field notebook

Three things I’ve learned in 2018

Let’s face it. I’m an idealist.

I work in international development because I think the world can be a better place, that it can be inclusive and provide equality of opportunity. Throughout my career, I’ve tried to identify different places and topics that I think can make a difference, and in most cases, I think I’ve contributed my grain of sand.

But the learning curve has been steep. I think learning curves are steeper for idealists, because we get so stuck on the way things should be that we fail to see things as they are and to identify small bits of progress.

So in an effort to try to make life easier for all you idealists out there, I’ve put together my list of three things I’ve learned about international development in 2018.

1. Sustainable change is incremental. We are all swept up by ideas of changing the world in an instant. Some of us focus on trying to create these changes, hoping countries elect people that will bring in sweeping reforms, designing these sweeping reforms, or advocating against reforms that go in the wrong direction. But in fact, the world and its structures are complex, and sweeping change rarely ever lasts; and when it lasts, it isn’t always good. Take a look at the Arab Spring, for example. I think many people were captivated by the idea that the Arab Spring would quickly bring greater participation to the Middle East, and that this greater participation would result in more fair distribution of resources.

And what happened? I think we can clearly say that changes occurred quickly, and that it affected the majority of citizens of the Middle East. But with some exceptions, we cannot say that the changes have been in the right direction. In most countries in the Middle East, there are still clear obstacles for citizen participation, citizen trust in governments is low, and governments are still unable to provide even basic (quality) services for large parts of their populations. And then, there are the cases where protests that emerged from the Arab Spring have led to war. Syria and Libya may not recover from war in our lifetimes.

This doesn’t mean that I no longer believe in change, or that I think we need to moderate our goals for what we can achieve. It does mean, however, that I think we need to celebrate small changes, those that we sometimes see as failures because they didn’t go as far as we wanted. I think we need to be conscious of which incremental changes are most important, and to plan out ways to get support for these changes from the people they affect most. In fact, we need to make sure changes have the support, or at least acceptance, even of people who are affected negatively. This is a lot of work, but in my experience, this is the only way for change to be sustainable.

2. Participation is essential, but sometimes people don’t know what options they have. I’ve always seen myself as a grassroots development person. I started out working in small rural communities when I was 23 years old. I was young, and I was working with youth, and I strongly believed that young people should make all the decisions for youth. And while generally speaking, I still think that this is true, I do believe that there is a huge role for those outside of a social group to show people that there are alternatives that they might not know about, and that those alternatives may be the best (and, well, that they could also have huge risks.)

Some of you might be thinking that I’m wrong, and that people really should make all of their own decisions – that this type of decision-making is more culturally appropriate and sustainable. And, yes, I understand and broadly agree. But given the dramatic technological advances in the world in the past years, I’ve revised my thinking. After all, we don’t use participatory decision-making to make decisions in areas where we know expertise is needed, such as medicine. We would not hesitate, for example, to try to change a traditional practice that we know has negative health impacts. But given the rate of technological change, the number of areas where outside expertise can boost development outcomes has grown significantly. Technology can now be used to improve outcomes in almost any area of development, including things like addressing land disputes, or education, poverty and conflict mapping, and, of course, participation and accountability.  

I think that not giving people information and options that they may not know about is actually something that can dramatically slow down development. However, I also learned that:

3. Sustainable change must come from within. It sounds like I’m contradicting what I just said, I know. But what I mean here is slightly different. I learned this year that if you want to address difficult issues, like for example racism, it isn’t enough to empower those who are discriminated against because of their race. You must also find allies among some who are trusted within circles that discriminate, and they need to be the ones that change their own communities, so that it becomes less acceptable, or well, unacceptable, to discriminate.

I think this is an area where we are failing as international development practitioners. We are failing to really analyze how our work is affecting different people. We think that because our specific target group is benefiting, others aren’t losing, or at least, aren’t perceiving that they are losing. Not taking this into account can slow down or even halt development processes. An example of this happening, in my opinion, is the rise of nationalist movements. These movements are made up of people who perceive something has been lost, and that their societies are not going in the right direction. And although the movements themselves may be a problem, it is essential to look at where they come from, to understand as much as we can about how people within them perceive what is happening around them, and to find areas where we agree. Maybe it’s the idealist in me, but I think that everyone in their mind is sure that they are a good person, and understanding others’ points of view can make it possible to identify these common areas and to turn people that you don’t agree with into allies that can help achieve change.

And that is it. Those are my three main lessons.

I’d love to hear some of yours, whether they are broad, like mine, or whether they are related to finding jobs and doing well at work.

Wishing everyone a great end to 2018!