Can White People Do Development?

Building a brick wall

Building a brick wall in 35 degree heat gave us a thrill, but was only a minor contribution

Imagine if flash floods hit Melbourne, displacing thousands of families. Houses are destroyed, parents are separated from their children, and the stinky Yarra overflows through the CBD. With the world’s attention turned to Melbourne, a Dutch organisation decides to fly to the city to set up a giant orphanage to house lost kids. The Chinese government follows suit by delivering crates of chopsticks, fruits, and Chinese-language educational literature to every house. Meanwhile, environmental groups from Brazil decide to send a cheque through to the Australian government, with specific instructions to use that money to save kangaroos from drowning.

In this hypothetical situation, the Dutch, Chinese, and Brazilian institutions would probably each feel pretty chuffed about their contributions, believing their aid work was helping to solve the problem. In actual fact, though, the above actions would not only be counter-cultural and illogical, but largely ineffective.

My point here is that giving foreign aid is complicated and it requires good brains to ensure it is used wisely. From my two weeks so far in Cambodia, I’m learning more and more that those brains are not necessarily the ones found between my two ears, or even those found inside the heads of my fellow volunteers. Rather, those brains belong to the locals I meet on a daily basis, who know their country better than anybody else. They don’t necessarily have all the solutions, but they sure understand their country’s issues far better than any foreigner, regardless of good intentions.

After a week of familiarising ourselves with Cambodia’s major tourist attractions and basic culture, my ten-person volunteer party made its way to the less-frequented Kratie province. Here, we spent three days beside the Mekong River, taking part in a voluntourism project at a rural island-based community. Amid classic travel experiences such as playing volleyball with locals who couldn’t speak English, watching traditional dance ceremonies alongside hundreds of excitable children, and practicing palm-leaf origami, our group learned extremely basic Khmer, gave a few hours of manual labour, and chipped in some valuable dough.

Voluntourism can be a dirty word in the aid and development sector; the idea that you can walk into a rural community and make a sustainable difference in a couple of days is a crude and unrealistic perception, reflecting a typically colonialist Western mindset. As a group of savvy development nerds, our group was well aware of this reality. To somewhat counter this we ensured the company we used was a reputable non-governmental organisation whose work was supporting the community we were visiting. Even barring that in mind though, sleeping in the houses of people with whom we could not communicate felt invasive and was something that provoked fervent dinner-table discussions between us.

On our second day, the ten of us spent two hours building a three-brick-tall wall for the community’s tourist centre. In 35-degree heat, we sweated and whinged and took regular refreshments as we laboured away on this relatively simple task. The locals, meanwhile, exhibited a far stronger work ethic. They rarely took breaks, didn’t raise any concerns, and faced the climate with long-sleeved tops and pants.

We were pretty proud of our brick wall, and I’d be lying to say we didn’t feel a little pride in our construction. But the fact of the matter is our contribution was insignificnat. Without us, the community could have built the wall both more efficiently and effectively. Indeed, it wouldn’t surprise me if they decided to knock down the wall a day later to re-construct it.

Building that wall would have been the last thing on our minds had our group arrived at this community without direction from the local NGO. I’m sure we would have preferred to build a communal well, or helped the local farmers plow their fields, or something else very tangible. But the community’s greatest need at that time was nothing of the sort; their most pressing problem was that they lacked good drainage at the community centre. And so that’s how we helped.

If there’s anything those two hours of exhaustion reaffirmed to me, it was that the role of foreigners in development is vastly overrated. Not only do we not have the physical skills and work ethic to produce efficient outcomes, but we often lack the local knowledge and cultural savvy required to make effective change. Of course this is a generalisation and won’t apply to all situations. But by the end of our homestay, I was leaning more and more to the view that a foreigner’s most valuable contribution to ending poverty is in home-based activities such as fundraising and activism.

Less than a week later, our contingent made its way to a Kampong Chan, where we helped run a four-day workshop for high-school and tertiary students. The aim of the programme was to provide some of the region’s brightest Cambodian children with a new set of skills.

It was easy at times to forget that most of these students were from tough backgrounds, who were only at school due to scholarships provided by various NGOs such as Oaktree. That gave me some pride, especially upon hearing that some students aspired to one day establish education NGOs of their own. It also confirmed my prior conclusions about money being an invaluable Western contribution in the development puzzle.

schmoThe rest of the week, however, taught me a number of valuable lessons about development. When running my six-hour session on cameras I came to understand that I was bringing new knowledge to children who had never before held such a device, something that empowered me. I’m willing to concede that teaching Cameras 101 is a pithy example when it comes to delivering specialised knowledge. But in a country where horrific genocide existed less than 35 years ago, Cambodia is one nation that is bereft of knowledge in many areas and could use some support. It needs people who can bring new ideas and information to its people.

When my fellow volunteers helped Cambodian children brainstorm reasons why they valued education, and assisted them with their English, I could see how foreigners could make a positive – albeit small – difference in the lives of a few local students. Much like the brick wall, our contributions were minimal but this time around I could at least envision how a more skilful and knowledgeable version of ourselves could potentially make a sustainable contribution.

All this brings me back to my first question: can white people (read foreigners) do development? Realistically, the answer is of course yes. But that’s a yes with an asterisk or two.

Westerners are absolutely invaluable for the money they pump into aid and development, whether that be through government channels such as AusAID or NGOs such as Oaktree. But I believe that westerners need to have a valid reason for wanting to start up organisations abroad or committing themselves to international aid work. They need to stop underestimating the capacity of local people in lifting themselves out of poverty.

Foreigners not only need to be able to bring skills, ideas, and knowledge abroad, but they need to bring skills, ideas, and knowledge that they can transfer to others. There’s nothing sustainable about a white doctor coming into a country, fixing a few problems, and leaving without having trained a local doctor or six in the process. As my earlier example explained, a foreigner can’t expect to be the key driver of change in a country where they can’t speak the local lexicon, don’t understand the customs, and have a Wikipedia knowledge of the history.

I don’t want to discourage aspiring aid workers from pursuing their dreams, or deterring young people from volunteering in underdeveloped nations. Rather, I’d like to encourage westerners to shift their mindset, consider their motivations, and remember that they not the solution, but merely one tiny part of it.