China’s African road; Euro-governance failures; patronage -> accountability; building fragile states; Blattman needs you; grey planet; toxic development; why people cheat: links I liked

October 31, 2012

India’s slums: how change happens and the challenge of urban programming

October 31, 2012

Lost in translation: the alienation of the development worker

October 31, 2012
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I’m writing this flying over Afghanistan, on my way back from India (blog flurry to follow). The air is extraordinarily clear, so that even from 30,000 feet, I can make out individual fields,Del345114 clusters of mud-coloured houses, nestling among the serrated, snow-topped mountains and winding river courses. At the same time, I’m reading ‘Lost in Translation’, by Eva Hoffman, a stupendously thoughtful, observant study of the fragmented, alienated nature of immigrant identity (in her case, of a Polish Jew in Canada).

The combination brings home the deep fragmentation of what Robert Chambers calls  rural development tourism’. Within the space of ten days, I have been a besuited presenter at an OECD forum, a besandaled interviewer in a Delhi slum, and a laughing Sahib visitor delighting in the dances and songs of girls in a village school run by a bearded sage in an Ashram. And now I’m looking down on what may be (for all I know – the aircraft map is rubbish) the battlegrounds of the Afghan war.

The result is a kind of spiritual/emotional vertigo, a high-speed zooming in and out in terms of scale and emotional landscape. Grappling now with the political economy, then with the life struggles of slum women trying to stop their men from drinking, next with the subtleties and hypocrisies of international networking. You try and stay open to them all, antennae at full receive, assimilating where you can, compartmentalizing where

'Damn, the wifi is down'

'Damn, the wifi is down'

you must. But I do wonder whether overall, it dulls the nerve endings, blunts the edges of the sensibilities, leaving you seeking refuge in the bland abstractions of development-speak.

It resembles Hoffman’s attempt to capture the fragmented consciousness of the immigrant, both in the negatives (the lack of any deep, unconscious sense of belonging) and the positives (the cross-fertilization of different worlds). We may not be immigrants, but we are increasingly all migrants, and there’s some overlap between the two conditions. It makes me wonder if a spell at Walden Pond, amid a single, slowly changing and unpeopled landscape might not be a spiritually healthier alternative. But in this connected age, such a deliberate decision to step outside the information stream feels highly unlikely – have they started marketing ‘only disconnect’ holidays yet, in the world’s remaining ‘no signal’ digital wilderness areas? Tell me when they start.

3 comments

  1. So Development Tourism is all about the harrowing effects on the noble ‘developer’? Didn’t Chambers mention something about the effects it had on the’developpee’? Can I suggest a follower up blog on that?

    Also, while the ‘developer’ suffers heart-rending “spiritual/emotional vertigo” your last blog spoke about the disgusting, but also circumstance induced immorality of bankers. Could we have a follow blog on the circumstance induced immorality of ‘developers’? Bankers are at least now being self-critical and acknowledgeing their failings. Please, consider doing the same, Oxfam et al!

    If you are going to gaze at your naval, why not give it a clean at the same time?

    Finally, as a volunteer visitor at immigration detention centres in the UK, I’m wondering whether to discuss your empathy and solidarity with the detainees. Many of them walked to the UK from Afghanistan, but will be able to feel empathy with your “high speed zooming” as they are flown back courtesy of the UK Border Agency.

  2. I’m sure those holidays exist, and are ludicrously expensive. Speaking from experience in the disconnected highlands of Afghanistan (in Sharistan) I can report a wonderful sense of peace from being in a remote, pretty valley with the most high tech thing being a bucket winch for pulling water up from the river below. For about two hours. Then (for me at least) it rapidly wore thin and I was rapidly longing for a book that I hadn’t read twice before, a decent road, access to a telly and an electric light, and all the other comforts of modern life.

  3. “The result is a kind of spiritual/emotional vertigo, a high-speed zooming in and out in terms of scale and emotional landscape…

    But I do wonder whether overall, it dulls the nerve endings, blunts the edges of the sensibilities, leaving you seeking refuge in the bland abstractions of development-speak.”

    Duncan, this is great writing. Precisely describing feelings that are very hard to articulate.

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