Sunday, January 30, 2011

An Experiential View of International Development...

The field of international development is one of the most interesting manifestations of modern capitalist society. It is a field that thrives on the destitution of parts of the world, yet pays the salaries of generally open-minded, kind-hearted people who only want to eliminate such problems. Indeed, the field of international development uniquely has the main objective of making itself obsolete. It is an extremely complex field that inter-connects and overlaps with almost every other field in some way or another. This is what makes international development so hard to define. How do we define a word – development – that means so many different things to so many different people?

A Canadian mining company displaces an indigenous community in the Amazon, pollutes their only source of water with toxic chemicals causing generations of cancer and severe environmental damage, and creates relatively prosperous jobs for a quarter of the population. This is international development.
An organization from Switzerland sends a group of doctors to a community in Malawi where they use donated funds to rebuild, re-equip, and re-train doctors in new medical techniques that end up saving the lives of thousands of people. This is also international development.

How does someone working in the field of international development come to terms with the fact that they are part of a system that has the potential to do so much damage?
Such questions pervade the field and undoubtedly creep into the mind of any conscientious international development professional. If there is anything that I have learned over the last six months in working in Ecuador in the field of development, it is how I come to terms with such questions.

I applied for this position with a great sense of uncertainty – a feeling that followed me for several months right into Ecuador and into the communities where I found myself working. I was to be working in the area of sustainable tourism, which sounds pleasant to the average vacationer, yet remains a term mired in controversy in the field of development. I had lived in Central America for almost two years, and I had witnessed the socio-cultural and environmental damage that tourism can bring. I had worked in human rights in Honduras while it was under a coup-regime, where foreign-led tourism was given priority over the rights of the local people. It was clear to me that tourism had the potential to be a serious threat, and I feared that my position was going to fall on the wrong side of what I considered the opposing ends of international development. Despite such doubts I took the job, if only because I could not overcome one obvious contradiction that hung over my head: I am a tourist and traveling is my passion. There had to be a better way of practicing tourism, and I wanted to be a part of that.

After six months I can say that I believe that a specific form of sustainable tourism can act as a positive means of development, but my goal here is not to argue the merits of tourism. What is clear is that no matter what ones role in international development involves, there will always be a negative side. To argue that there is one perfect means of development that leaves nothing and no one behind is like arguing that there is one perfect political system where everyone will be happy. It is an ideal and nothing more, someone or something will always be left behind, and all that we can do is continue to work towards closing that gap between realism and idealism. While it is important for those working in international development to always consider such wider, philosophical questions, they must also consider the more subtle, simpler results of their work.

My position here involved living and working in a small community that had received very little support from the international community, let alone from their own government. I may very well be a foreigner, and some critics of international development will say that I have no business being in this country, invading this community. But the genuine sense of appreciation that the community members showed towards my presence was enough to convince me that my presence was positive, and that I was certainly wanted there. They demonstrated their appreciation not only by treating me with the utmost respect and professionalism, but also simply by working hard to organize and to prove that they desire and deserve such attention. So often in poor nations around the world, small communities or marginalized sections of society are completely forgotten and are left to fend for themselves. That foreigners come from across the world to pay attention to these groups often instills in them a new-found sense of pride, self-awareness, and self-respect. Whether the projects and initiatives that I undertook with the community will eventually be successful is a different question all together. What was important and what kept me going, was the fact that I knew that the community wanted me there, and that my simple presence was making a difference in their everyday lives.

This is how I come to terms with the fact that I work in international development. I consider the larger questions surrounding development only after considering the everyday impact of my work and the more subtle results of my presence. Perhaps there is merit to the argument that foreign presence does not contribute to positive development, and that the motives and objectives of development work are often twisted. But in many cases the alternatives are non-existent, and international development is a clear necessity. Ultimately, when someone working in development gets a firm hand shake, a bright smile, and a sincere thank-you from a community member that they worked with, it is that simple gesture that makes it worthwhile.

Friday, January 7, 2011

On Holidays...

As it turned out I spent Christmas eve with a welcoming local family in Cuenca, then the next morning got on a bus to Guayaquil to have Christmas dinner with the other Canadian interns here in Ecuador.  Who would have thought that the tastiest turkey I’ve ever had on Christmas would be in Guayaquil, Ecuador?

I travelled to the coast the next day, hoping to find waves and adventure without thinking about my work for a few days.  Within the span of three days I had gone from the cool city of Cuenca deep within the Andes mountains, to the dry coastal plains of Guayaquil, onto the lush tropical coast - this is Ecuador.  I checked into a tent camp in a little town called Ayampe.  I believe that this beach is the closest thing to paradise that I have yet to find.  It is situated within a portion of the coast where dense, lush tropical rainforest flourishes.  There are a few locally run restaurants and a series of hostels.  The beach is pristine and spotless, mostly covered in small rocks; it seems to keep the sunbathing crowds away.  The waves are absolutely perfect, and it is known as one of the most consistent beach breaks in the country.  While perfect, the waves are also incredibly powerful, and I sit here writing this now keeping my ear dry after receiving a wave to the side of my head and damaging my eardrum.

Before that little accident I had the opportunity to go scuba diving around Isla de la Plata, an island commonly known as the Poor Man’s Galapagos.  Fluttering 12 meters below the ocean beside a giant sea turtle as it looks at you from just a meter away rather disinterestedly is an incredible experience.  I was hoping to see a shark while diving but they are becoming more rare everyday, a fact only made clearer when I saw one the same day on the beach – dead, a by-catch of the local fishermen.

I headed to Montanita the day before New Years Eve, the same day that I damaged my ear.  By that point I wasn’t sure what I had done to myself and as the pain continued I went to the closest hospital to get checked out.  Now here is a word of advice, if you really don’t believe that what a doctor is telling you, seek another opinion.  Doctors are well trained, even in poor nations like Ecuador, but like everyone they are susceptible to human error.  In the emergency room of the hospital they were very kind, even giving me an injection for the pain, but they also told me that there was nothing wrong and that I just had water in my ear.  And so for the next few days I continued surfing without a worry in the world.  It wasn’t until a week later back in Guayaquil, when I went for a second opinion, that I was told that I had a large hole in my eardrum. 

Fortunately during the few days around New Years the pain had subsided and I was still under the impression that there was nothing wrong with me.  The New Years party in Montanita is not just on the 31st, but rather continues for three days.  Throughout the entire day and night for three days the beach was packed with hundreds of people.  The 31st consisted of endless fireworks and the burning of large paper mache figures referred to as Año Viejos.  Celebrating the new year in an international setting with people from around the world is always fun, but admittedly in Montanita, it was a little much.  By six am as the sun began to rise, seeing the passed out bodies strewn across the beach and watching the tide wash away the piles of garbage, I felt guilty and unimpressed.

I’m back in Playas now, buckling down for my final six weeks of work here in Ecuador.  It is an exciting time for both me and the people that I work with, as initiatives are beginning to come to fruition after a long period of uncertainty.  It seems as though I’ll be out of the water for a few weeks which definitely makes things hard, but I’m comforted by the fact that my accident could have been much worse, and that I’ll have a good few weeks of surf in the prime swell season before I leave for Canada.