“The blind leading the blind” – ethical unease when discussing “development” in the office

As I posted about previously, I am spending most of my time in the office week on a paper of great interest to me: cell phones and direct democracy.  Unfortunately, though, I have a conundrum of ethics with this paper, one which I have not yet figured out: although (mercifully) the international wing of my office is called “ICMA International” and doesn’t include the word “development,” said nasty word is made use of in their “About” page which serves as a mini-Mission Statement for themselves, under the umbrella of ICMA’s overall Mission Statement.  The Biblical allusion which serves as the title to this post, “the blind leading the blind,” is only the barest of apt descriptions.  As far as my years of study as well as personal experience can inform me, more than just the blind leading the blind, the process of international “development” is more along the lines of trying to toss a thimble through a Cheerio while riding on a unicycle; the unicycle is on the back of a full-speed cheetah, whereas the Cheerio is affixed to a rabid warthog, which itself is attached to an uncontrolled, violently swinging fire hose.  This whole scene takes place in a hailstorm on the deck of the Titanic during its fateful first/last voyage. 

Hyperbole aside, my concerns actually do have a fair bit of academic grounding, but not from the usual sources of “accepted truths.”  One of these books, William Easterly’s The White Man’s Burden: Why the West’s Efforts to Aid the Rest Have Done So Much Ill and So Little Good is one specific angle on this: he is an economist (one who was fired from the World Bank for writing the prequel to this book), and looks into the various ways in which the Planners of aid so often fail to help but instead hurt, whereas the Searchers look and see what might be helpful and offer it.  From this initial, still fairly Western-biased point of view about development, it is only a few short jumps across the literature to a book like Escaping Education: Living as Learning within Grassroots Cultures, by Prakash and Esteva.  This book is unashamedly postmodernist, deconstructionist, and against the Western way of doing many things, and has as its core case study the idea of education as the worst kind of “human right,” which in turn it describes as the Western secular Gospel of the past 60 years.  If one steps back from this initially-surprising idea, it actually kind of makes sense; human rights has a tendency, for example to have states step in and quash local cultures and their method of justice.  As one individual quoted in the book mentions, “how is the Western idealized conception of justice as a blind woman any better than our local idea of a woman with her eyes open, seeing the causes and situations of those who did the wrong?”  This is a very hard question to answer, for most of us (I refer to the readers of this blog, and attendees of AU) have been raised to think of impartial justice as the best, but this is very culture-specific.  If justice means punishment for doing wrong, this makes sense.  If, however, justice means something more like giving the wrong-doer a chance to get back on their feet/return to normal as a member of the community, as it does in the local culture described, then instead of sending in human rights activists to shut down their method of doing things, perhaps we could send in people to watch, listen, and learn from what very well might be a better system?


Short summary of the ideas aside, one might see my unease at having my paper be associated with “development,” which often involves making claims to what is best for people on the ground (when in fact we ourselves clearly have no solid idea ourselves).  That is, in fact, why my paper is about a policy that would enable more individuals and groups to make clear their feelings about choices made in their local municipality (however those choices are made, and whatever the outcome) clear to their chosen leaders.  “Direct democracy,” as the paper shall reveal, will refer more to the ability of citizens to provide feedback on the provision of local services (water or fire departments, as two examples) than necessarily voting on each and every issue to arise.  In this way, perhaps this scheme of using cell phones to help citizens help their local government better enable them to live more fulfilling lives as they see fit (which is glossing on my office’s International mission statement, to be honest and clear, but it is related to what is said there) is worth considering.  The trick will be avoiding the label of “development” which seems to imply that there is a one-size-fits-all method of doing things; not sure if I will pull it off, not even completely sure that the International Team here is free from being involved in development, but perhaps I can speak through this paper in a way that might make sense to at least one person who currently thinks development is a completely good thing.  There is a line in the Jewish Talmud somewhere about “saving one life will save the world, in time,” and while I only seek to offer a different way of looking at “development,” rethinking what is actually good for people in that context can likely save the lives and cultures of those individuals who supposedly “need” development.