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.