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Ruthlessly Critical and Buoyantly Hopeful

“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 help 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 their 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 talk 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?

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