Bono with a baby. Beyonce with a baby. Beyonce looks far more natural than Bono, who appears a bit tenuous in his baby-holding, as if the little bugger isn’t wearing a diaper and Bono realizes that with every moment he continues to hold the baby, the game of Russian Roulette: Poop Edition grows more serious. This photo, despite this, is clearly an important moment. Two superstars. Holding babies. In Africa. How rapturous.
The photo is juxtaposed against the title of an excellent article, “Stop Trying to Save the World,” published in The New Republic. You can read Michael Hobbes’ article here, or enjoy my few sentence summary. International development, he opines, has a myriad of issues (a very lengthy topic for which I would recommend Rieff’s A Bed for the Night, Barnett’s Humanitarianism in Question, Easterly’s White Man’s Burden, or anything critical of big-aid-lover Jeffery Sachs – but please don’t just read one Huff Po article and think you “got it”) whether they are governmental aid giving or nonprofits, especially when one solution is applied ad hoc across the development world. I don’t agree with everything Hobbes writes, especially after I’ve spent a few months in the “field” (sometimes literally, a field, with goats), but he makes a good point about “randomistas” – those who come up with the next big thing, the thing that is going to change development and rattle the game. His purpose isn’t to denigrate those who have done compassionate, humbling work that has improved the lives of many, but, in his poetic words, “to shit on the paradigm of the Big Idea.” He hits the audience with the most important, salient point part way through of the article: “Development projects thrive or tank according to the specific dynamics of the place in which they’re applied.” Solutions to problems are rarely “big ideas” but day-to-day, boring, and localized. The take home point? Let the environment guide the project. Invest in the simple. To this I would add my two cents: trains others to innovate.
Though I don’t officially work in development (no white SUV and accompanying driver has showed up at my gate, but my fingers are still crossed), my population of university students are unique: nontraditional weekend students, all but one of whom are already primary and secondary school teachers in positions where they are required to have a teaching diploma, not a bachelor’s degree, for their work. And the teachers are my university work in rural areas, many braving several hours of travel to Musanze for their university studies. Teaching this group is never an easy task, but through working with them, I am subtly broadening my influence as an instructor: I teach them, and they teach the next generation of Rwandans, students in crowded classrooms with a dearth of materials. I try to keep my course activities rooted in methods that can be replicated with lower-level learners, even when classes like Psycholinguistics and Chomskian Theory Dream Land test my ability to remain student-centered.
In my non-development position, I have come to the same conclusion as Hobbes: we love big ideas, the ones that innovate and excite. Merry-go-round water pumps. Canvas shoes on little feet. Often, here, the problem isn’t generosity: but sometimes, the type of generosity needed is the generosity to invest in people within the nation, to train others, to find out what communities need and work with them to meet those needs, passing on the responsibility.
Spend a few weeks in a developing nation, and you will see this. The leftovers of charity, often given in good will and with bright hopes for the future. My university is an example: they received an entire language lab through donation, with fourteen reasonably up-to-date Dell computers and monitors. But the lab sits, unused. The university is unable to afford internet for the computers, and they have no one to staff the lab to make sure the machinery doesn’t walk away on its own. It makes for a gorgeous photo opportunity to donate such a motherload of motherboards (I’m sorry, couldn’t help it), but without working with the institution, securing ongoing donation for internet bills, and envisioning a staff schedule that would be realistic? Not as sexy. It’s not as easy to find donors for day-to-day operations. Where would the name go, after all? You can’t slap an NGO sticker on an internet connection.
A week ago, I finished a series of training workshops held in three locations. In the final workshop, the Fulbright English Teaching Assistant and I broke down the material to its most basic level. An activity, such as drawing a nine-patch grid on a paper to be used for pre-reading or warm-up exercises. With that simple graphic, you could watch the teachers’ brains whirl with the possibilities for adapting it to other subjects and grade levels. A basic tool, their understanding of context, and a heap of their own innovation: boom. It’s very simple, to train a group of teachers in communicative techniques. But it’s effective.
So, with all this, my point. Invest in people. Sure, donate the water pump. But make sure you sit down with community members, train a few mechanics in how to repair it, and check in with the area in a few years. Kids with laptops? That would be amazing. But make sure first you train the teachers in the basics of internet use. Train teachers in basic techniques for material creation and you no longer need a library of books: you only need a weblink and an innovative brain.
Training people, who can in turn train other people? That’s sustainability, isn’t it? And damn, that’s sexy.