Cynicism and Graduation

Having just received my Master’s degree*, optimism still dominates my and my fellow graduates’ minds. But as I head into a career in development, cynicism will certainly rear its familiar head. One favorite moment from graduation weekend was a conversation with a professor, who himself has long experience in development. In the course of talking about my future I joked that “I’m a slowly-developing cynic.” He immediately responded, suddenly serious, “Oh – don’t ever become a cynic.” Just as he has been an inspiration to many of us, our freshly-graduated sense of idealism and possibility was inspiring to him, and he didn’t want to see that spoiled.

It reminded me of a recent op-ed in the New York Times from Nora Shenkel, a Master’s candidate in Scotland who recently worked briefly for an NGO in Haiti. She describes how she quickly was faced with a moral dilemma: her work appeared to be having little effect over the long term, and she wonders how she “earned” material comforts and career success in a place where so many people have incredibly immediate needs. Her solution to this dilemma was to leave Haiti early and leave a development career completely; this is, she says, “the most honest thing I could do for Haiti.”

Perhaps that is true for her situation. But I can’t let the implication that giving in to cynicism is the best possible solution to this dilemma go unchallenged. Browse through blogs of young aid workers, Peace Corps Volunteers, and graduate interns, and you’ll see a great variety of takes on this dilemma.** Aid workers – even PCVs – nearly all live in relative privilege in the middle of often desperate poverty, but with their responsibility to address immediate needs “purged” by the fact that their work is meant to help over the long run.

This does not make Nora’s experience invalid, and in fact I rather like the solution she finds for herself. She ends her piece by describing her return to Haiti – as a visitor. She’d come to celebrate the country and the friends she’d made there, and she did not have to feel dishonest about trying to fight poverty while living in luxury. Ivan Illich, in his insightful 1968 speech “To Hell With Good Intentions,” proposes the same solution: come to visit, not to help.

Still, there are other equally valid ways to deal with this dilemma, even if at the time they feel less of a strong, morally unambiguous statement. One fellow PCV in Niger had a policy I admired very much – she would help some of her neighbors with medical costs but always accompany them to the heath center. Personally, I would not pay for medicines (to keep from getting swamped with requests) but would participate in informal social safety nets in other ways, by sharing food and coins with beggars and buying extra milk powder and soap for a struggling neighbor. These strategies are attempts to find a balance between a) not being taken advantage of, and b) the desire to use your privilege to make an immediate positive change.

Beyond the material, there is also simply a matter of treating people with dignity and not letting yourself think of them as an “other.” Amid delightfully snarky development blogs, Aaron Ausland at Staying For Tea*** stands out as positively confronting this dilemma with five principles of community development work. Ausland’s principles focus on honesty, personal connections and process.

A theme of these strategies, of course, is that relationships with people offer a direction and a means to express empathy (whether materially or personally). I have previously posted on how I try to be “present” in the places I end up. Most aid workers, unlike PCVs, have cars, nice houses and other benefits that may make it more difficult to build relationships. I have not yet faced this situation, but while the dilemma may feel different it will still be there, and need to be confronted.

Alas, many in this field do seem to just accept the “purged responsibility” argument and move on. Nora noted this phenomenon in her op-ed too, colleagues who would even get angry at Haitians for asking for money, thinking incredulously, “Don’t they know we’re here to help?”  This, to me, is the essence of the Cynical Aid Worker – feeling toughened by living amid poverty yet not putting in the extra effort to maintain the dignity of poor people or to understand of how the aid worker him/herself is viewed.

The key, I believe, is continuous self-reflection.

This doesn’t mean having a few “fluffy” discussions, nor constant anxiety about the moral ambiguity of it all. It does mean  not simply accepting one solution and sticking with it. As we journey through life and through the world, new experiences should keep informing our values and our judgment, and the solution should  evolve with us. This is my graduation pledge to my professor: I’ll keep an aggressive, adaptable defense against threats to my optimism. I’ll do this through reflection on my role in a situation, critical analysis of moral ambiguities, and most importantly, empathy and relationships with people wherever I am in the world.

I’d be interested in others’ thoughts as well, especially as the ink on my diploma starts to dry. How have you or others you’ve seen dealt with this dilemma?

doonesbury values

*Officially, in Law & Diplomacy, though in fact I studied neither of these. Congratulations to all in the Class of 2013! 
**My first recorded thoughts on the matter here, from a younger Nathan in Mali as a visitor. Disclaimer is that this blog was more about the wonder of the place, not so much critical reflection on moral ambiguities. 
***NOT the same as “Three Cups of Tea,” the book by the guy building schools in Afghanistan who turned out to be dishonest about his story and mismanaging donations.

About developingnathan
I am a reflective person. I am an introvert, a friend, a brother and a son. I appreciate a well-crafted glass of beer, piece of music and turn of phrase. I am a professional of international development, a good pianist and a Green Bay Packers fan.

7 Responses to Cynicism and Graduation

  1. Congratulations on the Masters. I appreciate being noted for my positive contributions rather than snark. Btw, now that you have your masters, I recommend reading “A Moderate Elitist” as I see some healthy tension between humility and competence. I think there is a correlation with mastery and snark. And, of course, you can locate yourself on chart #5 here: and see how the path leads inevitably to snark. For now, I’m holding it at bay…more or less. 🙂

    • Thanks for your comment and for the links! I remember following the 1millionshirts discussion, and appreciating those who had more constructive criticism. I hope my actual competence can continue to increase even if my belief in it follows chart 5! Like the chart implies, it seems that the more we learn about the complexities of this work, the less we feel competent to have a positive influence. I suppose this is a constant balancing act too, and I imagine a little snark & sarcasm can’t hurt the quest for equilibrium.

  2. Roxanne says:

    Nathan, congrats on graduating! We will miss you at Fletcher. I love your thoughts on resisting cynicism — it is one of the battles I am continually fighting (with myself and with others) in this field. Part of my strategy involves holding on to the little kernels of change and asking myself how much change and impact I need to witness to believing it. That, in turn, requires recognizing that change is sometimes frustratingly, imperceptibly slow and invisible. In my mind, conflict/development work often requires a tremendous leap of faith and I hope to continue to have the energy to make it without jadedness or cynicism for a while. Keep writing and sharing your reflections with us from the post-Fletcher world and congratulations once again!

    • Thanks Roxanne! I will definitely miss Fletcher too, which of course actually means I’ll miss the people of Fletcher. I do marvel at the amazing collection of people there.

      I also love that you bring up faith. Personally I don’t believe in a higher power but I find I need to keep a faith in humanity as a bulwark against cynicism in this field. Not sure how justified that is, but I guess that’s the nature of faith…

      Look forward to following your thoughts through and beyond Fletcher too.

  3. Mallory says:

    Great insights, Nathan!

    Before coming to Fletcher, a graduate from the University of Michigan (who I had only just met) asked me if I would be interested in a career in development. I quickly (and probably too-emphatically) said ‘No!’ But when he asked why I felt this way, I struggled to articulate my reasons.

    Fletcher has helped me to better understand development, where I best fit, and how I can best contribute. And, ultimately, Fletcher has helped me to understand that development in itself is neither a good or bad thing; its quality is determined by its implementation. For example, maybe a development worker shouldn’t live in a type of house that is only accessible to the wealthiest local individuals, and maybe a development worker should be more willing to adapt to a local lifestyle – to step outside of the ex-pat social world, interact more with the local population, apply greater self-reflection, strive to find small and effective ways to show the local community he/she cares, and live at a more meager level. Undoubtedly, this would cause less confusion around/bitterness toward development workers. However, it’s also true that those working in development have their own needs. They (we…I have also worked in development and may return again) need to adjust to the local culture at a reasonable pace. This may mean having a nice home (that reminds us of the house we grew up in) to retrieve to when things get hard, or being around people similar to us and who understand the same cultural references as we do. Of course, the role and needs of the development worker can (and do) co-exist, and it is the responsibility of the development worker to continually strive for a more optimal balance.

    The bottom line as I see it: development work is only a structure for helping others; its real character and contribution is derived from the way it is implemented. And this process is going to be messy, as any situation is when you insert something different (e.g. – an individual with a different method of operation, needs, and level of internally-understood power) into an environment of sometimes opposing established norms, social structure, and its own system of power. I know I’m not capturing the full complexity of development work, and I wish I could do this better. Nevertheless, I do agree with the professor you spoke to and I admire your resolve to fight for optimism. “Development” to me is synonymous to “people helping other people fulfill their own needs” and, so long as it indeed does this and is implemented thoughtfully and carefully, development holds the possibility of doing a lot of good. The biggest challenges we face, however, is making sure the method of implementation realizes the greatest amount of good.

    Thanks for sharing your thoughts, Nathan! Sometimes the development dilemma seems frustratingly unsolvable to me. But, after reading your blog post and vetting through a few of my own thoughts, I feel confirmed in the optimism I too currently hold.

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