Category Archives: International Development

A modest demand for male engagement

High angle view of a businessman standing amidst businesspeople

Looking on from the outside, the world of “gender studies” or related fields in gender-focused research, gender equality policy and programming, and the panoply of ethical questions regarding gender equity appear to take an almost ritualistic form: women talking to women about women.

Yes, there’s much to talk about, and such discourse is certainly not to be dismissed as superficial or trite – although that’s how our culture often casts women’s discourse. Our culture, and cultures around the world, predominantly reflect the values, priorities, and foibles of a “man’s world” framing. For those of us who hunger for an authentic place in which to be a person with full agency and opportunity, respect and resilience, it can be crushingly hard if we happen to be female or gender non-conforming. No surprise then that so many of us reach out for the healing, fortifying solidarity of women.

And men?

Where is men’s place in the gender discourse? They are seldom physically in such conversations, and probably many feel dissuaded or intimidated from participation given that such gatherings are so overwhelmingly “not male”.  Those men who consciously take on a formal role as a “gender advisor,” or some job-description variant thereof, are few – although generally much fêted by women.

For those of us who work on international human rights advocacy and international development, the dimension of “gender” has been kicked about for more than 40 years in a formal sense. As feminist thinking has evolved, and continues to do so, we’ve sought more effective ways to empower women to find our own pathways to lives of greater dignity, freedom, and choice. Throughout the Global South where traditional gendered social and economic roles are stubbornly resistant to change, and even in the more developed “progressive” societies of the Global North, the quest to break free from the glass ceilings, from objectification and commodification, and to push back firmly against misogyny and pervasively sexualized stereotypes continues with little fanfare. It’s what women and girls (and, more and more, those who are gender non-conforming) do. It’s “the way things are” for slightly more than half of humanity.

Let the women gather and talk…where’s the harm in it?

And the men? What’s their stake in this discourse, and in the pent-up demand for change that it represents? To what extent are conversations among men focused on equity, on universal human rights and dignity, on civil and political rights, specifically in the context of also embracing that half of humanity who are women, girls, and those who are gender non-conforming? Continue reading A modest demand for male engagement

Human rights off the agenda – quietly.

Albright

The day could not have been better positioned for a loud, unrestrained, guttural howl of outrage and indignation. And while I did indeed hear words of anger, disappointment, and deep concern, there wasn’t a single howl. Not one. Disappointing…

It was just last Thursday, March 16th, and early that morning President Trump released his new “Make America Great” budget. It was a “skinny budget”, lacking the detail and policy weight of a comprehensive federal budget document, but it had the attention of everyone in that room.

“That room” was the Helene D. Gayle Global Development Symposium, hosted by the wonderful organization CARE, and held in the Reserve Officers Association building’s conference room. We were convened just across Constitution Avenue from the U.S. Senate offices – where the real budget battle will soon be fought. The audience gathered there was almost entirely women, which aligned with the topic: the plight of women and girls around the world. Still, the idealist might be excused if he or she presumed that the topic of women and girls – half the population of the world – might reasonably attract the attention and concern of men who are active in the international development community, but no. As happens so often, we were mostly women talking to women about women, ironically in a room resplendent of the patriarchy with somber pictures on the walls of distinguished (male) military icons staring down sternly at the impudent female speakers.

The weight of that just-published budget set the mood, despite the stalwart efforts of many speakers to be upbeat and positive. It felt to me that all of us were hunkered down in an attitude of resignation; self-made victims of a disempowering capitulation to “the way things are”. Many speakers spoke in pragmatic and occasionally wistful tones about the usual obstacles and successes, and how we might best find a way ahead for facilitating a type of development that would truly address and engage women and girls as full human beings. But there was no fire in their bellies, and there were no howls. Continue reading Human rights off the agenda – quietly.

Risking existential authenticity in the Trump Era

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It’s existential.

There’s a word that’s overused, often at the center of hyperbole. After all, existential means of, relating to, or affirming existence. In other words, it’s about being – and “being” is where everything ultimately comes down to. That’s a very big notion.

Is being transgender existential? After all, every human being is more than our gender, sex, or gender identity. Some of us are short, athletic, graceful, coordinated, musical – there are nearly innumerable attributes that might define or describe very important aspects of who we are – but these are not existential attributes. Our core identity will not collapse if a late burst of growth in our teen years catapults us from short to tall. We won’t cease to be ourselves if we lose our athleticism through aging or disability. We may grow less graceful, coordinated, or even less musical, but we are still ourselves.

Many cisgender (non-transgender) persons incorrectly view the transgender journey as a path toward a chosen set of attributes – in effect, the intentional construction of an alternative (or radical, or fringe, or delusional, or irrational, or…) lifestyle. For similar reasons, many cisgender folk will question the centrality of any decision, or self-identification, that some persons adopt which places them outside the gender binary – a binary that has defined humanity since time immemorial. To them, being transgender or being outside the gender binary (which are not necessarily the same thing), are at best  harmless, silly, or inconvenient contrivances. At worst, it’s immoral, sinful, an abomination to be rejected.

Take it from me: it’s existential.

Or, if you would rather look for further validation, consider the appallingly high attempted suicide rate that afflicts so many transgender persons. Reliable data places the rate of attempted suicides among the general U.S. population at 4.6 percent, but among transgender or gender non-conforming people this rate soars to 41 percent. For many, many transgender persons, life in the wrong gender is unsustainable. We simply can’t go on another day like that. It’s traumatic, and it’s existential.

Yesterday I spent the day in Baltimore, Maryland at a gathering of faith leaders (clergy, and others who play a leadership role in communities of faith) organized by Transfaith to build community, solidarity and share each others wisdom and strength in the healing work of helping transgender persons overcome trauma. Nearly all of us who gathered there were self-identified as transgender and/or gender non-conforming, and we each had found our various ways to survive the journey across (or beyond) the gender boundaries that had been imposed upon us at birth. We had survived, through coping skills and grit and resilience, and we continue to exist…we’ve moved toward lives of existential authenticity. We’d found support and affirmation among our own faith communities – as I had among the Quakers. Some of us however had been forced to find new communities of faith, having grown up in faith traditions that have no tolerance for us. Continue reading Risking existential authenticity in the Trump Era

Wrapped in the flag

 

shredded-flag

Following the recent election of Donald Trump to the presidency of the United States of America, the prospects for a strengthening of universal respect for human dignity and human rights around the world are hardly sanguine.

There exists a long if occasionally erratic tradition of American leadership in the promotion and protection of human rights around the world, stretching back to 1919 when President Wilson carried his Fourteen Points to the Versailles conference, and later bolstered dramatically in 1948 by Eleanor Roosevelt’s leadership in the formulation of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. That legacy is threatened to fade into obscurity and irrelevance as this new Administration adopts an emphatically pro-American, self-interested stance in its foreign policy. We already know from the 2016 Republican Party platform that U.S. foreign aid is being construed first and foremost as a “critical tool for advancing America’s security and economic interests,” and that U.S. foreign aid must therefore serve U.S. strategic interests first. As for the plight of the impoverished and powerless people in countries where an authoritarian ruling elite has adopted an anti-American posture, Trump’s “America First” agenda and his pledge to “stop sending foreign aid to countries that hate us” are likely to compound their suffering. The RNC’s platform does make a commitment to the integration of human rights issues at “every appropriate level” of American bilateral engagements, yet it remains unclear whether this view of human rights is strictly linked to tightly legalistic interpretations of international treaty commitments or whether the deeper moral principles of universal human dignity and human rights will be accessed and accentuated by the new Administration. We can but hope at this stage, yet the Republican Party’s stand on sexual orientation and gender identity certainly begs the question of whether Trump’s team will even consider LGBTI concerns as human rights issues, particularly whenever such concerns come into conflict with the priorities of certain influential faith-based groups.

There is even talk within the Washington rumor mill of transitioning the US Agency for International Development (USAID) directly into the US State Department, intentionally obscuring the institutional division between diplomacy and development. This division has been very important to date, as “development people” tend to view their mission as being first and foremost about fostering freedom and human well-being around the globe, recognizing that this is a long-term endeavor that ultimately serves the interests of the entire planet – which includes America. The diplomats carry out a different and also important role, looking after the strategic short-term interests of this country as we engage with other nations around the world in a wide variety of contexts. There’s significant overlap between these two international frameworks and their respective roles, but they are distinctive and they are different. Were we to lose that autonomous voice of the world’s largest bilateral foreign aid entity championing human development, seeing it subsumed to a mere footnote in an American diplomacy focused only on “making America great again” in the short term, we would all be diminished.

Under such an institutional revamping in which the longer-term view is waved aside, the prospects for the world’s poorest people look particularly bleak. Continue reading Wrapped in the flag

The fight for America’s soul

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Transgender people know what it means to fight for our souls. After all, it really isn’t a choice. If we fail to live our lives in full commitment to who we are, we lose our identity. Without our identity, we lose meaning. We lose joy. We lose self-respect.

We lose.

Yesterday evening America lost. Now we have to fight to get her back again. After all, it really isn’t a choice. If America fails to conduct itself as a nation committed to the principles she was founded on – “American values” for which so many have sacrificed and struggled and died – we lose our meaning and our place in history as a great nation. We lose any reason to be proud. Far from becoming “great again”, we become small…just another country with a narcissistic, self-serving, unprincipled ruler, and a citizenry who has been conned into thinking that this is who we are.

If that becomes the status quo, we all lose.

It may not seem very obvious this morning, but America is still a nation of ethical principles founded on revolutionary ideals of universal dignity and freedom. We are a nation where human rights values are manifest in our laws, and where we innately know that our (much eroded) tradition of civility in public discourse is necessary if we are to foster our co-existence as a diverse society with a common identity. We are a nation where we have labored hard to create and sustain strong democratic institutions characterized by integrity, self-sacrifice, justice, compassion, and the service of the common good. America is about freedom of religion. America is about caring for the “huddled masses yearning to breathe free”. America is about responsibility to our children and our grandchildren and generations yet unborn, especially in the face of a threat as existential and monumental as global climate change.

That is my America, but this American awoke this morning with a new edge of vulnerability.

My suspicions are that the vast majority of those who voted in Donald Trump yesterday do not view me and those such as me as human beings worthy of respect. If you think locker room talk is corrosive to the dignity of women, that low standard of behavior that the majority of American voters chose to overlook isn’t limited to misogyny and tough-guy boasting. For those who are at home in that particular locker room, there is a special dialogue of enmity and scorn for anyone who dares to challenge the assigned-at-birth gender binary. The prospects for transgender rights were dealt an enormous set-back last night, and that has implications across the civil rights spectrum for so many minorities in this country. While we may all be Americans, we who are members of sexual minorities find ourselves set-aside and “othered”.

Yet…if we bother to try, each of us is able to feel what “America” means. OK, this morning it is harder: it is now more darkly obscured by venal politicians, the irresponsible media, self-righteously intolerant faith leaders, faulty polls that we won’t ever trust again, and by all those Americans who cling to “deplorable” sensibilities and values. Yes, Secretary Clinton was wrong to use that adjective for the people she targeted, but she was absolutely correct using it to describe their behavior and their attitudes – their intolerance, smallness-of-spirit, isolationism, misogyny, racism, and profound lack of civility. “Trump the bitch” is deplorable. Threatening one’s political opponent with jail is deplorable. Promising to renege on the Paris Agreement on global climate change is deplorable. Suggesting that America will return to torturing suspected terrorists with water boarding (or worse) is deplorable.  Urging the summary deportation of millions of undocumented people is deplorable. Claiming Mexican immigrants are all rapists and criminals is deplorable. Closing the country to Muslim visitors and igniting a national witch-hunt against Muslims who are already here is deplorable.

Voting for all of this was deplorable, and frankly beyond my comprehension. Continue reading The fight for America’s soul

A “dream career”?

proud-to-be-trans

I recently received an email from my son’s friend at college, a young woman who is a passionate campus ally in her activism on issues of sexual orientation and gender identity here in the United States. She made a passing reference to my own work on LGBTI issues international as a “dream career”.

Is it?

First, “career” is probably not the best noun to describe what many of us who are active in international LGBTI advocacy and development are about. There is almost no money to support such efforts in the Global South (the less developed countries in the world), or in other regions (Russia, Eastern Europe) where LGBTI lives are most at risk. There are also very few actual salaried jobs; very few organizations make such global concerns their priority. Instead, we do this work because we care about the plight of LGBTI people abroad, and we know that just a very modest amount of financial support would move mountains in terms of meeting their development aspirations.

As for “dream”, in reality the dream is more often a nightmare. What many LGBTI persons in the Global South, Russia, and Eastern Europe confront on a daily basis is beyond comprehension by most people in the United States. True, it is now widely reported that homosexuality is illegal in over 70 countries, yet the fact of such illegality is only a top-level indicator of astounding levels of ignorance and pernicious social values that frequently relegate LGBTI people to sub-human status, or otherwise demean, humiliate, persecute, exclude, reject, bully, isolate, scapegoat, assault, torture, or kill such LGBTI persons. In short, throughout much of the world, any discussion of social inclusion and human rights for LGBTI persons is a very tragic narrative indeed.

Behind this narrative are real persons. My “career” fills me with their names and faces, their big hearts and warm smiles, their gentle spirits and youthful exuberance, and their suffering. Some of these “real persons” whom I have come to know and care for are now dead, victimized by the homophobia and transphobia that is so rampant. I carry these “real persons” – the living and the dead – with me every day, but in the absence of much global concern and with so few resources available to help them, “carry them” is often the most that I can offer. It isn’t enough.

In many instances, the toxic attitudes and values that characterize homophobia and transphobia have their origins among faith-based groups and religious leaders – sometimes with the moral and financial support of religious zealots from the United States – although such support isn’t limited to some fringe streams of fundamentalist evangelical Christianity. Many Muslim countries, particularly in the Middle East, set grim standards for the abuse, torture, and killing of LGBTI persons, claiming that this is somehow justified by their religions. Around the world, it is relatively easy to distort or misinterpret religious values in all faith traditions to “justify” the hatred and persecution of LGBTI persons.

Aspiring politicians in much of the Global South, Russia, and Eastern Europe (and yes, many in Western Europe and North America too) are also often quick to realize the many advantages of blaming any number of societal ills on vulnerable sexual minorities, which spares them the trouble of actually working to solve genuine public policy issues, fight corruption, or pursue actual principles of justice and caring. Much of the world’s media also sees a lucrative market in exploiting bigotry, prejudice, and hatred directed at LGBTI persons and their organizations – one need look no further that the infamous “kill the gays” headline and list of 200 people alleged to be gay which appeared in Uganda’s Red Pepper tabloid on February 25th of 2014.

We are learning more all the time. LGBTI persons themselves – often with support from wonderful organizations such as Human Rights Watch – are making their voices heard more loudly and clearly each day, in videos, podcasts, blogs, and social media. Take a look at a recent video about the realities faced by transgender persons in Sri Lanka, listen to the podcasts of Nigerian LGBTI activists, see a news report of an LGBTI activist in Myanmar, or read English language news about LGBTI people and issues in Turkey. While we still lack adequate analytical data that is essential to move and to fund major policy initiatives or to support scholarly research, the growth in anecdotal data – narratives – is exponential.

We can no longer plead ignorance. Continue reading A “dream career”?

Any room for idealism in a “results-driven” age?

Peace Corps 1

I often (perhaps too often) post on social media about some urgent human rights, social inclusion, or justice issue that I’m feeling deeply moved by. Such concerns are a very prominent part of who I am and what I’m about, and how I strive in my own small ways to make this a better world. Yet I know that personal and family news always seems to score the highest number of “likes” on Facebook or Twitter postings. When I recently posted about my son Ian’s very positive interview to become a Peace Corps Volunteer (possibly in the West African, Francophone country of Benin) the response was overwhelming. I’ve never received so many “likes” on Facebook, from both Ian’s friends and mine.

While Ian and I await a decision on his application, I’m left to ponder what it is that makes the Peace Corps so special in the American psyche, and so respected by me and by so many people here and in developing countries. And perhaps not surprising for someone with over three decades working as an international development practitioner and activist, I can’t help but compare the Peace Corps model to the evolving and ever-consolidating modern American (and increasingly multinational) development “industry” of for-profit firms and NGOs, fiercely competing for each contract and grant in a tight and under-resourced market.

To be clear, the Peace Corps is not universally admired. It’s regularly criticized as a federal Agency without a clear mission: a development agency that isn’t all that good at sustainable development and one that doesn’t hold its development results or effectiveness abroad up to public scrutiny by hard-pressed American taxpayers. It is castigated as an organization that places Volunteers – many fresh out of college and largely innocent in the ways of the world – into situations that are potentially very dangerous, all for reasons that are not all that clear.  Others see it as yet another example of federal government overreach; a chrysalis of globalization or a taxpayer-sponsored development “boot camp” to forge the future leaders of American development firms and non-profits to be competitive in the international arena. Why should taxpayers carry the burden of transforming Volunteers into dirt-under-their-fingernails global citizens made world-weary by the complexities and impact of poverty, diverse cultural values, and faraway community dynamics? Still others see it as a government sponsored extended summer camp, where mostly young Volunteers go to exotic and remote locations to spend a great deal of time over two years interacting with other Volunteers. And then there are those who simply dismiss the Peace Corps as an idealistic experiment from a bye-gone era, barely relevant to the turbulent and hard-nosed international scene in 2016 – an Agency struggling to retain its aura at a time when President Kennedy, its founder back in 1961, is “ancient history” for most Americans born long afterwards.

That’s quite a blistering critique, but it hardly squares with the enthusiastic outpouring of warmth and support for my son’s application process. So quite clearly, there is another side to the Peace Corps.

I’ve seen that other side again and again in my own career. I’ve experienced it in the resilient enthusiasm and sheer gumption of the many Volunteers whom I used to host to Thanksgiving dinners every year at my home in Nairobi, Kenya during the decade that I worked as an architect there. I’ve seen it in the fond, almost dewy-eyed recollections of so many colleagues in international development as they recall with both pride and immense satisfaction those profoundly formative years from their own service as Peace Corps Volunteers. I’ve also appreciated it being made manifest by the sensitive and wise assessments made by former Volunteers of America’s interactions with complicated foreign cultures, even on such charged and often conflicting values-based situations as women’s equality and the social inclusion of LGBTI persons.

I also recognize my own pride that I feel in my son’s choice. Whether selected or not to become a Peace Corps Volunteer, I’m heartened by his commitment both to public service and to volunteerism. Indeed, I cherish his idealism, as I recall how very difficult it has been in my years of work in international development to find those types of conversations – those passions expressed – among my colleagues, even though it is clearly what motivated most of them into such careers.

We just don’t make space to talk about ideals, or values. But you’ve heard me say that before. Continue reading Any room for idealism in a “results-driven” age?

A very special life lost, and one we must not forget.

Hande-Kader-a-young-Turkish-transgender-sex-worker

Turkey now is synonymous with turmoil, so it’s hard to take notice of one more life lost. After all, the recent coup attempt is linked to almost 300 deaths. To make matters worse, this latest death was of a sex worker. Many people, in Turkey or anywhere, will be challenged to find much sympathy for the fate of such women whom they view as morally deficient, or “unpleasant” to talk about.

Indeed, there’s not much news content in such deaths. The brutal murder of sex workers is all too commonplace in most countries, and in Turkey violence against women is an embedded part of the culture. Just last year, Nuriye Kadan who leads the Izmir Bar Association’s Women’s Rights and Legal Support Office, observed that Turkey’s last decade has been characterized not only by increasing cases of violence against women, but that such violence has become more extreme and barbaric, “bordering on torture.”

Despite that disquieting view, Turkey appears to be giving the topic of violence against women and gender equality more generally a very low priority. And if the plight of 51% of the Turkish population receives such paltry focus, what about the tiny fraction of Turks who are a special kind of woman – transgender women? In a very conservative Muslim country where any dialogue about sexuality and gender identity is stilted at best, that’s a topic that makes most Turks squirm. So what can we expect to see change with the death of one more transgender woman who also happened to be a sex worker?

Hande Kader was hardly just any woman. Only 23 years old, she died a horrible death by being gang raped, mutilated, and burned, but those grisly details are not what makes her special. After all, her demise is hardly unusual; according to anecdotal but largely reliable information, transgender women around the world face appalling levels of extreme violence and murder. Very few countries bother even to record such deaths under a disaggregated category of “transgender women”, or rarer still, “transgender sex worker”. Who’s going to pay for recording and analyzing such recondite data?

Yet this past Sunday, an unexpectedly large crowd of protesters in Istanbul memorialized Hande Kader with their shouts of outrage and indignation. She had become something of a national celebrity for her strong and inspiring activism on transgender rights, but it is remarkable that Turks would come out onto the streets in such numbers to protest her death. Those Sunday protests are now over; will Hande Kader be remembered? Will her short life and intense, impassioned activism on behalf of transgender persons become just another sterile, forgettable statistic?

Forgettable – I think not. She was a special kind of special. Her life and her example challenges us all to deal with her death in ways that make a positive difference. We dare not forget her. Continue reading A very special life lost, and one we must not forget.

Valuing a choice: the “luxury” of bodily alignment

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As soon as the conversation turns to transgender issues, the American public’s current reflex is to think about bathrooms – more specifically, the common and much-hyped worry that “men” (or “boys”) dressed as women (or girls) will intrude on the safety and sanctity of America’s public toilet facilities or girls’ high school locker rooms. Why would they do such a thing? Surely this wasn’t about attending to a call of nature or an urgent need to change gym clothes; these “confused” or “perverse” people are up to no good. Just ask any conservative or evangelical American talk show host.

The stereotype of transgender women in public restrooms being described as men in drag intent on the pursuit of nefarious ends (e.g. as sexual predators or voyeurs) is now the usual assertion in attacks on the dignity of transgender women in this country.  Governor Pat McCrory of North Carolina, as well as the majority of citizens in Houston, Texas are certainly convinced. The inconvenient fact that there isn’t a single instance of any person who has been properly diagnosed with gender dysphoria (i.e. being transgender) ever having done such a thing in America is simply ignored, as is the whole logic that if you exclude transgender women from ladies’ restrooms, aren’t you also expecting transgender men to use those very same ladies’ rooms? When will the American public think through the prospect of a muscle-bound, deep-voiced, bearded transgender man in their public ladies’ rooms?

And as the reader ponders that visual image, stop to reflect that while it may seem hard to believe – it wasn’t always about bathrooms.

Before America’s fixation on the toilet habits of transgender persons and the egregious (and undoubtedly sinful) threat that we surely pose by our very presence in such gendered spaces, the natural reflex reaction to the transgender conversation used to be quite different. In those days, the prurient fascination of the public was all about our surgeries. For most Americans “transgender” was nearly synonymous with what was then called (and often still is) “gender reassignment surgery”, or simply as “sex change surgery”. Once you were out as being transgender, the public felt entitled to ask you the most intimate details. Even if we chose to attempt an answer, i.e. to describe our medical procedures associated with transitioning gender, such surgeries were nearly always ultimately dismissed as “cosmetic”. Gender confirming surgeries (as I prefer to refer to this procedure) are still frequently portrayed in scandalous, demeaning, or sensational terms, with the focus (as always) being almost exclusively on those transgender persons who are transitioning from male bodies to female bodies. Transgender men (transitioning from female to male embodiment) have barely been on the radar.

Bathrooms aside, gender confirming surgeries still exert a preponderant influence on any discussions about transgender persons, despite the reality that many transgender persons elect not to pursue surgical interventions. This decision is complex and very individual; some trans folk are comfortable inhabiting their bodies and making them authentically gendered from the inside out. Others, both here in America and around the world, have either inadequate financial means or no access to properly trained surgeons to opt for such a costly procedure. In the developing world – the Global South – gender confirming surgery is only accessible to a tiny elite of transgender persons who can afford the travel, medical costs, and related support. For everyone else who is transgender, however, achieving a body that aligns with their deeply perceived sense of gender identity is barely worth thinking about. After all, throughout the Global South there are so many other demands on limited resources; an operation that many political and development policy experts regard as “cosmetic” and a “choice” doesn’t get on anyone’s agenda.

And there the situation remains. The transgender advocacy community and their allies are very busy just trying to keep transgender women safe from violent (and often fatal) attacks, to help them to find opportunities for safe and meaningful work, and to have a future with some prospect of hope. And yes, transgender men again barely make an appearance in the dialogue. Continue reading Valuing a choice: the “luxury” of bodily alignment

Reflections from an Unrepentant International Development Idealist

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For years and years every Friday morning at 8am, a small group of international development folks of many nationalities would gather for an hour over coffee and fruit in a well-appointed if sunless conference room in the first basement level of the World Bank in Washington, D.C. Whenever I was in Washington (i.e. when I wasn’t working overseas), I would take the opportunity to join them, which meant I was usually one of the regulars. Predominantly attended by World Bank staff, they were happy to include consultants and visitors like me in a common endeavor. In short, we talked values.

Sometimes “values” strayed into religion, or spirituality, or secular humanism. Often there was a guest presenter, and even I made a few presentations along the way.  I do remember some remarkably inspirational discussions…and 9am always came around too fast. We’d then return to our respective worlds of pragmatism, attending to the development “paradigm of the month” and the realities of the various institutional environments that shape how international “development” is supposed to happen.

Yet often I left the World Bank’s basement with the strong sentiment: “if only…”.

Over the years, and even long after the Friday Morning Group ceased (gray-haired regulars retired and younger people could not accommodate Friday meetings that early!), my “if only” list has only grown. Call me an optimist, an idealist, or even out-of-touch, although I would argue that the latter accusation is suspect given my more than 15 years based in developing countries, and more than twice that long doing development work. If you insist on disparaging me, then call me a wishful-thinker who views her world through those rose colored glasses that seem now to have fallen out of vogue. But don’t call me naïve, or a dreamer, or foolhardy…even if I do admit to one fundamental abnormality not shared by the majority of those who have given their careers to international development, poverty alleviation, humanitarian relief, or human rights activism: I am an unrepentant idealist.

Yes, I still believe in the basic goodness of people, and their potential to do the right thing…and for the right reason.

It’s a conviction that I’ve paid dearly for in terms of bucking the system and being an outsider. When I worked at a leading consulting firm and the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) put out a comprehensive anti-corruption proposal some years ago, the terms of reference stipulated that all of the experts for the project ought to be economists. I pushed back, arguing that people are moved by many factors, and that we therefore instead ought to offer a balanced team of economists, political scientists, and development ethicists to capture more of the very human dynamics that truly define corruption (and integrity). The proposal was submitted accordingly and was promptly rejected by USAID; the competitor’s winning proposal took USAID at its word and provided only economists. Later at a different consulting firm, the donor’s terms of reference for a project on community-driven development completely ignored gender considerations, and in the draft proposal that I prepared I argued that we should showcase an approach that also featured the purposeful collaboration of men and women. I was told that this wasn’t the way the world (i.e. the patriarchy) worked, my draft of the proposal was rewritten to take out all of the references that I’d included that were based on gender equity, and the firm went on to win the project. My draft would clearly have failed. Continue reading Reflections from an Unrepentant International Development Idealist