After my hour long 730 class period is over, a day of self-directed activities begins. Before coming to work in this sustainable development internship position, I thought that I liked to make up my own structure and define my own modes of operation. Now however, I sometimes just wish I would be told exactly what to do. Probably this springs more from a desire to please in this foreign place more than anything else. If I knew what I was doing was something which was commanded of me, I could act with less hesitation in knowing with certainty that what I was doing was what was desired. Then I would be able to return the favor of the incredible hospitality shown to me.
But if I knew exactly what needed to be done this would not be sustainable development. For there is rarely rarely rarely a single identifiable thing that must be done in development work. Before arriving I had no idea how to explain to people what I would be doing here beyond an “internship with the Foundation for Sustainable Development” What is sustainable development? Beats me…recite the foundation’s mission statement. Now I can provide a slightly more thoughtful answer: it’s the art of encouraging self-perpetuating “improvement” without doing it yourself.
In many ways it is like raising a child. The parent himself has already conquered the throws of the terrible twos and the temperamental teens, and now is supposed to relive the experience with his child as some sort of moral guide, patient director, careful cultivator. But the parent mustn’t be too distant or too near lest the child develop an overly secure or underly secure attachment. The parent also mustn’t impose the boundaries of the lesser utilities available to them in their childhood, lest the child be unable to keep up with the inevitably changing environment around them. I.e. it would be a struggle to convince the child to use an old Walkman when she can see her parent has an IPod and Spotify account.
In describing development there is still the problem of defining improvement. Since improvement is not objective, the agent of development must be incredibly careful to get to know the community deeply so that they might work together in achieving a common goal. This goal must be useful, enduring, self- perpetuating, and driven from within. There is some talk of the “mzungu project,” whereby a mzungu (foreigner) comes in and takes on some project in the homeland of another community that simply dissipates once the mzungu has left. This is exactly what I must be sure not to do. In this manner my work here is even better defined by what it is not. It is not building a car with expensive foreign parts that can only be replaced with expensive foreign parts. It is not writing complicated code that is a headache for anyone else to modify. It is not bringing your child’s lunch to her every time she forgets it so that she cannot eat unless you provide for her. It’s a bit of tough love.