Tuesday, 20 July 2010

Perpetuity

Since I came of age, I have not been good at belonging to anything except my family. I think that might be why I have twice chosen to live in places where I can never blend in. It’s an ambivalent experience. I never sympathised with celebrities until I went to live in rural China, and discovered first-hand the cold, comprehensive, dissective intensity of the public eye. The notion of a private life pretty much disappeared. Aishalton is much gentler than that, and we feel quite at home, but acceptance does not mean absorption.

What is different here is that I sometimes suffer from delusions of belonging. This taunts me. I am in Aishalton but not of it, in the Catholic community but not of it. Last year I worked on an article about paid development workers that I wanted to call “In the (third) world but not of it” (the editor changed the title). I wrote about the smugness of the Poverty Expert, the outsider whose sense of self-worth is profoundly enhanced by their own ‘heroism’ in giving up the comforts of home and living in ‘solidarity’ with the poor. Never mind that their take on solidarity bears a closer resemblance to a crusade than a cuddle, and that they crash and crunch dynamically through the eggshells in their full suit of armour, gloriously sure of the rightness of their cause, unaware of all the imperceptible cracks and rips shooting outwards from their inexorable passage. In some cases their gaze is so devoutly fixed on Development that they lose sight of people altogether.

I recently received a brilliant comment by Nikhil Ramkarran on “The Glamour of GlacĂ© Cherries”, which I shall quote here in case you missed it:

I would argue (in our defence) that the attitude towards foreigners, while not necessarily justifiable, is understandable.It is all too regular for us to be sold on some spectacular plan towards which we invest much, not necessarily financially but in other ways, only to be disappointed when midway through, political expediency in the home country causes said promissors to regretfully, and with much effusive apologies, disappear leaving us investors bereft.
Then there are the myriad "consultants" who show up from home country as beneficiaries of huge "grants" which home country annnounce in their press, to great fanfare, that they are giving to us poor nations.The consultants tell us how to solve a particular problem, collect their cheque (which are, of course, available to consultants from home country and not locals) and then disappear leaving yet another unimplemented plan. Little or none of the grant money is, of course, made available to locals.I do apologise for the rant on your blog. I am not trying to justify the attitude foreigners working in Georgetown experience, but too often it seems that while the word "colonial" may have been taken out of the vernacular the attitude remains.

I’ve included it in full both because I could not hope to express it better, and because it is a completely authentic, Guyanese response. Unsurprisingly, it takes me back very strongly to writing ‘Expatriology’ [http://sarahbroscombe.blogspot.com/2009/10/expatriology.html] last summer.

I am white, British, descendant of the Imperialists who milked Guyana and many other countries dry in the past, and keep whole nations imprisoned in a deeply unjust and self-perpetuating structure now and for the foreseeable future. Is my presence here anomalous? Should I simply go away and leave Aishalton to it? That’s a cop-out of course; a child’s pendulum swing of self-righteous dudgeon.

What I would love to see, and what I hear with relish in the capital, is Guyana adopting the BOALUDODO Principle- Bog Off And Let Us Do Our Development Ourselves. That would be the best outcome for the whole country, without a doubt. But who will go and live in Aishalton, to build up skills, education and livelihoods there? (The flipside of that question is “why am I not in Accrington?”!)

My worst days are the days when I am convinced that it is all useless. I suppose this is an occupational hazard of ‘meaningful’ jobs. If the answer to ‘why am I here?’ is ‘to pay the mortgage’, an existential crisis isn’t really called for every time doubt creeps, strolls or bulldozes in.

Back in Aishalton I have slipped back into manifestly worthwhile work: training young adults in computers, helping the Nursery School implement their hot meal programme, and supporting the ongoing activities of the community development plan in whatever ways I can. I am a member of a lot of teams, and we treat each other not as equals (our experiences and skills are wildly, almost comically different) so much as valued partners. There is no grandioseness about it.

I had a lot of faith in this kind of development when I came out to Guyana. Now I am coming closer and closer to the belief that the whole Development Project is morally bankrupt. Few thinking people in developed countries labour under the delusion that their governments give aid out of real concern. However, most of us have quite a lot of faith in the work done by big NGOs like Oxfam (who have recently moved out of Guyana and I would be most intrigued to know why). But when you come to Georgetown from the interior and happen upon an event like the World Cup in a fairly expat cafĂ© and look round the room at the well-fed faces, the lovely clothes, the posh sunglasses and sleek laptops and nice watches, and walk past the long row of wide-bottomed air-conditioned four wheel drives bulging into the roadway outside, thoughts of the colonial period swell like bubbles, and inside those iridescent walls the whole development phenomenon looks rounded and complete, a self-perpetuating cosy world of postings and projects and prestige and protection, like a child’s snowstorm that returns to exactly the same state however hard you shake it.

3 comments:

  1. I think if you take a sufficiently distant overview of history you may well become paralyzed by the thought of the futility of it all. I don't want to cause anyone to have to resort to anti-depressants (particularly myself if I have to articulate what I am thinking).

    So I will just say that to continue to function and even enjoy what you are doing, you really have to put out of your mind any thoughts of greater development and concentrate (and take pleasure) from the small changes in which you are involved.

    Whenever my cynicism threatens to drown me, I think of little ways I have been able to help people. Not a lot of them and not in any grand fashion but meaningful nonetheless.

    I have given up on thoughts of inspiring or assisting in grand societal changes. I think this is why I have begun concentrating on photography in the last few years. I know a few people like my photos, they bring a little pleasure to a few and I take from that what I can.

    Maybe if the opportunity ever arises I will do my bit, but day by day it appears that this isn't a movie and the heroes are not going to triumph in the end.

    I started this comment with the intention of trying to cheer you up, but it looks like I've just depressed myself :) Sorry.

    ReplyDelete
  2. All so true.

    And yet, nevertheless...

    “Hope is risk that must be run” (Georges Bernanos)

    ReplyDelete
  3. Hi Sarah,

    I haven't been on your blog in a while (dissertating) and I'm a little obsessed with the magnum opus right now so almost anything and everything seems relevant to it (this is yet another reason I would make a poor academic, I would become INCREDIBLY fusty and boring).

    However, one of the fundamental points I try to make in my dissertation centres on how the two Victorian poets (Barrett Browning and Clough) intentionally attempted to challenge concepts developed by their contemporaries that the creation of primary, or representative epics of the nineteenth century were impossible. Their respective poetic works clearly attempted to engage with a valid aesthetic addressed directly to their contemporaries through the epic model. They also both implied that features of the contemporary world were merely a matter of perspective and encouraged their readers to consider the possibility that they might fail to see the grand outlines of the present because they were too close to it, and therefore distracted by the detail.

    I could be wrong, but maybe you're standing too close and you can't see the width, depth or breadth of your own impact. It sounds cliched but big dreamers are also the most inspirational. The fact that you are still capable dreaming up development plans with cowpats outside your door and aren't weighed down by handwashing clothes and raising water from wells says a lot of positive things about you. It's easy to see that you are not a smug westerner sitting in a cafe, but without that distance, how can you expect to be standing far enough away to see if you're making the difference your hoping to make?

    Lots of love, and a big giant humungous bear hug! Looking forward to seeing you soon. Fab 3 xxx

    ReplyDelete