Ditch the fairytale, look for the real story: Lessons from The Reductive Seduction of Other People’s Problems

If you’re unfamiliar with Humanitarians of Tinder, Courtney Martin’s article is a good place to start taking a look. Heard of the acronym SWEDOW? It stands for Stuff We Don’t Want, but think that’s it’s okay to Pass Off to Poor People.

Her article – The Reductive Seduction of Other People Problems – is a great introduction to the way the developed world often looks at less developed countries. The article is a critical examination of the tendency of people living in developed countries to oversimplify issues faced by people in developing countries. Courtney rightly observes the trends of Westerners wanting to work in ‘exotic’ regions like Africa and India to ‘solve’ exotic problems like education and malnutrition. When it comes to Other People’s Problems, good intentions tend to triumph over real understanding of the issue. There’s a gratification in coming into contact with the Other, especially when you feel that your presence is improving their life.

The road to hell…

Does anybody remember the PlayPump? Once the darling of media and funding agencies, the PlayPump was a pump that children could play on that would also pump water out of the ground. Designed in America, it received a lot of attention for solving a problem while being fun to use. Unfortunately, when installed in Mozambique, the PlayPump failed to deliver any results on the ground, and required children to be playing for 27 hours a day to produce the quantity of water promised!

To try and fail at something is not a sin in itself. But the project spent $16.4 million dollars, some it raised from big-name foundations. It’s also not the only example of its kind. This money could have gone to other more deserving, less media friendly causes. As Courtney points out, real change is complex, time-consuming and not likely to be achieved through a cure-all gadget. Projects that grab our attention tend to fare better than other more workmanlike but effective ones. There’s nothing sexy about putting up mosquito nets or passing out iron pills, but they’re likely to make a difference where it matters most.

Acting on oversimplified solutions for Other People’s Problems is not only a waste of time but also valuable resources that could have been used elsewhere.  She does a good job of drawing out the consequences of colonialism and economic dominance. It’s easier for a young person sitting in the Global North to experiment with ending poverty, violence against women or help capture a deadly terrorist a country other than their own. It’s more likely that their projects will get funded even though the creators have no track record or experience.

She claims that the Western do-gooders mistakenly diagnose problems of poverty, health, and education as easily solvable. Unfortunately, the privilege of belong to a richer, more powerful or dominant group means that people end up following your ideas even if it doesn’t do them any good. She points out the case of Tom’s Shoes, whose Buy 1 Donate 1 model actually had a negative effect in the economies where they were distributed.

Other problems worth solving

But her most powerful ideas don’t even have to do with Other People or their problems. She brings up the ‘unexotic underclass’, the section of Western societies whose problems are not as Instagram-worthy as African children. This is a powerful observation. We’re often blinded by what the poor or underprivileged should look like, and many of our ideas are influenced by decades of imperialism and colonialism. Single mothers and unemployed veterans in America are often struggling in plain sight. However, they’re too familiar and not ‘exotic’ enough for people to want to help. Misdirected do-gooders can do more good by tackling pervasive issues in their own communities instead of searching for more exotic issues elsewhere.

On the opposite end of the spectrum to misguided do-gooders, are the huge multilateral organizations such as the United Nations, World Bank, and the International Monetary Fund. These organizations have been formed to promote and facilitate development of countries in need. However, they have been accused of being vehicles of modern colonialism. Some of the projects taken on by these organizations have been hugely successful and helped scores of people, but there can be disadvantages to being an organization of such magnitude.

We should not disqualify people from working in the development sector based on where they come from or what their formal skills are. As Courtney points out, reductive seduction is not malicious, but reckless. The passion and initiative these people bring can go a long way in improving someone’s situation. Misinformed people can be sensitized and educated to the realities they are working with, and hopefully be part of bringing about lasting change.

 

 

 

 

                                                                                                        

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