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Being an Amateur

Posted Nov 10 2008 4:15pm
Ever since I was about twenty, I have fought battles being the youngest person on many committees. Battles to be heard in a room full of 40-somethings who always think they know better than a young person. I decided that I would always be a person who listened to the ideas of young people and wouldn't judge them solely based on age.

I've had this problem less and less over the past few years. Even working on a Board for the first time, they are a remarkable bunch, never condescending and always encouraging and critical when the idea itself warrants criticism.

But inside I have been feeling more and more young and naive. It arrives as the years pass in medical school, and my limited exposure to the international development sector becomes more apparent to me. As I play catch up, reading about international aid cannot provide answers. And not that I can read enough on the subject, either. The best modes of information seem to be conversations with NGO workers, or actually being in a poor place. Why being in a poor place? Because it seems less appropriate to judge the work of an NGO when they are obviously helping in a dire situation.

From afar, the relief/development paradigm has everyone scrambling. In discussion with my mentor this week, he was telling me that his relief-only organization is now looking into how to deal with countries they're been doing "relief" in for 29 years. When does relief become development?

Last night, I was trying to articulate the condescending underpinnings of international development. What has created this context where communities can suddenly not take care of themselves any more? (Is it true that they can't?) Post-colonialism. Economic changes, sanctions, subsidies, structural adjustment. HIV and AIDS. War. Conflict over resources. Corruption. Climate change. Rich countries play such a central role in many of these issues, and yet they are not and will never be the mechanism through which true aid is finally given. We Canadians won't get rid of our subsidies that make your produce worthless, but here's a team of engineers to help you build a water main.

I'm not trying to gloss over the details and complexities. Mat was explaining the social and political and economic reprocussions to me, if we were actually to stop subsidizing Canadian farmers. Sounds dire, too.

Essentially, human-to-human aid viscerally makes sense to us. We see someone hungry, we want to give them something to eat. When it comes to the bigger, complex picture, it becomes so distant to our human feelings, that we cannot summon enough engagement to demand a better way. To face up to what has been done so wrong; to take responsibility. To pull out as NGOs when the work doesn't make sense.

So as viscerally concerned individuals in resource-rich countries, how should we act? I am really tired of glaring inequalities. I'm tired of the statistics about maternal and child mortality. I'm tired of hearing stories about corruption in the South. I'm tired of feeling guilty that our economic and political strength in the North has done so much damage, and perhaps continues to do so. But where do you begin to work in all of this?
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