Why we need more cynics in development

In this op-ed, a young woman who worked for a short time in Haiti writes about the disappointment, discouragement and one quite logical response to feeling like your work might not be merely unsuccessful, but possibly harmful: to quit.

But working in this industry of international development and aid – for it is an industry, a business, a profession, not simply a sort of extended volunteer vacation – I’m disappointed that this is the reaction of so many who are struck by disillusionment brought on by doing this work. Most of these never write op-eds about it; they simply move on quietly. The best and brightest I’ve known working in this field for some years now have often swung toward burnout, disappointment, cynicism, even outright disgust at what they encounter while their dreams of a life of meaningful and exciting service start to evaporate in the face of hard realities. They watch others jockey for position in agencies like the UN, World Bank and USAID, entities with a size and internal culture that is so all-encompassing they are like countries unto themselves. They see NGO and aid workers driving around shielded by air conditioned SUVs while most of the population either walks or squeezes into overcrowded public buses of questionable safety. They find themselves nearly as distant from the people around them as they were while living thousands of miles away back home – perhaps even more so, as they look out from plate glass office tower windows onto surrounding compound walls crowned with shards of glass. They live in a different culture shared with other aid workers – a world they inhabit together that is neither of that place, or of their homes.

It certainly requires swimming upstream against this current of development work to find oneself doing or experiencing things differently. This is easier said than done in many places.

I was also one of the disillusioned; and I remain one of the cynics. For a time I lived in Nairobi, and spent a good deal of time voyaging – mentally and physically – between the aid worker bubble, the upper-class Kenyan world, and the slums where we worked. I no longer romanticize the troubles of places I have only read about in newspapers, no longer think unconsciously in terms of either the noble savage or perpetually corrupt conman or happy honest rural farmer or whatever other archetypes we have internalized about people in countries we condemn to the “third world” – and don’t pretend you are somehow naturally above these prejudices, spelled into our cultural language in America. It’s taken me years of training to be rid of this, if indeed I am.

But, this is why I think we need more of those who’ve been disillusioned, whose dreams have been tarnished. We need more cynics. If you’ve ever thought, how can I possibly be of service to people when the system is rigged, the economics favor corruption and oligarchy, when aid agencies are often self-perpetuating and self-congratulating engines of the myth of Western superiority, when I don’t even know what to do, and –– when I am not able to brush off and ignore the feelings I keep having when I’m confronted by a scene of desperate poverty or sickness while being driven home to my nice apartment – we need you. We really need you. It’s only those who are able to retain something of their sense of injustice, and their open heart, who have a chance of building something different.

Unfortunately, there are really only two options for most of these young people, often working their first overseas job. They get fed up, they feel useless and they decide the whole endeavor is a sham. Then they, like the op-ed writer, quit to do something completely different. Or, they persist, professionalize, but they become accustomed to the system as it is, desensitized from the contradictions they experience. They become a kind of technocrat, moving up the ranks in the field. They don’t forget, but they are realists – they still love the work (or at least, the lifestyle), but they can only sacrifice so much of themselves and their own lives to it. It is the most common way to reconcile contradiction, and it basically works. But it doesn’t leave room for a new vision of how things might be done differently. It doesn’t foster real debates that need to be had – not among expats, but among everyone – about big issues like the role of foreigners in countries unreconciled with their colonial past, about race, about wealth and power.

There are certainly more than these two options, and a lot of nuance within them. But once you start down one path, the slope is slippery toward conformity.

That’s why we need more of the people who are tempted to give up, who can’t deal with the injustices, who feel uncomfortable with their own privilege and are willing to admit it, who aren’t sure what the best way forward is but want to get there anyway. We need you quitters, and those of you who have given up and are resigned to your comfortable desk jobs – we need you to come back.

The secret is, to be a cynic like this actually means keeping a deeper well of idealism intact. It’s not something you bring out all the time; being cynical helps you question the workings of the development system at every step. But without it, you’d simply sink.