by Elizabeth Knight
My professional path has been a winding one, with turns that have taken me places I never imagined. Looking back on over a decade in international development, there is much I have learned and even more that I do not know. Nevertheless, I have been invited to share the bits that I have held onto with you.
So often in development an assessment leads to a plan, a plan leads to a request for proposals, a request for proposals leads to a proposal, and a proposal leads to a project. Like a doctor, we prescribe. In meetings, we speak about problems and leverage our knowledge and experience to make recommendations on how to fix those problems. We are speaking from our experience, yet the nuance is our self-awareness that it is only our experience.
In my career, one of the greatest lessons I ever learned occurred when I was a Peace Corps Volunteer in Severodonetsk, Ukraine during the Orange Revolution. When I spoke with teachers at the school I was working in at the time, it was clear that so many valued what was familiar to them. They felt safe in that familiarity, and it translated to a sense of stability for them. The idea of change, of democracy and a popular uprising, only incited fear within them. They were absolutely terrified that they would lose everything again, as they had with the collapse of the Soviet Union. While this was hard for me to comprehend intellectually, emotionally it all made sense. Without that experience, I would have never understood why someone may choose to elect a dictator as their leader. Without that experience, I would have never understood, on some level, why the Western solution was not necessarily the preferred solution.
After twelve years, my heart breaks at the reality Ukrainians face today. I often wonder, what if there had been dozens of “Westerners” in towns and villages like Severodonetsk, just listening as development plans were created to support the new government that emerged from the Orange Revolution. How could deeply listening have leveraged our Western strengths including money, influence, and yes, experience to support Ukrainian solutions to their most pressing needs?
This 2005 experience resurfaced later in my career, too. While working on anticorruption programs at the national level, I realized we were not having conversations about corruption that touched everyday life.
When a dear Ukrainian friend needed emergency surgery, the reality and normality of the entire system revealed itself to me. Though a country with free public healthcare, in a public hospital, the best medicine meant paying for it upfront. If you’d like the best surgeon, well that will cost you, too. In order to save himself from a possible massive infection from a ruptured appendix, my friend and his family paid for all of the medicines they could, like anesthesia and antibiotics, upfront. As I recall, they even went to the pharmacy to purchase it and brought it to the hospital themselves. Ultimately, they made sure the doctor had sufficient funds that would guarantee a proper surgery to remove his appendix. Technically, one could say they paid a bribe, perhaps multiple bribes.
Bribery and corruption were everyday realties, even for someone who did not actually want to pay a bribe. Doctors made tiny salaries, like teachers, professors, judges, lawyers, police officers, too. This experience raised so many questions for me. As a Ukrainian, how would I survive, no U.S. passport, no U.S. dollars? Instead of immediately judging someone for paying or accepting a bribe, what are the root causes of this system? Does the solution rely on reporting waste, fraud, or abuse? What do Ukrainians really want to change? How could we activate their agency?
Without fail, the more time I spent speaking with, or listening to, my “host country national” colleagues and friends, the more I learned. Sometimes, it meant sitting through an emotional explanation of ethnic Albanian culture in Kosovo, all that was stolen through the conflict, and those encroaching Western values that could further hinder that identity. In that moment, I heard many things that made me uncomfortable. Yet, at the same time, listening activated my humanity. Regardless of my personal opinions, these moments were humbling and revealing. How could I even begin to truly understand the impact ethnic conflict could have on me, my family, my culture? Would I feel threatened by possible “Western” policy recommendations that I felt impacted my culture after surviving ethnic cleansing?
If we haven’t put in the time to meet people on trains, in village markets, at schools, in hospitals, wherever, and challenge ourselves to talk about problems, ask questions, and seek answers, without pretense, how can we collaborate on sustainable solutions? International development is an inherently relational profession. Yet, trust can be in short supply, particularly when there is significant money involved. As a result, the work often risks becoming purely transactional, no matter the capacity building intent.
Perhaps the greatest truth of all is we really do not know much. I believe, no matter the depth of our education or experience, when we set foot in someone else’s home, we know very little.
Without deep, personal connections to local people, I do not know if I would have had those same questions about my role in each new space or place as a person or a professional. Certainly, I would not have had any emotional connection to or empathy for the challenges. There is an entire world that extends well beyond the capital cities we are often stationed in or the special license plates and identification cards assigned to us. Yes, this is obvious, but if we leap openly, it may lead us to the most unique bottle of cognac, distilled in Transnistria, Moldova, one may ever touch or even better, a seat at a traditional holiday celebration at a local family’s table.
One day, these local experiences may lead to the greatest request for proposals imaginable. In short, listening actively to those who could use our help perhaps should be a much more substantial part of our planning for U.S. development projects.
Elizabeth Knight served in the Peace Corps in Ukraine. She is Executive Director of Upward Roots in Oakland, CA, www.upwardroots.org.