Development for the past, the present and the future

IMG_0193A photo of yours truly, truly blending in…

I’ve recently arrived back from a 2-month holiday. None to bad in anyone’s books and that’s probably partially to blame for my current somewhat dreamy perspective. On return, I wrote a letter to a friend which I felt encapsulated some of my key thoughts about development and being in the moment that I wanted to share.

I sincerely hope that my friend doesn’t mind my repeating some of the words that were a personal note to her and that you don’t mind my somewhat stream of conciousness-esque thoughts, which were tumbled into the letter. Here goes…

Long ago, especially working in Madagascar and other parts of Africa, I’ve questioned whether the big white land rovers, the good intentions and the money, effort and suffering of development workers, really actually does much to help… or whether it hinders. Certainly when you look at Ladakh, for example (I read a great book called Ancient Futures – see my post on the book here), you see that in touting the latest development tools, us do-gooders actually did a lot more harm than good. In fact, the last thing they needed was ‘development’. They needed to maintain the delicate equilibrium that they had fought for many generations to develop. Things like high child mortality, low incomes, disease etc were all actually just natures way of balancing the system and ensuring that this equilibrium was maintained. But then in plops the WHO and the American tourists, who can’t believe that people live in such squalor, ‘I mean, some of the babies had dribbly noses and the children were so dirty’, and we introduce roads, and vaccinations, and education systems, and tools and machines… and voila. The equilibrium is upset, the local farming methods die, the population booms and suddenly you have a load of apathetic youngsters desperate to escape to a better life, which in reality is to slums in cities with no community and nastier conditions, so that they can become the next 2Pac and while away their days, if they are one of the million who make it, in an empty apartment full of modern art and revolving water beds that are hard to share… and a bunch of old folks who remain behind lamenting the lost simplicity of the past with grandchildren to look after them.

My own sense, is that the key is just learning to enjoy and not worrying too much about whether or not we’re making big bucks or big impacts. The next stage of my journey is to truly work out what I enjoy and to maximize that enjoyment in the long-term, rather than seeking the little, immediate highs that feel powerful but leave you with little to show for it. Being an Epicurean, in the true sense of the word (rather than the over-indulgent sense of the word).

It’s been a tough year for me. Worrying about my business, feeling insecure about my security, wondering if I’ll ever meet someone to settle with. Yet the future has changed and a lot of the planning was a big fat waste of time. As my time on the vipassana retreat taught me, the past cannot be changed (although there are some good lessons to take with you) and the future is completely unpredictable. So all you really have is the present. As cheesy and Ekhart Tolle as that sounds it’s a little reminder that keeps reminding and reminding and reminding, and then one day you have to sit up and listen to these reminders and thwack yourself on the side of the head and wonder why you didn’t learn to listen a little earlier!

Africa was really great for me – it shook me out of my reverie a little and although I’m not fully out the other side (will I ever be), I’ve seen glimpses in the past couple of months of true happiness. These moments aren’t about achieving things, or making a difference, or doing good, or making money… they’ve been small moments of just watching and soaking up and appreciating and accepting. It’s been nice. I’ve known it in theory for so long, but it’s great to have some feelings, rather than just intellectual understandings. It’s interesting really – it’s all there right in front of our noses, if only we can really look and feel and touch and smell. Mostly, it’s impossible, but I’m sure we can train ourselves to get better at it, so rather than glimpses you start to get nice panoramas of peacefulness. Somebody said the other day that ‘Economist lie awake at night worrying whether reality will ever work in theory’ – There’s one of the big problems: we’re so worried about our theories, our development, our achieving, our doing good that we fail to take into account what’s going on. Certainly, we need to educate ourselves and make decisions that might be painful in the short-term rather than being so ‘in the moment’ that we implode. But we could do a hell of a lot less stressing and a hell of a lot more appreciating and noticing the rather wonderful things that are going on about us, all of the time.

So, there’s my little note. I rather hope that it at least brightened my friend’s day, as she continues to help in deepest, darkest Chad – on the border of Darfur and the turmoil that still rages within. Let’s hope she really is making a positive difference, as opposed to Dambisa Moyo’s view that ‘if a company had 60 years with the record of performance that aid to Africa has, the company would have been shut down’.

One thought on “Development for the past, the present and the future

  1. This friend certainly doesn’t mind re-reading these wise words. In fact, she had already printed the email out and stuck it in her diary, so it is not the first time it is re-read. Thanks Tom

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