Sunday, March 18, 2012

Thoughts on Changing the World

All right. So, it’s time to make a personal confession. Basically, when I left for my 8-month global gap year, I uh… well.. I thought I was going to change the world. This assumption had been bolstered by months of praise from others in response to my explanation of how I was going to be living and what I was going to be doing during the upcoming 2011-2012 academic year.

Let’s flash back to any given day of Summer 2011

“So, I heard from my daughter/friend/dog/therapist/manicurist/ husband’s cousin’s masseuse that you are going to be doing some traveling next year instead of going off to college.”

“Oh well, I’m going to study global development while participating in service learning projects around the world.”

“That sounds nice. So you are going to be doing Church work?”

Plastering on a smile, I’d reply, “Actually I’m a student with the organization Thinking Beyond Borders. In short, I am going to be going to seven different countries addressing different issues in each of them. For example, I am headed off to Ecuador for my first project and will be planting trees there while also reading and discussing in a small group setting how the environment has gotten to be the way it is as of right now, and also how can the fate of the environment be sustained for the future. I’m also doing an education unit in China, a sustainable agriculture unit in India, and finishing up the trip nicely studying the HIV/AIDS pandemic in South Africa. I’ll be getting hands on experience they’re working with care givers whose patients have been infected.”

“Oh! How wonderful. Wow, well, best of luck changing the world next year!”

Jeez. No pressure.

And so the adventure began. I became increasingly frustrated over time that I wasn’t “changing the world” as effectively or efficiently as I wanted to. I was infuriated at a day that began late and unbelievably irritable when a class I was scheduled to teach in China fell through. HELLO, I’M TRYING TO CHANGE THE WORLD HERE… CAN YOU JUST LIKE. BE ON TIME SO I CAN PLANT MORE TREES OR WHATEVER?

After battling these irritations for a while, the realization hit me; I wasn’t going to change the world this year. I wasn’t going to revolutionize the education system in China or lead a march against Parliament in India to demand subsidies for organic farming. I was here to learn, see how things worked, evaluate what worked and what didn’t, and most of all, have an experience that I would reflect on with the most amiable of thoughts in the future.

It is easy to get discouraged on this trip. Especially if you begin it imagining that you are going to CHANGE the world.

For example, yesterday, I spent two hours in an NGO ( discussing HIV/AIDS among many other topics with the people who worked there.

After about an hour of intellectual anecdotal information, I was shown a 100 page bound packet of research the government municipality branch had conducted on the “six wards”, essentially information compiled from surveys that had been conducted door to door in the townships my peers and I have been working in. I was extremely intrigued, and at first thought, encouraged. Wow, at least the government realizes there are a TON of issues here. Look! They even realize that in the shacks of the Quolweni area there are only seven toilets to service hundreds upon hundreds on people! They do care. Wow. This is just great.

I kept reading with a tooth –revealing expression until I read this:

After reading it over a few times, I re-affirmed the statistic I had heard concerning unemployment in the area. 70% of the people who live in the New Horizon Township where I work are unemployed. I couldn’t believe it, so I voiced my doubts to the locals I was speaking with. “Wait, the government people here to set up plans to help, wouldn’t talk to 70% of the population, who these plans concern the most and who need the most help? They rescheduled the meetings to accommodate representatives from the 30% of the population who are employed and assumed to be doing much better in terms of battling their own poverty?”

The answers to my questions were met with a resounding yes.

I couldn’t help but think… WHAT THE HELL. This makes NO sense. And that sense of discouragement and anger towards “the way things are” bubbled furiously in my brain.

My frustrations dissipated, but the concept of misaddressing the issues at present by making plans with those the issues affect the least did not leave my mind.

This morning, we had seminar 10, the last seminar of any given core-country, which asks the question “How can we affect change?”

These seminars are usually met with a lot of, uh, shoot, okay; still don’t know… kind of thoughts. I’ve left this seminar in previous countries often once again realizing, I don’t have the capacity to CHANGE the world.

Today though, I left with a much different frame of mind. I still don’t believe that I alone have the capacity to change the world, but I realize I have the capacity to analyze institutions and their practices and come up with a different way of doing things.

I realized in the world of development, there has been a lot of things just done… wrong. People have been assuredly manipulated into present levels of abject poverty; public work projects have been completed that do all but help the public. It’s true.

The best intentions may not always govern a government’s decision to get involved, to build, to “educate”, and to change the structures of a society or a country. However, I personally like to believe it’s not the WORST intentions either, just maybe inclusive of foresights that we will most likely ALSO benefit from the project being done here.

To put it more simply, Thomas Edison attempted more than 2,000 times to invent the incandescent light bulb. When asked about his failures he replied, “I have simply learned 2,000 ways not to make an incandescent light bulb”.

It is from the failures of our past actions that we learn how to do something better. And it is from people critically analyzing the issues of the past (as well as the motivations of the actions in the first place) that can creatively invent new solutions to “old” problems.

It is easy to criticize PEPFAR (President’s Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief), to admit (just like they, themselves do in a recent report I read on their website) that PEPFAR has indeed had a lack of “field perspective” in both policy planning and decisions. It is even easier to ignore that fact, and say good on PEPFAR, the plan has saved over a million lives by providing ARVs for those infected with HIV.

It seems that most programs, projects, institutions, etc., have this good and bad side to them. Well, hmm, they failed here, but look at this! And really, who is to judge what is right or wrong… may I dare say, black or white? Oh, it’s really all just a big grey area isn’t it?

According to Paul Farmer, WRONG.

“White Liberals were forever saying ‘Things aren’t that black and white.’ But some things are plenty black and white…”

Take the issue of starvation. How is starvation a grey area? It isn’t. People need food to survive, so let’s get them food.

To him, “these are situations, rate in the world where what ought to be done seemed perfectly clear. But the doing was always complicated, always difficult”.

And then of course, you realize like Paul Farmer, that the doing is complicated and difficult. How on earth are going to get people food without imposing Western rules and influence in a place? How are the local governments going to tackle this issue when they don’t have any money to set up these kinds of programs that could help alleviate starvation? And the questions keep coming.

But the fact of the matter is, doing NOTHING isn’t an option. Today, I left seminar realizing, yeah, things are complicated, attempts are going to fail, but procrastinating any kind of effort, isn’t a solution either.

As people, we can’t let pandemics like HIV/AIDS hope to “figure themselves out”.

Issues of poverty, sanitation, nutrition, etc. are not new issues. Many attempts at the “eradication of poverty” have been made… SO many so that we excuse ourselves for taking an active role in finding solutions riding on the fact that it is TOO complex, that it is simply “too grey” for our understanding or worthy of our own initiative.

However, for me at least, this excuse is no longer valid. We cannot shy away from what we don’t understand. We cannot point fingers at specific institutions and deem their way a failure when in no way considering the line of thinking that led the institution to act in the particular way it did. We can’t sit back and sigh at what our previous leaders have done and idly remark, “That’s just the way it is in this world.”

No. We can’t.

As it stands though, not one person (especially not an 18 year old looking for herself as much as solutions to development issues) is going to change the world. But, in our own way, we each have the capacity to AFFECT the world. Even if it is in the smallest way of just AFFECTING our own selves. Even, well, if it’s just opening your mind to the possibility of change, of the power social insurgency, of combating these “grey” areas.

As I discussed at heavy length while reading Hamlet my senior year of high school, thinking can be a form of action. It is when we stop thinking that we are truly inactive in this world.

So, at the very least, I hope reading this… MADE YOU THINK, and keeps you thinking.

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