Adjusting the picture

Jun 28th, 2009 | By | Category: International

You can stand at the door and see the Southern Cross and the Plough.  The major constellations of Northern and Southern hemispheres in one piece of sky; a big picture of things.

Big pictures are good; they show how things relate to each other; they show the relative importance of the things in the picture; they put things in their proper perspective.  Sometimes a glimpse of a big picture can completely change thoughts and attitudes.

One very tiring day, tiring not so much because of things done, but because of the amount of thinking required; one visit to one small community confirmed thoughts about seeing things upside down.   The picture of development at the international conferences and in the ideological stances of the aid agencies is not the big picture; it is an abstraction, a complex of numbers and words at one corner of the canvas that can be endlessly discussed and debated by the experts and the professionals.  But development is not an abstraction, unless one happens to live in some European city, where it can be the focus of the business of the day at the office, before going home to a middle class lifestyle,  Development is what happens at the sharp end; and while the international organisations, with their conferences and rounds of lobbying, talk about the structural changes necessary to bring about their vision of the future, the people at the sharp end, with precious few resources, get on with the business.

For at least two decades the aid industry has talked of the need for reform at the top level in order that there might be change at the bottom level; time during which by their own admission, the gap between the rich and the poor has grown wider and wider.  Standing in a village on Thursday, where the secondary school has 340 girls accommodated in a single dormitory; where only the relatively wealthy go to secondary school in the first place; where the school library contained  pitiful collection of books; where many of the children at the primary school ate only once in the day; where the proudly displayed new health centre was probably on a par with European health care from a long time past; there was a realisation that poor people could not wait for the promised heaven of the aid agencies.  Whatever structures there might be at the top level, the task at hand was to do what you could for the people you met.

Perhaps, one day, the new world sought by the agencies will be achieved, perhaps their spending of tens of millions on administration and political campaigns will be shown to be worthwhile (money that might have fed children and provided medicines), but in the meantime the big picture is the suffering of ordinary people;  suffering that is not going to  be ameliorated by words.

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  1. I meant to tell you before you left but a friend of Clare’s was in Africa last year in Tanzania and the kids went mad for hair ties (elastic) and pens . . .that’s all they wanted because their hair go in their eyes at school and they were working with pencils or chalk . . It’s a whole different world out there.

  2. The Southern Cross and the Plough both, but then you must be close to the equator!

    Challenge us, Ian! Tell us what the people you are meeting need from us in an Ireland still part of the rich world. Am I right to feel ashamed and outraged that Ireland’s overseas development aid has been slashed by more than the contraction in GDP?

  3. One of the most depressing things was the extravagance of the big aid agencies with their city centre offices and their big jeeps. The UN were even worse, a huge black hole for funds.

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