Who do you have most sympathy for: someone who you think (by your standards) should be feeling sorry for themselves, or someone who just does feel sorry for themselves, whether you think they should or not?
This is a question that occurred to me during the VSO Leavers’ Forum which I attended this week. Yes folks – it’s almost time to leave Nigeria.
It was during one of the sessions about ‘reverse culture shock’ and the process of moving ‘home’ that this thought popped into my mind. VSOs are encouraged to embark on a process of Global Education, that is, to raise awareness about development issues. To be prepared to deal with and discuss different attitudes constructively.
Leavers’ Forum: eleven of us will be leaving in the next six months. It’s not easy to contemplate. Leaving our lives here and going back to lives – and hopefully jobs – back home.
I constantly struggle with the whole goal of ‘development’. So many development projects – invariably dictated by the ‘West’ - seem to be trying to achieve a brand of economic advancement that we have seen back at home. Infrastructure, material goods, health care (oops America), TV and the like. These are things that are valued in the west and therefore we feel that people who don’t have these things are somehow to be pitied and every effort made to give them those things.
So you see a mud hut, a half naked child covered in dust or a disintegrating wall and think ‘poor people’.
It would be impossible to think the people living in the house on the left are more in need of our sympathy and help than those in the house on the right...
But I think it’s such a pity that the west has got so tied up in material, physical value that it really has lost the value for the human things in life. How much is it worth that a four year old can walk a kilometre to school alone every morning (and back) without a care in the world? That goats, chickens and other assorted livestock can wander the streets unfettered without their owners fearing they may be taken (a public flogging is quite an effective deterrent for anyone caught stealing a goat as we discovered last week). That, in communities where poverty is extreme, people will regularly give the very small amounts that they have in order to help someone whose need they perceive to be greater than their own. That communities, families and children can amuse themselves perfectly well without books, TV, or Sony Playstations.
So which kids do you think are generally ‘happier’?
All life is valuable. And when you don’t have material things, the human side becomes so much richer. And what really should be more valuable to us humans?
Somehow I feel that by taking a job in the UK in ‘development,’- the agenda of which seems to be driven almost exclusively by the Millennium Development Goals - I’m somehow saying that my way of life is better than those of the communities we’re developing. That I should be feeling sorry for them because they don’t have what I do. And that I should therefore be working to give them what I have instead of placing a greater value on what they have.
Now don’t hit me for this – but let’s consider colonialism. That was (often but not always) bringing better education, healthcare, infrastructure and standard of living to colonies in order to benefit the colonialists. And frankly I think it worked (value for money-wise) a lot better than the billions that are pumped into development initiatives each year, ostensibly just to help less developed countries develop themselves.
Having said that though, ‘development’ is changing. Fantsuam is working on two DFID sponsored projects that use local participation to decide what communities want in terms of improved education and healthcare. Let’s hope the funders really listen and give the communities want they want: not what the funders think they should want or think they should need.
This is where VSO is so incredibly valuable. Its model as an international volunteer recruiting agency is pretty unique. Unlike the Peace Corps or equivalents, VSO volunteers come from all over the world. From India, East Africa, Philippines, North America and Northern Europe. Sure we’re bringing skills to partner NGOs across the world that need those skills but VSO isn’t really telling anyone what to do. It’s not saying my way is better than yours. And whose way would ‘mine’ be anyway? It’s not about sympathy. It’s not really even about ‘development’ in donor context.
As VSO themselves say – it’s about ‘Sharing skills and changing lives’. Sharing everyone’s skills and values and, in the process, changing everyone’s lives. I hope for the better.
Now whether that all means that I’ll be feeling sorry for the international footballer who’s in rehab because he can’t take the pressure of money and fame... I’m not sure. What I can say is deep down inside, I’m sure he’s more troubled than many of my neighbours here in Kagoro. So – who deserves my sympathy more?