Many globally minded, can-do Americans these days have come to believe that the world's major problems have solutions, and that these solutions are within reach. This feeling often leads to frustration: Why doesn't someone just do something about these problems? Are the NGOs and foreign aid agencies lazy, incompetent, or both? Why can't we end poverty?
Last weekend, the New York Times Magazine ran a cover story about people who have taken matters into their own hands. The piece, Nicholas Kristof's "D.I.Y. Foreign Aid Revolution: The rise of the fix-the-world-on-your-own generation" offered several aren't-they-inspiring stories about Americans who have run off to save poor people in developing countries from whatever afflicts them. A woman from Oregon begins fundraising for community work in eastern Congo, and later shifts her attentions to conflict minerals. A recent high school graduate from New Jersey uses her babysitting money to start an orphanage and school in rural Nepal. You get the idea.
The stories sound lovely. I admit to feeling a little warm and fuzzy inside reading them. After all, this is what drives me to do development work: to make the world just a little better. (I study international development at New York University.) We all want to tell ourselves the story about fighting through hardship -- each of these women made personal sacrifices for their work -- to make the world a better place.
Unfortunately, such stories don't reflect reality. Spend a little time in any community in the world, and you'll see people from that community finding ways to improve it -- not outsiders. Working in eastern Uganda last summer, I found well-organized community groups who weren't waiting for any outsider's help. I worked with an NGO that conducted business and financial skills education in rural villages, and our best trainers were Ugandans from those very villages.
Yet these sort of people -- local community members helping their neighbors and themselves -- are absent from Kristof's stories. Instead, he gives the reader an American heroine (his stories are mostly about women) who comes to save the day. Local individuals exist as needy targets of the protagonist's benevolence. If they act on their own behalf or the behalf of their community, it's only after the American has prompted them to do so. Developing country governments and domestic civil society are barely mentioned. Saundra Schimmelpfennig, who blogs at Good Intentions are Not Enough, has dubbed this the "Whites in Shining Armor" storyline: Americans and other outsiders are uniquely positioned to bring change to a community, as if we are saviors come to deliver them from poverty.
Such implicit arrogance aside, a more fundamental problem is that Kristof's narratives make development seem simple. In his stories, the hero sees a problem and fixes it. Women are suffering from war and rape in Congo? Raise some money, build some homes, and regulate conflict minerals. Lack of affordable sanitary pads keeps women from work and girls out of school? Develop a cheaper pad. Orphaned children in Nepal? Build an orphanage. He even implies that the established foreign aid organizations "look the other way" when it comes to these problems. How could they miss such obvious opportunities for improving lives?