"Africa is, indeed, coming into fashion." - Horace Walpole (1774)


what's missing

I’m headed home from a couple of days at UN Week in New York, where I was fortunate to get to attend several events relating to a review of the Millennium Development Goals. I’ll have a lot more to say about that debate, TEDxChange with the Gates Foundation, the Mashable/92Y Social Good Summit, and the Clinton Global Initiative in the days to come. The summits and meetings are covering a huge range of topics, some of which are being honestly debated and discussed and others of which have been reduced to a series of feel-good talking points backed by questionable statistics and assertions.

This week’s events brought home one very clear fact for me: Western thinking about development is elite-driven. Almost entirely. It’s partly understandable; the primary goal of the Clinton Global Initiative, for example, is getting the rich and powerful to make commitments to save the world in various fashions. While this work is targeted at the poor, their voices are absent in the conversation. While there is a lot of discussion of the need to capture human capital in developing countries, we didn’t hear from anyone who had actually lived the experience of escaping poverty. We didn’t learn how families survive on $1 a day from people who have no choice but to make it work.

There’s something very discomfiting about sitting in a hotel ballroom full of rich people talking about the best ways to help the world’s poorest people when almost none of the latter are present.

Don’t get me wrong: I enjoy hobnobbing with influential people as much as anybody. I love getting to hear people like Liberian President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf and Grameen Bank founder Muhammad Yunus speak and am still astonished that I got to go. But just as there are limits to what I can tell you about life in central Africa, there are limits to what elites from developing countries can describe about their countries as well. Rich and poor, privileged and not – the contrasts are rarely clearer than at events like these, where the presence of the poor is limited to pictures in slide shows while wealthy people hobnob over cocktails and abundant buffets.

Am I the only one who would rather hear about what life as a poor woman in Ethiopia is like from an actual poor Ethiopian woman? Wouldn’t she give listeners more insight and perspective than yet another celebrity who’s been “touched by Africa” (and it’s always “Africa,” never the specific country) on a two-week trip organized by an NGO and a PR firm? Couldn’t leaders of small-scale civil society organizations in Pakistan tell us more about their struggles to provide services, promote democracy, or build peace than the experts who supposedly know them well? Doesn’t a woman who’s managed to find foster families for hundreds of orphans in her Congolese community know more about accomplishing tasks on a shoestring budget than most of us ever will?

The world’s poorest people aren’t often welcome in these forums. Not really. It’s too bad, because ignoring the expertise of the poor – or only considering it when translated by the famous for the masses – hasn’t served them or us very well thus far. I don’t know what keeps them out of the discussion – culture, language, visa restrictions, or just being overlooked. What I do know is that talking about development while excluding from the conversation those who need it most is a mistake. We need the voices of those we want to help.



Blogger MissBwalya said...

The points you raise are often why I look at these summits with a jaundiced eye. There is no denying that many of speakers are very knowledgeable about the work they do, and offer good ideas for what more can be done; but too continually leave out the very people you’re helping is folly. I’ll start with our own African leaders who are all too eager to get their diplomatic passports stamped at JFK so they can brush shoulders with Hillary Clinton and Bill Clinton over canapés. How many of them have actually gone into the most desolate areas of their respective countries and asked the people what their most immediate needs are? Is it better road network so they can deliver their products to market in a timely fashion or is it a well equipped clinic within a short walking distance? How can they claim to represent the real interests of the people at these events without their input?

Frankly, I think we’re better off organising smaller events in specific regions that actually engage the people working in the field and the people to whom they deliver services. If you want to talk about decreasing infant and/or maternal mortality in southern Africa, hold a conference in Gaborone, Botswana (as an example) invite health workers (doctors, nurses, midwives), women who have delivered children, public health officials, and those with interests in that area and who are likely to provide funding for initiatives such as the Gates Foundation.

I know at the recent AU summit, the member nations talked about making maternal health a priority for 2010 but what solutions did a room full of old men come up with to make this a reality? An example of why we need targeted outreach and discussions with the ‘real people’.

Wednesday, September 22, 2010 10:20:00 AM

Blogger Paul C said...

Western thinking about development is elite-driven.

Naturally I agree, but I find it hard to believe that you've only just realised this. The entire project of development is fundamentally based on this simple truth. While there are attempts to change this - the work of Robert Chambers is admirable - fundamentally it undermines all of our efforts.

Inviting poor people to these meetings won't solve that problem, although it will make the elite feel better about themselves. We need to boycott such conferences and look for alternative ways to address development issues, preferably as locally as possible.

Thanks for posting this - people need to be talking about it more.

Wednesday, September 22, 2010 1:17:00 PM

Blogger Peter van der Windt said...

Great post Laura.

Thursday, September 23, 2010 4:06:00 AM

Anonymous Julie said...

My eyes are rolling. It seems that nearly every time I end up at some conference or workshop or over breakfast in some luxury hotel in some very poor country (all of which are infrequent by personal choice), I hear this refrain. It seems that by complaining about it, we're trying to absolve ourselves of the guilt of doing, oops, yet again.

I cringe at the thought of bringing some of my close friends and colleagues from rural Africa to be on display at CGI. I have seen this bring-the-beneficiary thing done and done poorly before. It’s never a genuine opportunity to change the tone of the conversation or to shift thinking. These things are self-congratulatory and when a participant comes, it seems they’re coached to just look grateful. Blah!

I will say that Partners in Health has done an excellent job incorporating patients and their narratives and very nuanced views into its annual TJ White Symposium. But, this forum is for conversation, not aggrandizement. Hearing the voices of the world’s marginalized neither starts or ends with conference talk-shops. It requires, afterall, more listening than talking.

Friday, September 24, 2010 11:29:00 AM

OpenID ericswanderings said...

I think Paul and Julie's comments speak to something that I see as troubling: the 'ordinary' aid worker/academic/activist doesn't see themselves as part of this elite.

It's easy to see the excess in a week like this last one where ballrooms are filled, town cars commandeered, etc... But what about the rest of the aid structure? Like Peter said, this can't be the first realization of the elitism/Whiteness/wealth of the aid industry (and I'm not saying it is so for you).

Much like the post on Tales From the Hood states - aid work is for the privileged; even in the so called 'Third World'. In the school I worked at in Ethiopia, each of the teachers was hoping to springboard to the development industry because that was where the $ was.

Here in North America we are even more privileged and working in places like Africa often only grants us more 'cultural capital' which most of us are more than happy to exploit/leverage. It's not a matter of hearing from an Ethiopian lady in a ballroom filled with black dresses and tuxes - the issue is the ballroom. It's the whole structure of aid/development that needs to be questioned.

Monday, September 27, 2010 2:29:00 PM

Blogger Phi-Unit said...

This comment has been removed by the author.

Tuesday, September 28, 2010 7:23:00 PM

Blogger Robert Hudson Ashodian Moore said...

Last year when I was on "call people and remind them to finish and send in their application" duty for Starting Bloc I was in India so I volunteered to call all the Indian applicants.

One of the guys complained to me that it was too expensive for him to fly to New York and that Starting Bloc should sponsor his way there.

While we haven't been able to do that I think we've done something better: we started a StartingBloc chapter in Bangalore a couple months ago and TEDx has also happened here a few times.

Hopefully these are steps in the right direction!

Thursday, September 30, 2010 10:12:00 AM

Anonymous Jennifer Lentfer said...

A very important post indeed. We have to ask—what is the cost to all of us when so many of the best minds and perspectives from the developing world are left out of navigating the paradox of global poverty?

Quoted from this post on my comments here:

Thursday, October 07, 2010 10:27:00 AM


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