Tuesday, January 19, 2016

Other people's problems are so easy to solve!

As I worked through the undergraduate program that I knew would not define my career, I could not understand how we humans could invent airplanes and computers and more but could not get toilets and drinking water to the hundreds of millions in India.  There had to be a better way, I was confident.

I went to graduate school.  I walked about the VKC library.  And then the stacks at Doheny.  I went to classes.  I talked with people from different countries. I read academic journals and magazines that I never knew existed.  Later that summer I went to Venezuela as a part of a student research group.

Within a year of coming to America, I understood that we humans are indeed very good at inventing airplanes and computers and more, but we have not been able to provide toilets and drinking water not only to the hundreds of millions in India but also to the hundreds of millions all over the world.  The problems here on earth were way too complex.

Even as my delusions were getting treated by books and articles and real world experiences, I applied for a prestigious professional opportunity at the Mecca of development thinking--the World Bank.  After surviving successive rounds of elimination, I flew across the country on a cold February week for the interview.  I did not even have to wait for the official notification that came a few days later that I did not make it.  Yet, I was not disappointed but was relieved.  I felt like I had dodged a bullet.  I suffered no more illusions that one man or one agency could do it.  Development had to come from within.

Now, older and wiser, and on the other side from the students, I look at the twenty-year olds who seem so confident that they can change the world for the better.  It must be seductive, intoxicating, to think and believe that they can make it happen in the far corners of the world.

In an essay with an arresting title--"The Reductive Seduction of Other People’s Problems"--the author notes:
There is a whole “industry” set up to nurture these desires and delusions — most notably, the 1.5 million nonprofit organizations registered in the U.S., many of them focused on helping people abroad. In other words, the young American ego doesn’t appear in a vacuum. Its hubris is encouraged through job and internship opportunities, conferences galore, and cultural propaganda — encompassed so fully in the patronizing, dangerously simple phrase “save the world.”
Indeed.  It is an industry out there.

The author notes two important problems with this "reductive seduction":
First, it’s dangerous for the people whose problems you’ve mistakenly diagnosed as easily solvable. There is real fallout when well-intentioned people attempt to solve problems without acknowledging the underlying complexity.
Second, the reductive seduction of other people’s problems is dangerous for the people whose problems you’ve avoided. While thousands of the country’s best and brightest flock to far-flung places to ease unfamiliar suffering and tackle foreign dysfunction, we’ve got plenty of domestic need.
An investment banker quitting a Wall Street job in order to "solve" a problem in Kenya, conveniently overlooks the problems right in Manhattan where, perhaps, the problem can really be "solved."

The author ends the essay with this suggestion:
Resist the reductive seduction of other people’s problems and, instead, fall in love with the longer-term prospect of staying home and facing systemic complexity head on. Or go if you must, but stay long enough, listen hard enough so that “other people” become real people. But, be warned, they may not seem so easy to “save.”
The complexity is far more than what NASA had to deal with in sending men to the moon and bringing them back.  Which is why toilets and drinking water continue to be a problem for hundreds of millions in India and elsewhere, even thirty years after I graduated from the engineering college.

The only good thing is that I no longer suffer from delusions.


Ramesh said...

Not sure where you are going with this post. If you are saying that do gooder NGOs operating around the world are deluded, then I must strongly protest. As in all cases, there are good organisations and there are not so good organisations. People like MSF, which you admire, Red Cross, your own Peace Corps, Bill Gates Foundation, etc do amazing work and are sainted. They do indeed "save the world" at least for the people they touch. Take the Carter centre 's work on Guinea Worm eradication. I would absolutely argue that they have "changed the world". As for Courteny Martin's article, I found it deplorable and shall assuredly send "reductive seduction" to the dust bin. Its easy to quote examples of failed projects. If he had academic rigour, he would have also quoted successful projects and explained his airy fairy concept with that evidence.

If your post was going in the direction of saying American do gooders must first do good in Manhattan rather than in Kampala, then I would still protest, but gently. Sure there are the deserving in Manhattan. But I thought according to the genius of "reductive seduction" those with the problem should "develop themselves" !

Sriram Khé said...

Most NGOs are deluded because they think and act as if they, from some part of the US, have all the solutions for some remote part of the world elsewhere. On the other hand, when it is about a local issue, the same NGO folks immediately sense that the local issue is complicated. If the local issues can be complicated, what makes them think that issues in Tanzania are simple and waiting for the 22-year old to solve it?
Universities actively encourage such screwed up thinking via the courses and, especially, the "study abroad" they offer. In reality, these are mere money making ventures for universities :(
As if the U.s are not enough, there are plenty of NGOs that offer "internships" and work experience for next to no pay (or college credit) at everything from Ethiopian orphanages to animal refuges. It is all screwed up. This is what the essay was all about.

As for the examples you list, MSF, for instance, actively uses local expertise and the foreigners who go in are not naive 22-year olds but highly skilled professionals who go in not only to help solve the problem but also to train the locals so that they can do it on their own. The Carter Center also adopts such an approach. The Red Cross/Crescent is also the same way--local expertise. My point is that all NGOs are not created equal. You should also become highly suspicious of unqualified youth who want to travel in order to save the world ;)

The Peace Corps was never set up as a problem-solving expert scheme.
To help the people of interested countries in meeting their need for trained men and women
To help promote a better understanding of Americans on the part of the peoples served
To help promote a better understanding of other peoples on the part of Americans"

The Peace Corps volunteers were, for all purposes, America's ambassadors to small towns and villages to tell them that America comes with peace. The volunteers are paid pittance. A remarkably noble idea, though done with some serious geopolitical calculations during the heights of the Cold War. (Peace is why anybody with any remote CIA experience, for instance, is permanently ineligible for Peace Corps.) And, it was also for the volunteers to understand the world and the life with a perspective of "shared humanity." Peace Corps was/is never about saving the world. Unfortunately, I now run into youth who think that the Peace Corps will be a great resume booster, especially in the NGO world! :(

Anne in Salem said...

I believe much of the motivation of the 22 year olds who want to save the world is rooted in the naiveté and idealism most youth have. They haven't been as exposed to as much of the real world to be crushed into cynicism yet. They haven't been passed over for a promotion or seen the sycophant get all the praise despite doing none of the work.

How much of this saving the world is internally motivated? It is exotic to take a mission trip to Ecuador or to build houses in Mexico or wells in Africa. Those trips are far more exciting and interesting - and possibly fun - than working with homeless around the corner. There is also the image-buffing that comes from such work, the assumption that the young person is such a "good person" for doing such work, travelling so far, taking risks, etc. And finally, the all-important resume builder. I imagine there are plenty of folks on these trips who are more interested in a stronger resume than in a stronger world.

On the flip side, two of my nephews have taken such trips. Neither was even 20 yet. Both knew they weren't solving the world's problems or even the problems of the villages they visited. They knew their assistance was a band aid, not a cure, but they recognized the need for the band aid. They wanted to make someone's life better, and they accomplished that.

May we hold the media responsible at all? How many stories were written about the flooding in Nov/Dec in SE India versus how many stories about homeless or hungry people in the US?

Sriram Khé said...

In the course on global issues that I teach once a year, I always tell students that attempting to understand the rest of the world is a wonderful way to find out more about who we are and what we want our own country to be. Along the same lines, I like to travel abroad not because I want some photos at some landmark but because I want to understand how I fit into this idea of "human." If people want to go somewhere and help with the band-aid projects because it helps them understand the big picture, great; otherwise, methinks they are fooling themselves.

I never fault the media--they and the politicians always reflect our own values and preferences and we get what we deserve. The fault always lies only with us and our laziness.

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