Demons In Development

“You look sad”

I was leaning up against a pole in Villa Soleada, munching on a bag of chips and watching the guy’s soccer game. The sun had already disappeared behind the trees and a purple twilight tinted the scene.

I barely noticed the game; I was zoned out and exhausted. My hand robotically put chips in my mouth as I stared into space. Someone called my name and I turned to see Carmen Hernandez beckoning me to the bench where she sat. I went over to her.

We had met before. In fact, Carmen has worked with La Ceiba for a long time making artisanal products. We know her in part as “a big lady, with dark hair, black eyes, and a round face. She is gentle and affectionate and always gives tender hugs. She has a loud singing voice but a soft yet confident and firm tone that makes speaking to her an intimidating experience.”

It was this gently intimidating voice, which greeted me as I approached. The first thing she did was shake my hand and say, “Pareces triste” or “you look sad.” I was sad. She had read it on my face like a billboard.

I had cracked earlier that day. The floor split between my feet and released a swarm of demons I had been fending off since landing in Honduras. Among them were things like you’re a bad employee, you’re using too much of the budget, and you’re not as good as your predecessor. These, however, were the cavalry of a personal struggle. On their flanks came the demons in development and international aid, which were as devoid of cheer as they were mercy.

You shouldn’t be here. Things would be better if you were not.

In truth, I could do all the technical work for this job remotely, from the US. Keeping up the databases and sending out reports doesn’t require that I be in Honduras. The reason I’m here is to add value through personal relationships and training, but after a few weeks of fumbled interactions and rickety social skills, maybe I’m just a glorified tourist. Even worse, maybe I’m taking value.

You’re doing more harm than good.

The rule is ‘First, do no harm. Then create change.’ The urge is so strong to take on a project and just go. Roll it out. Make it happen. I – like many – enjoy getting things done, but my work might come at the expense of a client. If we aid workers are so confined to the tunnel vision of our projects, we don’t know how we’re affecting the peripherals. Without the infuriating, methodical process of this blessed, student-led microfinance called La Ceiba, I would surely be culpable of hurting someone. God knows I probably already have.

You aren’t standing up for the client.

There is a narrative out there that says these communities need us desperately. It says they would collapse without our services. Bullshit. Clients have their own lives and ways of getting by that have nothing to do with me, La Ceiba, or anyone else. We have many things to offer, but we work in development as sidekicks.

A relationship between the savior and the saved, robs the client of a certain degree of respect that they deserve. We should demand as much respect from them as they do from us – on an even, human-to-human playing field – and part of that means speaking out against that savior narrative whenever we see it. There were times, in college, when I saw those moments arise and watched them pass. The same moments have passed me idling on the sidelines during my time here, or so the demon says.

These things weighed on me and eventually hit me all at once, bringing me to a stand still, in front of Carmen. We talked about nothing much until the game broke up at dark. We said goodbye and parted ways, because this story doesn’t end with Carmen making me feel better.

She saw the demons flying around my head and shrugged. She didn’t care, and there in lies the point: these demons cause our projects to fail and make us second guess, and are subsequently necessary to international aid.

Carmen has her own demons to deal with because of poverty and I have mine as Program Director. They are the doubts and obstacles we have to defeat, so that we may justify working together. It’s an exchange of mutual growth, where she can improve her lot in life and I can find a way to do right by the world, and more specifically, the people of Honduras.

In Carmen’s “You look sad,” there was a second message implied, which said:

“You’re trying something hard, and that’s good.”

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