Arrogant International Development

When does helping go awry?

Aid workers travel to Africa to provide convenient water technology. They want to save people hours and hours of gathering water from wells outside of town. They set up dew-traps, huge and metallic and effective. The traps warm up during the day and cool at night, drawing water from the air via condensation. The traps produce water ... for a few weeks.

When the aid workers return a few weeks later, the traps are gone. Sold for scrap.

More traps get built. Lectures get given: "Don't sell these, please." And, guess what? The traps are gone. Sold for scrap.

This pattern drove one of my friends a little bit crazy. She worked in the Peace Corps and really wanted to help. She just couldn't understand why the people would sell these traps for scrap. Were they greedy? Were they ignorant? Were they short-sighted?

For weeks, she wrestled with this problem. What was going wrong? She started asking questions and listening to the scrap-sellers. And she discovered the problem.

Arrogance.

But the arrogance wasn't where she expected it.

The scrap-sellers were selling the traps to get money for things they considered more important than clean water: anti-retroviral drugs for AIDS patients and mosquito netting to prevent the spread of malaria.

It turns out that no one asked the locals what kind of help they needed. This kind of arrogance cuts the knees off of international development. We want to do good in the world, but fail because we're scratching where people aren't itching.

How can we avoid arrogant international development?

I think the answer lies in relationships.

When my friend in the Peace Corps started asking questions and listening to the scrap-sellers, she started to see what they really needed. Her relationships with the people in the villages shaped the way she served them. But she had to give up some of her agendas and some of her pet causes.

Relationships create healthy space for powerful development work. But many of us don't make time for relationships with the people we are helping. We want to help them, but we don't want to cross the distance to be with them.

How can we develop deeper relationships with the people we want to help?

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