Wednesday, February 2, 2011

Musings on "poverty professionals"

I’ve been thinking a lot lately about why people (myself included) go into “development.” Why do people chose to move to and work in countries that see so many of their native born fleeing for the greener pastures of the place the development workers just left?

If, as economists have it, we are all “utility maximizers” striving to maximize our own enjoyment, these development professionals must be getting some “jollies” that compensate them for the harsher living conditions.

Maybe those jollies come in the form of bragging rights about what appears to be an exotic adventure to folks back home, adrenaline rushes of pushing your comfort zone or simply the feeling of self righteousness that comes from working on poverty alleviation.

I’m aware that was just grossly cynical. Those in development like to think of themselves as idealistic. They will tell you (myself included) that they got into the field because they learned about glaring global inequalities and felt compelled to do something about it. Maybe they had an eye opening experience abroad, read something influential, or drew on religious or spiritual traditions that stress duty to fellow human.

However, if you scratch just beneath the surface (and, again, this is cynical) there’s something other than selfless idealism driving their decision – likely something to do with how they want to see themselves and how they want others to see them. This is probably true of most decisions, and it’s a rare person who is a true and pure altruist.

But the reality of development work is that, excepting a few dues paying years in the peace corps or other similar “field” experience, you actually don’t have to be totally self sacrificing to have a development career. You can still “make a comfortable living” filled with personal rewards. Those who work for big NGOs or consultancies probably live a more luxurious existence abroad than they would at home, negating the need to cynically question their motives.

But if you do live such a plush existence, you have to reconcile yourself to several uncomfortable paradoxes. First: you are, at the end of the day, personally profiting – and maybe at an indefensible rate – from poverty. Second: because of the nature of your work you have an amplified and discomfiting awareness of the unjust luxury of your comforts. Last, and most prosaically: the higher your standard of living, the farther away you are from empathizing with and understanding the plight of the poor – something crucial to your work.

Some have suggested that development workers (including well paid economists and consultants) do more “poverty immersion” to address some of these issues. Done right, that’s probably a good idea. Obviously, you can’t pauperize the profession or you’d drive out all the talent. So, it’s a conundrum debated in some form or another on many development blogs.

But, do you know who has managed to successfully address the purity of motive problem as well as the profiting from poverty problem that vexes development workers?


Missionaries are generally driven by moral, not self aggrandizing or self image motives, whatever you think of those morals. They are also willing to live with the communities they are attempting (whatever you think of those attempts) to help. And for long periods of time at significant material sacrifice. Despite their religious posturing, I’m going to hazard a guess that they’re better at listening to and understanding those communities than development professionals who fly in for weeks to months at a time or who live in-country in gated and heavily guarded communities.

I just think it’s ironic that as much as missionaries are popularly eschewed as dangerously paternalistic relics, robbing cultures of their legitimate heritage and unjustifiably conditioning aid on conversion, they also just might have something to teach the rest of us about working with and for others.


  1. I reposted this. I hope all my FB's look @ it. I feel so guilty sitting here in FL doing nothing. I've had some health issues lately, if I get a decent outcome from my tests. I WILL get it together.. I already repair. I'm using a hand me down washer and a 25 year old dryer that has seen many repairs

  2. Hi Kim - this post made me think of a Catholic priest I knew who provided worship services to military families (mine included). I remember that he left his post with the military because he felt it was his calling to go and work with the poor in Haiti. He left in the 90s and is still there today:

    I remember him as being one of the more progressive, open-minded priests I'd ever come across in the Catholic faith. I also remember his going to Haiti as having less to do with converting people than to simply just serve the poor. So I definitely see what you are saying. :) - Kristy