A Heartbreaker

Part of reviving and magnifying compassion and empathy within foreign assistance is about (god forbid) feelings. In an interview with Karen Armstrong I listened to recently, she highlighted that the etymology of the word compassion is rooted in “feeling with another.” Thus, a key part of showing compassion in development work is to cultivate our willingness to hear expressions of fear and rage and disappointment. Because, as Douglas D. in South Africa shared,

“The demeaning and humiliating aspects in the foreign aid system are almost dreamlike.”

And by dreamlike, I think he really meant nightmarish.

When I decided to start this blog, I first reached out to about 150 of my former colleagues, friends, and acquaintances around the world involved in international development, working at the levels of U.N. and in academia to small and under-resourced grassroots organizations, asking:

If you personally could do one thing to change “the system” of foreign aid and development assistance, what would you do? (See post “A Question Resonates”)

As I shared, the number and diversity of responses has been overwhelming and intriguing. Most of the responses rest firmly within the cerebral aspects of our work – systemic or structural changes needed, funding mechanisms, programming approaches, challenges of governance, red tape and conditionalities, the lack of community participation, dependency, and the paradigm of development itself.

At the core of most of these responses, however, lurking underneath, were feelings, expressions of frustration, confusion, and extreme disenchantment. An aid worker in her first post abroad wrote,

To be honest, I have been somewhat disgusted by aid/development work. I am not convinced it works at all. I see people with good intentions making TONS of money and all this foreign aid coming in creating a “hand out” mentality. Most of the money falling into corrupt hands and little positive outcome.” ~Trixie in Kenya

But it was a response from a friend I met in Zimbabwe that truly broke my heart,

“I am ‘over’ development – fed up with the whole thing, and am dealing with my own cynicism and angst about how bad I find the whole process. Part of what makes it bad is that I don’t really know what a big picture solution looks like. Is it get economic opportunity running efficiently and equitably and all else will follow or is it something else? I don’t really know.

“I have personally felt my best efforts have been small scale, like for instance when dealing with the housekeeper or the gardener who worked for me. The little I was able to do for them seems to have been more impactful than any of the other millions of dollars I saw pouring into places. So I don’t know. I think more needs to be poured into education than is currently happening. All the trillions spent on HIV alone could have educated generations to come. It’s all warped.

“Nothing that hasn’t been mentioned before—good governance, leadership, systems strengthening, etc. is needed but still 50 or so years on, it’s not really working. Is it?

“The question leaves me stalled.” Noni, in India

It was her truthfulness about how disheartened she was that struck me right away. Her ability to express this and struggle with it so forthrightly is also what makes her, I suspect, a more effective development practitioner.

Insulated by privilege, professionalism, or the power dynamics of working for donors, we can often choose to ignore these tough feelings. Unfortunately, that’s when our worst egoism and cynicism can take root and we become ineffective in what we are trying to achieve.

Yes, the paradigm of development can break our hearts. And it does.

But everyday, we have a choice. Will we slump into the system? Or will we challenge the parts of it that prevent us from feeling with one another?


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  2. Anelda Grove

    Great post. I have a question, what is being done to deal with the issues that people at the grass root level, on the ground, in the field etc. are expressing?

    I am not sure I understand your closing statements. Are you saying that people working as “aid professionals” often choose to live in a cocoon and it is that which ultimately creates the massive ineffective systems and inefficient programs that have people like the two you quote, seriously question their choice of career?
    If that is so then it is a sad reality and the bigger question is what is the leadership in donor organisations doing to address these concerns? Is it even an issue for them?

    How do we challenge parts of the system that erodes the compassion that is supposed to be such an important aspect of aid/development work?

  3. Thanks Anelda for your questions. I would never want to make gross generalizations about “aid workers.” Just as there are effective programs and failed projects, solid organizations and struggling ones, so are the people who make them up.

    I don’t know if large donor organizations are well-equipped however to support their staff to openly struggle with the paradox of development. In my experience, there was always much discussion (read, bellyaching) over gin & tonics at night, but I was never sure that anything was actually ever acted upon the next day.

    My entire reason for starting this blog was to get a dialogue going about how to challenge the parts of the system that erodes compassion, the conditionalities, the lack of genuine community participation, the droughts of funds and then floods of money that cannot be feasibly absorbed.

    And I write about aid professionals’ experience because I believe that in our day-to-day work, we have the ideas and much more power to change things then we often perceive. “If you believe if you’re going to change the world, you’re going to end up either a pessimist or a cynic. But if you understand your limited power and define yourself by your ability to resist injustice, rather than by what you accomplish, then I think reality is much easier to bear.” ~Chris Hedges

    I will encourage you to keep asking these great questions of yourself and of us all. A very wise mentor in this sector once told me, “In development, you won’t ever really know if you’re doing anything right. But if you’re not questioning, you are most certainly doing everything wrong.”

  4. The development world, or developmentland as Alica would call it, is nightmarish because it contains a central paradox that those who need to control development processes (ie marginalised communities themselves) are excluded from doing so by well-meaning middle-class NGO/Government/Donor professionals who themselves need to undergo a developmental mindshift that enables them to trust and work with communities, to let go of their controlling behaviours and work supportively in complex poverty-stricken environments. To compound this, we professionals lack the stomach or courage to support authentic mobilisation at community level and either take up this space with limited projects that tame people’s anger or cede this space to activists (not all) who would exploit people’s anger for their own fundamentalist/ideological agendas. NGOs who “don’t go there” have to start going there!

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