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Saturday, December 1, 2012

Ted Talk: Ernesto Sirolli

Another very powerful Ted talk. Here is Ernesto Sirolli, an evangelist in the area of sustainable development, giving his unvarnished opinion about aid in developing countries.  From the title of his talk you will quickly grasp his first and most fundamental requirement for making any aid project successful, "Shut up and listen."

Amen to that.  But there was another message in there about something I've been mulling over for a few months that I call the Tyranny of Expectations.  This is not just the paternalistic, patronizing, "let's remake them in our image" attitude of the developed world toward what we used to call the Third World, it is also something that we all do to the people around us on a regular basis:  our friends and our families, our neighbors and colleagues.  It all starts with the belief that there is something wrong with them that needs to be fixed.  From there it quickly moves to our explaining to them how they need to change according to our quasi-divinely inspired plans for them.  Stop drinking.  Lose weight.  Go back to school.  Eat your carrots.  Quit your job.  Be polite.  Stand up for yourself.  Lose the accent.  Do this.  Don't do that.  Care about this.  Don't care about that.  Here's the plan and you're a chump or a fool if you don't follow our advice and do what we think is best for you.

This, in my view, is just another way we do violence to each other.  Having expectations for other people is another way of degrading them.  People are not "fix-it" projects.  Same is true of cultures or countries.  In the guise of being "helpful" we try to make them less by making ourselves more.  If this were a play we would cast ourselves in the role of the wise, the prudent, the perfect.  They, on the other hand, are the lacking, the screwed up, the flawed, the perfectible.

At the country level it isn't just the developed world doing it to the developing world, it's also citizens of developing countries doing it to each other.  Just ask a European about gun control in the U.S. or an American about "Socialism" in Europe and then watch the "donneurs de leçon" have at it.

As Sirolli points out so eloquently, isn't it interesting how this doesn't seem to work out too well?  For a very recent example of an aid program run amok read this very funny take on the U.S. development projects in Iraq, We Meant Well by Peter van Buren.

Frankly just as I've never known anyone to lose weight or quit smoking because they were nagged into it, I think it is also pretty damn unlikely that Americans will change their laws to conform to European standards or that Europeans will suddenly change their minds about social security just because both sides are wrinkling their noses and wagging their fingers at each other from across the ocean.

Put that way it sounds pretty stupid and childish, doesn't it?  And it is but look one level deeper and recognize that there is real violence underneath the criticism, the nagging and the finger-wagging whether it is happening at a personal level or between citizens of nation-states or between some development workers and the people in the countries in which they operate.

Here are two very modest suggestions for getting out from under the Tyranny of Expectations.  The first is to accept that people are just fine the way they are.  Just start with the assumption that there is nothing that needs to be fixed in that person, that culture or that country.  There are no "should's" - there are only "could's."

And then approach the situation with an attitude of service.  Listen to what the other person has to say, think it over and then propose things they could do if they were so inclined.   Make it very clear that your skills, talents and time are at their service should they choose to accept.

And if they don't accept?  Then you shut up and leave them alone.

Enjoy the talk and your weekend.

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