suffering Africa population in a country such as Liberia and a very glamorous, relatively easy lifestyle that societies of the Western world life day-in day-out. I find Liberians generally happier and more content with the nothing (in material terms) that they have.

So the paradox begins. Where does the ‘development’ stop? From the urgent feeding, shelter, and healthcare programs characterized by a relief setting to the more, I feel, materialistic programs focused on economic growth and prosperity. I have a hard time reconciling the difference between ‘need’ and ‘greed’. I have heard numerous examples of this economic progression propagated by NGOs, my favourite being the economic progression of transportation for a common Liberian. It goes like this: First you walk, then you’re financially able to acquire a bike, then a ‘kpang-kpang’ (small scooter-like motorized bike), then a 100CC AG100 motorcycle, then at last an automobile. This is a very typical progression but I hope that isn’t what our work is coming down to. The very thing that drives a lot of us away from Western culture, the acquisition of goods (or the perception that this must happen in order for societal acceptability), is what we are teaching the poorest of the poor? What a shame it would be to be teaching such lies to a people who are so content with what they have – which is nothing. The notion that we are here to help the poor, if what we are promoting is this idea of the acquisition of goods, seems very contradictory to me at times. As I said earlier, there is a very fine line which divides the wants from the needs.

A true economist would say there are no needs, there are only preferences. (Ex. You don’t need oxygen to breathe, you would just prefer oxygen over no oxygen. In essence, people make choices). I find that claim very theoretical and difficult to fathom in the face of a broken humanity. What do humans honestly need? At what point does one stop needing and start desiring, or wanting things? And at what point does that start turning into greed and materialism? These are all questions that I definitely don’t have answers to at this moment and questions I constantly continue to ponder.

The more I ponder these questions, the more I am attracted to the relief side of relief and development work. For me, I can truly see the need that people have when a tsunami has only recently swept through a village, killing scores of civilians, their families scattered abroad, their belongings washed away, and hopes and dreams close behind. When the hunger strikes, disease sets in, and death toll begins to rise I can see an uncompromised, unadulterated need. I would like to believe that it is at this moment in people’s lives when true need is shown and human greed is put to the back burner.

Who draws the line between relief and development? More specifically, who draws the line between need and greed? It may possibly take another 40 days of silence and reflection to come to a better understanding of it all.

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