Tina Fey: international development is like. . . improv

“When you create something out of nothing, the first rule is to agree.” – Tina Fey

I’m not sure Tina Fey would attribute her words about improv as wisdom for international development, but there is a truth to the statement that can’t be ignored. Tina Fey might just be the best international development expert there is today and we all might need a little more improv training.

When we engage in development projects we are often creating something out of nothing. That is not to say that there is nothingness all around that needs to be “developed,” but many times development projects are creating new systems, organizations, norms, and terms of engagement. Before we can move into agreeing with our actual development project, we need to first take a step back and agree with the fact that we are outsiders, visiting unknown places, and often with no understanding of the history or culture of the people we are creating something with.

My Professor in my Capstone course in international development shared an excellent framing of how outsiders can engage in development work. I’m not sure if this concept can be attributed to her, but I have shared it many times since that course.

As development practitioners, aid workers, and humanitarians we can act in three unique roles, we can be:

Mirror – We can reflect back to a community what we see as an outsider. This can be beneficial  in letting others know how they are perceived and can lead to growth in areas that may have been overlooked by individuals who live with situations every day.

Echo – We can be a voice for a community that may be unheard or unknown. We can echo their concerns in our own communities and within the institutions that we work. We can extend their efforts further than they might be able, due to social or economic constraints.

Bridge – We can build connections between communities. We can assist development projects in landing grants and resources from outside institutions or organizations. We can create networks of support where they can be most beneficial for the community that we are working for.

At the very heart of development work, whether it is in a developing country or inner city, we must first remember to meet people where they are at. We cannot impose our understandings of reality on another if we hope to be successful. We must first take the time to learn the reality, culture, and everyday life of the community. Before we can start working to make something out of nothing, we must then follow the first rule of improv: to agree.

from the noble savage to the poor entrepreneur

The idea of the “noble savage” has long held a lofty place in our American psyche. The desire to return to our roots, become “nature’s gentleman” (or nature’s lady), and live traditionally and without excess has been around since the early 17th century with the school of thought known as “romantic primitivism.”

In nature humans are essentially good – Earl of Shaftesbury

What we often forget in emulating the “noble savage” that we are utilizing our privilege to throw out the burdens of modernity, technology, and convenience when many who live “closer to nature” do not have the luxury of changing their social status or well-being by choice. We also forget that we sit in privileged positions where our culture is considered “on top” while other cultures are labeled as: savage, backward, weird, or crazy.

The Noble Savage

Thanks to Disney  (“Disneyification“) we all have a pretty good understanding of the “noble savage” from the movie, Pocahontas. The life of Pocahontas’ people is so appealing that John Smith desires to join them. An even more recent example comes from the movie, Avatar, where a marine from the “civilized” world works to be accepted by a the nature-connected native inhabitants of a newly discovered planet loaded with mineral wealth, which corporations want to exploit. These examples all go without mentioning classic tales of the first Thanksgiving, where “noble savages” show pilgrims how to farm and gave gifts of food to the starving new worlders.

We all like to look at the simple pleasures of natural living, hard work and closeness to nature that other cultures and ways of life exhibit, but we rarely think about the reality of how “simple” those lives really are. The beauty of nature and peoples unburdened by technology and “development” seem appealing, but we often hold misunderstandings about them and overlook the deep complexity of the “other.” More importantly we prefer to look past the hardships they face due to the impacts of our own country’s economic and political policies.

The Hipster

In our own American culture we have seen the inevitable rise of “hipster” driven by a desire to appear to live and enjoy a life of poverty as denoted by attachment to various social markers: old clothing, cheap beer, bicycles, and lofty ideals. Everyone has most likely encountered these noble savages in a city nearby. This has become a large sub-section of our popular culture. Sadly many of these individuals who appear “poor” are pretending; spending $500 on cool wheel sets for a custom fixed gear bike or purchasing expensive meat substitutes with food stamps.

Privilege is a pretty damn easy thing to deal with, it just takes self-awareness and humility. I suggest you get some.
(source: recoveringhipster.tumblr.com)

We are becoming “designer tribalists;” Working so hard to look a certain way in order to prove that we hold a morally high ground for being poor or downtrodden. The unfortunate side of this image effort is that being poor isn’t cool. Using our own social mobility and wealth to exploit the image of those who are actually poor only shows how misguided we are that “looking poor” is cool. If we truly cared about the poor we might change our image and instead use our privilege to support the poor.

The Aid Worker

Countless examples can be taken from individuals working internationally in the Peace Corps and other development organizations. We latch onto the new culture, language, and customs of the people with whom we are working with. We emulate the local culture, look down on tourists who don’t speak the local language, and sometimes prefer to identify with this new community as opposed to our own community back home. We become the perfect examples of those who follow the “noble savage” and desire to join them.

Often aid workers decide its their number one job to blend in: adopt local clothing, language, habits, etc.

You eat their food, you wear their clothes, you’ve learned enough of their language to buy food and clothes. If you blend in well enough, they might mistake you for one of them. And there is no higher honor for the expat aid worker than to be mistaken for local.
(source: stuffexpataidworkerslike.com)

Yet again this is an exercise of privilege. As aid workers we will only be involved for a short time. We can leave whenever we choose because of our international social mobility, yet the community that we have come to emulate is stuck and has no ability to travel beyond its country’s boundaries as we so easily do.

The Poor Entrepreneur

The noble savage seems to have shifted these days to rely less on primitive and traditional images of native peoples in nature to the idea of the resilient, “poor entrepreneur.” Individuals in the “developing” world who would been categorized as noble savages in an earlier century are now referred to as poor and entrepreneurial. Their poverty makes them business-minded and innovative, however this is not so much a  function of their ingenuity, but more a symbol of the growing inequality of our global system. To look at a person in poverty and say that their innovation is so pure is to remove their unprivileged history. They fashioned their own door hinges out of shoe soles because it was either too expensive to afford metal hinges or there was just nowhere to purchase them. They find new ways to keep cars running, use bicycles parts for windmills, and turn microfinance funds into a livelihood.

The “poor entrepreneur” is a social commentary on global inequality, and thus privilege, around the world. As aid organizations and micro-lending groups prop up the stories of these new “noble savages” we have to remember the reasons for innovation in poverty. If we all faced the same levels of oppression, inequality, and poverty – wouldn’t we all innovate a little more to improve our outlook on life?

Why are they poor in the first place?

This is the burning question. How do families, groups, or populations become poor in the first place? Through structural inequalities. How do the poor become “entrepreneurial?” Is it from Western education, funding, and influence or are the poor in “developing” countries already innovating for themselves? Many organizations and NGOs would have us believe that the poor have become entrepreneurs through their care and influence. However, there are countless examples that allow us to say that Western intervention or dollars are not required to make an entrepreneur. I don’t necessarily believe that entrepreneurs are born or taught, but rather it is a confluence of knowledge, circumstance, and opportunity. Anyone can be an entrepreneur, but not everyone has the same privilege or resources to overcome the structural inequalities that often block entrepreneurs from “developing” countries. We regard these poor people “entrepreneurs” without truly understanding the difficulties that they have faced trying to make ends meet and get their innovations recognized by large NGOs and companies.

Beyond the “developing” world, we are all attempting to become more entrepreneurial. As national economies struggle, we all face harsh economic times and often debt realities. If to be poor and innovative is to be an entrepreneur than to face an economic downturn must only be a bump in the road. There is more to poverty than innovation. The privilege of where you are born into the world is impossible to control and yet we still want to say that some people are better than others based on their income level. Privilege drives the world economy and it is a hard battle to take that privilege from the hands of those who have not earned it.