I quit my development job and ate some humble pie: this is what I learned
Categories: Life Stories
After years in the development sector, Deborah Doane decided to quit her job and find out what life was really like to live in the global south. She always felt a moral responsability to help people in third world countries, that's why she worked running an organization that enabled the finance programs in developing countries. But she always felt like a fake, because she had never experienced their struggles. This is her Story.
It was in late 2012, in the midst of a long, complicated campaign, that my first sense of restlessness started to set in. I was running an organisation based in the north, focused on global development. We were targeting the northern-led policies that enabled the finance sector to ride roughshod over the developing world, making links with activists from Venezuela to Indonesia, to ensure our aims were relevant.
But still, I felt uneasy. I was increasingly guiltily aware that I had never actually lived for an extended period of time in a developing country. I have deeply-held values about equality and justice with compassion and sympathy for those with fewer opportunities than myself. But at the same time, sympathy for a cause can only take you so far.
I wanted to get off the treadmill to become, for once, just a passive observer, without judgement, to understand more about the lives of people experiencing life in the global south. So I quit my job, packed up my house, and with my family headed for Bangalore, India, where I spent the past two years and seized the opportunity to live an ordinary life in an ordinary city in an extraordinary country.
I worked as a part-time volunteer supporting local campaigners building a domestic fair trade market. I became friends with people across the economic divide. I reached out beyond my middle-class enclave, meeting people in villages, spending time with farmers working to end many of the social and environmental challenges that frame India’s complex landscape. I even used my home baking skills to teach middle-class women in a remote Karnataka village, after being asked by my friends to share my knowledge. As I came to realise: the more you know, the more questions there are, which should serve as a cautionary signal for anyone working in the development space.
The time I spent in Bangalore also deepened my understanding, both of myself and of my profession. There were things I learned that reinforced what I already knew, but there were also some home truths I came face to face with: that even what I perceived as my enlightened approach to development was patronising and sometimes simply wrong.
It reinforced my belief that our definitions of poverty are limited – seeking to raise people’s income doesn’t combat poverty, as prices can rise or the basics of wellbeing, like access to land, can be removed. It confirmed my belief that even 60 years after of so-called development, the poorest of the poor remain neglected, left to fend for themselves and still lack support structures and opportunity.
It also challenged many of my assumptions – in particular my beliefs about what is good for India. Campaigns for universal education, for example, have effectively told older generations that their skills were worthless, as eloquently outlined by a growing movement who equate the Indian school system with factory farms. The consequence of our good intentions is a loss of traditional skills still needed for survival in the 21st century, like seed-saving, with the only careers valued being engineering or IT creating an often anxious and narrowly focused young population.
I also had to confront some of my biases. I come from an approach that is highly critical of markets; that rejects much of what globalisation has brought, especially for the poor. But in blindly accepting that line I had not given enough credence to what globalisation has brought to India – that many people welcome it and private sector involvement – with open arms. People, rich and poor, traditional and modern, genuinely want to engage in the market.
I saw first hand how spice farmers in Kerala created their own brand of successful ethical products, eagerly awaiting the day they’ll be stocked in large supermarkets. I met organic cotton farmers who overcame barriers in the market by selling their cotton to global brands, reaping benefits for themselves and their communities. And I saw a groundswell of social entrepreneurs eschewing traditional forms of charity and setting up businesses offering opportunities for people who once had none. Even before the Indian government clamped down on activist based NGOs – a move highly condemned which arises from insecurity and paranoia – NGOs regardless were widely perceived as neo-colonial and rent-seeking: people are fed up with being told that they know nothing; that they need our help; that Indians are unable to help themselves.
Many, both poor and relatively well off, have also been let down by the state: government schools have failed, hospitals are neglectful, rubbish isn’t collected and water isn’t clean. But it’s not as simple as my previously held view that corporate influence and bribery are what undermines the state’s ability to govern. The complex culture and social systems have contributed to a sometimes failing state, whereas the private sector, in other cases, has brought efficiencies and better service.
There are, of course, caveats to the story: everyone who I met wants to engage in the market on more ethical and fair terms, where power is balanced. The don’t want to be overrun by multinationals, displacing domestic opportunity. They want social and environmental outcomes and for them to be on par with, if not prioritised, over profits, while recognising that sustainability needs to be affordable for the many.
And those who are engaging in the market, are doing so on their terms – not necessarily on terms that would be judged the old-style capitalist version of high return/low cost. These are organisations and businesses that recognise that successful development within markets takes time and investment. Chetna Organic Cotton Farmers association, for example, works through a cooperative model – investing money into long-term capacity development of its members.Sakha cabs, which serves the needs of marginalised women, while successful, has taken a few years just to reach 100’s, not even 1000’s, of beneficiaries.
And lastly, they recognise that successful social businesses also need a strong state. There is a reason why the conditions on fair trade tea estates in south India are better than those in the north-east of the country: they’re supported by progressive welfare programmes and basic standard of living legislation from Kerala and Tamil Nadu. But as I reluctantly came to accept, the market isn’t necessarily “evil” and governments can often be a huge barrier to overcoming impoverishment.
Living normally in a developing country – not as a typical expat worker on a high salary – provided me with far better and more nuanced insight into the aspirations of local people. They treated me equally and in no uncertain terms told me to get off my high horse and listen more. While of course they love their culture, their food, their country, they like some of the westernising influence too. They want to drink at Starbucks – it’s clean and the coffee is good. They want to embrace western baking, just as I want to learn to cook curry. They want a country that’s free of corruption where they don’t have to pay bribes to get things done. They want to engage in the global marketplace, where they often have more trust in global brands than smaller local businesses. And they occasionally see western influence as improving, rather than making things worse.
Nonetheless, they want to engage on their own terms, and it’s this where development experts need to step back and eat some humble pie. Whether we’re on the side of markets, social enterprises, or states; whether we’re setting targets for poverty reduction or income growth – as outsiders, we don’t necessarily know what’s best.