“Altruistic White Dudes”

The Jester thanks someone who signed in as “pma4d” for a wonderful comment on his previous post. For the sake of giving this person a human face, the Jester will call him “Paul,” and promptly elect him to the long-empty position of FftD: Fool for the day!

And, why does Paul deserve this title? In his comment, he writes…

i suppose i am mostly reacting to the vision one gets here of cloning altruistic white dudes and air-dropping those into villages instead of laptops. i know you don’t mean it that way but it just feels like another deficiency model. forcing tech onto people where there is no “pull” or mentorship is stupid. designing new tech that affords opportunities and for which best practices can be socially shared doesn’t seem stupid.

Apart from Paul’s apparent inability to press two keys simultaneously, Paul’s foolishness comes from his assumption that “cloning altruistic white dudes” isn’t what the Jester meant. Actually, it is exactly what the Jester meant, at least if “altruistic white dudes” is understood to mean anyone (not necessarily white or dude) whose definition of altruism is of a particular sort. 

Our FftD highlights the flaw in his own thinking when he says, “this just feels like another deficiency model.” (Incidentally, the Jester believes this is a widely held flaw by many well-intentioned people in international development, so readers would be wise to pay attention.) Ah, the quixotic romance of denying deficiencies!

Critics of international development have seen so many instances where white dudes have parachuted in with their burdens only to impose, exploit, or walk the road to hell with their good intentions as they drag along entire nations, that they are understandably wary of white dudes on the whole. The Jester is sympathetic to this view, and often wonders if white dudes (or, rather, rich people desiring to do good) should just keep away altogether. Though perhaps he will grow wiser in the future, for now, the Jester still believes international development efforts are worthwhile.

Under the latter assumption, the Jester notes that paternalism is simply unavoidable in international development. The fact is that there is a deficiency. If the goal is “to help,” that immediately assumes a status differential between the helper and the helped, even if it is only for that instance (and in development, alas, that differential is likely to persist for a long time). People wary of the bad things white dudes have done have a kneejerk response against this, and then go through all sorts of intellectual contortions to rationalize to themselves that the undereducated villagers they work with are their equals. (Among the most silly are an insistence on “partnerships” in which the rich white dude comes in with all the funding and all the education, and then pretends to be equals with his partners while condescendingly talking about all the stuff they’ve learned from the cute villagers.) Unfortunately, this focuses attention on mitigating symptoms rather than root causes, and sometimes causes more damage than the original problem.

(At this point, the Jester must ward off other fools. The Jester is not claiming that anyone who is a candidate for “development” is morally inferior to supposedly “developed” people, or that they are to blame for their situation. It’s very possible, indeed common, to have deficiencies in comparison to others that are no fault of one’s own. It’s possible to be born into a household that couldn’t provide good nutrition; it’s possible to be born into an environment that offers no formal education; it’s possible to be brought up in circumstances that don’t nurture self-efficacy and empowerment. None of these are a person’s own fault, and yet they result in an effective deficiency.)

Note, incidentally, that Paul’s attempt to get around this by providing a technology that is ingeniously designed is just another kind of provision that assumes a deficiency. (Why else must outsiders design said technology? Why can’t supposedly non-deficient people develop the technologies themselves? Well, because with regards to technological capacity, they’re… deficient!)

Now, at this point, the Jester has harped on “deficiency” so much that he sounds arrogant and insensitive. The Jester notes that it was our FftD who brought that horrid word into the conversation. But, people who could benefit from outside help are only deficient in the same sense that a eleven-year-old is deficient with respect to a seventeen-year-old. It’s not that they are deficient in potential, but that they are deficient in current absolute capacity.
What does this mean for development? It means that we must accept that paternalism is inherent to the situation, but then adopt a model that minimizes harm and maximizes good. There are many good models of paternalistic relationships… good parenting, good teaching, good managing, good mentoring. These all assume a differential in status, but then proceed to work towards eliminating the differential by nurturing the growth of the beneficiary. It is not charity, not trade, not engineering, not provision… it is nurturing.

So, going back to air-dropping “altruistic white dudes.” The Jester believes strongly in doing this as long as they are not constrained to being white or dudes, and as long as “altruistic” is defined to mean “very inclined towards development as mentorship.” Mentorship avoids all of the negatives of bad paternalistic relationships, while focusing on the nurturing of those capacities that developing communities often lack on their own. The Jester has plenty more to say about mentorship, so he will leave it to future posts, but for now, he concludes by responding to a parenthetical comment from Paul:

([…] perhaps it is still overly optimistic or naive but i just can’t let myself believe that the people we’re talking about have so little agency that it’s impossible and one must have the western facilitator to mobilize them.)

As FftD, Paul is entitled to a little naivete. The fact is that “the people we’re talking about” often are in a state of such learned helplessness, that they lack agency, but even among those who have agency, the issue is still that they lack the overall capacity to mobilize themselves effectively. If they had that, we’d be back to asking why anyone bothers with international development.

The real issue is that they have never had the opportunity or the encouragement to develop mobilization skills! That’s exactly what people like van Stam do… they help mobilize, encourage mobilizers, and mentor everyone into growing into the potential they have. The air-dropped person doesn’t have to be a Western facilitator, of course. They could be Eastern, Northern, Southern, or From-the-same-countryern. But, they need to be superb mentors — and only superb mentors — which means that they are good at helping people identify their own aspirations, and then facilitating their ability to pursue them, with the eventual goal being an independence that obviates even facilitation.

That’s development as mentorship, about which more will come from the Jester as he channels his alter ego and his book.


8 Responses to ““Altruistic White Dudes””

  1. Tweets that mention “Altruistic White Dudes” « The ICT4D Jester -- Topsy.com Says:

    […] This post was mentioned on Twitter by Kentaro Toyama, ICT4D Jester. ICT4D Jester said: "Altruistic White Dudes" and why mentorship is the right model for #globaldev : http://bit.ly/eieStb Not really #ict4d or #ictd […]

  2. pma4d Says:

    well, your comments system captures email addresses, so don’t act *too* clever and omniscient, o jester 😉

    i don’t actually have an ideological problem per se with putting white dudes on the ground. i am a pragmatist. what i was (perhaps badly) saying was that i am not comfortable with the overall impression given by the original posting, one that could easily be misunderstood (hence my invoking of the altruistic white dudes), and the impression given both by the original posting and this one that outsider mentors on the ground is the *only* useful model for “development.” i just see tech as having a place (just as mentorship does) as long as it is done in a way such that peer learning and existing institutions can serve as its main vectors. one can oversell the mobile phone example, sure (i hear you groan), but it didn’t actually take universal deployment of grameen phone ladies to spread the use of mobiles.

    i think part of the confusion here is that when i’m talking about “development” i’m not necessarily talking about the un-mobilizable BoP. (your comment here was helpful in clarifying this issue.) not all “ICT4D” is about addressing such folk *directly*. in many cases, it’s about increasing the available human capacity within an area in a way that benefits the broader population. facilitating healthcare, for example. and when talking about a broader range of capacities you’re also talking about a broader range of external support needed to obtain and then appropriate resources.

    re: deficiency, i don’t think that anybody who critiques “deficiency models” is denying “deficiencies” in *all possible* senses of the word. there are critics of the ethnocentricism of the deficiency framing, sure. but as you suggest, you would have to have some kind of rational deficiency to deny the proposition that “if the goal is to develop in the sense of western progressivity, then there are some things that are missing.” as a pragmatist, my own objection to deficiency models is that the process of influencing decision-makers results in over-reduction to that “one key deficiency.” what i am critiquing in your argument is, therefore, the universalizing focus on mentorship without being extremely clear about the type of “development” and the populations of interest.

    • Jester Says:

      The Jester was planning to leave “Paul” as a hypothetical name, but since Paul has decided to own up to it, we can dispense with the quotation marks!

      A lot of interesting ideas here, which will require future posts to resolve at length. For now, the Jester will say simply that the nice things about mentorship are that (1) the type of development can be any kind of development as long as it is the kind aspired to by the mentee (however, there are difficult issues when the mentee’s aspirations appear to conflict with the values of the mentor… to be discussed when the Jester has figured out his view on this); (2) the population of interest is *anyone* who might seek help, including organizations. The Jester has seen plenty of rural healthcare systems seeking, and in need of organizational mentorship.

      Mentorship is a great model, regardless, which is one reason why the Jester strongly promotes it. For positive social change flowing from the less deficient to the more deficient (in any context, development or otherwise), the Jester believes mentorship is, in fact, the most worthwhile course of action. The best thing that technology designers can do is to help people from poorer environments learn to be technology designers, too, so that those folks could land jobs with different pay scales, rather than contenting themselves with doing their low-paying vocations 1% better through mobile, local-language, social-media web-search! Similarly, the best thing for an existing healthcare system is for it to be able to figure out what technology it needs on its own, learn to ask and get the funding it needs, develop the staff capacity to operate and maintain it, etc. Of course, in this process, they might request new technology… well, that’s a great opportunity to jump in and mentor the local technologists. Yes, that might take too long, so there is a trade-off that must be negotiated, but in the long term, the goal is hand-off, not constant dependence on outside technologists.

      Of course, the Jester doesn’t say that technologists can’t do other things — as far as that goes, readers have heard ad infinitum that the best thing is to work with a social trend or organization that is *already* having positive impact, and then to amplify its impact by integrating meaningful technology.

      If you must, you must!

  3. Wayan Says:

    This theme of mentorship feels right. It is concentrating thoughts I’ve had about development for a few years now and making me think on the actions I take in ICT4D.

    Now it’s time for the Jester to take the next step.

    If mentorship (w/ or w/o tech) is the ideal, how can we, your trusting readers be better mentors? Could you mentor us on mentorship as development? Are there more good m4d examples? Maybe more tech-based ones as we all seem to be geeky as so hope ICT can be involved.

  4. Avi Solomon Says:

    There are amazing indigenous mentors galore: the late Meera Mahadevan who founded Mobile Creches http://www.mobilecreches.org/history.htm
    and Anand Kumar, founder of the Super 30 program http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=GEAlEkhK6k0 come to mind.
    The tragedy is that these pioneers are encumbered by constant, jealous backstabbing and sabotage by fellow citizens who feel threatened by their success.

    • Jester Says:

      Thanks, Avi, for your comments! I agree that there are great mentors galore. The examples you give are interesting, and while the Jester cannot say anything about them firsthand, their results and the fact that they seem to wisely stay away from trying to “scale” their programs via ICT suggests they are doing the right thing.

      At least as unfortunate as the problem of backstabbing is that many mentors rarely gain public visibility, because their means seem ordinary, even as their mentoring skills are extraordinary. Alas, it’s easier to count mobile phones than it is to recognize a great mentor.

      • Avi Solomon Says:

        Dear Jester,
        Your reply raises a host of issues to explore. I’ll try and list them briefly:
        -Extraordinary mentors are very rare and one would be very lucky to have direct contact with one, let alone their mentees. One is left to fall back upon records of their teachings (books) and do the best one can. Remember that Socrates never wrote a word.
        -The story of Eklavya as a parable for this quandary.
        -Complex, impractical toys sell better. I recently demoed SIPs at the NYC Maker Faire http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=lE8OrdUZQKk but everyone was attracted to the flashier window farms http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=PkCuPrsPn_I
        -I recommend checking out E. F. Schumacher’s ‘A Guide for the Perplexed’ (1977) as it explores similar terrain that the Jester is grappling with, i.e. Wisdom.

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