When I was 22-years-old recent college graduate, I decided to join the Peace Corps for a variety of reasons—but mostly as a way to avoid the mundanity of a common office job. An ancillary benefit to joining the Peace Corps, I soon found out, was the admiration I received from friends, family, and acquaintances when I told them I was going to be teaching beekeeping in Paraguay for two years. People called me an “altruist” or even a “humanitarian.” I didn’t disagree.
Fast forward 15 years and, through a number of twists and turns in my life, I found myself working at a think tank in Grand Rapids, Michigan where I was introduced to the PovertyCure film series. In a few short hours, PovertyCure distilled what it took me years of work in developing countries to really understand: Popular culture has sentimentalized the plight of the world’s poor, leading many young idealists, like the man I was after college, to think that a development work promotes social justice.
Occasionally, development work and development workers can be agents of social justice. Unfortunately, it was my experience both in Paraguay, South America, and later in Senegal, West Africa, that development initiatives often do not foster social justice. In fact, development work sometimes contravenes social justice precisely because the industry buys into the sentimentalized version of the world’s poor.
If we begin to think of justice broadly in the way Thomas Aquinas did—giving each person his/her due—then I think many development workers, myself included, would think of their work quite differently. Unfortunately, development work tends to focus on the deficiencies of poor people and not on the broader challenges that are keeping them from demonstrating their inherent strengths.
For example, I went to Paraguay and was told that my mission would be to teach rural subsistence farmers modern beekeeping practices. I was taught by my Peace Corps trainers that through beekeeping I would be able to accomplish a broader agenda of teaching more sustainable agricultural practices. My beekeeping colleagues and I were told that the farmers with whom we worked were poor because they were not educated on modern agricultural practices. Paraguayans still practiced “slash and burn” farming, I was told incredulously by my ecologically-minded trainers, and it was only through initiatives like the Peace Corps that they would be able to finally join the wealthier developed world.
Of course, lack of education is not the true reason Paraguayans—and most of the world’s poor, really—have trouble rising from poverty. In Paraguay and Senegal, where I worked for over three years, there were a whole host of structural problems—mostly political and economic in nature—that kept poor people from rising out of poverty. In both countries there was incredible corruption at all levels of government. Most any favor could be bought from government officials; graft was rampant and rarely punished. This, of course, led to a whole host of related issues, which touched the lives of poor people: property rights were often unclear, contract enforcement was nearly nonexistent, and the concept of Rule of Law was quite foreign.
The marginal benefit that poor people get from development workers like me really does very little to address the important political and economic problems that will have to be resolved if we truly want the world’s poorest people to rise out of poverty. There is very little an enterprising subsistence farmer can do with knowledge of modern beekeeping practices if he/she cannot even legally start a honey business or gain access to capital so as to finance the equipment needed for a largescale beekeeping operation.
If we really want to help the world’s poor, if we really want to accomplish “social justice”—to give each person his/her due—then we need to address the political/economic problems first. This leads to the tougher question: Do NGOs and development organizations do more help than harm when they align itself with a corrupt political establishment in order to legally work in these nations? The answer is not simple—as it depends on the specifics—but it is a question we ought to be asking more often.
Peter Johnson is the External Relations Officer at the Acton Institute. He was a Peace Corps volunteer in Paraguay 2002-2004 and did development work in Senegal 2006-2007.