Thursday, October 25, 2007

6 weeks left now. I guess.

It never fails to happen every Thursday night. Sometimes it takes an hour, sometimes two, sometimes two and a half. At some point my eyes begin to glaze over. My ears glaze over, my brain glazes over – if that’s even possible. Not from boredom though, but too much information. I want to start thinking, processing, wondering, imagining, carrying thoughts on a little farther, tugging on things – but I can’t because more information is flowing in and it’s all so good! All I can do is take notes and try not to think or I’ll be totally lost.

Tonight for the first half of class we had a class debate. We had all (supposedly) read both The End of Poverty and The White Man’s Burden. Part of the class took the stance of Sachs and the other part took the stance of Easterly. Then there was an independent third group thrown in to ask us difficult questions.

I definitely started to glaze over during part of the proceedings. The issues of poverty are so immense and so difficult. So many people claim to have the answer or the way. Easterly’s argument is that there are two great tragedies regarding this issue. One is that there are millions in extreme poverty fighting to survive, dying of preventable diseases, etc. The other tragedy is that trillions of dollars of aid has been spent on poverty alleviation over the years, and there are STILL millions of people in extreme poverty fighting to survive, dying of preventable diseases.

Point after point is made about bottom-up solutions and top-down solutions, homegrown methods, multi-lateral organizations, where things fail, where things succeed, etc. There are so many examples.

Sometimes I stop and think about the futility of it all. Someone (a whole lot of someones actually) spent time and energy researching and writing this book. I bought the book. And I’m paying money to sit in a classroom once a week and debate and discuss and learn about issues of poverty and development. And every day thousands of people are dying. I’m reading books and writing papers and people are suffering and dying. The incredible disconnect between the horrible, crushing reality of poverty and the disconnected, distant study of poverty…amazes me. Of course I do think classes like this are important.

And then there is the whole debate format which is only encouraged by Easterly who refutes Sachs in every chapter. Why can’t we all work together? Why can’t we all get along? Why can’t the economists and development people stop bickering about whose theoretical framework is correct and instead look at the strengths of each and where each is definitely right and go from there. Yeah, I’m sometimes na├»ve and an idealist. But this wasn’t my first reaction when I read the books. The idea came up in class and it spoke to me. Why argue whether development should be top-down or bottom-up – aren’t both methods needed?

I can barely say more than that because I haven’t been able to process much. And then a guest speaker came, Bwalya, who is the World Vision country director for Zambia.

He talked a bit about his background and growing up. He grew up in the middle class in Africa and never experienced poverty. He said that some Africans who live in the upper classes, they don’t believe that there is poverty in Africa – until they see it. That surprised me.

He went on to talk about the first time he was involved in participatory appraisal. He was interpreting for another World Vision person, talking to a woman in a poor village. At one point, the other guy asked Bwalya to ask the woman what she dreamed about at night. Bwalya was surprised at the question. What does this have to do with anything? And then he thought perhaps that she would respond that she dreamed about having a good house or having running water or having good government, etc.

He asked her the question. She didn’t respond. He asked again, in another language. Still no response. He tried a third language, thinking there must be a language barrier but she didn’t respond. After a few moments of tense silence, she finally responded. She dreamed about playing.

She dreamed about time for herself, about having fun, about being human. She had never had a childhood.

Bwalya went on. The poor have a vision for themselves of what their life could look like, but because of such poverty and so many setbacks, they have to lock up their dreams because it is too painful to think of. It is too painful to hope in them because it is too unlikely that they will ever be realized.

Bwalya sees his work with World Vision as peeling back the layers of fear and helping people realize their dreams. This is human development. You have to help people feel safe enough to live out their dreams: this isn’t just the American dream, it’s the human dream. Good development allows you do to this: to realize your dreams, to have the resources for them, and for you to be safe in doing this. Good development helps you get to a place where it’s not too scary to think about your dreams, where thinking about your dreams isn’t painful.

More things…

- When you ask in a community what do the people need, and they respond, what do you do? You can’t be all things to the poor. You can’t provide everything. You can help with some things. The poor will have to do some things on their own. And other things no one can help with.

- When the poor know enough about power dynamics, when they feel empowered, they realize they can come together and make their own power play. But people have to get so upset, so angry about the situation they are in that they no longer have fear. When the poor decide they’ve had enough, they have options. When they decide they’re tired of dying, civil wars will stop

- When you’re working with the extremely poor, they have NOTHING to give you but themselves. They are risk-averse because every situation is life and death for them. We sometimes underestimate the cost of adopting some new idea or process in the eyes of the poor.

This barely scratches the surface I’m sure. The issues of poverty, diseases, government, aid, history of nations, corruption, and so forth are so complex and interwoven it’s not hard to feel a bit overwhelmed and powerless to do anything.

After all that, I guess I do feel overwhelmed, but not yet overwhelmed. =)

My research methods class is still a bit annoying but the group project (due Sunday!) is taking shape and I’m pretty excited about it. We’re looking at the information needs of Spanish-speaking immigrants and how different barriers affect their information behavior. Basically, libraries have not done a good job in general making libraries accessible to immigrants. Even where they have, there is often a cultural gap in understanding about libraries and reading. And not much research has been done on this, apparently because we’re talking about such an enormously diverse population. And yet, programs are designed and libraries try to reach out to the population. Are they designing appropriate programs based on actual needs? How often are these things evaluated?

The professor isn’t taking us much beyond the lit review which is unfortunate. But honestly we wouldn’t have time to research this in 10 weeks anyway.

Back to the books…


@bdul muHib said...

Wow! Good post!

Here's my thoughts:

I think the conversation is all wrong in most development work. It comes from a secular perspective, and it is here that there is a great divergence between truth and the way the world does things. The world looks at poverty as a bad thing.

Christ came to teach us to pick up our cross and follow him. He came to call us into poverty, if we aren't there already, and to share that the poor are indeed happy, for they have the kingdom of God. If we want that kingdom, we need to embrace poverty as well. For this reason he said, "The poor will always be among you."- not with you. They are in your midst, for you are (called to be) the poor.

And yet there is a great difference between the relative poverty that Christ preached, and absolute poverty. Christ calls us to rely on him, to give from what we have, and to live simply- this is Holy Sister Poverty. Absolute Poverty is where you have nothing, and no way to feed your family. And this is what we need to work against.

Yet I am concerned that many development programs, whether or not they work, have as their goal to raise people out of poverty and into a US style of living, or with US goals on wealth accumulation. Then they just inherit the same sins that we have. Far better to help them learn to produce and live on their own, but without leaving the poverty they are blessed with.

How does this happen? Christ gave us this answer as well. For while he said that it is harder for a rich man to enter the kingdom of Heaven than for a camel to go throught he eye of a needle, he also said that "No one who has left father and mother and brothers and sisters and lands and houses, will not receive 100fold mothers, brothers, sisters, lands, houses, and persecution, and, in the life to come, eternal life."

How can both promises be true, out of the lips of the same man? How can he call us into poverty while promising multiple lands and houses- in this life? And how can this promise be true when for the vast majority of Christians (the vast majority in history not being American) there hasn't been abundant wealth?

In the early church, "All who believed were together and had all things in common; they would sell their possessions and goods and distribute the proceeds to all, as any had need. The whole group of those who believed were of one heart and soul, and no one claimed private ownership of any possessions, but everything they owned was held in common. There was not a needy person among them, for as many as owned lands or houses sold them and brought the proceeds of what was sold. They laid it at the apostles’ feet, and it was distributed to each as any had need."

This was how I grew up. I had 10 houses, 20 cars, and 80 brothers and sisters. And this is the clarying call of the Gospel. This is where development should go. Not to bring people out of poverty, but to bring them into community, where there needs are met by giving to others mutually. It is not enough to give fish; it is not enough to teach how to fish. The Gospel calls us to teach people how to give fish; to teach people how to fish for others and how to teach others to fish.

I think this is where we gain from others. We go in, participating in communal poverty with them. We go in as a learner. I think they have a good deal to offer us- the wealth of their culture and life experience. As we go in as one of them, we come in humility, sharing of what we have, and relying on a common source. We go in to teach, yes, but we also go in to learn what they have of God, and find what God has to show us through them.

Omar P. said...

In speaking to one of my acquaintances who works for an international economic development org, she described to me the time she had spent working in Washington, D.C. with a larger NGO.

The problem she said was not that these organizations were arguing top-down vs. bottom-down solutions or that they didn't have the resources to do the good work of helping the desperately poor. She said that, as she saw it, the problem was that they were all jockeying for political, economic and social status within the beltway, shoring up their own position and padding their own budgets. Which individuals could get the best jobs? Which organizations could attract the largest grants? Such machinations led to inefficiencies and bad management.

When she became tired of this game (my words, not hers), she moved out here and began to work for a smaller organization that gets more bang-for-the-buck.

It seems clear that the biggest obstacle to alleviating poverty is not strategy or methodology but human sin. God forgive us.