The Wayfaring Stranger

The graduate students in the Nongovernmental Organizations in International Development seminar with which I am engaged this semester recently had an active discussion concerning a major dilemma associated with any sort of development intervention: Can such efforts ever be justified as something other than paternalistic acts by outsiders who “know better” and, in truth, have come to provide support only so long as those aided do what they are told, as young children might be asked to do?  That is, seminar participants grappled with whether development as an enterprise can avoid such often historically accurate criticisms by means of how those engaged in it choose to behave? Can it be rescued from its worst potentialities, or is it forever to be considered an undemocratic and disempowering act by foreigners who, whatever their stated reasons for intervening, typically only serve themselves, their organizations or their nations and not those they say they aim to assist? What capacities or characteristics do developers require if they are to have a hope of avoiding such results? Seminar members argued intentions alone cannot justify disempowerment or poor outcomes or secure their opposite, so their first premise was that would-be “nation-developers” must enter into their work and into efforts to assist others from a profound sense of humility. While those seeking to help surely possess knowledge likely to be useful to those whom they would serve, they often do not have an understanding of how those populations live and why, and what the people themselves know of how they live. Accordingly, aid workers should listen long and carefully before presuming even to know how to “fix” seemingly technical problems, such as securing potable water, so as to assist in ways in which a community’s members can participate, can feel comfortable and can incorporate suggested changes into their patterns of living.

To practice such humility demands in turn disciplining personal and professional ego and developing a profound capacity for empathy and a willingness to listen actively to those whose values, customs and traditions, whose very ways of knowing, may differ profoundly from one’s own. This is difficult for people in the best of circumstances and still more so when differences between individual status and norms are large. One cannot simply make assumptions to bridge such dissimilarities, but instead must engage in the difficult work to understand them and then to find ways to secure communication notwithstanding. This requires both emotional and intellectual engagement. Actually attaining this sort of empathy is difficult and requires self-awareness, maturity and imagination.

The philosopher and theologian Edith Stein has argued this capacity does not, and perhaps should not, connote “oneness” with the other.  Instead, such empathy arises when the “I” of the would-be developer and the “you” of the “other” to be assisted find common claim at a higher level that is different from the world of either party. In this sense, empathy is manifest as engaged and intelligent interpretation.  And as this occurs, the development professional learns as much or more about herself as about her interlocutor. The would-be developers are able to grasp the empathic experience the other has of them. As Stein observed:

I get the image the other has of me…. the appearances in which I present myself to him.  Such an experience of reflexive sympathy enables me to obtain a better understanding of myself. This new self-knowledge offers a corrective to my self-deception and allows me to gain a glimpse of my kernel, which is of my potential.

So regarded, empathy may allow development agents to practice their craft without robbing those with whom they deal of their dignity and agency. But empathy rightly understood, to adapt a famous Tocquevillian phrase, cannot occur, let alone be realized, without a foundation of humility and openness, and cannot happen without imagination. The outsider must bring these when she comes to the exchange with the “foreign” other or the opportunity to work jointly will be undone before it can begin.

Our seminar discussion also suggested that while many development professionals today still often approach their roles as if they were merely technical agents bearing expertise to share, thereafter to return to their own homes and nations, more ought to imagine their effort instead as a journey in which a hoped-for destination is desired, but the road to reach that goal is not yet known. The metaphor that arose in our discussion was that of a wayfarer. Wayfarers are surely travelers, but many famous ones in history and literature have set out with a destination in mind, but without knowing with any certainty how they would reach that end.  Indeed, one might label wayfarers “humble travelers” as they press ahead, relying on those whom they encounter to guide them on their way, confident as they do that they will find their direction, however circuitously, with the assistance of others along their path. Development, with its challenges, crises and unforeseen contingencies and twists can be regarded as just such a journey. The wayfarer both embarks and sustains herself with humility and profound regard for all encountered as every element imparts deeper understanding and may contribute to the realization of the desired destination.

The seminar discussed a final characteristic as necessary for the development process, and therefore for its practitioners: hope. Calling for hope somehow seems banal, and yet it appears agency and efficacy cannot be sustained without it. That certainly seems true for those afflicted by hunger, food insecurity and disease and who worry daily about the sustenance of their children and very often about their survival. If those receiving succor lose hope, that turn can undo even the most thoughtfully framed and sensitive efforts of those aiming to assist such populations. Moreover, if this is true for those who would be helped, it is equally so for those seeking to provide aid as they, too, cannot sustain their efforts without a modicum of optimism. Hope is therefore epistemic and elemental for both the “foreigner” and the “other.” The rub for development professionals and those facing daily hardships alike is how to sustain it against difficulties and intractable adversities. For this, there is no easy answer. Seminar students spoke about enduring passion for the work, disciplined reflexivity and deep attachment to those to be served as helpful. But these attributes notwithstanding, none gainsaid how difficult sustaining commitment and possibility can be along the development journey.

The students in this seminar have surely begun to address some fundaments of the would-be developer’s path: the need to begin from a stance of profound humility, the development and practice of disciplined empathy and openness to a journey more typical of the wayfarer than today’s business executive. Throughout, development wayfarers must be self-consciously aware of the need to curry and to maintain hope. While these are hardly all of the pieces of the development puzzle, perhaps they constitute several of the central elements with which the wayfarer may begin to chart her journey.