A few weeks ago I attended a meeting of development practitioners which was called to discuss the increasing emphasis on charity as opposed to justice.

Many there felt uncomfortable about the way that development is being portrayed by many INGOS and governments as ‘aid’.  The resurgence of a charitable ‘aid’ approach, can be seen, for example, in the kind of fundraising campaigns which have returned to our newspapers and televisions depicting desperate children and suggesting that a small amount of the public’s money can save their lives.  It can also be seen in the increasing pressure to measure results too quickly and to over-simplify the ways we demonstrate the ‘value’ of development work.

I went to watch the handball in the Olympic Park last Friday and watched Angola beat the Team GB women and end our hopes of qualifying for the next part of the competition.  I found myself wondering as we watched the Angolan women beat us convincingly and deservedly how many of the people in that stadium knew where Angola was?  How many of them knew that Angola is one of the world’s biggest producers of oil?  That Angola has one of the highest maternal mortality rates in the world?

While I understand that the Olympics is not supposed to be political, I found myself troubled by the de-contextualisation of the game.  I heard no one asking anything about Angola.  No one wondering why so few Angolans were able to be there to support the game.  It was as if there was no context to the other team, they were simply opponents to be conquered!

This sense of not knowing who the ‘other side’ were reminded me of the simple messages aid agencies feed the public in fundraising campaigns.  These normally go something like ‘this person in this foreign land is desperately poor.  Give us money and they won’t die’.  Such campaigns tell us little about the context of poverty or the real causes of it, nothing about the partner organisation who may also be involved in trying to do something about the situation and nothing about the details about how money might be able to help.

The problem with this de-contextualised and de-politicised approach is that it often misses the real problems and in fact it can often do more harm than good.  Focused on a simplified understanding it may ignore both the reasons for disproportionate wealth and poverty and solutions with real potential to create positive change.  Approaching partnership with a political understanding of development, we are forced to understand and question the context of what we do.  I think this would almost certainly mean telling the public more about the really situations of the people with whom we work – so that rather than reducing them to pictures of people living in extreme poverty, we are instead able to promote our shared humanity through development work.  This would require us to think about the power implications of the decisions we make and about how we present our work with partners as well as how we interact with them.  Ultimately it might also mean that solidarity would become our focus and so we might also choose different partners, prioritising social movements and new thinking above the ability to fit a narrow ‘aid’ driven agenda for change.

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