I went to Afghanistan in 2004 to work for a leading humanitarian organization, naively certain that I could help rebuild a war-shattered country. Some aid workers are motivated by a sense of mission; I was driven by ambition, and a desperate curiosity. The conflicts in Afghanistan and Iraq dominated the news, and I wanted to be in the center of things. I wanted to have stories to tell.
Aid work also appealed to my sense of how the world worked. I assumed that development was fundamentally a matter of knowledge, not politics. I assumed that countries were poor because of a lack of knowledge; that people simply didn't know the right policies to enact, the right institutions to build, and the right ways to run their governments. And we — those of us blessed to have been born in the developed world — could tell them.
My naiveté is long gone, along with my patronizing assumptions that development is simply a matter of us teaching others what to do
The fact that I didn't speak the language, or understand the culture, didn't dim my enthusiasm in the least.
In the years since, I've worked in Iraq and across East and West Africa. I've consulted on peace and security issues, and worked for a foundation focused on human rights. I've seen projects succeed and projects fail. I've been bitten by a rat in South Sudan and driven across eastern Congo with a dead monkey. I've had friends and colleagues attacked, kidnapped, and killed.
My naiveté is long gone, along with my patronizing assumptions that development is simply a matter of us teaching others what to do.
I've seen the best and worst of international development — our desire to do good in countries far from our own. These are the lessons I've learned along the way.
1) Poverty is not ennobling
I used to think there was a silver lining to suffering — that poverty was in some ways ennobling. The nobility of suffering is, in many ways, our current version of the old myth of the noble savage, further shaped by the fundraising needs of development and humanitarian agencies. Appeals to our charity inevitably highlight the enduring strength of those who suffer: NGO fundraising materials that show weathered men and women staring resolutely at the camera, children smiling despite their circumstances.
Alas, for most of us, suffering is not redeeming. Most of us do not react heroically to adverse circumstances. Instead, people do whatever they have to do to survive — including, at times, cheating, lying, and stealing.
I once watched the leaders at a camp for internally displaced persons in Darfur threaten to riot if humanitarian agencies tried to carry out a food registration. The registration was simply a census, to see how many people were in the camp, and hence how much food they needed to deliver.
They threatened to riot for fear that the census would show fewer people in the camp than previously — which, in turn, would lead to aid agencies cutting back the amount of food they delivered. It didn't matter that the food was desperately needed elsewhere.
The leaders of the camp were not paragons of virtue. They were normal people, thrust into a horrific situation. Poverty and suffering did not lead them to act selflessly, to put others before themselves. They were fearful and desperate, so they tried to grab as much as they could for themselves and their families.
2) People are all alike
This led to a related realization — if I were in their shoes, I would do the exact same thing. If I'd been forced to flee my home, forced to seek shelter in a crowded tent city, reliant on complete strangers for sustenance and what basic health services existed, I would hoard food as well. I would lie to get more food and threaten anyone who might take my food away, regardless of the reason.
Similarly, I've visited projects where the entire village turns out, singing and dancing. It's an awkward, uncomfortable scene, not least because it lays bare the power relationships behind what we do.
People usually aren't singing out of spontaneous joy, or because of ancient traditions. Instead, it's the development version of Kabuki theater, in which everyone has a ritual role to play. It is the public performance of expected gratitude.
And I've done the same. At times I have acted obsequious toward potential funders — people who might be able to support a project or a program — telling people what I think they want to hear. In those moments, I comfort myself that the ends justified the means, but I know I'm still singing for my supper.
3) Politics matters. A lot.
It's tempting to think that change is inevitable — that over time, things will improve. It's even more tempting to believe that change is painless, that improving living standards and greater respect for human rights benefits everyone. Reality, though, is messy. There are always winners and losers.
Embarrassingly, I didn't realize this until I returned home to the United States. Politics shapes almost everything here, from the problems with our social safety net to our laws around same-sex marriage. In the States, significant change depends, to a great extent, on the people we choose to elect. Which, in turn, means that change depends on politics.
The same is true in developing countries, even those that aren't democracies. Any fundamental change in a society hinges on questions of power: who has access to power, and how those in power allocate resources. Elites don't suddenly decide to share power with marginalized communities — much less invest in creating social welfare systems — out of the goodness of their hearts. Especially when it means sharing the spoils.
This is why politics is so important. Politics is the mechanism through which groups gain power, and through which decisions are made about how that power will be used. Politics might be dirty, but ignoring politics in the countries where we work means ignoring reality.
4) Our language matters
Our language is like our furniture — we use it every day, and eventually we cease to notice it. Our language, however, is telling, insofar as it reveals both our biases and our priorities. In international development, we have fashioned a semantic universe in which we in the West are the essential actors. Those we help are often relegated to a strictly supporting role.
The term "empowerment" is emblematic of this dynamic. The dictionary defines empowerment as the act of giving power to someone. When we talk of empowering communities, we are, more than anything, emphasizing our own role in the process, as the ones bestowing power. There is no sense that communities can — or even should — take power for themselves, without our help.
Any fundamental change in a society hinges on questions of power: who has access to power, and how those in power allocate resources
I lost my faith in empowerment when I realized that we didn't give the communities we "empowered" any actual power — we made the decisions for them. We decided what kind of programs to launch, and where.
I once helped launch a gender-based violence program in Central Africa, to provide support to survivors of rape. It's hard to argue with the goal. The problem was we never asked the women themselves if this is what they actually wanted. We simply assumed that they did.
As Gloria Steinem once explained, "Power can be taken, but not given. The process of the taking is empowerment itself."
5) We are not all that important
International actors — donors, governments, NGOs — have a role to play. Effective programs can have a tremendous impact on the ground. A woman survives pregnancy, a child survives infancy, a girl learns how to read. These interventions change people's lives. Similarly, our support for civil society can lead to lasting societal change — countries that are somewhat more democratic, and somewhat more equitable.
Yet despite what our language implies, we are not the central actors in this drama. Imagine how we would react if a Nigerian advocacy group came to Washington, DC, claiming that its policy prescriptions could solve our partisan rancor. Or if a Burmese organization opened a health clinic in rural Mississippi, offering aid to the destitute and claiming that its approach would revolutionize American health care. Or if an Ecuadorian nonprofit started a campaign at the United Nations, to focus international attention on police killings in the US.
We would scoff at these efforts. American problems, we think, will be solved here in America. We should extend the same courtesy to others. We can help, but lasting, systemic change doesn't come from the outside.
I will never forget watching people lining up to vote in Afghanistan's first presidential election, in 2004. People stood in line despite threats of violence, waiting to cast their ballot.
Not that Afghanistan suddenly emerged from that election, or subsequent elections, as an oasis of peace and prosperity. Despite our wishes otherwise, change takes a long time. And this, I've come to realize, is what change looks like — people deciding, one by one, to stand in line, despite the threats, and vote.
I look back over the past decade, and, more than anything else, I feel like a voyeur. I like to think that some of the things I've done have helped — but I no longer pretend that I'm in any way special, much less indispensable. I didn't save the world, but I did change — I gained, slowly, a sense of humility, and a sense of perspective.
To do this work, you have to distance yourself from the illusion of control, from the illusion that your work will lead to the outcomes you wish to see. And you have to be willing to continue nonetheless.
Michael Bear Kleinman worked for NGOs in Afghanistan, across East and Central Africa, and in Iraq, and then for a foundation in the US focused on human rights issues. He is the co-author of Expat Etiquette. Follow him on Twitter @MichaelKleinman.
First Person is Vox's home for compelling, provocative narrative essays. Do you have a story to share? Read our submission guidelines, and pitch us at firstname.lastname@example.org.