Is development work a route to compassionate conservatism?

Excluding the missionary types most conservation and development workers I’ve met are about as far, politically speaking, as you can get from the neoconservative agenda of Bush junior. However, they all do start out with a substantial minimum quotient of compassion that differentiates them from the average denizen of Wall Street. What I think few of them expect is the degree of conservatism many will take on as a result of a field career in development.*

This came up in a conversation not so long ago with a good friend of mine here. We were discussing the various Occupy <insert-capitalist-symbol-of-choice> protests. My friend’s point was that while she sympathised with friends and acquaintances back home who supported – and may even have actively participated in – the protests, this sympathy was tempered by the fact that the 99% in America are way better than the 99% in this particular part of Africa.

However, it was not just this sense of perspective that lessened her sense of agitation, but also the experience of living and working in a country where the day to day management of government responsibilities is so often completely dysfunctional. In contrast you rapidly come to respect those businesses which can reliably deliver a consistent service at a competitive price; mobile phone companies being the best example. (This experience is may well be different in countries like Ethiopia which reportedly are getting their acts together quite impressively.)

Thus it is, in many developmental discussions across various sectors, that often we seek the involvement of the private sector and other non-governmental actors in preference to the government-centric approach which many officials take as a default. Even the public-private sector partnership beloved of developed country economists leaves us shuddering: how can such a thing work with a government notorious for not paying its bills on time? Similarly, Norman Tebbit’s injunction for young people to “get on their bike” and find some work is a message that many a time we wish we could deliver in its starkest terms to apparently apathetic aid-dependent communities.

I doubt this will translate into many additional votes for right wing parties all of a sudden – development workers (except for the missionaries) are definitely socially liberal – but it is an interesting case, perhaps, of the collision that many of us experience as we grow older between the high ideals of youth and pragmatism in a world consumed by self interest.

* The exception would presumably be all those development economists who dominate the development blogosphere, or at least those sections of it that I follow.

One response to this post.

  1. eh? missionary types? why didn’t you just mention Genghis Khan?


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