As a freshman in college I took a course that completely changed the way I thought about the world. The course was called International Relations, and during that semester we talked about global poverty, development, and the roots of the dramatic inequalities between the so-called developed and developing worlds (what used to be the First World and the Third World). Studying international development prompted me to take a new look at where I fit in – not just in terms of my own social circle, my city, my state, or even my country, but in terms of the whole world. I have to thank my professor, Eve Sandberg, because she sparked an interest that led me to pursue a graduate degree in geography and ultimately to join the Peace Corps, all in an effort to understand what development is and where I as a middle-class American fit into the global picture.
Unfortunately, development is one of those concepts that the more closely you look at it, the harder it is to pin down. While living in a poor community in one of the poorest countries in Latin America has given me some new insight on development, it has also made me question some of its most basic aspects. Starting with the most obvious one, what exactly is development? A common way to look at development is in terms of stuff – electricity, a paved road, a water system, a health center. Understood this way, development is about meeting people’s material needs, raising their material standard of living. As a Peace Corps volunteer, I am a development worker, tasked with helping to meet the material need for secure and nutritious sources of food.
A more expansive definition of development, and one that I like better, is “meeting people’s needs”. I like this definition because it allows for other needs besides the material ones - such as the need to be loved and to find life satisfaction. Again unfortunately, this definition of development raises more questions than it answers. If development is about meeting both spiritual and material needs, how do you know when people have reached the point that their needs have been met? And who decides which needs are important enough to be taken into account? If I feel that I need internet access, is that a real need? What if having internet access helps me to find a job and therefore gives me more livelihood security? Determining which needs should be considered part of development gets complicated pretty quickly.
This brings me to another set of very basic questions. We tend to talk about development in terms of countries. So what exactly is a developed country versus an undeveloped or developing country? At first this seems kind of obvious – the US is a developed country and Nicaragua is an undeveloped country. In the US most people get a high school education and use flushing toilets and drive cars. In Nicaragua you can’t flush your toilet paper even if you do have a toilet, there are still horses sharing the road with cars even in the capital, and in the countryside illiteracy is very common. That’s what makes US developed and Nicaragua developing.
But does development have a meaning in an absolute sense, or can we call some countries “developed” only because other countries are “un-” or “underdeveloped”, and vice versa? Is there an endpoint to the process of development? The word “developed” makes it seem like the developed countries have reached some sort of endpoint. However, on closer inspection, it seems the US still has a long way to go if development is about making sure that all people’s needs are met. Having taught in the inner city in Philadelphia, I know that there are many children in the US who are getting an inadequate education – in some cases not much better than what the children Nicaraguan farmers are getting. Also, I believe that people have a need to live in a safe environment without the daily threat of violence. There are many communities in the US where that need is unmet. In general, it doesn’t seem to me that non-material needs – for things like fulfillment and community - are met any better in the developed world than they are in the developing world.
Still, I am not one to deny the importance of the material inequalities between countries, which raises the question of why these inequalities exist in the first place. Why are some countries more materially developed than others? Historically, the concept of development arose at the end of colonialism. After the colonial powers pulled out, the former colonies were left dependent on a global economic system in which they were at an extreme disadvantage; people living in these new countries were unable to meet their needs. Despite fifty years of global effort to stimulate development, the situation hasn’t changed much. The global South– much of Africa, Latin America, and parts of Asia – is home to many people whose most basic needs – for adequate food, safe drinking water, basic health care, a clean environment – are not met.
Before I came here, I thought that the best explanation for why development has been so uneven – why people in some places have so much and others so little – had to do with historical exploitation. I still believe that the roots of the inequalities in the world are there, but I now find it an incomplete explanation for why those inequalities still exist. I now believe that much of what keeps poor people poor is cultural and social. The money is there – billions of dollars of it – but the real changes have to happen in people’s minds. Without any extra money or resources, many people’s lives could be made much better. Simple practices like consistent hand-washing can save the lives of children. More complicated social changes, like making women equal to men in social status, are necessary if development projects involving stuff are to have any lasting effect.
Additionally, I’ve come to question the concept of development as pertaining to large units such as countries. I have started to see development as being as much a personal phenomenon as it is a geographical one. For instance, a development worker from London still pertains to the developed world even when on assignment in Somalia. Does a Guatemalan immigrant still pertain to the developing world when working as a landscaper in Southern California? What about the children of that landscaper who are American citizens? What if those children go to school in inner-city Los Angeles and barely learn to read and write? Or what if those children do well in school and end up completing college? Development seems to me to be based on some combination of factors – material wealth, educational opportunities, infrastructure, job prospects, life chances, and world view – all of which have both structural and personal aspects.
So where does this leave me as a development worker with a job to do? Honestly, I have good days and bad. Some days I am frustrated with very nature of the development project. How can I, one person without any resources, be expected to make any lasting changes to people’s food security situation when even big international organizations with huge budgets haven’t been able to make much headway? On good days, though, I think maybe the only way to really make any changes is person by person, one family garden and one community bank account at a time. On those days, there’s no place I’d rather be than here.