Talent is universal. Opportunity is not.

Two more days until Kenya! It’s been a great week back home, and I’ve gotten the opportunity to see many of the people I love. Yes, I’ve even admittedly missed the infamous Katy Pham and her ability to scream sing along to Demi Lovato’s “Heart Attack” at midnight… 

Amidst the unhealthy amounts of boba I’ve consumed and the silly shenanigans I’ve ventured with best friends, I’ve taken a lot of time to reflect and react to the readings and research I’ve performed on healthcare and international development (ID) work in Kenya. Some things I’ve been musing:

Good intentions are not enough.

I’ve mentioned in my first blog about the precarious nature of international development work. Many organizations and multilateral institutions like the UN and WHO have great goals and resources, yet oftentimes their work is far from effective. In fact, sometimes what these forces do is not only ineffective, but can actually does more harm than good.

In the field of international development, good intentions are not enough. Yes, many are gung-ho about making a difference and there is no doubt that they want to use their talents and knowledge to help others. But there has to be more. I’ve realized that my talents, my knowledge, and motivations are essential, but not sufficient. Instead, the key to international development will be found in the willingness to understand, learn, and observe. Any effective success is found not in the ability to implement one’s skills and knowledge onto others, but rather in the empowerment of creating a change that actively involves and empowers with the voices and opinions of the people you serve. Notice the italicized conjunctions. Working with the local community rather than onto/for the local community is where the greatest potential for change in international development lies.

Analyzing my role as a foreign student traveler 

Perhaps one of the greatest overarching themes of the field of international development is the act of defining to what extent and to what purpose my trip abroad holds to myself and to the people I encounter. How much can I realistically do in 6 weeks? Am I simply there to perform volunteer service work, or am I working towards a sustainable change? Would the change that I hope to make by going to my trip to Africa be more beneficial in the form of monetary donations? Is my work replaceable? If so, how can I contribute my talents to best understand the area I am helping and ignite an innovative change?

I’ve struggled to define what exactly what I’ll be doing in Kenya, and after much reflection, I’ve decided that I want to refrain from simply labeling myself a volunteer. The premise of the trip is to contrive an “innovation (i.e. solution) to an existing problem in the Kenyan healthcare system” after 6 weeks of in-class seminars and field experience with an NGO. To call myself a volunteer is to imply that what I will be doing is replaceable and can be done by simply anyone who travels to Kenya through the program I am in. On the contrary, I hope to shape my role to be much more substantial and sustainable.

After much contemplation, I think my roles on this trip cross between being a learner and an innovatorThis trip will undoubtedly be a great personal learning opportunity. However, even more important than my own personal gain, this experience gives me the chance to create a product or service with the knowledge I gain from my professors, NGO, and local leaders about the Kenyan healthcare system. I want to learn of the talents, skills, abilities, and resources available to the community I will be helping. Moreover, I want to learn of the opportunities they lack and see where I can effectively and respectfully intervene.

I know this sounds like a lot of fluff, labeling myself as a learner and an innovator. I even might incite some “Western-complex” critique by labeling myself with such self-promoting labels. Yet, as we look at the history of changemakers that have created expansive, effective, and respectable solutions to the world’s most pressing problems, they all have the common quality of learning through observing and listening. By doing this, innovation and change is oftentimes a matter of working with and listening to the concerns of local community members. Empowerment is the product of creating opportunity for local communities to take ownership and responsibility towards finding solutions.

“Talent is universal. Opportunity is not.”

I think being effective in international development world can (ironically) be summed up by realizing one simple phrase: Talent is universal. Opportunity is not.

It’s interesting to see how the public is exposed to two different sides of the developing world. On one hand, we have glossy pictures and films of life in the developing world, such as those that depict girls of varying ethnicities holding hands under a beaming sun and frollicking through green grass (yes, I am making a subtle reference and critique of Girl Rising). On the other hand, we have something called “poverty porn” that depict and generalize the poor as horribly emaciated, incapacitated, and helpess, just as we so often generalize the “starving children in Africa” as encompassing, well, every child in Africa.

girl_rising-rz

vs.

Screen Shot 2013-05-28 at 1.35.45 PM

For a good example of poverty porn, watch this video by World Vision called “Hidden Faces of AIDS” (the image is clickable). It’s lauded on YouTube… but do we really need the  dramatic eerie music to accompany the depiction of poverty? Are the fire and flames and B&W pics really necessary? How many times do they need to emphasize the word “DIE”? And what about the creepy voice starting around 0:45? Ugh, I can’t. I feel like I’m watching a cheap horror movie.

The stories of Rye Barcott’s It Happened On the Way to War and Muhammad Yunus’s Creating a World Without Poverty both center on how we so often underestimate the determination, work ethic, and talents of the poor. We have the habit of seeing the poor as individuals to be helped rather than individuals who, if given the resources, can help themselves. The poor are so often stigmatized as burdens of society, yet our institutions fail to provide adequate opportunity for the poor to prove themselves otherwise.

Rye Barcott’s NGO called Carolina for Kibera is an organization that clearly exemplifies the benefits of “participatory development”. Its mission statement is to “develop local leaders, catalyze positive change and alleviate poverty in the Kibera slum of Nairobi.” In his book, Barcott invests money into the entrepreneurial and altruistic aspirations of the people he meets in Kibera. He gets to know the local community on a personal level and invests the leadership of the organization into the hands of the local leaders themselves.

Muhammad Yunus is known as the “banker to the poor” and created the renowned Bangladesh microfinance institution, Grameen Bank. He has lended millions of small loans of money to the poor with small, flexible interest rates in order for the poor to create their own small businesses. To his surprise (and my surprise as well), the rate of money returned to the bank by the poor was 98.6%! He noticed that many of the most trustworthy and effective businesses were those run by women, as personal profit gained by their businesses were often given to their families rather than themselves. His book also revealed a new concept I thought was very intriguing called “social business”, in which the profits of a social business would be devoted to paying back investors the exact money they contributed, yet using the remaining profit as a means of expanding social services or improving product qualities in lieu of giving back the profit to investors. Quite a twist from the customary non-profit model, for-profit model, and even social entrepreneurship hype. I’m hoping to read more into it — the model sounds feasible and promising for the future of using capitalism for social good.

Just realized this blog post was probably too long for its own good. But it’s helpful on a personal level because I talk about international development with others and find a hard time articulating all my thoughts concisely. These main three points encompass a lot of my reactions. Hopefully they’re helpful to anyone who’s following! And dang, I still can’t get over that poverty video above. I don’t know how anyone finds that video inspiring or an effective call-to-action.

Blog on my summer bucket list to come tomorrow!

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About Bernadette Lim

Harvard University student. Los Angelena at heart. http://about.me/bernadette_lim
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