20 August 2010

There is No Such Thing as Normal

The debate over poverty tourism and this post from Tales From the Hood have caused me to reflect more on the idea of what is normal.  The natural place to start is the dictionary. 

Normal is defined by Merriam Webster is, “2 a : according with, constituting, or not deviating from a norm, rule, or principle b :conforming to a type, standard, or regular pattern.”  There are other uses for the term, but that is the only one applicable to considering living standards and expectations in development.

Last year, I had a conversation with my co-workers about Kibera slum in Nairobi.  My colleague and I were curious as to how the slum had grown to be so large and wanted to know what our co-workers’ impression of it.  Being in Western Kenya, we had spent little time in Nairobi let alone even gone near the big city slums.  To our surprise, they described it as a place that was not nearly as bad as I had believed.  They affirmed that the living conditions were not good in many sections, but the very low cost of living made it alright.  They told us of colleagues and friends who lived in the slum and worked government jobs as occupational therapists.  It is, we were told, a great place to go and shop for cheaper clothing.

What I have taken away from this conversation, now a year later, is that my immediate assumptions about slums were constructed based on my own perceptions of what is a reasonable standard of living.  I would be lost without my iPod, but for most that is not the case.  The same goes for internet, as it is something for people living in Kenya that is most often accessed in a cyber cafe.
Terrible living conditions are deplorable, but everything is not black and white.  It is why so many of the aid professionals will stress the importance of speaking with people, sharing a meal, listening, understanding and observing; all before acting.  I picked on the Hughes family, maybe a bit unfairly, but it is possible that people there do not want the bikes (it is also possible they do).  The same goes for projects where homes are built, wells are dug, football pitches are constructed and so on.  Maybe better roads or electricity are a higher priority to a community.

To highlight this, I was told of how pipes were set for running water in Kisumu a few years back.  Not long after, the pipes were dug up, melted and sold.  The pipes were not replaced.  So, what was the benefit?  The community did not want running water badly enough to leave the pipes in the ground.  While clean water is of the utmost importance, the delivery of it has to be in a way that is wanted and will be utilized by a community.  This is the problem PlayPumps encountered as have other projects. 
Whether the story is true or not does not matter.  It highlights how perceived and actual needs do not always intersect.

To return back to the idea of poverty tourism.  There can be a great motivation that comes into being after a trip abroad.  If utilized well and focused, great innovations can come.  If not, well, the saying ‘the road to hell is paved by good intentions,’ seems to be appropriate.
The point of all of this can be summed up by this from Teddy Ruge:
Sustainability does not mean everyone has to be making beyond $3 a day. My mother makes less than that but she eats every day, is never starved of food, has a mobile phone and enjoys her existence. Ask anyone in her community if they think they are poor, they’ll tell you they are not rich, but content.