The Role of Extranjeros in Development

The previous post concerning the definition of development laid out three principles I think should guide our definitions of development:

1. People should be able to control their own lives and future.
2. People’s cultural and religious values must be respected.
3. People should have access to the basic necessities (adequate food, shelter, health care, clean water and proper sanitation)

I made some important qualifications regarding these principles that should be kept in mind. Nevertheless, these principles for development raise questions about the role of foreigners in international development. If definitions of development should be made by local people and communities, then why should foreigners be involved at all? Doesn’t the involvement of foreigners seem to undermine the idea of self-determination and empowerment? What role can a foreigner play? How does cross-cultural work hinder or benefit the work of development?

Once during a class in seminary we were having a similar discussion and in two different classes I seemed to take contradictory positions. In one class I lambasted foreign involvement and intervention as the meddling of a privileged few who weren’t even aware of the damage they caused wherever they went. In the next class I claimed that it was our obligation as persons of privilege to be involved in international development as advocates for the poor, a voice for the voiceless. A fellow classmate called me on it and I just laughed and made some comment about how I often disagree with myself. I believe that I was right in both classes. It is both possible and necessary to simultaneously critique and support the role of foreigners in international development.

We have already explored some of the critique of foreign involvement. The question before us is whether or not foreigners can or should be involved in international development work. Since I am a foreigner involved in international development, you can probably guess my answer. However, the case must still be made that this is true. I would propose answering this question by exploring the relationship of the foreigner to the people and culture, the need for cross-cultural exchange in a globalized world and finally the impact of this on the concept of Christian mission.

Power to the People
There have been a couple of incidents during my short time in Bolivia that have challenged my thinking about how I relate to this culture, poverty and development. One was a decision that the MCC Bolivia team made to have air conditioning installed in the MCC offices. The Bolivians on the team felt it was a good idea and the funds were available, while some of the North Americans thought this was unnecessary and went against MCC’s principle of living simply and at the level of the people with whom they worked. In the end the decision was made to have the air conditioning installed. The Bolivians felt that it was easy for North Americans who have enjoyed the comfort of air conditioning their entire lives to choose to do without it. However, for those who have not had the same opportunity, it was seen very differently.

It is well-intentioned, but paternalistic, to think that we can simply help people, communities and other countries skip over our mistakes and arrive at the enlightened position in which we now find ourselves. The reality is much more complex. Development is not a simple linear progression in which other countries need to catch up to us by following the same path and eventually arriving where we now find ourselves. It is difficult to let go of the idea that we know better than others how they should live or what could improve their lives. We have good intentions, but you know what kind of roads those often pave. It is a part of North American privilege to choose to abstain from something to which we have easy access.

Sometimes the difficulty is in recognizing when we are exercising this privilege. It can come in very subtle ways and there should be significant training for workers to recognize this dynamic at play in their cross-cultural work. There are prejudices, assumptions and biases that come attached to simply being a North American. You may not realize that others are deferring to you or unwilling to say no to any of your requests simply because of the status of your country of origin in international affairs. It takes an extra effort to be more aware of these dynamics in the relationships involved in development work.

As long as the power to define development and make decisions remains in the hands of those outside the people who are ultimately affected, an asymmetrical power relationship is maintained and perpetuated. We like the abstract ideas of freedom, democracy, empowerment, self-determination and non-violence, but not always the results when these ideas are put into practice by people different than us. When places like Iran, Palestine and others use the tools of democracy to elect people and/or parties that make us uncomfortable we have chosen in the past to jettison the principle of democracy and overthrow democratically elected leaders rather than face the implications of living out the ideals that we espouse.

This is also true on a personal level in working cross-culturally. We like the idea of empowering the people until we think they are making a bad decision. This dynamic brings up an important consideration. Without imposing our cultural values or definitions of development, we should also recognize that “developed” countries have access to information, knowledge and skills that would benefit those in “developing” countries. This is a delicate balance. In order to alleviate suffering or empower people to take control of their own lives, it may require some education or sharing of knowledge and skills that can be used. Paolo Freire’s dialogical method of education outlined in Pedagogy of the Oppressed is invaluable in mitigating the problems of this asymmetrical power relationship.

The thing to make clear is that everyone has something to offer. You may have some knowledge, skills and training to which others don’t have access, but they have cultural, social and local knowledge to which you will never completely have access. It is incumbent on the foreigner to make certain that a Teacher-student relationship in which local knowledge and skills is downplayed and foreign knowledge and skills overplayed is avoided as much as possible. The history of foreign intervention in many parts of the world can make this very difficult. What’s more the development of others that do not recognize this problem creates dynamics that can undermine a healthier approach.

A friend of mine related an example from his experience doing relief work. They were trying to help people rebuild after a natural disaster. They wanted to empower the people by helping organize them to rebuild themselves rather than doing it for them. Unfortunately, there were rumors about another relief agency that was just coming in and rebuilding houses for those that were affected. So, the people in the village were not interested in working with my friend’s organization, since they could simply wait until the relief agency got to their village and did the work for them.

In conclusion I think the relationship of the foreigner to the culture and people in international development work is tenuous and dangerous, but necessary given the world of inequality and disparity we have created. There are other better reasons for foreigners to be involved in cross-cultural development work. One of which is the benefits in a globalized world of cross-cultural work in general which I will explore next.

1 comment on “The Role of Extranjeros in Development

  1. I agree that foreign involvement can have helpful and simultaneously detrimental consequences. Understanding the power dynamics that are going on can be an important first step in unraveling the complexities. Your comments seem to imply a desire for equalizing the power roles in the relationship. However, I’m thinking that asymmetry is a good thing, it just needs to be used in a servant/self-imposing manner.

    In your example of the air conditioning, a North American comes from a place of knowing many more options than the either/or of having or not having air conditioning. They know about insulation, ventilation problems, types of air conditioning, efficiency of different units, and energy costs. They may even know about “green” roofs. By asking questions and providing experience, a North American can introduce a less experienced person to the complexity of the problem without telling them what to do or not do.

    You mentioned that “The Bolivians felt that it was easy for North Americans who have enjoyed the comfort of air conditioning their entire lives to choose to do without it. However, for those who have not had the same opportunity, it was seen very differently.” People who are accustomed to comfort actually find it more difficult to live without than those who have live without all along whether or not those who have lived without realize that challenge. Much of these issues are rooted in feelings of entitlement. The one who has been deprived feels entitled to the convenience because of his deprivation. The one who is accustomed to convenience feels entitled because of that’s all he knows. Neither one is entitled. A person who has experienced the convenience has more power when he declines the convenience for the sake of others than the one who never enjoyed the convenience before. Declining enjoying a convenience for the sake of others in an appropriate usage of asymmetrical power. This is a case where a person is using his power to become a servant and by becoming a servant he stands up for justice.


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