Adjusting the pictureJun 28th, 2009 | By Ian Poulton | 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.