“Are you happy with your life?”
There I sat perplexed and baffled listening to him, an elderly man who looked much older than he should. I was confused with his response. The sheer simplicity of it astounded me as I prepared myself for a much more complex and intricate answer; back arched and pen tip to paper. He cracked a yellowish toothless smile and peered at me with a gentle gaze.
It was my sixth trip to the same Cambodian village and I was spending some time doing research and talking to the villagers trying to understand their lifestyle, hopes and aspirations.
Having carried out community projects in Cambodia for the past five years, this encounter was a reminder of the dangers of navigating through development work and poverty alleviation – a stark reminder that if we are not careful with how we go about doing our work, good intentions can easily bring about unwanted repercussions.
I was perplexed. I did not understand how they could be contented with their lives in spite of the lack of access to clean water, sanitation facilities, higher education opportunities, and income opportunities amongst other problems. That was where I made a fatal error. I wrongly assumed that because these people live in circumstances way below our standard of living, they must be more unfortunate and unhappy with their lives.
This is a mistake that is very common for many people who carry out community service initiatives in developing countries. We go into these rural communities with a sense of pity and self-righteousness that dehumanises and reduces these people to helpless children in a bleak and desolate realm where we play god. You may say that I exaggerate the situation, but if you observe the service initiatives being carried out these days, you would think otherwise. Blinded by our righteousness, we send teams of people to build libraries and schools, give them free things, and tell them how they should live their lives.
What’s the problem with doing that? It’s not really an issue of what we do, but how we go about doing it. More often that not, we assume that these people are incapable of doing anything and so we come in to provide the money, the manpower, the tools, essentially, we provide everything. We force these people to become recipients for our over-righteous, do-gooder zeal, without thinking of the consequences that this has on their psyche and way of life. We destroy their self-worth one gift at a time and before you know it, they become what we thought of them to be – helpless.
That is not to say that participants who engage in such projects do not have good intentions, because these people are the ones taking the initiative to make a difference. However it’s easy to get lost in the zeal of helping others that we forget that the way we choose to help is just as important, if not more important than, the intention.
I, personally, am guilty of such zeal myself. I started my work in Cambodia, going down with a group of friends to build a library for an isolated village a few years ago. We worked side by side with the local community to construct the building. However, looking back I wondered if the library could have been built faster if the villagers had the resources to build it themselves.
I have also heard of horror stories where teams of students go to rural villages to build facilities or paint walls only to have them repainted or reconstructed by the local community after they leave due to the shoddiness of the work. It is scary and extremely sad how good intentions can go so awry.
My encounter with this elderly man was not just a reminder of how dangerous self-righteousness can be, but also a reminder of the resilience and potential that these people have. We are so focused on how ‘backward’ a community is and so blinded by our self-righteousness that we overlook the strength and resilience that the people living there must have in order to live in such circumstances. To me, what inspires me to support these communities is not their hardship but their resilience. It is the community’s latent potential to be so much more that motivates me.
Most important of all, talking to this elderly man reminded me what development is all about. It’s not about helping or saving a group of people who were born to disadvantageous circumstances or defining their progress according to our standards. It is about supporting communities to achieve their true potential, however they define it, by providing them with opportunities. It is about helping them empower themselves.
When I asked my new friend the one thing he would wish for in life, his reply was simple and somewhat familiar: he wished for a better life for his daughter. Ironically, his reply was probably similar to what any father would wish for, regardless of where they lived. Through him, I am reminded that we are not so different after all. We are all human, born with the potential for greatness and love that knows no bounds.
Ethan Nava is a Singaporean undergraduate studying International Affairs at The George Washington University. He has been an active change-maker in both the local and international scene with a strong focus on inspiring the next generation. His passion for international development manifested in a development project in Cambodia, Project Taom, now in its 5th year running. To find out more about his project, visit www.projecttaom.org.