Stop Tying to Save the World and Simply Listen


This topic is either at the forefront of development or at the back.  I’ve always wondered why the positives and the negatives are never integrated together, tied together to show the highlights and the downsides because how can we ever learn and develop projects that’ll work if we never stop to actually look at the work that has been done and what we are going to do. It why I wanted to take a minute to step back from the amazing things that development projects can do to highlight a side that we often times overlook in our eagerness to change the world.


One of the first articles that I read was Ivan Illich’s speech, To Hell with Good Intentions. (Illich 1968) I think it’s a staple for most of us to read this as ID majors at some point in our schooling and it opened my eyes to a lot. In his speech he talks about the hypocrisy that we often times see with mission trips, services trips, and mission vacations. We ignore the immense amount of privilege that one has in order to take such a trip. To be able to ‘help” others in foreign countries is a privilege and one I believe doesn’t always need to be shared. We have this attitude that because of our privilege that we most in return help other, that we most impose our Western way of life on them because it’s worked so well for us. People go into these countries just as Illich describes with “good intentions”, but good intentions are deadly when not educated properly about the task at hand. We don’t look at how when we go into Africa and build homes for those in need that our generosity is hurting those in the homebuilding business, while you are helping in that moment you often times never stop to think about the long term effects of your actions. Whether you’ll put the family who once did that job for a living out of business with your “generosity”.  I don’t say this to be a pessimist, I say it to hopefully educate whoever is reading this on the importance of their actions and the long term effects they could have on a community. That even the best intentions can backfire on us.


I found it hard to find a report that would address what I originally wanted to talk about. Instead I stumbled upon something I don’t think I normally would have looked into and that is aid. In a report published by Global Issues it delves into a few topics that I am going to talk about. The first being is aid actually hurting development? Despite grand promises aid has not achieved much. It 2006 it was estimated that the West had spent around 2.3 trillion on foreign aid, yet still had not managed to provide cheap medicine to children in order to prevent malaria or provide 4-dollar bed nets for families. While this is almost a decade ago we still see this happening today, its one reason why I choose to use this report. We also see that aid is often times used as a way to establish priority in influencing domestic policy in the recipient countries. One of the root causes of poverty lies with powerful nations. They are the ones who formulated the aid polices that we see today. They allow for countries to remain dependent on their aid without ever helping and teaching them how to become independent on their own. (Shah 2014) An article in the Asia-Pacific Economics Blog, not only stressed the issue with the dependence that occurs when one nation becomes reliant on foreign aid, but also how its not all about the money, but in fact the structural and attitudinal reforms that are required for aid to properly work. (APEB 2014)


So not that we’ve gotten the problem with good intentions and a few issues facing foreign aid, lets dive right into the issues with development projects themselves. One huge issue in Africa has always been finding a way to provide fresh, clean drinking water for those in need. An NGO, PlayPump International came up with an idea so that every time a kid spun one of their devices water would fill an elevated tank a few yards away. This would provide the fresh, clean water that anyone in the village could access. They had it all planned out, it would cost $7,000 to install and help up to 2,500 people. Donations came flooding in and raised $16.4 million dollars for the project. Sadly, less then two years after the initial grant money came in already more then 1,500 of the pumps stopped functioning and needed repairs. When they went to inspect why this was happening they discovered that the pumps they had invested so much time and money into simply sat rusting and instead of children turning the pump like originally planed that found women stooping down in pairs turning the pump or adults paying children to turn the pump for them. (Hobbes 2014) This isn’t a surprising outcome. This happens more times then people will often admit, its embarrassing to say that a new promising development idea that showed so much promise came crashing down.


So how can this all be prevented? Well having tried to find a Ted talk that I had discovered a few years back which inspired me and opened my eyes to the failures in development and how it can actually cause violent conflict in areas, I instead stumbled upon a video by Ernesto Sirolli. He is a noted authority in the field of sustainable economic development and is the Founder of the Sirolli Institute, an international non-profit organization that teaches community leaders how to establish and maintain Enterprise Facilitation projects in their community. What he had to say was enlightening to me so I thought I would end with it. He talked about a few different things. First how aid has done nothing for these African countries, but instead done more damage then good in most cases. How we as Western people are often times two things imperialist or colonialist missionaries, and there are only two ways we deal with people: We either patronize them, or we are paternalistic. Finally, which I think is the most important take away is that he fell into a pattern of working with “good intentions”. What really struck me was how he got out of this mind set and started making a profound impact and this was by simply shutting up and listening. The first principle of aid should always be respect. We have to respect if a community actually wants the aid or not. My mom always had a saying growing up “You can’t help someone who doesn’t want to be helped” and this is exactly the case. In the instance with the pumps, no one asked if these villages actually wanted the pump, they instead thought they were being saviors and helping without ever considering what the people in these villages actually wanted. Sirolli also stressed the importance of sitting down with the community on their time, not our own. There are some wonderfully brilliant people in these villages that could make a difference if we only stop and listening instead of talking the whole time. If these projects are really for them then we need to make it about them and not ourselves.

I believe by just listening to what other have to say, stopping and listening to what people are actually wanting is often times forgotten when we forge ahead with our “good intentions”. So I encourage those who want to pursue a career in this field that we stop and listen. Not just when it comes to development, but in our everyday lives. We may just be amazed what we are able to accomplish.


Work Cited:

Ivan Illich. “To Hell with Good Intentions by Ivan Illich.” To Hell with Good Intentions by Ivan Illich. Conference on InterAmerican Student Projects, 20 Apr. 1968. Web. 18 July 2016.

Shah, Anup. “Foreign Aid for Development Assistance.” – Printer Friendly Version. Global Issues, 28 Sept. 2014. Web. 18 July 2016.

Asia-Pacific Economics Blog. “” Apecsecorg. Asia-Pacific Economics Blog, 24 Mar. 2014. Web. 18 July 2016.

Hobbes, Michael. “Stop Trying to Save the World.” New Republic. New Republic, 17 Nov. 2014. Web. 18 July 2016.

Sirolli, Ernesto. “Want to Help Someone? Shut up and Listen!” Ernesto Sirolli:. Ted Talk, Fall 2012. Web. 18 July 2016.