When I was in college, I spent three summers living in Kenya and working in Kibera, an urban slum that is home to over a million people. It was there that I first felt called to long-term cross-cultural work, worked in intense poverty every day, and had the opportunity to learn from the poor by working with them. I have learned a lot since then and have not yet returned to Kibera, but this essay about a well-meaning effort to build a school in the community was fascinating to me:
Part of the issue is that high-profile interventions of this kind disrupt established rhythms and hierarchies in all societies, particularly those as interconnected as Kibera. For instance, a hypothetical project to distribute high end smartphones to local midwives such that they can access apps that help make deliveries safer seems like a great idea. But you would have to consider access to electricity and mobile phone towers so that the phones can be charged and the information downloaded. And even if you did manage to account for this, the phones may come to symbolise what is called “kujiona” in Kiswahili, roughly translating as feeling oneself superior. Handing out $200 smart phones to villagers creates wealth inequalities that may make recipients the targets of malicious gossip, theft or even violence. This is part of the semiology of objects – they come to symbolise something unintentional owing to the local context. But what is the giver’s responsibility if the meaning is beyond what they intended?
It is incredibly, extraordinarily difficult to do any kind of aid or development work without causing problems like this. Even the approaches that focus the most on “community empowerment” are laden with pitfalls related to the intervention itself. But I think far too many people involved with this sort of work — particularly within the church — either don’t think about these things at all or don’t try to mitigate the damage they might do in the course of executing or supporting the work.