Tuesday, March 22, 2011

The left and the right hand (U.N. Pt. 2)

The problem isn't that I know what's best, it's that you do to and so does everyone else. If only we weren't all wrong...

It used to be missionaries, and foreign aid workers (the secular goody-goodies don't get let off the hook either), would role into town see how jacked up everything was (a.k.a. non-western) and start "fixing"things. Schools and hospitals got built, infrastructure was improved, the heathens were converted and taught how to dress properly (seriously hate whoever thought this was a good idea... the clothing part), and the locals were exposed to an amazing new world. Good, right? Mostly, but not without a cost.

Unrealized, or ignored, was the reality that most of the programs were transplanted western solutions for western problems. The local culture, the one the liberals were so distraught about the west destroying, remained alive and well. The clothing and language may have changed, as happens with all cultures, but the mindsets, values, and concepts of logic remained mostly untouched. Pastors and politicians became the new chiefs, witchdoctors did business right along side the hospitals and churches, and the same food was grown and eaten as always (often a great tragedy to my mouth, and the overall health of many communities. At least in east Africa). Mosquito nets were used as fishing nets, Catholic educated and converted children went back to subsistence farming and traditional religions when they graduated, religious tracts were used for toilet paper, and new schemes were born to scam the foreigners, often to the deprivation of those they came to help.

The enlightened solution? Let the locals tell the foreigners how to help them, after all, they're the ones who know their lives the best and will have to live with the consequences. This would be a great solution if it wasn't for the slight problem that the way they've been doing things doesn't work so well either. There is a reason the Third World is the Third World. I'll give you a hint, it isn't because capitalism hosed them or because colonialism stole from them (though these things may have happened).

Knowing how things work in the U.S. is not the same as knowing how to fix things in Mexico or Uganda - it's a good place to start though. I'm with an American organization that's been involved with a Ugandan ministry for the last seven years or so. Over those years both organizations have learned they are right about issues and arguments about as often as they are wrong. Through the often difficult relationship both organizations have improved and learned better how to serve and minister to the community. Neither side was qualified to fix everything that was broken, but together they have made a decent effort in the small community.

It's freaking difficult to tie your laces with one hand, you kinda need two to make a go of it. Effective missions, short or long term, depend on relationship much more than "right"answers.

Some simple truths #2: Unless you live somewhere, you don't know what it's like to live there. Books, past experiences, and theory my help you get your bearing and a starting point, but they won't fix anything or tell you about your new neighbor. Likewise, just because you have always crapped in the front yard, given kickbacks to the "big men", and circumcise your daughters doesn't mean that's the way things should be.

If you role into someones home, tell them what's wrong with it, and how you are going to fix it, you have earned "Mass Douche-bag" status. Even if you are right, you are still a D-bag. Please don't set the tone for the rest of us or paint the picture of a frat boy Jesus cruising through town dixie cupping it with a popped collar pink polo. I'm still trying to convince people you don't need to wear a three piece suit to be a christian and it's best to keep the mosquitoes outside, I'd rather not deal with your wreckage.


  1. Where would I be without my weekly dose of Emmet? It really does seem that the more exposure you have to the rest of the world, the more convinced you are of your own superiority. Odd that. For most people it usually has the opposite effect.

    "The local culture, the one the liberals were so distraught about the west destroying"

    Its only those evil "liberals" and "secular people" that give a shit about indigenous cultures?

    "There is a reason the Third World is the Third World. I'll give you a hint, it isn't because capitalism hosed them or because colonialism stole from them (though these things may have happened). "

    What is this single reason? Please explain.

  2. My pleasure Rowan, always happy to serve.

    To clarify the "liberals and culture" statement: I've met a handful of self proclaimed liberals who adamantly appose getting involved in foreign, specifically third world or "developing", cultures because it would be bad to take away their heritage and make them all Americans. This argument has been used on me to justify turning our backs on child abuse, slavery, small scale ethnic cleansing, institutionalized rape, female circumcision, disease, and starvation. My point was that culture and identity, from what I've seen, runs considerably deeper than these surface issues and all cultures are constantly in flux, so it's not like there weren't going to be a few changes anyway. Perhaps it was unfair to attach "liberal" to the argument, I just haven't heard anyone else use it. I also wouldn't characterize liberals as "evil", a bunch of my friends are certainly the one and not the other... shoot, they can even be right about stuff sometimes.

    As to the "third world" statement, I shouldn't have given the impression there was only one reason. Africa would still be screwed, by our standards, if the colonialists hadn't come through and done what they did the way they did it and if the IMF, and what have you, weren't so predatory in their practices. This doesn't justify past behavior, just compartmentalizes it in a lesser category of guilt. I would place culturally ingrained corruption, tribalism, nepotism, shortsighted investment and governance, and, until recently, a low value placed on education in higher categories of guilt. Disease and war are major players, but, at this point, their impact is largely the offspring of the previously stated issues.

    And, I did start of by stating that I was wrong.

  3. So perhaps we can agree that there are a multitude of reasons why the developing world is so. We'll never know what Africa without colonialism would have been like, but we assume that hundreds of years of the international slave trade and brutal dictatorship by foreign powers has left its mark.

    One thing we can observe is that when Western values and culture are forced on a people, societies often disintegrate. Examples such as Native Americans, Australian Aborigines, South African blacks come to mind.

    I think we don't properly distinguish what is truly cultural from what is just poverty. Is corruption in Uganda truly cultural or is it a consequence of poverty and bad leadership? Right now in Rwanda the government has a campaign to replace grass roofed houses with metal sheets. We might look at a grass roof as cultural - they see it just poverty.

    For me the more valuable question is why the developing world remains poor despite the billions of dollars of aid. Why is a country like Haiti, with more NGOs per capita than any place on earth, the poorest country in the northern hemisphere. Is aid sometimes not just ineffective, but actually damaging to a country's development?

  4. For the little that I know about Haiti I would say corruption and culture, without getting into spiritual reasons. it is also proof that good intentions and cash can't fix poverty.

    There are villagers in the western part of Uganda that go back to their old leaky grass thatched houses when it rains because they don't like the sound of rain on their new metal roofs, so says a local friend of mine.

    Another local friend from Zambia said Zambia was better off under colonial rule. People could find jobs and take care of their families, if they were willing to work, and corruption was minimized. When the colonial powers folded shop the locals took over and over a period of time tribal culture and corruption decimated the economy and eroded the infrastructure. Uganda seems to have suffered a similar fate and it looks like the same thing happened in Kenya, Somalia, and Zimbabwe, though I've had less contact with those countries. I don't think colonials should have stayed in power or that they were right to take over, but it looks like poverty and the collapse of infrastructure came as the result of corruption rather than being the cause of it.

    South Africa is a grotesquely and beautifully different situation to anywhere else I can think of. And yes the ethnic cleansing of Aborigines and the decimation of First Nations people in America were equally shameful and tragic. Different circumstances to Africa though.

  5. You really need to do some reading on Haiti instead of making Pat Robinson style insinuations that Haiti is under some spiritual curse. It was racism when the former slave owners starting saying that, and it's racism today when people peddle it as a way of deflecting from our own responsibilities for Haiti's woes. In case you aren't aware - the US boycotted Haitian goods to punish the former slaves, occupied Haiti colonial style from 1915-1938, helped train the Macoutes death squads, propped up dictator Papa Doc, flooded Haiti with subsidised US agricultural produce, and twice supported coups against the democratically elected Aristide.

    Regarding African colonisation. You seem to be suggesting that Africans are just inherently corrupt and might be better off if they were still under white-rule. Ever considered that being ruled by a foreign power that asserts itself as morally and culturally superior, but just takes whatever it wants… might make people more inclined to a bit of corruption?