I've been taught as a development practitioner to often be critical of living conditions that may be causing harm in the lives of marginalized peoples. This could be anything from a lack of nutritional food that leads to undernourishment, to harmful health affects caused by increased concentrations of toxic materials within a local environment. We look at these conditions because we aim to improve the lives of the people exposed to them, often hoping as educated western scholars to discover solutions and implement policies that will mitigate some of the problems we have identified. Today though I had a chance to reflect on something that rarely comes up in development, and that is the idea of development as a spiritually uplifting activity.
I attended a presentation put on by Dr. Susan Smith, founder and director of Atzin, a non profit civil organization working towards improving living conditions in the small town of Tlamacazapa in Mexico. Throughout her presentation she identified the problems with the local economy, and how that translates into physical harm done on the villages citizens. For example, the villagers rely on wood burning stoves to cook their food, and to fuel this stove they must carry firewood from a forest many miles away. This task along with water procurement and basket weaving are primarily accomplished by women, while men are left to do as they will, a custom of this highly patriarchal society. Listening this presentation, it struck me how women in this situation face an extra burden of harm, as they take on both a productive and reproductive responsibilities, which when paired with poor living conditions leads to a lack of agency and self esteem. In Susan's words, this town had become "spiritually bankrupt". Basically no one there was living happy fulfilling lives. And it's important to clarify that this is not true of every people living in poverty, but in this particular circumstance the mix of physical harm created by hard labour, along with the mental and physical harm caused by toxic accumulation has created a very unhappy existence for women living in this village. Looking at this situation we can see how these many problems can feed into each other creating a negative feedback cycle that makes poverty and misery a continuing occurrencewith development practitioners left to ask "What do we do to fix this?"
The interesting answer given by Susan was that you have to bring it back to the human level, and focus on raising spirit and expanding consciousness within the village. As an outsider, we can't hope to go into this town and tell people what to fix and how to do it, because we really don't understand what the local conditions and attitudes really are, and second we haven't build the trust that will allow people to open up to us about how they think and feel. So what we should be doing is building trust and focusing on ways that we can help others create personal agency that will allow them to create their own change. When this happens women gain a voice to challenge patriarchal society and share the burden of labour that they have been carrying alone. They also gain the confidence to be happy and see the hope and potential in a new positively focused world. And in the end, is that not what happiness is? Development is more than economic development or policy change, it is a force for helping people realize their potential for laughter, connection and growth.