Underdeveloped Development – Simple Mistakes

For over a century the ‘mazungu’ (or white person) in Africa has been losing his temper with the inefficiency of the African. Even today, I’ve witnessed continual annoyance as things go wrong, or directions aren’t followed, or patience is tested.

All too regularly, frustrations are voiced aggressively. On a micro level, this constitutes management – from the ‘right’ manners when waiting tables, how ‘they’ (the trainees) should deal with money, to the way they communicate. On a macro level, international aid organizations, politicians and commentator regularly throw their hands up in exasperation or attempt wide educational reforms.

What strikes me as strange is our presumption. It is believed that the waiters need to be trained. People have to learn to be more efficient.

What part of our system is so right that we never doubt that what we’re trying to achieve is wrong?

I witnessed a normally gentle lady shout at a waiter who works for her due to a minor mistake just the other day. I know the lady and I know the waiter moderately well. He was graceful enough to apologize and take the insult squarely on the chin. She spent the next half-hour fuming and cursing the inability to get the right service.

Yet if we delve deeper, things become more interesting. The lady doesn’t strike me as a happy person and suffers some severe long-term emotional problems. The waiter has a happy family, smiles regularly and when quizzed suggests he is reasonably content with his lot.

Which would you rather be?

Why do we still presume that the goal is to ‘train’, ‘educate’ and ‘improve’ people who, frankly, seem to be doing better than those doing the training if we remove GDP and start to look at indicators like happiness and contentment? Although a minor example, the scenario above is reminiscent of many, many more I’ve seen.

A recent WHO study reported, for example:

“…the rates of emotional distress in fifteen different nations, revealed that over one-quarter of Americans had suffered from some form of distress in the previous twelve months, whereas only one-sixth as many indigenous Nigerians had. Despite being the second wealthiest nation in the world, more than forty times richer than Nigeria, America is by some margin the most emotionally distressed of all Nations.”

If wealth and development had manifested great swaths of happiness, perhaps we’d have a reason to invade these unique cultures and turn them into besuited, bank account holding consumers. Certainly development has lifted many out of poverty and that should be lauded – yet the absence of direction with this development must be understood and development itself must develop to ensure that our primary goal – happiness – is integral, even if that means that we must change our take and, sometimes, our hierarchies.

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