Many years ago, in my work with aboriginal populations in Canada, it was made subtly evident to me that the government officials with briefcases who fly or drive into a First Nations reservation and plan to depart in daylight the same day would be tolerated, amused, even informed... but not respected. It was felt that if an outsider were uninterested in spending even one night with the locals then he or she would be unlikely to really understand many of the underlying conditions which cause the problems for which such officials come, nor be able to experience aspects of their collective culture that could be favourably shared for improving life.

In an analogous way, the exponential expansion of international development work—an ‘industry’ in the eyes of some—has spawned the advent of the variably labelled “Development Tourist”, “Development Drifter” or “Development Butterfly”: this is a so-called practitioner who alights at a foreign run project for a week or two (I am being liberal—often it’s just a few days), makes quick and purportedly professional decisions, imputes innuendoes from private, shallow conversations—especially from connected local interlocutors fluent in English—and proceeds to project his or her opinions, decisions and actions as having been thoughtfully and validly developed. In truth, such people often are devoid of sufficient local contextual perspectives to enable their articulating reasoned advice or plans. When such people are, moreover, even occupying donor and executing agency offices, it spells perhaps good income for their agencies, but guaranteed continuation of status quo ante for intended beneficiaries.

In many if not most development projects there is a disconnect ab initio between people of different socioeconomic and religiocultural backgrounds and nationalities even within a country; this can only be exacerbated by absence of contextual personal experience of donor and executing agency personnel. My intent is to emphasize that if there be an endemic disconnect between beneficiaries and those purporting to understand and help them, then only negligible sustained progress, if any, would ever be made. Therefore, efforts must be expended at empathetic planning matched to the local rhythms.

What do I mean by rhythms? Life of any society flows in a certain rhythm, in a symmetry of all the diverse good and bad elements which combined give a particular picture or flavour of that culture: this is what in total paint a “stereotype”, if you will, of a nation and its subgroups. This, in itself, is normal and what often makes temporary tourism interesting. In the international development sphere, however, when aid projects are involved for a longer time or, as in case of disaster assistance, for a shorter but more concentrated time, the effectiveness of interaction hinges on deep mutual understanding. Mutual understanding is obtained by empathy, the latter truly attainable only through personal experience in the same milieu as the intended beneficiaries.

As such, foreign experts residing in comfortable hotels, chauffeured in air conditioned armoured vehicles to stage-managed meetings, aided in understanding by equally removed feudal elite fluent in English, hurrying back to their lattes for an evening of brainstorming about what exactly to do to help the poor people with a quick fix-time bound project to be steered by more outsiders who do not even speak the language cannot possibly realize their intended, malplanned, albeit well meaning results. Thus, what is required is a concerted synchronicity of the rhythms of the donors together with local, less advantaged populations who are to be the beneficiaries of the interventions and collaboration.

Some appropriate methodologies shall be covered in the next blog.