I needed just a bit more information on the IDPs fleeing Darfur. That was when I unearthed something that haunts me to this day.
I was almost finished a paper for my “Political Economy of Global Poverty” class, which was as close as you could get to a dream course for an international development student minoring in political science. The readings were fascinating and the discussions were challenging. For this assignment I had to write a paper on a topic connected to poverty. I examined how the 2003 genocide in Darfur could be traced back to impoverished livelihoods. I did meticulous research and teased out of the ethnic conflict an explanation that considered livelihood patterns and land rights developed over the last 5 centuries and how those had been jarred by globalisation and governance changes, stirring ethnic tensions and sparking violence.
I write a lot of papers, and this one I was especially proud of. But I needed one more stat to clinch the argument; the number of internally displaced people to date. I found an article on The Guardian, my go-to source for development news.
Perfect, this was exactly what I needed.
But when I opened the page, there was a shot of a family, a child holding his mother’s hand, gazing down at sleeping siblings.
When I saw the picture, there was this crushing feeling as the weight of what I had been reading about for the last two weeks suddenly hit me.
Genocide. I had been researching genocide and I hadn’t shed a tear, I hadn’t felt a thing.
That’s my default response: when I’m overwhelmed, I shut off emotions. I don’t think I could manage to keep studying development if I didn’t. The heart wrenching statistics on maternal and child health don’t really move me any more, they’re old news.
That haunts me. When people become statistics, they are not really people anymore.
But the danger is deeper and closer to home. When I read a headline like the one above and think “This is just what I need”, then I am dehumanized as well. I no longer have the capacity to empathize, only to analyze.
One of the assigned books for this Poverty course was Paul Collier’s The Bottom Billion. While I think his arguments on macroeconomic growth are brilliant, something that struck me was that he takes a moment to warn against two dangers in doing development.
First is the “headless heart” a passionate but ill-informed approach to solving problems. Next, and significant for an Oxford economist, he exposes the failures of a “heartless head”, when technocratic solutions overwhelm compassionate actions.
So the challenge for myself, and to each of you is this: remind yourself of why you are passionate about what you do. Remember what got you to where you are now.
Let it move you.