An Ignoble Agenda

“So you’re going back to Canada next week?” For some reason I felt guilty as the dentist entered the room. Despite his cheerfulness, my stomach was in knots. I had been putting off this cavity for months.

“Yeah, I have school.” The Japanese dental office clearly wasn’t designed for 6’2 foreigners. My legs extended beyond the chair till my feet met the wall, and so any time the assistant needed to get by, I would curl them in and then relax again.

“What are you studying out there?”

“International Development”. I was all too familiar with his quizzical look. It doesn’t hep that by now there were little probes exploring my mouth, and development doesn’t translate into Japanese very smoothly. I started to explain…

“It’s like going to poor countries and helping out with things like health, or education or something. You know, what big NGOs like World Vision do.”

“Ah…I see…” Fitting a head onto the drill, his next words surprised me:

“My father, he was a dentist too. He would go to Cambodia, to the villages to do dental work for the people there. To get the kids to brush there teeth, he would hand out toothbrushes. But the kids, they would just take all the toothbrushes and sell them in the market. They’re so poor, you know”

The conversation ended there, mostly because my mouth was otherwise occupied. However, I keep coming back to that moment. Because despite every puzzled look I get when I say I study development, after some explanation, everyone I talks to kind of gets it.

They have a friend who spent a year somewhere, or watched a TED talk about it or are really interested in this one issue. Most are genuinely moved by the state of the world, and hopeful about the solutions they have encountered.

But, like the toothbrushes sent to market, there is so much that falls short of our expectations. Three years into my degree, I’m all too familiar with these stories. Any new idea must run through the gauntlet. Participatory? Sustainable? Pro-poor? Systemic? The process is cold, exacting, and ultimately paralysing.

But the lesson I continually return to is that doing development means giving up this dream. It means abandoning delusions of changing the world and forfeiting the smug satisfaction of the ivory tower.

So this blog is noble no more. It is not filled with grandiose dreams brought to you by Upworthy, ideas that fade as quickly as they go viral. But at the same time, I don’t want to take the moral high road, using my learning to explain away any possibility of taking action. My goal in writing is to delve into this tension, to be ruthlessly critical and buoyantly hopeful, discovering paths for real transformation.

Will you come along for the ride?

This is my first ever blog post, and having mostly written things that look like this, I’m admittedly a bit nervous. If you’ve read this far, consider taking an extra thirty seconds to respond:

“I liked…”
“Tell me about…”
“I once…”


16 thoughts on “An Ignoble Agenda

  1. がんばって!

    I’m a little confused – you seem to dislike the cold/ruthless analytical aspect of international development, but then end saying that that’s your goal of this blog. Could you spend some more time at some point on this? (I’m also just curious about it in general)


    1. They way I understood it, he’s trying to do the cold analytical aspect from a position of hope? But don’t let me answer for him. Also cool blog title! And post.


    2. Ofutsu, you’re right on!
      However, Aaron, our critique is fair. I think my tendency is to get pretty cynical of a lot of development work (like “buy a goat for a poor African” kind of thing), while I think that it is really important to be informed and to maintain a standard of respect and excellence, I know that I can really easily become drowned in cynicism to the degree that I start to deconstruct before I appreciate something.

      Thanks for your encouragement!


    1. Yeah! I read her op-ed “The Algebra of Infinite Justice” for a class last term and found her critiques ll written and well thought out (if intentionally touchy)…..what would you recommend I read?


      1. I haven’t read that much of hers, just now started a collection of essays called Listening to Grasshoppers and last fall I read her intro to Ambedkar’s Annihilation of Caste which was great. I like that she’s sarcastic and emotional. I was just wondering how much we overlap in the things we read because I only recognized a few names you referenced in your article–great job btw


      2. I see…thanks! I had a class last term that was “culture and ethics” but was more anthropology than pure ethics. The personality of the authors was so much more evident in those readings than in the politics or economics that I usually read.
        I’m in the middle of “Development as Freedom” by Amartya Sen, which is fascinating but pretty dense…also read some of Arturo Escobar this fall which you might like.


  2. I like the candor Jacob, I will also encourage you to find the “small bits” the shine against the darkness of reality. The village women whose children survive and find the reason, the place the sickness doesn’t win and why, the small bits that show that making a difference us possible ; and exploit it for good. Looking forward to watching you grow in how you choose to invest; where and why


  3. I like your emphasis on “giving up the dream” because I think that heroicism is really what gets in the way of really understanding other people and the way things work elsewhere. It’s when we give up the dream, which is really for ourselves, that we can empower others. You’ve got some big thoughts, looking forward to following along 🙂


  4. Jacob, I’m tempted to leave a long winded reply, which I might yet do, but now doesn’t afford me the time. For the moment, I’ll reply in brief: For the last couple of years I’ve been itching for folks to chat about this kind of stuff with, so I’m encouraged to see you writing on this topic, and you’re tempting me to take you up on the offer of following along and adding my 2 cents. My short reply is this, in point form: 1) I’ve always been scared by cynicism. I don’t like it. It makes me feel threatened and sad, for whatever reason. But I also acknowledge that it probably exists for good reason, and I don’t want to suggest that no one should be cynical, etc, etc. Probably, I should just spend more time trying to understand what it is, why it exists, etc, etc. 2) One of the ways that people respond to failure in helping others is to get upset with “heroes” who are full of themselves and make a mess. While I think there is good reason in that, that also makes me sad, because I’d much rather live in a world where people try and fail, then a world where people fulfill their selfish desires and forget about suffering people. All that said: 3) I think my ideal is for people to feel deeply moved by the disparity in the world, be willing to do whatever they feel God (or their conscience) asking them to do, and to be all of the following: hopeful/energetic/humble/wise/willing-to-fail/careful/faithful, and above all, seeking with all their heart to embody love in what they are doing. If you ask me what the biggest issue in the world is, in a secular kind of sense, it’s selfishness. And so I think the primary task in development is being willing to let go of selfishness. Next, it’s about wisdom, because as many people point out, selfless stupidity can make a mess. And after that, I think it’s hard work, and lots of it.


    1. Thanks for your thoughtful reply! A mantra that I always come back to is “It’s easy to be cynical, it’s hard to be hopeful” and I try to draw a distinction between cynicism and critical thinking. I’m challenged by your ideal of being “deeply moved” though- being faced with overwhelming problems, I really quickly start to check out and make my studies only a mental exercise. It’s wearying to always be moved, but I think it is worth it, as I think it demands selflessness to be vulnerable like that.
      I’m exploring this a bit more in my next post- stay tuned, and thanks for your thoughts!


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