A Crisis of Faith: Why Development Work Matters

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Timothy Hefflinger, AIF Clinton Fellow

On the Ground in India: Perspectives from American India Foundation’s Clinton Fellows

You could say I’m having a crisis of faith.

I have for some time believed that there was some state, or rather many states, of global affairs that would be good. I never pushed the idea of goodness too hard. It didn’t seem necessary to do so. I took on faith the idea that the Development field was working toward “the good.”

After all, the language is already there: development is supposed to promote a better, more just state of affairs in the world. Right? Whether or not we’ve sat down and fully articulated our visions, I believe most people working in this field are working toward that good, that better state. Development is teleological, or goal-oriented: I think of development (the verb) as “becoming different.” Development (the field) is always marketed as “becoming better.”

This may be why the donor-executor model is so intent on proving “impact” all the time: each “impact” represents one step toward “the good,” in theory. This justifies the whole complex. Now, I don’t mean to demean the endeavor of impact analysis. I believe the whole field needs more of it, in fact. Check out this piece written by the American India Foundation’s Director of Learning, Evaluation and Impact Dr. Varna Sri Raman, Why Evidence Matters, for some more on this.

I have always tried to be a little bit relative on what “the good” would look like. I always envisioned a rational discourse about what we all collectively believe to be good, and progressing from there to determine what International Development would look like. It’s always been a tentative idea for me, by its very nature. Until recently, if you were to press me on it, I would probably have said something like this: “Well, I believe in ‘the good’ because it gives us something at which to aim. It enables us to envision a better world.” Now, I’m just not so sure.

The idea of “the good” (as justification for Development) started to fall apart for me. It lost its utility to me. It could no longer explain what I was witnessing.

My complaint is that the field of Development as a whole doesn’t seem to be attempting to correct those elements of the modern world system that are causing poverty and degradation in the first place. Perhaps the problems are just too big, and perhaps I’m misguided in believing that Development practitioners should somehow be more effective in producing durable changes than other intelligent, well-meaning people. Progress, in those cases where it exists at all, has been slow. We are being asked to believe on faith the idea that Development is working.

And we rarely seem to confront the real problem: some people have too much and too many people have too little. This is a structural problem. Helping the poor, trying to “give them a leg up,” makes very little sense if one is not also confronting the structural problems that caused the inequality in the first place. The status quo focuses on those who have too little and makes them the problem.

Rather than focusing on the poor, development for “the good” would have us realize that the problem is really with the people who have too much. I see the Development system perpetuating this problem: those-who-have-too-much give a little bit (a very little bit) of what they have, most of which is lost in “service delivery,” and then the poor continue being poor.

An artisan works on a hand-knotted rug outside of Jaipur, Rajasthan.

Now, I am not naïve, or at least not very naïve. I agree that, practically speaking, there aren’t a lot of great options. The donor-executor model is deeply entrenched. Additionally, I also believe there is significant good to be found in well-planned, albeit top-down, Development. I wrote about that idea here.
My problem is the implicit and explicit justifications for it. The model requires that those who would “do good” be complicit in the obscene concentration of wealth in the elites. They are the ones paying for it, after all.

I have become disillusioned with international development (and national and community-level development) when I witness its processes being co-opted for what is convenient. Or when they are co-opted for what is beneficial for national governments (in extending or solidifying control throughout their territories, for example). And I become especially confused and inflamed when I see development processes being co-opted for what is appealing to the private donors themselves. It’s a revolving door of donors and dollars.

A banner advocating for animal protection.

So I ask myself: What concepts could possibly produce such a state of affairs? Do those concepts hang together? Are they coherent? Do we all agree on them? If not, what kind of world system do we imagine? Why aren’t we doing that instead?

So, here I am, sort of dangling my toes over the precipice of development nihilism. I don’t have the answers. I used to believe we were all working toward “the good,” toward a (somewhat) shared vision of a better world order. Now I’m unsure what justifications we have. I’d love some input from you, my dear reader.

Here are my questions: how do you justify working in international development without appealing to a vague notion of future-goodness? If you are more focused at the micro level, how do you fit your micro-level work into a scheme that means something to you?


About the Author

Timothy Hefflinger earned a master’s degree in Disaster Resilience Leadership from Tulane University. He serves with the Snow Leopard Conservancy India Trust (SLC-IT) in Leh, Ladakh. His project focuses on sustainable development, human-animal conflict, and livelihoods. He is honored to contribute to his host organization’s valuable conservation efforts and Himalayan Homestay program in Ladakh. Prior to becoming an AIF Clinton Fellow, Timothy completed an internship in Sri Lanka and traveled to India on several occasions. He continues to be impressed by India and its people.

AIF’s William J. Clinton Fellowship for Service in India builds the next generation of leaders committed to lasting change for underprivileged communities across India, while strengthening the civil sector.