I am in the business of practicing critique. Of contributing, yes, but simultaneously critiquing the institutions with whom I work. I have been trained to see the flaws in development projects; to criticize Western beliefs about how nations and communities of the global South should develop; to see many aid projects as inherently flawed.
Yet, there are moments when I just want to believe that things can be done well. Of course, if this wasn’t one of my core beliefs, I wouldn’t be pursuing the work I am doing. I do believe that individuals, and organizations, have the power to make profound and positive change in the world. Even those I’ve worked for that I’ve been quite critical of are still doing phenomenal work in the lives of individual young people.
At the end of August, I had the great privilege of joining some of the staff of Heifer International and Garnet Hill as they went to visit their field projects outside of Cusco, Peru. (side note: for more information on how I got to be a part of this, click here).
Arguably, this was some glorified voluntourism, except that we weren’t even volunteering. We were 6 White North Americans, accompanied by 3 gracious Peruvian staff that worked for Heifer. Our roles were complicated, of course. We probably contributed 400 extra plastic bottles to Cusco’s waste system alone. Not to mention our excessive (by Peruvian standards) use of water, electricity, gas and food. Alas, this is not a post about the complicated role of travelers and tourism. All of that aside, I was immensely impressed by the actual work that Heifer is doing in Peru, in the few communities we saw. (worth noting: I have no official affiliation with Heifer, and all thoughts expressed are my own).
One of my longest standing frustrations with development projects is based on their perpetuation of Western ideals of efficiency as models of success. As we have learned from many geographers, policy’s are not one-size-fits-all, and development projects, whether big or small, never follow a mold. In Peru, (and I cannot speak for elsewhere), the projects were incredible well adapted to the specific communities with which they took place. For instance, we saw two Heifer projects, both revolving around alpacas. Why alpacas? Because they are the native animals to the high Andean elevation. Are alpacas the focus of projects elsewhere in Peru? Not at all. In some places they are helping communities raise guinea pigs, other projects involve artisanal crafting, and elsewhere the projects target coffee and cacao production.
Another critique I often have are the assumptions about value and production. Often times, involvement in market capitalism is seen as a direct corollary to development, success, empowerment, etc. Obviously, the goals in Cusco were not removed from market capitalism. The goals were still around increasing efficiency and labor time involved in raising alpacas and then using their wool for fiber. However, the longer term and more consistent goal was that the community as a whole could better understand the life cycles, health, well-being, and systems-thinking approach to raising alpacas. The animals are healthier, the are living longer; the notation and record keeping is directly associated to better cared for animals. In turn, community leaders (called Promoters), are able to pass on the knowledge, and more alpacas, to additional families when their own operations allow. Sure, this is about being able to earn more money to the kilo for alpaca wool. But it is also about the community as a whole integrating their knowledge, and sharing it in a way where multiple families are benefiting. This is not a project about economic empowerment via small business entry. It’s about effective community asset sharing. I was quite impressed and moved by how much pride some of the Promoters exuded when they showed me their record keeping. “Look,” they said. “Before, we never had any idea which animal we were breeding with which animal. Now, the wool is more pure. Look at my records.”
Finally, a note on that ole’ buzzword: empowerment. I am still unsure of what the Heifer Peru staff, the Heifer International staff and the Garnet Hill staff think this word means. I would love to know. That said, I can see a few things that resonate based on my understanding of the word.
In the Heifer model, the community comes together with Heifer staff to determine which family would benefit the most from the first Heifer gift (in this case, training and tools to help with alpaca husbandry). There is an agreement that this family, once they have benefited from the training, will pass on the gift to another family. This is an empowering act. It is saying to a family, “you may not have much to offer, by international standards. But you will have enough to become a donor, to become a partner, to help your neighbor, to flip the traditional and patronizing cycle of giving.” This resonates with some of the work on encounter and poverty that is happening in the US – empowering those with very little financial resources to actually become donors and influence the direction of gift giving and social justice initiatives.
Additionally, I do think a positive trait associated with empowerment is this notion of having a purpose; feeling useful; feeling like you have the power to change your own circumstances. This has been associated with consciousness raising in the US, or educational empowerment of students. I saw it with many of the women in the community. While many of the men leave the villages in the dry season to look for work in the towns and cities, we learned that these women have learned how to care for the animals, shear the wool, select animals for breeding, and then categorize and spin their wool. This is not to say that women in Upis were magically empowered (!). It is to say that learning a skill, feeling proud of that skill, and being able to share that with your children — hey. That is a positive thing.
So. Obviously there are critiques to be made. But… I don’t feel like it. I’d rather sit with the hope and optimism that a lot of the projects happening can have some truly positive impacts. I’ll save the critique for later.