Why do international development interventions often blow up in the face? Here’s a thought exercise that helps explore that.
Imagine you invent a time machine that can give you a one-way trip to a tribe of hunter gatherers who live in 12,000 BC – before civilization as we know it. However, the machine doesn’t let you bring along any materials along – just yourself and the hunter-gatherer outfit that you wear. You know this a year in advance, and are trained both physically and culturally in the language and the ways of your host tribe. Being from an advanced era, your mission is to help your host tribe. Now here’s the question – what knowledge can you impart to enhance their lives?
You could probably create a wheel and help your tribe transport their belongings or meat from a hunt across large distances. Wheels are simple to build and seem to be useful in a variety of situations. But the problem is that even if you could craft wooden wheels that are perfectly round with the tools at hand, you wouldn’t have enough good surfaces to roll them on. Wheels need roads, or at the very least, clear patches of land to function well. And considering how much your tribe moves everyday, towing along wheels on hard terrain is a burden.
Maybe you could teach them to grow crops and secure their supply of food. By observing which plants they eat, you could teach them to sow those plants, water them and harvest them. But growing crops requires a particular lifestyle that needs decades or even centuries of preparation. Crops require intensive care and require people to live in large settlements near them – all of which are ill suited to a hunter-gatherer lifestyle. You are met with ridicule at the mere suggestion of an idea so preposterous.
At the very least, you could be a storyteller. You could tell your hosts captivating stories about how the future would unfold. You can tell them about how people would one day settle in cities with thousands of people, how we would grow our own food, domesticate animals and sail the oceans. You could tell them about trains and flying machines – about democracy and how people from hundreds of tribes would come together to elect their own leaders. At best, though, they would just dismiss your tales the crazy ramblings of a sick person. At worst, they could accuse you of being a sorcerer and burn you alive.
Any progress within society happens on the margins – the boundaries between the familiar and the unfamiliar. As a modern person in an ancient society, our margins are too far apart for us to help each other. This isn’t because hunter gatherers were primitive – they led wonderful, sophisticated lives and were both physically and mentally more capable than modern day humans (they even had larger brains). And yet, every single piece of knowledge and technology that we posses exists in a particular context. To be relevant, wheels need roads, and agriculture needs settlements. Even stories involving flying machines need enough familiarity with technology to be deemed acceptable.
While this thought exercise explains an extreme situation, it gives us an idea of why it is difficult to move to a new social context and try to change it for the better. That is why we see repeated failures of Western interventions in African, Middle-Eastern countries or Asian countries. Our ideas are all have their place in a particular context and separating a part of them out to fix a problem in a faraway land doesn’t often succeed.
Despite the best intentions, any intervention that does not understand the margins of its target society is bound to end up in consternation and eventual failure.