The Role of Extranjeros in Development Part 2

Date: May 16, 2011
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One of the things that has most influenced my opinion that foreigners can and should be involved in cross-cultural development work has been my thinking and studying of globalization. In my opinion the history of globalization is replete with deception, manipulation and oppression of developing countries by extranjeros. This past and ongoing history of colonialism, neo-colonialism and imperialism should give us caution as we proceed. We have already considered many of the negative aspects that foreign presence has caused across the globe in many different countries and scenarios. However, if we are concerned by these negative effects of globalization, the solution is not to stick our heads in the sand and adopt an isolationist, non-interventionist stance. The increase of cross-cultural exchange brought about by globalization may bear the seeds of globalization’s undoing, or at least the undoing of the most detrimental aspects of globalization.

If, as I believe, globalization intends to be a homogenizing force transforming people, nations and economies into adherents of the consumer religion which worships the gods of infinite growth and the American Dream, then it is remarkably similar in many ways to the spread of Christianity by Spain and Portugal during the height of the colonial era. In that era the Gospel spread as a monolithic battle standard carried by the church and state side by side. This was a version of the Gospel captive to culture. Inadvertently (or perhaps more cynically with some knowledge) the church attempted to teach the “savages” what it meant to follow Jesus by teaching them to look and act like them and fall in line with the values and wishes of the Empire.
However, as the Gospel spread to far flung areas of the world where it was often difficult for the church to control exactly what went on, missionaries came into contact with the diversity of human existence on our little planet. As the church and Gospel rubbed shoulders with other cultures and religions, the seeds of the undoing of this monolithic, culturally captive conception of the Gospel were being sown. It would be much later when the flowers of pluralism and postmodernism fully bloomed. The very spread of this univocal idea of the Gospel to a diversity of cultures meant that the concept itself would inevitably come into question. The implications of this will be dealt with more fully in the next post about the ramifications of this discussion on the realm of Christian mission and theology.

The global effort of Multinational Corporations through advertising, media, trade deals and their global omnipresence have created a force unimaginably more powerful than the cadre of monks and missionaries sent out by Spain and Portugal in their heyday. Nevertheless, the very thing that may aid in preventing or transforming the most detrimental aspects of this homogenizing force is the fact of its global, cross-cultural nature. Even as Multinationals spread their worship of the consumer religion across the globe, the very fact that it must deal with the total diversity of humanity may undermine the possibility of maintaining such a monolithic system. However, the subtlety of this ideology and the scope of its influence may prove me wrong. Regardless, cross-cultural development work has a role to play in countering the destructive homogenizing forces at work.

Cross-cultural development work may be of more benefit to the workers from developed countries than the people it purports to help. As I have defined development, we may be of little help long term to the people with whom we work. The best we can really hope for is to give them the tools of decision-making, empowerment and organizing that will make our presence even more useless. Cross-cultural workers must realize that one of their primary tasks, regardless of what their three-year plan says, is to be transformed by wrestling with their own cultural prejudices and conception of poverty and development. What the world really needs is not more development in poverty-stricken areas of the world, but more privileged citizens of the developed world who are aware of their own cultural captivity and the reality of the global situation (many more people in the developing are all too aware of the effects of the global economy on themselves and others).

Some may say that this is easy to say from a position of privilege and that I am ignoring the grim realities of poverty. I would probably say the same if someone made this argument to me. I have chronic ideological schizophrenia, because I don’t believe in dualisms. The need of people in poverty (however you decide to define it) is real, but we are more the cause of their problems than the saviors that will bear them up on our sacred wings. It also needs to be recognized that changes in the worldview of North Americans have global implications. Imagine the impact on global agriculture (whether good or ill) if the United States made radical changes to its Farm Bill, such as summarily doing away with our subsidy system. Thus, the transformation of cross-cultural workers is not an insignificant factor in the process of undoing the damaging effects of the spread of globalization’s homogenizing gospel of consumerism.

I would hasten to add that this cross-cultural work makes real solidarity possible. Solidarity is not about making ideological claims on behalf of the poor without any real relationship. It does not mean giving up some of our comforts and luxuries to show that we understand. As long as the poor of the world remain an abstraction for use in political and ideological games of chess, solidarity is likewise an abstraction. When the poor have names, context, aspirations and a relationship with us, they can no longer be used, manipulated or moved around the board like expendable pawns. Solidarity is identification with the cause and aspiration of a people and therefore can never be an abstraction. Perhaps there are some universal aspirations of the poor, like self-sufficiency and autonomy, but apart from an embodiment in particular people these universal aspirations are meaningless.

So, while the dangers of foreigners involved in development work is real and the damage that has been done in the past is well documented, the alternative is not to simply withdraw. Instead we must become more engaged in the crucial work of understanding the world we live in from the bottom up. The role of extranjeros living in the midst of that reality is crucial. These things cannot be known or understood from a distance or the glossy pages of National Geographic (I do love that rag though).

  • Willmar T. Harder

    Interesting reflections that guard against patronizing development. Three questions as response and further reflection. 1) Regarding the three year plan comment … how is the MCC stated principle of “mutual transformation” (in documents and orientation) infused (even vividly assumed) in your plan?; 2) You are part of the Low German Mennonite program. In light of your reflections on North Americans in developing countries … how do you consider LGM — are they North Americans or are they non-North Americans living in Bolivia, thereby either making them the problem, or a partner, or something that doesn’t fit either category? It is interesting that LGMs are often categorized depending on the given point an author is trying to make about development in Bolivia; and 3) To what extent does your principle of, “the best we can really hope for is to give them the tools of decision-making, empowerment and organizing that will make our presence even more useless,” resemble the stated goal of “capacity building”?

  • Elisabeth Harder Schrock

    For what it’s worth (quite a bit of humurous self-reflection, I think):
    http://stuffexpataidworkerslike.com/

  • http://wwje.wordpress.com/ lucas

    Sorry Willmar if my side comment about three-year plans came off as a bit dismissive. Three-year plans are good things and I think MCC does a good job of keeping the kind of principles about missions and development in the foreground. I’m not sure how you can really write “mutual transformation” into one of those plans, even though we try. My point was that the same person could carry out any particular three-year plan in ways that were more hurtful or helpful to the people they are working with, regardless of what the plan says.

    On LGMs… they don’t easily fit into our categories by design. They’ve chosen to create communities separate from the world and somewhat apart from national identities. They are certainly not the extranjeros I’m thinking of in these posts. I’m thinking of people like myself, who come into a developing country from a developed country to live and work on poverty, development, etc. Given that, I consider LGMs part of the Bolivian context. They didn’t move to Bolivia in order to help Bolivians develop their country or work on poverty.

    I think “capacity building” is basically what I’m getting at and the best that we can really offer. I still get wary even of that idea, if it continues to perpetuate the idea that I’m coming with the answers from a far off land and the people I work with don’t have their own skills, knowledge, wisdom and solutions for their problems.

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