Getting Used to It

My first day in Uganda, I met up with Delia – the professor who invited me into the project – at Kabira Country Club, an absurdly fancy fortified country club serving the white residents of Kampala. When we sat down to start working, I quickly realized that, for all the place’s luxury, there was one thing it didn’t have: a decent internet connection. When I mentioned it to Delia, she responded “That’s the one thing you can’t get used to here, the terrible internet.”

I don’t think what she said was intended to be taken all that seriously, but when I thought about her comment later that day, I though to myself “that’s so absurd.” The thing that ought to be impossible to get used to was so obvious: the poverty. After all, the decrepit state of Uganda had really taken me aback the night before. I had been told Kampala was a nice, modern African city, and so I was surprised when the entire 30 mile road from Entebbe Airport to Kampala was lined by haphazardly constructed shanties. All but the biggest roads were unpaved, and even those that were tarmac were potholed and lined with ditches full of refuse. Having just twenty hours earlier been ensconced in the la-la land of privilege that is my life in the U.S., the contrast was enough to inspire a righteous indignation that carried with me through my first weeks. As I confronted legions of unemployed young men, villagers dying from HIV and other treatable diseases, and farmers ruthlessly exploited by international companies, I was sure that this was never anything that would cease to shock me.

As I leave Uganda, though, I have to admit that Delia was right: while my frustration with the lack-of-internet is truly perennial, my non-stop anger at the conditions I have seen has proven only temporary. It’s not that I’m no longer offended by the state of Uganda when juxtaposed against the wealth of other places in the world: I am. I am not, however, as taken aback by the things I see as I was just seven weeks ago.

I wanted to use this idea of ‘getting used to it’ to ruminate for a few paragraphs on two contrasting approaches to addressing poverty that I’ve seen. The first – which I suppose was what I took seven weeks ago, and seems to be shared by most of the NGO workers here – was something of a missionary mentality. The driving idea behind this perspective is that if those of us in the West simply marshal the necessary resources, and back them with plenty of good will and good intentions, we can actually do something about poverty.

At least within academia, the missionary approach has been thoroughly dissected and dismembered. We now know that well-intentioned outrage is simply not enough, and indeed, the efforts it inspires often breeds dependency and a host of other problems. The alternative – a more academic approach – is behind research-driven interventions, like the project on which I worked. Within it, there is little urgency or outrage, only a careful, calculated attempt towards incremental change.

I will concede that the former approach is thoroughly discredited, but I think there is still something to be said for it relative to the latter alternative. Social scientists put a lot of emphasis on deconstruction, chipping away at our usual assumptions. My fear, though, is that when we deconstruct everything, we are left with nothing; which in development creates a sort of paralysis that prevents us from even trying to do anything out of fear that we might make things worse. I remember the final session of my Anthropology of Development class, when, after twelve weeks of “critiquing discourses of development” and showing why nothing works someone had the temerity to ask our professor what we ought to do. For her twenty years in the field, all the professor could offer was the belief that things will get better in time. While she might have been honest in saying she wasn’t sure what to do, I refuse to concede that waiting for improvement is acceptable when 4,000 children die per hour for starvation.

The question of how best to approach poverty is, of course, an eternal one, and I will likely spend the next two years at Oxford failing to find an answer. In the meantime I can’t say whether ‘getting used to it’ has been a good or a bad thing for me. When it comes to development, I can’t help but think that those of us aware of our obligation to help the poor face a sophie’s choice between being naïve and blindly forging onward or being jaded collecting data without distributing help.

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