In Defense of Clowning (as a development strategy, that is)

No really, this is development in action.
No really, this is development in action.

Make no mistake.  We do not study development at Oxford in order to help people.  The job of development studies scholars is to attack and dismantle the well-intentioned ideas of others who (naively) actually think they can help people.

This week, in my history and politics course, we discussed Mahmood Mamdami’s Saviours and Survivors, which presents a really disquieting portrait of the “Save Darfur” movement.  He argues—fairly convincingly—that the glitzy media campaigns that became nearly ubiquitous in 2005-2006 manipulated reports of killing in Sudan, greatly exaggerating the scale of the violence in order to gain support for a Western military intervention which, had it happened, would have been disastrous.  Reading this was particularly disturbing for me given my (limited) involvement in the Save Darfur campaign.  I distinctly remember standing on the Washington Mall during a rally my freshman year of college, my eyes tearing as I felt my impotence in light of a genocide I knew was occurring halfway across the globe.  As I now know, the real crisis in Darfur had ended two years prior, and there had never been a genocide at all.  What a sucker, right?  But now I know to be more critical (cynical?).

While Mamdami had to do years of research to write his anti-Save Darfur hit piece, sometimes taking down the well-intentioned do-gooders of the world is like shooting fish in a barrel.  The development blogosphere is currently having a field day with Clowns Without Borders.  CWB is much like Doctors Without Borders, except that instead of bringing doctors into ravaged areas, it provides, well, clowns.  CWB is currently raising money to airlift badly needed clowns into Haitian refugee camps.  You probably don’t need a PhD to figure out what they’re saying about these transnational clowns.  Given the pressing material needs of Haiti, it is a little hard to imagine that supporting clowns is a good use of anyone’s resources.  As one blogger swipes:

Children there may not have homes, nor a functioning government, clean water, electricity, hospitals or schools, but at least they’ll have quality clown-based entertainment.

Academics serve an important role in keeping non-governmental organizations and charities honest.  They point out that campaigns like INSPI(RED) are more about buying Starbucks coffee than helping cure AIDS in Africa, or that WAVES for Development—an NGO that claims to empower third world youth through surfing—serves primarily to give rich white kids an excuse to surf with a clean conscience.  I think it’s telling, though, that the same bloggers that complain incessantly about how projects like Clowns Without Borders ignore pressing issues like health and jobs also moan about how mainstream development projects are overly focused on just providing for peoples’ material needs.  As they point out, humans are complex, multifaceted beings, and a ‘good life’ requires more than just food and shelter.

In this context, I’m not sure Clowns Without Borders is all that bad of an idea.  Regardless of how much money we pump into Haiti, schools are not going to be re-built overnight, and jobs are not going to instantly reappear.  In the meantime, there are a lot of people sitting around with nothing to do and little to look forward to.  In Uganda, I was amazed at how appreciative farmers were of the chance to play our little sociological ‘games’—simply because chances for intellectual stimulation were few and far between in their lives.  Even in the worst of circumstances, peoples’ desires include community, intellectual engagement, and – I would argue – humor.  There is something to be said for finding ways to let kids—even kids living in desperate situations—laugh, play, and be silly.  Having spent all week reading about child soldiers in Africa (for a paper I’m writing), I am acutely aware that the alternative to letting kids just be kids can be kids prematurely turning into adults, in the worst sense of the term.

Would I ever give money to Clowns Without Borders?  Probably not.  But I do hope that—despite the dogmatic skepticism of an academic education—I can keep an open mind.  My Mom always used to admonish me and my brother that we could complain about it being too hot out or too cold outside, but not both.  I can think of a few development bloggers who should heed this advice.  Yes, it’s our job to bitch—but we have to do so constructively and consistently, and use criticism as a way to direct action, rather than just convince everyone to do nothing for fear of doing something wrong.  If you deconstruct everything, you are left with nothing.

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Jukebox: World Inferno / Friendship Society – All the World’s a Stage (Dive)

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One thought on “In Defense of Clowning (as a development strategy, that is)

  1. I’m not sure how I feel about the clowns, but I thought you might be interested in this review of Dr. Mamdami’s book:
    http://www.seanbrooks.net/wp-content/uploads/2009/12/SAIS-Review.Brooks.pdf

    Saviours and Survivors does not include any interviews or responses from the Save Darfur Coalition, and Dr. Mamdami repeatedly misrepresents or willfully ignores the Coalition’s stated policy positions.

    The article, “When Killers Become Victims: Darfur in Context” was written by the Sean Brooks (who works for the Save Darfur Coalition) and published in Johns Hopkins’ SAIS Review. It, unlike Dr. Mamdami’s book, was subject to review by an academic journal.

    I hope you will consider being more critical (cynical?) when evaluating Dr. Mamdami’s narrative.

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