Economic Development is About Relationships

My first trip to Honduras was in January of 2007.  My students and I were there to begin the first phase of our indoor air pollution initiative.  As part of that initiative we needed, among many other things, to measure the dimensions of each participant’s home and also take note of the number of windows, doorways, and other openings.  Knowing that we would receive a warm reception, the first home we stopped by upon arriving in Siete de Abril was Miguel Ortiz’s.  A year earlier Dan Marsh (one my former students) had assisted Miguel in putting on a new tin roof for his home.  Watching their reunion was something special with all the smiles and hugs.  Dan explained what we were attempting to do and asked Miguel if he would like to participate.  And, if so, could we have permission to enter his home.  Miguel graciously said yes.  I gently pulled aside the sheet that covered the doorway.  His home, which he shared with Margarita his wife and their four kids, was built of cardboard, plastic, sticks and corrugated tin siding.  It was a one room home smaller than my office.  A little one about two years old hung in a hammock and another little one lay sleeping on a mattress which was lying on a dirt floor.  For years I had learned and taught about abject poverty in developing countries, however, this was my first time having had witnessed it first-hand.  The thoughts and emotions that raced through me are too innumerable to talk about now.  Having completed the survey, Miguel invited me to take a walk.  As we walked, Miguel would say a few things in Spanish and I would smile and nod (remember I do not speak Spanish).  We stopped at this magnificent view overlooking the river that bisected his community of makeshift shelters precariously ensconced in the surrounding hillsides.  He continued to talk in Spanish as he raised his arm and swept his hand across the view.  Then he reached over to shake my hand and locked his eyes on mine.  As we stood there shaking hands it forcefully hit me that the process of economic development – which we had decided to interject ourselves into – was all about relationships.  Our months of preparation which included literature reviews, formulation of a theory of change, compilation of empirical support, networking, and mobilization of resources in the clean a precise confines of the classroom was all coming down to this moment.  We both had an interest in making a difference for his family and in his community.  I imagine that Miguel was asking himself whether or not I was a trustworthy partner in this joint project.  Given that I was warmly welcomed back by Miguel on a later occasion, I think it is reasonable to conclude that he thought I was.

To become an effective agent of change, I believe that you need to be prepared for these moments.  Moreover, I think the best way to prepare you is to ask you to:

1. Review Illich “To Hell with Good Intentions”

2. Ask yourself the following questions:

a. Who are you?

b. Why are you here?

c. Why are you enrolled in a course that undertakes research and projects in a developing country? 

d. What do you hope to achieve? 

3. Consider the following quote “attributed to Lila Watson, an aboriginal elder in Brisbane, Australia, as she responded to a proposed intervention in her community”.  This was her response:

                        “If you have come to help me you are wasting your time. But if you have come because your liberation is bound up with mine, then let us work together.” (p. 106, In Safe Hands)

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