A Call For Respect And Humility
The unsettling coexistence of extravagant material prosperity and abject poverty in our world has caused many well-intentioned people in the more prosperous countries to worry about the condition of the poor. This concern has caused private citizens, corporations and even governments to donate their time, money and resources to the cause of development and poverty alleviation. Despite this deluge of support and the vast crop of NGO’s that it spawned and continues to sustain, the western world has faced considerable difficulty in its attempts to translate these copious resources into concrete improvements in the lives of the world’s poor. To explain these shortcomings, the most insightful critics of western development efforts identify our lack of local knowledge and narrow-minded approach as the root of our repeated failure.
Most of the West’s knowledge about the people of the developing world, and Africans in particular, come from heart-wrenching but superficial newspaper articles and TV news stories about genocide, famine and child soldiering. Even those westerners who wish to understand the issues of poverty and development usually find themselves reading reports from the United Nations or the myriad of NGO’s that make it their work to ‘end poverty’. As with the mainstream media, it is outsiders who almost always author these reports, and they are often written to please the donors who sponsored the project in question. While many western scholars have written lengthy critiques of the development industry and recommendations for its reform, I wanted to see what development efforts look like from the perspective of those they are intended to benefit. I wanted to know if we could gain insights into improving and reforming our development efforts by simply listening to those people whose lives we have sought to change.
With this purpose, I traveled to Sierra Leone, the world’s second poorest country according to the UN development index, and began to ask young students about the effectiveness of foreign development programs. As I had expected, the opinions I heard differed substantially from the hopeful and often self-glorifying accounts given by NGO reports and UN documentaries. These are their stories.