The Little Things: on “-isms” in International Development
After six months “in the field,” I was beginning to feel like I had nothing new to share. The program evaluation I’ve been working on is still on-going. My days still consist of nine-and-a-half hours in the office. My personal life continues to be less-than-exciting, which is more pronounced than usual on this particular day. So naturally (in my view, anyway) I stopped writing.
The truth is that the last few months have given me unique opportunities to reflect, and perhaps these thoughts, these “little things” that have come to mind, are worth sharing. I’ve thought a lot about nutrition, as you may have noticed from past food-based posts, but even more on my own personal struggles to live a healthy life in this setting. I’ve thought a lot about different organizations – governmental, non-governmental, for-profit, multilateral – and how they all contribute to improving health and development in countries like Malawi. But perhaps more controversially, I’ve thought a lot about the role of race and foreign aid in development work, and how this allows, or prevents, people like me – coming from the outside – to truly make a positive impact on the lives we seek to help.
My first experience with this while in Malawi was within my first month, when a Malawian male acquaintance and I were looking for seating in a public venue. I came in with the cultural expectation (as much as I hate to admit it) that as a female – and a well-educated, slightly senior, and foreign one at that – I would be offered the one remaining seat. Every -ism came to mind when I watched him take the seat and wondered: Is this because he doesn’t like or respect me? Is this a gender issue in a patriarchal society? Is this because I’m black? It’s possible, perhaps likely, that the explanation was simpler; maybe it never occurred to him, or maybe he was never taught any differently. If I were to ask him about the incident today, he probably wouldn’t even remember that such an exchange had occurred. Regardless of intent, the result of the interaction I didn’t quite understand was a hyper-awareness of my foreignness in this culture, and an even more heightened awareness of myself.
I could go on and on with stories and instances that have left me questioning why I was treated one way when I’ve seen someone treated differently in the store, at the bus stop, when seeking community service activities outside of work. And while initially my instinct was to place the blame on myself (“I’m not being culturally-sensitive enough” or “I’m not being assertive enough”) and then on others (“They are purposely treating me different than they would treat someone else in my shoes.”), my thought has evolved.
I recently read an article on How Matters about “Race, power, and international aid,” where a white donor describes her experience of witnessing people in a development setting treated differently based on the color of their skin. And while I leave comments about the article itself aside, it validated my feelings that there may be some truth to how we look and act, and our role in any culture or society, particularly in the world of development. If I wore a suit and high heels every day, would people be more inclined to listen to the suggestions I have in health and development? Or if I always wore “Harvard alumni” gear, would that make what I have to say more valid? And since I will never be a man, and will never be able to change the color of my skin, will that continually push me towards the periphery of the change I hope to make?
My answer right now is that I don’t know. And just because we choose not to talk about it doesn’t mean that it doesn’t exist. So I’ll choose to believe, as the article describes, that if I push myself to ask “What can I do with you” instead of “What can I do for you,” whether in the international world or back home in the U.S., I can find my place in making the change I am driven to make.
I welcome any feedback, comments, and further discussion.