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ASU Lodestar Center Blog

Research Friday: The gift


Welcome to Research Friday! As part of a continuing series, we invite a nonprofit scholar, student, or professional to highlight current research reports or studies and discuss how they can inform and improve day-to-day nonprofit practice.

Note: This article will focus on international development from my perspective working in an African country, although the questions raised are pertinent to any “developed” country or continent’s relationship to a “developing” region.

It began with a bench, and how I came to be standing before that particular bench. In 2010, I was a fresh young Ally in ASU’s Lodestar Center Public Allies program. Working with an intelligent and experienced staff of a Phoenix-based nonprofit involved focused on global issues, I was encouraged to ask questions of development organizations and to think through a lens of international aid. I was taught that proper research and first-hand experience were paramount to any sort of doctrine. It wasn’t simply about throwing money at an international issue - it was about listening to local problems, local solutions, and local thought. I learned I could and should offer assistance to local citizens who asked for it.

My days as an Ally are behind me, but the passion remains: in December of 2012 I found myself on a plane bound for a Tanzanian NGO. I assumed I was well-equipped for this adventure. Toting my understanding of international development, and my NGO experience, I figured I knew to expect the unexpected. Local problems, local solutions. I got this.

But that bench. Whew. I wasn’t prepared for it.

This particular bench resides in a classroom in a small school in Moshi. The school consists of 4 rooms total; general seating in these rooms is limited to the same white plastic chairs that grace many US patios. The room also played host to a broken bench, with sagging beams that posed a number of concerns when nine (yes, nine) Tanzanian schoolchildren piled upon it daily.

It was apparent that the bench needed repairs requiring a few nails, and obviously, the use of a hammer to do so. Construction efforts down the street told me those materials were available, yet the magic ingredient - willingness - seemed absent. Parents would often appear near the door of this classroom. One even sat in it during an entire lesson. Yet there seemed no concern for the dire condition of a dangerous bench, threatening to injure a student at any time. I tried to picture a bench like this in a “Western” classroom. I couldn’t do it.

I stood in front of this classroom, thinking that I had paid $3,290 of my own money to share what I had (my education and passion) with a society that didn’t seem to care enough to repair a bench, despite having the materials to do so very, very close at hand.

I began to question everything about our desire to aid “developing” countries. The scariest question of all, the one I was so afraid to even say out loud was: “Are we trying to westernize a culture that is simply … not?” Returning home, I turned to literary sources in hopes I would discover scholars who had asked the same questions I was now asking. I needed to know more about aid, about philanthropy, about the history of Western involvement in international development. I needed to know we weren’t doing more harm than good by insisting that Western principles, like education and lengthy life spans, were paramount to all cultures on this planet. We say, “it’s better”... but why?

This research took me immediately to Sally Matthews, senior lecturer in the Department of Political Sciences at the University of Pretoria in South Africa. Her research focuses on the relationship between poverty, privilege, and social justice; especially in regards to NGO work and anti-racism efforts.

Dr. Matthews has authored many papers on these issues, but in 2004 she penned a particularly interesting article in the Third World Quarterly titled “Post-development theory and the question of alternatives: A view from Africa.” In it, she examines the idea of alternatives to development (commonly referred to as post-development theory). Dr. Matthews urges the examination of post-development theory from an African perspective, and asks what contributions the consideration of African diversity could make to this scholarly debate. It is her belief that increasing developed countries’ consideration of African experiences and ideals would be immensely valuable for anyone seeking to offer aid to developing countries.

Matthews clearly acknowledges that her use of the word “development” refers specifically to the theories and practices which emerged after 1950 and categorize some areas of the world as “developed,” and others as not; and that the former should set about engaging the “development” which has thus far eluded the latter. Post-development theorists believe that this construction of “development” should be rejected, even those efforts designed to be “sustainable.” In a nutshell, Matthews is addressing the cause and effect of “development,” with the purpose of answering the question “Why do we do what we do?”

She offers three reasons as to why we can (and should) question our reasoning for “development.” One, disillusionment with development because development has often arrived packaged with environmental destruction. Two, promises unfulfilled (poverty reduction, increased home equity, economic growth, etc). And three, the opinion from the sidelines that no matter how it is packaged, this development seems to lead directly to increased cultural homogenization and Westernization.

Matthews makes the point that despite slight westernization, Africa remains rooted in indigenous languages and cultural norms. Encapsulated within that fact lies the largest problem with Western ideas on development: a project premised upon a set of values cannot succeed in the absence of those values. This is not to say that development in its entirety has failed; but rather to look at its progress over the last sixty years and realize that it has not come nearly as far as it was touted it would. Matthews writes,

Africa has been subjected to development initiative after development initiative, and yet it remains impoverished, and the gap between the standard of living of Africans and those in the ‘developed’ world is ever-widening ... When dealing with issues as urgent and desperate as poverty, inequality and deprivation, limited success must be recognised ultimately as failure. To promise to deliver a starving man a meal and then only to deliver a few crumbs is to fail to keep a promise.

Thus, when reading the angry words of post-development theorists complaining that the [post World War II] development project has only brought about disappointment, increased inequities, cultural homogenisation, environmental destruction and general disillusionment, one cannot help but feel that the African situation con?rms and underlines these theorists’ ?ndings. And one cannot help but be surprised that the insights of post-development theory have not been extensively related to Africa, nor extensively discussed by African academics. (p. 377-378)

What left me startled is the fact that I went into this small school in Moshi very much aware that African opinions and local ideas for development mattered. I worked with a locally founded (and inspiring!) NGO, staffed entirely with fantastic Moshi residents and supplied with Western volunteers who did only the work asked of them. In no regards did volunteers go armed with our own ideas, and stomp around crafting “solutions.” African ideas and solutions were very much a part of our role in the international development sector. In fact, the NGO was led by them.

Despite such knowledge, it was the difference in cultural norms that rocked me to my core. In the end, a sustainable and locally based NGO, staffed with volunteers from across the globe, can offer education to students in a small town in Tanzania. That NGO can continue for the foreseeable future, operating chiefly on Western dollars and donations. US celebrities will continue to pour their humanitarian efforts on similar organizations, and the UN will propound the need for international dollars to continue supporting the Millennium Development Goals. Everyone involved will continue to collect the data, call for the reports, engage local opinions, and search for environmentally sustainable solutions.

Yet there are nine students on a broken bench; and for my money, that’s a paradigm issue. And I’m not entirely sure that paradigm shifts can, or should be, bought with Western dollars.

Dianna Schwartz is a 2011 graduate of the Public Allies program at the ASU Lodestar Center. She serves as Executive Director of the Military Assistance Project, as Executive Director of Global Youth United (both located in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania), and as Director of Client Service for Franklin Mediation Consultants, LLC.


[1] Matthews, S. (2004). Third world quarterly post-development theory and the question of alternatives: A view from Africa. Third World Quarterly, 24(2), 373-384.


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