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There have been two especially popular topics in the world of development/aid blogs this week.

The first is this TED talk by Nigerian novelist Chimamanda Adichie, which I insist you watch.

Adichie’s “single story” framework resonated strongly with me and she does a great job of describing how harmful the single story can really be.

The second hot topic is Nick Kristof’s Sunday column in the New York Times, in which he aims to tell a “blunt truth that is politically incorrect, heartbreaking, frustrating and ubiquitous.”  Kristof goes on to highlight the problem of poor people in Africa spending money on alcohol, cigarettes, and other items instead of spending it on their children’s education.  Kristof lays out this problem as if the entire continent is choosing alcohol over education, and doesn’t stop to consider the nuance that’s inevitable here.  Wronging Rights does an excellent take-down of this article, picking apart a number of his arguments.  In essence, they remind us that 1) education is often a public good, and family spending on education (depending on where you are) may be very low; and 2) although spending on alcohol, cell phones, and elaborate parties may take money away from other parts of a family’s budget, it is nearsighted to think of them as luxury items.  All of the above are usually associated with close community relationships, and social capital is acknowledged as an important element of raising oneself out of poverty.

But what I want to highlight here is the serendipity of the two topics being published around the same time.  Kristof, trying to tell a new story about Africa that does not “romanticize poverty” (as he claims aid workers tend to do), ends up retelling the Single Story about Africa.  In this story, the Poor African Father is unable to think long-term, is childlike and self-centered in prioritizing his desire for a drink ahead of his children’s education, and is in fact the reason why his family will remain poor.  Nevermind the fact that alcoholism is an often unacknowledged, heartbreaking, and ubiqutous problem all over the world – the Poor African Father is especially guilty of harm because he is poor.

Meanwhile, Adichie reminds us that telling these Single Stories not only flattens reality, but is dangerous.  In presenting drunken dads and miserible, uneducated children as the norm of African life, Kristof teaches his fellow Americans to pity and look down on anyone from Africa and to assume that war, disease, and poverty are inevitable there.  If you’ve spent any time engaging in other stories about Africa, you will probably come away with another conclusion.  I certainly have.

I recently came across this article, via the NY Times Motherlode blog, which describes the frustrations experienced by the mother of an autistic child. Her frustrations lie not with the travails of raising an autistic son, but with the world around him and how his peers respond to him: not through empathy or care, but as if he were their charity project. Worse still, they are self-congratulatory about the many ways that they have “helped” her son, through participation in an alternative sports club. A few key passages:

One Saturday morning last year, Marc and I sat in the synagogue listening to a boy we know from our town deliver his bar mitzvah speech. “For my mitzvah project I’m so proud of all the work I did for the Alternative League,” he said. “I’m really good at sports, so I was able to share all my skills with those kids.”

There it is again. Those kids.

“I hope I helped their lives in some way,” he added.

Marc leaned in. “Did he come to any of our games?” he whispered.

“I saw him there once. Maybe twice?” I whispered back.

Here’s what particularly galled me: this kid, all self-congratulatory smiles, actually lives in our neighborhood. He’s close in age to our son Mickey. But in all these years, this boy has never – – not once – rung the doorbell to ask if my son wants to come out and play.

*****

My friend Susan, the parent of a child with a disability, tells me that last year some boy on her block who had an assignment for his church’s confirmation class asked to “borrow” her son Jacob. They played basketball in the driveway for ten minutes, till the boy’s mother came running to document the event with her digital camera. Susan showed less forbearance than I. “I’m sorry,” she said, stepping firmly between Jacob and the camera. “I feel very uncomfortable with you photographing him. My son isn’t a project. He’s a person.”

*****

I’m tired of other parents who expect me to go all soft-eyed and grateful because their kids spend one hour a week on a soccer field kicking a ball around with my son. My child isn’t a mascot. He isn’t a charity case. He isn’t a community project. He’s a kind-hearted, teen-age boy who enjoys having friends. And he happens to have autism.

This article hit me really close to home as I read it. As the older sibling of two kids with disabilities, I respond pretty viscerally to stories like this. I remember watching my brother and sister (they’re twins) enter high school freshman year, when I was a senior. Watching them, with heartbreak, from afar as their peers teased them, ignored them, or talked down to them. I would’ve been enraged if I knew that people used them for their own self-promotion. That by “befriending” my siblings, they would gain access to scholarships, get into ivy league universities, etc. I can completely sympathize with the mom who wants people to view her son as a full person – not a project.

But, just as much as Kupferberg’s article reminded me of my own brother and sister, it reminded me of much of the workings and attitudes within the development world. When the poor and the marginalized become projects – absent from real relationships – we fail to do our jobs. When we make a group of people into “those people” who should consider themselves lucky to receive the charity we’re giving them, we’re reenacting the dynamic that Kupferberg describes in her article on a large scale. If we think that working with “those kids” or “those poor people” is a reason for us to congratulate ourselves on what wonderful people we are, we are sorely amiss. There is another subtle message in this article, which is that Kupferberg’s son, and others like him, have a lot to offer their peers. This mirrors what the asset based community development school of thought says about poor communities: there is much knowledge and value in these communities, and this value should be central to any development that takes place.

Put more simply: the “other”-ing of both individuals and communities for our own gain is not only harmful to the individual/community, it also prevents us from learning something new and useful.

I feel a bit of irony writing about this, as I have benefitted greatly on account of the work I’ve done with various communities: from my admittance to Northwestern to my Mitchell scholarship.  So the article hits me very personally as well.  But I think Kupferberg’s main point is about the attitude with which we engage these people and communities.  Is it for our own gain, where we possess all the knowledge and are mostly working to advance our own careers?  Or is it for collective gain, where everybody learns and everybody teaches, for everybody’s benefit?  I hope that I can continually strive to work towards the latter.

Reading this reminded me of the pain experienced by individuals who are made into a project.  I want to keep re-reading it, to remind myself of that danger in my own work, and the very real consequences it can have.

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