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Your location>Home>Publications>PeaceWays>Fall 2008

   
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Not Development, Transformation
From All Quiet on the Quaker Front (www.quakerfront.com),
a blog by AGLI team member, Andrew Peterson


In my recent travels to Rwanda, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, and around Burundi, I had the chance to learn more about the work of AGLI as well as other organizations involved in peace and development work. It also gave me a chance to reflect on the eleven weeks that I have spent in Africa. Of course this is just a short time but it is long enough that I feel relatively at home here. It is even long enough to start to become wrapped up the in the tangled complexities of being an “umuzungu” (which means both “white person” and also “rich person”), including the feeling of responsibility incurred by having access to opportunities to marshal great resources while living in a land of great material need.
It occurred to me that such a position has its dangers, and so, one should carefully probe the depths of one’s motivations. It could be intoxicating, in a perverse way, to have the power to transform the lives of people – their ability to feed their family, heal from trauma, etc. – all for what people spend on a dinner at a restaurant in the U.S. In the extreme, it’s possible to imagine a megalomaniac development worker who delights in the arbitrary exercise of his power to say “yes” or “no” to his supplicants.
Even in less extreme forms though, being an umuzungu is a position of power. And power pursued carelessly, for its own sake or from vanity, only reinforces the divide between haves and have-nots, white and black, American and Burundian. Doesn’t one, in “helping the needy,” simply entrench the privilege of helping others, a privilege that increases positively with wealth?

I once read a news article documenting the competition for status among multi-millionaires in Silicon Valley over who was a bigger philanthropist. Few of us (and even fewer Burundians) will ever have the opportunity to join such a competition. Certainly one also senses that there is something awry in this type of thinking. Isn’t helping each other about more than the quantity of things that one gives? Don’t we have more to give than our money?

Moreover, considering outcomes, how do we know that the addition of resources will make a difference in the long-term when much of the trouble to date is rooted in mistrust, disunity, violence, feelings of shame and abandonment, and social exclusion?

If I speak in the tongues of men and of angels, but have not love, I am only a resounding gong or a clanging symbol. If I have the gift of prophecy and can fathom all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have a faith that can move mountains, but have not love, I am nothing. If I give all I possess to the poor, and surrender my body to the flames, but have not love, I gain nothing. (I Corinthians 13:1-3)
How true this strikes me as being, even if just thinking about it narrowly in relation to the relatively mundane, practical task of evaluation of the work of nonprofits. In particular, with large nonprofits, while I believe they are filled with people who have the best of intentions, still one cannot help but wonder how their work can be deep, transformative, and responsive to individuals when they are so thoroughly institutional and bureaucratic. I suppose that right now my doppelganger, who works for one of these big NGOs, is writing a blog questioning how small NGOs can work effectively. But for myself, I wonder how (or if) they try to ground themselves in a set of shared values, something that goes deeper than job descriptions and evaluation criteria.

Setting aside nonprofits and focusing on individuals, I think people can tell when someone is really motivated by love, and my guess is that Burundians are quite adept at doing so. When one first arrives, it is impossible not to be rather overtaken by displays of high regard for simply being a white person. For example, merely having a white person attend a wedding is considered special, and so one is (embarrassingly) ushered up to the front to the most important seats. It would be a mistake to confuse this fascination with deep-seated respect or admiration which must be earned through real dedication and love.

Love, as I mean it here, is not just a feeling one gets in the head or heart; love is a selfless concern for the welfare of others grounded in humility, deep listening and, thus, understanding. Love is made real through action including, but not limited to, the giving of material resources. To refuse to help would surely be to deny love, “for where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.” (Luke 12:34)
The vision of the early Quakers (and in my reading, of Christians, among others) was the transformation of the world through love. This love transforms in many ways from the redemption of individuals to the renewal of love between people to restructuring economic, political and social relations to be more equitable, just, peaceful and inclusive. The power of that kind of love is inestimable and it is a power available to anyone willing to trust in it regardless of income level, political views or situation. “Development” should not be the use of wealth to merely spread aimless wealth to new corners of the earth, for, as John Woolman wrote:

Wealth is attended with power, by which bargains and proceedings, contrary to universal righteousness, are supported; and hence oppression, carried on with worldly policy and order, clothes itself with the name of justice and becomes like a seed of discord in the soul. And as this spirit which wanders from the pure habitation prevails, so the seeds of war swell and sprout, and grow, and become strong, until much fruit is ripened. (A Plea for the Poor (1793), Part X)

I feel honored to work with staff who not only have strong integrity and ensure that our work is strategically sound but who also do their work with sincere dedication and love. And as I see it, love is also a focus of our work since trauma healing and nonviolence training is about showing people love and about reconnecting people to love in their own lives.