Oh, How Helpful!

[I wrote the following as the start of what will be regular Wednesday postings for ePluribus Media.]

In his 1973 book How Europe Underdeveloped Africa, Walter Rodney demolished the idea that outsiders can come to Third World countries and bring them out into the developed world.  Our “help,” as that help is almost always offered, is almost always counterproductive, leading to a culture of dependency, not enabling independence and growth, as the helpers might believe.  I discovered the truth of that during my own time as a Peace Corps Volunteer in the late 1980s, and wrote about it with another former Peace Corps Volunteer, Bronwyn Hughes, a few years later.

We described how it was best that outsiders from the developed world seek initiative locally and support it rather than bringing in their own ideas about what would work for a community not their own.  Our piece first appeared in an online journal that no longer exists.  Later, in 2007, it was republished in the ePluribus Media Journal.  Called “Nothing New: A Small Enterprise Development Project in West Africa,” it can be found here.

Though, generally speaking, development experts had already been moving in the direction we recommended before we wrote (and many do now operate on assumptions that, like ours, stem from Rodney), there are still many people, particularly those looking at the developing world from the comfort of what Rodney called ‘the metropole,’ who believe they can solve Third World problems from afar and for the people in the developing countries.  Rather than listening to the people and helping on the basis of what they’ve been told, they want to tell the people what’s good for them–what they should do.

One such project, one that I’ve written about, is called One Laptop Per Child (OLPC).  It was going to save the developing world through offering cheap laptops to schools.  It hasn’t done so, and the developing world has already bypassed the laptop, embracing the cellphone–which, in local hands, may prove a much more useful tool than the cheap laptops ever could be.

Another such project, the call for a $300 house, is going to receive more attention today, for it is the subject of an op-ed in The New York Times.  The piece, by two people with real development experience, explains the real dangers of assuming that “we” in the developed world know what’s best for “them” in the developing:

Many families have owned their houses for two or three generations, upgrading them as their incomes increase. With additions, these homes become what we call “tool houses,” acting as workshops, manufacturing units, warehouses and shops. They facilitate trade and production, and allow homeowners to improve their living standards over time.
     None of this would be possible with a $300 house, which would have to be as standardized as possible to keep costs low. No number of add-ons would be able to match the flexibility of need-based construction.
     In addition, construction is an important industry in neighborhoods like Dharavi. Much of the economy consists of hardware shops, carpenters, plumbers, concrete makers, masons, even real-estate agents. Importing pre-fabricated homes would put many people out of business, undercutting the very population the $300 house is intended to help.

The $300 house, in other words, would make people more dependent, not less–just as the second-rate OLPC laptop does (the computer is fine, as a secondary device, but it is extremely limited–the new smartphones have a great deal more flexibility and are being embraced, as a result, with a great deal more enthusiasm in the developing world).  Instead of enabling people by providing tools they can use, they give, instead, a finished product that is produced elsewhere to designs envisioned elsewhere that cannot be easily altered on the ground.

The best piece I have seen that really explains this clearly is by the Kenyan writer Binyavanga Wainaina, though I have also written on it elsewhere.

Though most people (nearly all people) with direct experience in development will recognize the truth of what Matias Echanove and Rahul Srivastava are saying in that Times op-ed today, there are too many others elsewhere who think they know better.  This, as Rodney would point out, were he alive today, is the real problem with development–and why it leads to ‘underdevelopment.’

Until we understand that, “we” in the developed world will always be in danger of doing more damage than good when we try to help.  Direction, anywhere, needs to come from the people who live there, not from outsides, no matter how well-meaning.

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