Sunday, March 1, 2009

Ten Cents a Day

February 28, 2009

Looking at this picture reminds me of commercials I used to see in the US asking you to sponsor a child. “For only 10 cents a day…” they would plead. “Sponsor a child today.” Looking at this picture, what do you feel? Do you feel like you should take pity on her? Seriously. Stop and take 30 seconds to look at the picture and think about whether she is in need of assistance and why.

Yes, her button is broken – she’s wearing second-hand clothes. And yes she needs to wipe her nose. She also has a somewhat longing look on her face. Beyond that though, what is it? In my mind it’s just programming – clever marketing that has taken root designed to pull at heart strings and purse strings. Now don’t get me wrong. I have no idea what those organizations that take your 10 cents a day are actually doing. I haven’t seen any of them at work in Cameroon. Maybe they’re doing amazing work for kids that don’t have enough to eat or wouldn’t otherwise go to school. I’m not mad at the organizations. I’m mad at the stereotypes that I let myself be coerced into without even thinking about it. And I have a feeling I’m not alone in holding these stereotypes. Maybe I’m only alone in being able to notice this one because I’ve been living in Africa for almost two years.

Like almost every other introspective contemplation that I have in Cameroon, this one also leads me back to the ‘development question.’ What is it that people really need? Why are some countries considered underdeveloped? What are the criteria and do they really want to be developed? Peace Corps doesn’t send volunteers to Canada or Great Britain because someone somewhere decided that they are not in need. But how do we decide who needs what kind of help? To be fair to Peace Corps, each host country has to request volunteers. But then how do the host countries decide what they need. I think a lot of the ideas of what one considers ‘developed’ are relative – that is, compared to the West and Western standards, Cameroon is underdeveloped as is much of Africa. But if development is relative, in 75 years let’s presume Africa to be living at the exact same standards as Americans are now and America to be somehow 75 years more developed. Are we still going to say Africa is underdeveloped? I would probably strongly disagree if someone tried to argue that the US is underdeveloped today. I think most if not all of Americans would also strongly disagree, and would have done the same 75 years ago as well. But if development is relative, then that means it’s not about a selfless approach to meeting a set of standards that we deem indispensable to every human being. It’s just a game of catch-up – maybe a never-ending game of catch-up.

Now, I do think that there are some standards with regard to health care and education that are not relative and that are actually somewhat agreed upon. People have the right to drink water that doesn’t make them sick and a right to a decent education, for example. There are actually a decent number of NGOs and development organizations working on some of these problems. For the sake of the argument, let’s put those aside for now.

When I think of development, what normally comes to my head are roads and bridges and buildings and economies…and conquering poverty, like the girl in the picture – the idea of development that somehow established itself in my head. People need clean water, but do they need running water? Maybe a family is used to using kerosene lamps; do they need electricity? Paved roads? Automobiles? Where do you draw the line? Or, with a relative idea of development, do we keep moving the line farther and farther away like leading a horse with a carrot.

I occasionally hear some conspiracy theories about the white man trying to keep Africa down. I couldn’t disagree more with them, but we have to admit that we’re not playing on an even playing field. It is suited to those that are already ‘developed.’ We might not be cheating, but we did create the game. The idea of a capitalistic democracy was created by the West because it fit really well with our independent culture. There’s not necessarily anything wrong with it, but it is much harder to adapt, for example, in a collective culture like Cameroon’s. And now there is no longer a choice of whether or not to adapt it. It was decided by colonizing forces long ago and it is too late to go back. We’re stuck in this strange quandary with one puzzle piece left that doesn’t fit no matter how you force it. Cameroon and the rest of Africa, without outside influences, would have eventually developed into their own unique first-world identities. Sadly, we’ll never know what that image of Africa would have looked like.

We’re about to either hit a dead end or start going in circles, so let’s look at the question through a different paradigm: would you rather be a happy-go-lucky poor person or a miserable rich bastard? The idea is who cares about development? People want to be happy. If someone is living in a shanty town without running water but is a part of a loving family, has supportive friends, enough to eat and is not constantly sick, what’s the problem? Is the question how much stuff one needs to be happy or how one can be happy? They’re two entirely different questions. The person seeking the answer to the first question will probably never find enough stuff. The person seeking the answer to the second question, as in my case, will probably find little clues and tidbits of the answer along the way. And he might even find the quest just as enjoyable as the possibility of ever finding an answer.

Maybe it seems like I’ve changed my outlook a bit. It might seem that today I would disagree with what I wrote in the “What’s wrong with Cameroon” series. I don’t. The idea is not that there is nothing wrong with Cameroon – there’s plenty. But I could write another series on what’s wrong with the US or probably any other country after living there for a year or so. The idea is that while some or all of those problems might be causing a look of ‘underdevelopment,’ creating a look of ‘development’ won’t fix the problems. A lot of problems came from the West telling them what their societies were supposed to look like. And examining my thoughts while looking at the picture at the top of this blog, I don’t think we ever stopped. We still have an idea that African society doesn’t look the way it should, and that we need to fix it. I don’t think that development aid should be cut off, especially not in the areas of health and education. But maybe a more hands-off approach or more leadership by the part of underdeveloped countries would help. Maybe the founding fathers got it right when they said our unalienable rights were life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. Maybe the developed world should take the approach that my parents still take in raising me: “We just want you to be happy.”

Underdeveloped countries have a steep hill to climb and no one can change that. But that doesn’t mean you can’t smile while walking uphill.


* I took this picture in the traditional animist household I visited in Rumsiki. The girl lives in a nice walled compound with her dad, several moms and plenty of food to fill her belly.