Sunday, September 11, 2011
Reflections on Development, I
I wrote this post about two months ago, at the beginning of the reforestation season.
Today I went with fifth and sixth-graders from the local girls’ school to help out the park guards with the first tree planting of the year. It was a great day, starting with a 5 km walk and about 1000 ft of elevation gain, and ending with the same trek in reverse. On the way down I stayed back to chat with the two sixth-grade teachers, both funny, creative, open-minded guys with whom I’ll be collaborating on a SPA project this year.
About 2/3 of the way down, we ran into a little boy, maybe about 6 or 7 years old. The knees of his pants were torn out and dangling in flaps over his shins, his left rubber boot was splitting in two down to the ankle, his face and clothing were grubby; he carried a heavy load of firewood on his forehead strap. And he was laboring hard, completely alone, at an hour when kids should be in school.
I would have liked to do something, but being an outsider, I really had nothing to do except smile at the kid and keep moving. The teacher, in exchange, was able to handle the situation a little more. He spoke to the kid gently in Mam, shouldered his load, and carried it until his path diverged from ours.
After we parted ways the teacher asked me, “What do you think of children’s rights in Guatemala? Should child protection come and cart that kid’s father off to jail for sending his kid to work when he should be in school?”
It was easy for me to judge that situation – I automatically might have been angry at his caretakers for being irresponsible, or pardon them automatically, assume they're so poor that they have no choice. But talking with the teacher, I realized the situation was probably more complex.
The teacher and I talked about how children in the center of town do less physical work now and are more self-centered, disrespectful, and lazy than ever before. We agreed that hard work is necessary to produce a well-rounded kid, and on par, a walk to cut firewood can be just as educational as a day in school. But we also agreed that children need the opportunity given to them by that sixth grade diploma. And that when they go out in the woods, they need someone to protect them and teach them the ropes.
I don't know why his caretakers sent him out to get firewood today, but my kneejerk reaction and the subsequent analysis with the teacher reminded me of something crucial that I forget sometimes, especially with the emotional charge of such an encounter. That's to say, “development” is not a simple linear process. It's not something that we as outsiders can judge from a first glance at a child, a community, or a country. Development is not just trading in ripped sweat pants for new ones, sorrow and suffering for our idea of happiness, work and pain for school and our idea of advancement. It's not just eradicating "poverty" and calling it a day.
Real development is a circular, complicated process. The gaining of one thing can often mean the loss of another; one "solution" can bring ten unique problems of its own. If we want to be involved in improving the lives of our fellow global citizens, we have to do more on the ground than open up a pocketbook. Real development requires that we move ourselves out of the center of the picture and get to know the community; that we set aside our pre-conceived notions of the "good life"; that we acknowledge there are different forms of poverty; that we ask the community not just to identify needs and possible solutions, but to identify and celebrate their actual strengths.
All of this is not easy. I'm not going to pretend it is. I'm not going to pretend that I am capable of doing it always. But it's necessary if the goal is to achieve something in the long term for the people we're serving, rather than just achieving something short term for ourselves.
So I encourage you. If you come here, take a second look at that little kid. Don't just slip him a dollar and your sympathies. Realize that his quality of life is not written on his face, but in the smile of his mother, the warmth of the tortillas she gives him, the blisters on his toes, the cough that won't go away because there's no medicine in the health center, the laugh of his little brother when they play soccer, the weight of the hoe as he helps his father plant potatoes. Things that you had better know before you pity him, or before you think you’re capable of making his life better.