Disenchantment with development: CAN YOU DIG IT?

Ever seen the movie the Warriors? Classic 1970s movie about an all night fight between gangs focusing on one in particular, the Warriors from Coney Island Brooklyn. I have been thinking a lot recently (maybe because I turned 40) about my career in development and where it is all going. The Warriors came to mind…

I work in nutrition and development.  When you look up the definition of “development”, you get a lot of different descriptions, but it really all comes down to one thing: advancement. We are supposed to be advancing as a society. Some assist others, and some do it on their own. What we all can agree on is that there are not supposed to be hungry people, or children who are cognitively impaired for a lifetime, or land grabbing fights, or precious natural resources and biodiversity being taken or lost from countries without a lot wealth, or women demoralized, or children dying of malaria, or guinea worm burden or women bleeding to death from giving birth, or food riots, at least, not in 2012. But all of this is happening and I think it is safe to say that our world, as we know it, is on its knees. And what has “development” have to show for it? What is all that investment, UN mandates, Millennium Goals (and now Sustainable Goals), etc etc going towards? It is hard to say at the moment. Are we evolving? Are we moving from an embryonic state to a mature one? A higher level of organization? PROGRESSIVE CHANGE???

  • The act of developing or disclosing that which is unknown; a gradual unfolding process by which anything is developed, as a plan or method, or an image upon a photographic plate; gradual advancement or growth through a series of progressive changes; also, the result of developing, or a developed state.
  • The series of changes which animal and vegetable organisms undergo in their passage from the embryonic state to maturity, from a lower to a higher state of organization.
  • The act or process of changing or expanding an expression into another of equivalent value or meaning.
  • The equivalent expression into which another has been developed.
  • The elaboration of a theme or subject; the unfolding of a musical idea; the evolution of a whole piece or movement from a leading theme or motive.

So why this disenchantment? Well, for me, there are lots of reasons that may come out jumbly mumbly but I think I want to get them down on bloggerpaper. So, Warriors, come out to play-i-ay!!!!

Play it Again Sam: Can we not Sam? It seems that history keeps repeating itself. You read the old nutrition multi-sectoral planning criticisms from the 1970s, or FAO’s rural integrated development, and it seems we are doing the same things over and over like a gerbil on a wheel. Are we learning anything? I would hope so, but I am not so sure.  Commitments to end hunger are renegotiated time and time again, and we have more hungry in the world than ever before. One in six are hungry. Big goals are set, funds are promised (think L’Aquila), but we in development don’t deliver. At least those of us working in nutrition have not. Brazil didn’t need outside assistance – they progressed and ended hunger on their own. Why aren’t we held accountable? For every person that goes hungry, a person in the UN has to fast for 30 days. Don’t make promises or say you are going to help if at the end of the day, you can’t, or won’t. Why set yourself up for failure?

Conflict: Can’t we all just get along? Doesn’t seem to be in the cards. Jeff Sachs is bidding for the World Bank post. He is often met with harsh criticism saying the Millennium Villages Project doesn’t work or is a failure. How is this known? Is MVP getting criticized because it is Sachs or because the project truly is unsuccessful or “unsustainable”? (*developmentees favorite word although no one knows what the fuck it means). Because one guy, Michael Clemens did some secondary analysis looking at cell phone coverage in the MVPs? I worked on that project from 2007 to 2010 and there are some changes happening there that randomized control trials or cell phone analysis aren’t going to measure. But that is not okay I guess, so let’s just criticize it and invest another 300 million in another “failed” development project that addresses every sector. I would LOVE to see someone else try to repeat the MVPs. Let’s see if you can do it. Good luck. I am not criticizing anyone, but it is just a perfect example of where development is going wrong, and it is everyone’s problem. There must be lessons coming from the villages that can be drawn upon of what to do and what not to do when trying to do multi-sectoral development on the ground, with more modern technologies and tools than what FAO did in the 1970s. This should be seen as progress. Instead, it is conflict. It is war. And it just doesn’t help any of us working in development frankly.

There is conflict in my own workplace. And over what? People are fighting over turf the size of a ten square feet of ground, as Cyrus said in the Warriors. We are forgetting to keep our eye on the ball – that we are trying to improve the lives of women and children. Or maybe some don’t care…

“The problem in the past has been the man turning us against one another. We have been unable to see the truth, because we have fighting for ten square feet of ground, our turf, our little piece of turf. That’s crap, brothers! The turf is ours by right, because it’s our turn. All we have to do is keep up the general truce. We take over one borough at a time. Secure our territory… secure our turf… because it’s all our turf!” – Cyrus, The Warriors

Keeping a job, or getting involved in the politics seems to consume many of us in development. We often lose sight of the goal and making tangible differences for those we are working with or serving. Small things can make a huge differences if our priorities are right. We are overcomplicating our jobs and the politics within because we thrive off conflict I think. I have no other rationale why we would make ourselves so miserable. Of course I don’t have concrete evidence of this, but I am starting to question people’s motivation for going into development in the first place. Do I sound bitter? I am heading that way, but I haven’t jumped ship yet…

Disjointed: So many are working on the exact same problems but often aren’t aware of who is working where and on what, and how they are doing “it”. We work often in silos, sometimes purposely or sometimes, unknowningly. But what a waste of time and resources. And we don’t shave much time if we want to end hunger in our lifetime. For example, the hot topic now, although the idea has been around for fifty years, is linking nutrition and agriculture. World Bank has a new “knowledge platform” but FAO and UNSCN are pushing on it too. IFPRI has their own kingdom on the topic, but now other CG centers are getting in on the action. Wouldn’t it be great if they all worked together? That doesn’t seem likely. Everyone is competing for the same resources, so you have to publish the fanciest reports, tweet the most tweets, and ensure that you are the one to invest in. Look at the campaigns for funds to go to Humanitarian organizations during the Haiti crisis, or the Horn of Africa famine! Poverty porn.

We need to start thinking like the Warriors. Everyone has a job, a gang, but we should work together for the common cause. Let’s not start arguing on the cause people, I mean, Come on!

“Just remember this, out of a street family of 120, plus affiliates, you were chosen for this expedition. That makes you special. Now, here’s the line up: Swan, second-in-command, war chief, stay by me. Snowball, you’re the music man. Cowboy: soldier of the middle. Vermin, you’re the bear. You carry the tokens and the bread. Rembrandt, you got the stuff? I want you to hit everything in the city. I want the people to know that the Warriors were there.” – Cleon, The Warriors 

The Usual Suspects: Every conference you go to, whatever discipline you are in (and I have crossed over into several), the same people are giving the same presentations, “pushing the same buttons” – although they are often not and sound more like a broken record, and are invited to every meeting. Enough! Basta! Start looking to the younger generations! I just taught at Columbia University last week and there are students who are thinking about nutrition, food systems and development in completely different, new ways. Their brains are hardwired differently – they think in networks, often social networks. They are not reductionists. It isn’t in our world’s nature to be that way anymore. In fact, we can’t afford to think that way anymore. Start engaging them people! Let them give keynotes. Your meetings, conferences and symposiums are B-O-R-I-N-G! Get Ellen Gustafson of the 30 project to give a talk for example. Inspire us. Many of my colleagues are thinking of leaving nutrition, agriculture and development to become chefs, massage therapists and writers. They are disenchanted, bored and frustrated. Sad thing is, my generation and the one following will be the ones to make a difference. Not our current leaders. Right now, it’s the Same ol’ song and dance, my friend.!” – Steven Tyler said that. Isn’t he on American Idol now? LAME. But I digress.

Ebony and Ivory: Don’t always live together in perfect harmony Paul and Stevie.  Everything is black and white. This drags a bit into the conflict topic, but there is never an in-between or middle ground in development. You are on one side or the other. You like Sachs or you don’t. You think aid works or it doesn’t. Ecetera ecetera ecetera…In nutrition, this black or white mentality perpetuates and seeps into every aspect of the discipline. Food based or health based? Industrial or traditional foods? Underweight or wasting? There are more questions than unified solutions and I think careers are built on these conflicts and picking sides. People feed off debating the science, and the subsequent solutions. While others, without a voice, wait for the “experts” to make up their minds.

“Now, look what we have here before us. We got the Saracens sitting next to the Jones Street Boys. We’ve got the Moonrunners right by the Van Cortlandt Rangers. Nobody is wasting nobody. That… is a miracle. And miracles is the way things ought to be.”  – Cyrus, The Warriors


I really don’t have the solutions and as you can see, more questions but right now, just feel more disillusioned by it all. I just want to get on that train back to Coney Island. Go Warriors.

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7 Responses to Disenchantment with development: CAN YOU DIG IT?

  1. I hear your frustration. I’m always curious how things work in your career arena, and to be honest, your post just affirms the path I’ve chosen for myself. When I try to think about hunger and nutrition from a global perspective, I just can’t imagine actually getting anywhere. The actual cluster*uck of all the larger organizations and governments working together (or trying to? Do they even?) boggles my mind. Hunger or nutritional deficiency in an entire society can be the result of a natural disaster, corrupt government, international politics, war, or simple poverty—which is almost everywhere. Poverty itself has so many contributing factors.

    The fix is going to be different for every place. The real fix, a global solution, is definitely more than food aid! I think a legitimate way to approach global hunger is from a local perspective. Whether that means (as someone more well off) joining or donating to (or starting) an aid organization that is particular to a specific area—the organization would then have intimate knowledge of how to help that area—or simply working to end hunger in one’s own backyard, well, that can be left to personal preference.

    As for how to get rid of corrupt government and distribute resources fairly among populations…? The way the world works right now is from a global market perspective, and that affects all nations. There is a lot to think about in the issues you bring up, and I certainly haven’t figured out the Ultimate Solution. However, I reached a point in my life where I got tired of feeling powerless, or like what I was doing was pretty ineffective. I embrace the idea of the small, local, organic farm as a solution. One solution. But if million-bajillions of people all around the world were to contribute to the health of their own foodshed/community, I can’t help but think the world would be more awesome; less people would be hungry; and more people would be healthy, happy, and connected to what actually keeps them alive. Now how to make this happen?

    Keep your chin up. Thanks for your post!

    Kandice Caldwell
    Gresham, OR

  2. Arwen says:

    Jess – your post is so important. It sparked a load of mumbly jumbly reflections of my own. Here you go… I think one of the problems is that we are looking for “solutions”, perfect “solutions” in an imperfect world. I think when you are talking about the kind of messy, complex problems we are addressing, that you cannot have solutions but only try to move things forward a bit. But that opens up a load of questions about “forward for who?” One reason why development can be so frustrating is explained by the beautiful metanarrative “Why do things get in a muddle?” by Gregory Bateson: http://books.google.co.uk/books?id=HewJbnQmn1gC&printsec=frontcover&source=gbs_ge_summary_r&cad=0#v=onepage&q&f=false. There are a billion billion ways that things can be “in a muddle” and only one right one (per person) for them to be “tidy” and that is kind of discouraging.

    Because we are dealing with social situations in a dynamic and complex world, every intervention is a social experiment. Whatever has gone before, we cannot KNOW what the results of an intervention will be. We may know the immediate results but not the long term side effects, whether good or bad. The development model of the 1970s with hind sight was actually slowly bringing progress, but then in came a new mind set of ‘competition’ with Structural Adjustment (getting the shoeless to pull themselves up by their boot straps) and that social experiment resulted in the hardship and deaths of countless people. Sadly, probably in good faith. I have heard that called the Dark Years of Development, and we are only just beginning to come out of that.

    At least the mind set is turning again – slowly slowly painfully slowly – to put people before economics. If I were queen, I would have every project recognize that change means that someone loses, and identify who that someone is and what they are losing. If that someone is the poorest of the poor who has to wait for an effect to trickle down, that is unacceptable. If that someone is someone with enough assets to absorb the pain, then we go ahead.

    Your thoughts on social networks and change are right where i am are at the moment. I saw this video last week. I am always behind the times so you have probably seen it already, but I found it immensely powerful in so many ways, how they use media and the power of thousands of young people actually to make a change. Yes, they make things very very simple, but talk about successful awareness raising http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Y4MnpzG5Sqc

  3. James Wariero says:

    I will be using African understatement throughout this post but you catch the drift. The disorder in development is willful and feeds of a sickening lack of leadership and selfish motivation of many of the actors. The false dichotomies, while the gratification of the dying or the permanently scarred is delayed as people make careers and push each other to become authorities in one piece or the other of the larger subject of development is acutely annoying. It is taxing to care, people who don’t seem to care are in charge and they can discuss things for ages. A measles outbreak swept through Southern Africa in late 2010 and early 2011, attacking many children who had actually gotten the one measles shot at nine months mandated in the expanded programme on immunization in most African countries. It has been established for a long time that 24% of children getting one measles shot do not mount an adequate immune response for protection. So it is like 1 in 4 kids got a placebo. Children in Europe and the States have had multiple measles shots for many years. Only HIV-exposed children in Africa get a scheduled second measles shot- by WHO guidelines and country adaptations of the same. The rest get these silly ad hoc campaigns where huge per diems are earned and loads of petrol burnt as funds come in from the central governments to the district and near-moribund vehicles are revived for an annual demented festival of lunch allowances, villages are criss-crossed, many children get a shot, many miss. Government people love this chaos. WHO willfully looks aside- doing more diplomacy than public health. And the child of the mother who listens to radio, watches TV and gets campaign SMSs on her cellphone gets a measles shot every year for the first five years of life as the child of the mother whose husband died or is away in some big town earning peanuts is lucky of they get the one scheduled one. Or she hears from her friends they are giving mosquito nets at the campaign and she takes her child to multiple centres during the week of the campaign so that three shots, three nets, and one tired child later, the campaign folds to unfold a year later with the garish boldness of a warped health Mardi Gras.

  4. justjody says:

    But we are working together! It takes sustained advocacy and ‘zero-ing in’ on a common cause to get anything done, and the ag-nutrition thing in particular is at least giving people a common focus that was lacking in nutrition. I can’t contradict anything in this post, I have felt it all too in my darker days, but don’t you feel it is nutrition’s time right now, with so many good people working on it and resources coming in? I have always wanted to know what exactly is this ‘development’ we are all working for- but reduced hunger is a start. Keep going! Every little helps.

  5. Jeremy says:

    I hear your cry, Jess, and have nothing to add, really. Just an expression of solidarity. And you didn’t even mention the next big boondoggle coming at us for Rio 2012.

  6. Judy Loo says:

    Thanks for the post, Jess. I’ve been thinking about similar questions lately. Why do people sign up to work for a “noble cause” then spend most of their time worrying about career and institute survival? Why is it that we can’t seem to resist competing, back-stabbing, making grand and unsupportable claims …? Why do the development funders push us to do these things? More fundamentally, can anyone who has lived a privileged life, never experiencing poverty or the realities of surviving from one tenuous harvest to the next, ever truly understand the motivations and needs of a subsistence farmer? I think some can – many can’t. Everyone sees the world through some kind of filter created by our own limited experiences – and that is one’s reality. People dream up solutions based on that view of reality – and when the solutions don’t work, people’s views do not necessarily change. Many developists are also fundamentalists in some sense, convinced of the answers before the questions are really framed. I believe change happens one small step at a time and we can never lose sight of the change we are trying to make. I believe that Gandhi had it right when he said “We must be the change we wish to see.” – or something close to that. I also believe that we cannot see now how a seed that we sow today may germinate and flower much later. One of my many volunteer activities before moving to Rome was working with a refugee sponsorship group to reunite families that had been split when some were selected for resettlement and others – parents, children, spouses, sisters… were left behind for various reasons. The work felt important and immediate – we reunited quite a few families. But within the group the politics was terrible; the chairperson was a control freak, different people had different ideas and agendas. I sometimes left meetings in tears because of the ridiculousness and wastefulness of it all. But I always went back because I convinced myself to keep my eye on the end goal – the change that I wanted to make, and I was able to celebrate the successes ignoring the politics. For me, it was an important lesson. It’s harder in a big organisation and more frustrating because we don’t see those small successes first hand – our results are less immediate and less personal. Still I think we have to ignore the distractions as much as we can and keep our eyes on the end goal. And make change one small step at a time.

  7. urwhatueat says:

    Thanks to everyone who provided such thoughtful comments. It is so great to get all of your views. Let’s keep fighting the good fight.

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