I study international development, a somewhat nebulous field that more or less tries to make the world a better place—more stable, more prosperous, and more free. The more I learn in my program, the less I realize I know. But I keep coming back to these four key ideas. So here, in just eleven words, some of the most important things that I know:
1) Everything is complicated
If the solutions to the world’s problems seem obvious, you haven’t spent enough time thinking about them. Every year you hear of a new answer to poverty—child sponsorship, microfinance, literacy trainings, women’s empowerment—and yet somehow poverty and inequality persist. While there have been positive strides, there is no silver bullet. Experts disagree constantly. There are many suggestions for the projects and policies that should be implemented in order to make the most difference in the world, and there simply isn’t consensus.
This is to say, you should be wary of the easy answer. Poverty is complicated because people are complicated because the global systems we’ve developed are complicated. What makes it all even more complicated is the second big idea:
2) Everything is connected
International development is never about just one thing. A teacher notices that one of her students is missing school—the student is missing school because she’s sick—she’s sick because she drank contaminated water—her water was contaminated because a nearby factory dumps its waste into the river—the factory is there because the national government has decided to give tax breaks to foreign companies to stimulate the country’s economy and create jobs, which are needed even more desperately since the rains have been coming later every year, small-eared maize now withering on the stalk. So where should your intervention start?
If you want this girl to live the sort of life she values, you’re looking at a network of issues including education, public health, infrastructure, economics, agriculture, climate change, public policy, and global markets. These issues affect and are affected by each other. Anyone wanting to improve the lives of the poor should understand the complexity and interconnectedness of people’s lives. This complex understanding should extend to solutions, which is why the third suggestion is a reminder to:
3) Distrust capitalism
By this I don’t mean to reject capitalism entirely. What I mean is that we must be skeptical of solutions that simply throw money at complex issues. Any intervention that assumes that you can just “add money and stir” without addressing systemic inequalities and injustice will only fuel those same inequalities. Bill Gates tells a story of speaking to a segregated audience of people in Saudi Arabia. He questioned whether they could become one of the top ten countries for technology without “fully utilizing half the talent” in the country.
There is a way to tell this story that is inspiring—and surely, incorporating women into Saudi Arabia’s technology field would increase productivity and innovation. But that’s also not entirely the point. I want equality for women not because I can make an economy more productive but because I am a person, and as a person I feel I must be endowed with the same rights as everyone else in the world, man or woman. What happens in the moments where inclusion of different ethnic groups, sexualities, religious traditions, or abilities into our societies is not productive? Rather than trust the markets to spend our way into a better world, we should embrace a more radical approach.
Thinkers in the Global South have articulated compelling alternatives to development that include spirituality, community, and the natural world. A Latin American iteration of this development alternative is called “Buen Vivir,” roughly “Living Well.”
“Buen Vivir will not stop building bridges, and will not reject the use of Western physics and engineering to build them,” Eduardo Gudynas writes, “but the ones that it will propose may well have different sizes and materials, will be placed in other locations, and certainly will serve local and regional needs and not the needs of global markets.” How can we know what those local needs are? We need to follow the fourth mandate to:
4) Trust the poor
Trusting the poor means actually listening to them as they describe their lives, their hopes, and their values, and then responding accordingly. Trusting the poor means trusting their decisions and their ability to spend, save, and administrate money. More than that, trusting the poor means breaking free from the concept that there is a moral dimension to poverty.
We cannot talk about “ghettos” and erase histories of redlining, domestic terrorism against black businesses, unequal legal systems, and the extraction of an entire population’s life and labor. We cannot talk about “slums” and erase histories of colonization, the murder and erasure of indigenous identities, military occupation, and exploitative markets.
When we trust the poor we begin to hear what they have been saying all this time—that it is not that they are poor or vulnerable; they are being impoverished and oppressed. Suddenly it becomes clearer why a microloan or a new classroom was never going to be enough to lift a family out of poverty, not when they’re embedded in the same unjust systems as before. Suddenly it becomes obvious that “the poor” are not somehow the foils of development projects, but their necessary catalysts. Of all the mental shifts, I think this final one is the most profound and important.
These are the ideas I want to take with me as I continue to study this messy, confusing, contradictory field of international development. I think they apply outside of the field as well. Any decision—in politics, business, medicine, education—that purports to make the world a better place should start here. The world is complicated. The world is deeply connected. Money isn’t the answer. People are.
Katerina Parsons (’15) lives in Washington D.C., where she works in advocacy at Mennonite Central Committee’s Washington office and studies international development at American University’s School of International Service. She spends a lot of time thinking about US policy towards Central America and North Korea, writing, singing, and searching for the city’s best pupusas (suggestions welcome).