Travel with open eyes and you will become a scholar
– Swahili Proverb
*Dear readers: I must highlight that there are many other factors that play a part of in this topic, such as privilege and the pedestal outsiders can be put on, but such topics are for another time. And by no means am I an expert; rather I’ve chosen to be a forever student who never wants to stop learning.
In today’s world we are flooded with images of war, famine, mass shootings, and potbelly babies. With a roof over our heads, food in our stomachs, clothes on our back, and emergency assistance a phone call away, we find ourselves with more security than many around the world. Yet with a lack of understanding of what life is really like for many, we somehow find ourselves as keepers of all knowledge with the ability to save the world.
Now don’t get me wrong, as a student studying Global Development who has had opportunities to work in different countries around the world, I can feel as though I have some knowledge when faced with difficult situations. But on the other hand, every time I experience a new culture and country I realize I know nothing, and that realization is somewhat frustrating, yet utterly exhilarating; because it is so freeing to walk into a room full of people with the desire to not be the “smartest” one.
Here in Tanzania I get the privilege of working under local scholars, some of whose research is recognized around the world. These scholarly pioneers are plowing the way forward toward overall security for their local communities, country, and continent, raising up the next generation of movers and shakers. While working under the direction of such scholars, I have begun reflecting on my role as a researcher and its impacts within the global development context. Though on the flip side it’s a beautiful, humbling experience to partner with people from different cultures and backgrounds because “our way” is only one of the types of responses in which we can partner in future global development initiatives. Yet through our encounters with other expats in Tanzania, it is hard to avoid tendencies relating to behaviours that portray “saviour mentality”, which can often result in reinforcing colonial developmental practices.
Unfortunately, in the Global North we often pride ourselves on being “the smartest person in the room” and have transferred our “world saving” ideas and theories into our interactions with the Global South. We have created a world that bases progress off a country’s Gross National Output (GNP), devaluing ones non-financial contribution to society and reinforcing those activities as “traditional” rather than modern – often highlighting them as the reason for ones poverty. This “market calculus” in which our world is based off of, is seen through lenses of elite-privilege, that has created an image of equality, all the while denying diversity.[i] Until recently, we have been unable to recognize that we may be apart of the “problem”, and yet regardless of this revelation, we ever so often continue to revert back to the same old ways of doing development.
Growing up we often hear that one should listen to understand, rather than listen to respond. In a development context this should not look like someone from the Global North stepping foot into a country with an agenda on the first day. Rather it could look like stopping for the person in front of you, dropping your agenda, and taking time to ask and understand what that person, or group of people wants to see happen within their country or community, because they are the expert.
Post-development theorists stress the importance of taking a step back, looking at, and highlighting the dominant discourse of development.[ii]
By highlighting the discourse, we could hope there is a continued revelation and understanding of how development is defined and discussed in our world today, and further let it sink in that in our globalizing world, human beings are left vulnerable in the eyes of those who choose to see them simply as a commodity.[iii]
Though if we were to take a step back, what would our world look like if we didn’t marginalize the development “misfits” of the world, suffocating and silencing their values and knowledge that is “critical to sustaining human communities, rights and perhaps humanity itself”.[iv] Maybe our world needs to take seriously the Swahili proverb and go into the world with open eyes[v] rather than open pocketbooks and restricted agendas. In a progressively globalizing world we do not want to leave behind those whose “class, gender, racial/ethnic, sexual or disability identities” serve as an axes of exploitation and “at odds with the history and values of capitalist modernity”.[vi] People should not need to suffer from loosing their lands, farms, livelihoods and overall welfare, for the sake of the “development” and “betterment” of our global society.
My hope is to be a part of a generation that partners with people around the world to see change, rather then simply “bringing change to them”. I have been inspired by the many talented, driven and passionate Tanzanians I’ve had the privilege of working with during my time here. They are drivers of change for their country and and are making impacts in ways that no “outsider” would otherwise be able do.
Not only must I travel with open eyes, but I must go humbly with an open heart, willing and ready to learn, and re-learn all I’ve been taught. I’ve learnt that I must stand up for, and next to, those with whom development has the tendency to colonize.
[i] Philip McMichael, Contesting Development: critical struggles for social change (London: Routledge, 2010)
[ii] Katie Willis, Theories and practices of development (Place of publication not identified: Routledge, 2017).
[iii] Philip McMichael, Contesting Development: critical struggles for social change (London: Routledge, 2010)
[iv] Philip McMichael, Contesting Development: critical struggles for social change (London: Routledge, 2010)
[v] Yale Richmond and Phyllis Gestrin, Into Africa: a guide to Sub-Saharan culture and diversity (Boston: Intercultural Press, 2010).
[vi] Philip McMichael, Contesting Development: critical struggles for social change (London: Routledge, 2010)