Posts Tagged ‘Fool for the Day’

“Altruistic White Dudes”

February 6, 2011

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.