There was book published in 2009 called “When Helping Hurts” which was about how lots of the development work we in the west undertake to reduce poverty actually does more harm than good. Ouch. Its particular focus was work done by Christians. A further ouch.
It was familiar territory for Tearfund because we talk about that kind of thing a lot – in an attempt to work in a very different way. The main destructive habits the book identified were:
a) thinking we know what people need better than they do;
b) only addressing people’s obvious physical poverty rather than the more complex web of which it is factor;
c) doing things for people that they could do for themselves;
d) short-term thinking.
When I was in Sierra Leone last year (read the blog here), our Country Rep told me that millions of dollars had been thrown at the problems in the country in the last decade, and little had changed. It’s a tragedy, for the people of Sierra Leone, but also for the people giving that money. (And then I made a little film about a really exciting process that is helping people change their circumstances…)
Bad development hurts more than just people in Africa. It’s bad for all of us. Let me explain.
Last year Bond & Oxfam did a big piece of work around its communications with the UK public. The Executive Summary of the report says this:
Simply put, people in the UK understand and relate to global poverty no differently now than they did in the 1980s…By many measures [the NGOs] have made amazing strides forward in recent years but the public have largely been left behind.
Maybe that sounds a bit cocky (although I love to think we make “AMAZING strides”), but as part of the process they also did a bunch of research into their own communications, and in fact the communications of many UK NGOs. They found out that the responsibility largely lay with them (us). We are telling the same story about the problem of poverty and how we can fix it, even though we might have come to believe a more nuanced and empowering story ourselves. As a sector we still tell this story: ‘ here is a poor sick child, and here is how much you can give to fix it.’ (forgive my generalisations for now…)
So then there’s a big practical problem of how long are people going to keep believing you when the problems aren’t disappearing despite the cash invested. And there’s an integrity problem in organisations not telling the same story as the one they’re outworking in communities. And these sit alongside the already-identified problems of when organisations just do things badly, despite all their good intentions.
BUT, and here is my point, I think it diminishes the humanity of everyone involved when we buy into shabby stories about how the world changes. For someone living in poverty, wherever they are in the world, it diminishes them when their circumstances and the behaviour of people around them tells them that they are worthless, and powerless, and can only hope for somebody else to give them a handout. But it also diminishes us when we believe that ‘just £10 can change this child’s life forever’, or that the circumstances that keep people in poverty are independent of us – our consumer choices and the trade laws of our own country, for example.
No-one gets to move forward by believing shabby stories.
So let’s all believe a better one, please! (Further posts may expand on that. Do tell me what you’d like to hear about).