It is common, among development anthropologists I think, to day that the right approach to development is to let people speak for themselves on what they count as development. I personally have bought into such a narrative – the problem is that we don’t treat people’s own account seriously enough, as if what we think is important is so much more important. Any other stance tends towards utilitarianism and a domination through knowledge/power asymmetries.

I have previously pointed out that one way this remains problematic is that it assumes that the true “agents” are what people say on the surface – the sum of their disciplines. However, agents can transform too, in often questionable ways (I’m thinking of internalized racism) – are they then the victims of some disciplines?

Yet, (as I recalled in this wonderful reading group I’m in,) there are instances where we are quite happy that people intervene in some of our decisions, claiming to know what is better for us, and we are initially resentful, but ultimately grateful (I have in mind breaking the habit of smoking, an activity that I personally do not think is so different from eating chocolate- both shorten lives, in a fairly pleasurable way. Yet smokers seem fairly sure they should quit). However, it seems that an important quality of such interventions is a personability, and empathy – this only works because we trust such people to know (not head knowledge but empathetic knowledge) and be able to represent our inner selves, despite what we say at a moment. There is a time dimension here – as agents, selves can transform. Which self is truer then? We can often betray ourselves too. It is far from clear who can legitimately claim empathy, and therefore who can legitimately represent us. Yet, it seems quite certain to me that bureaucratic machineries such as the state or international development organizations rarely ate equipped with any capacity for empathy.

Sometimes, such impersonal representations are necessary – e.g. after a disaster. Yet, I suspect, human beings are not so different everywhere. In very few places is the preservation of human life so sacred – most cultures acknowledge that quality of life and a life that is larger than our own transcends the importance of merely being alive in this physical life. True empathy, I think, would allow us to not hold the kind of double standards that racists typically have. The key to bridging cultural gaps has less to do with treating others as exceptional cases with which we dare not critique, all of which occurs through the intellectual head knowledge, but through a more empathetic engagement with people who aren’t so different from us, and that necessarily includes our more vulnerable selves.


~ by moz on March 1, 2015.

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