Development Workers and Missionaries – are we so different?

6 07 2009

In my life, I always seem to go through phases of more or less curiousity about the functioning of different religious groups I have heard of or encountered. Recently, I have had several enlightening talks with friends of mine who have been missionaries in developing countries, and after stumbling across a post this blog today (July 6th) by Chris Blattman (a Harvard professor in International Development) on missionary work and development, I thought it might be worthwhile sharing my questions of the moment.

[As a prelude to this post, I’ve also been reading a book by Orson Scott Card this week; Lost Boys which centres around a Mormon family which has been relocated for work to North Carolina and all of the strange incidences which go on in their daily lives throughout the year after they relocate. There are a number of religious references in the book, and it explores some of the stranger practices and ideals of Mormonism and examines them from a Mormon point of view which explains some of their cultural practices in a very sensitive and interesting light.]

Chris Blattman wrote his post “What aid workers can learn from missionaries” based on another blog called Blood and Milk. You can see the original post here.

Here is an excerpt:

“Host country donor staff make a major difference in institutional competence, but it’s a rare donor who lets national staff run their programs. The fear is corruption, mostly, but there is also a capacity problem. The people with the education and skills to really run a donor program aren’t working for USAID, World Bank, or CIDA salaries.

When you have a really good donor representative, they are like an extra brain for your efforts. They can help you dodge problems, adapt quickly to challenges, and negotiate different government relationships. It’s a synergy that can make all the difference.

And it pretty much never happens. More often than not, your funder’s representative doesn’t speak the local language and doesn’t even know the nation’s major cities before they land. No matter how smart or committed you are, you don’t have time in a few years to get up to speed enough to be really useful. One of the very few things we know about what works in development is that your interventions need to be precisely targeted to the local context. We can’t do that if nobody knows enough about the local context to make that happen. And how do you take a long view on development when no one stays for enough time to think that way?

So that’s what we can learn from missionaries. Stick around until you know what you’re doing. Project managers, and donor representatives, should have regional knowledge and language skills. They should be deeply steeped in local culture. We need incentives to get good people to stay in one place and become experts at it. Well, first we need it to be permitted. Then we need incentives.”

I believe that there is a reason that most of humanity’s six billion people are religious in some way or another, and religion has been trying to spread ideas of goodness and improvement for thousands of years longer than development workers have even been on the scene – in a way development work is my religion – I truly BELIEVE that things can be improved for the world poor, and maybe that makes me an idealist, but I certainly have enough FAITH in the concept to dedicate my life to working towards that end. If that doesn’t make me religious, then what does?

Religions of all types have found ways to reach into the depths of people and draw out the best in people, and to improve millions of people’s lives the world over – perhaps its time we took a lesson from missionaries – the very people many development workers blame for the stratification of much of the developing world’s societies. Maybe we do need to settle down, to “invade”, to listen, to learn from them – before we can hope to understand their problems, their needs, and the best way that we can help them. And maybe, just maybe, we’ll be smart enough to learn something from them at the same time.

Although, as Chris Blattman commented at the end of his post that: “It’s worth saying, however, what aid work ought not to share with missionaries: the saving mission. Development ain’t religion, and there are no souls and bodies to be saved. Unfortunately, that actually needs to be said. I think Alanna would agree.

I have to agree – that trying to force change where it is undesired, goes along much the same lines as religion pushing itself on people who may already have their own beliefs – perhaps we are being just as sacrilegious when we try to change their methods of giving birth, of clothing themselves, of earning a living, of anything…

Just a thought. (or a series of provocative thoughts)
Sarah Topps

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