On Progress and Development, or How to Approach Volunteering in the Right Way, or simply, the Wild Wild East

I’ve been waiting for the opportunity to say this, so here it is: regarding recent world events, ranging from the bombing in Marrakesh or the death of Osama bin Laden, I am not at liberty to comment.  So, that said, you may see a few passworded posts here or there.  Forgot my password?  No worries, ask again.  If you do read a passworded post, I ask for your discretion and that you not copy, paste, or send that blog to anyone.  It’s “passworded” for a reason.

I’d been on the road a lot lately, and when you say “on the road a lot” in Morocco, you really mean it.  Be it because of road conditions or because of vehicles with 400,000K on them, it can easily take five hours to travel what, in terms of distance, would only take maybe two back home.  It’s funny, the easiest way to refer to distance here is not in terms of how many kilometers but in terms of how many Dirhams and how many hours.  Case in point, I am the same distance between Avery that I am Nicole, but on a bad day, it could take me twice as long to get to Nicole’s site if I were to go there.  The roads are just windier.  But American car mechanics could learn a lot from the tricks Moroccans must use to keep these cars running for so long and so well.  It’s a shame we “need” a new car every couple of years when some of the BMW Taxis I’ve been riding in have got to be pushing at least ten or fifteen years.  Most taxis move at twice the speed of the buses, and what’s impressed me the most here is that Moroccans will know exactly where and when to stand in the road to wait for the right bus to come along and pick them up.  I sometimes find myself wondering, “Did they just stand there for hours until a vehicle stopped, or did they know this particular bus was going to come by at this particular time?”  There are no “bus stops” in the countryside, just convenient places in the middle of the desert where people stand.  It just fascinates me.  Then again, the buses here are actually quite on schedule and reliable.  They’re just long, slow, sometimes break down, always crowded, and not always the cleanest mode of transportation.  And yet I’m still very thankful for them.

So between jumping the wrong taxi to Azrou instead of Fes, busing to Meknes and then another taxi to Ouzzane, I finally arrived last week as one of the five volunteers invited to a conference on volunteerism, which included fifteen countries, as well as the United Nations Volunteer Program.  Given that a ton of it was in French, I found myself struggling to understand much of the conversation (although after learning Arabic, I feel like French might actually be somewhat easy), but I was able to follow enough to contribute once or twice (partially in English and partially in [Moroccan Arabic] Darjia – what I call “Daringlish”).  During the Conference, one woman complained, in Arabic, that the problem in this part of the developing world right now is that terrorism hinders the good work that people are trying to do, and ever since her impassioned statements against terrorism, I’ve been brooding – as usual – about the developing world, about progress, about the role of volunteerism, and about how I fit into all of that.  So here’s what I’ve come up with, my own little blog gabbing on about the need to progress.

Actually, first, let me take you back a few years to a conversation I had with an old friend sitting on a beach in Israel.  She took a very optimistic view of humanity and saw all of humanity as intrinsically good.  Somehow, she’d escaped the grasp of Augustine and flown the way of rainbows and unicorns.  I wasn’t convinced, but fair enough, important to know that was her starting point.  For her, all humanity was moving year after year toward social progress, toward a better world.  People became more educated, economically better off, our health better, our governments stronger.  Utopia wasn’t that far off, within sight, capable of being reached in our lifetime.  It was a time when we could all stand around and sing “Imagine” by John Lennon because we’d finally progressed to this Utopian society.

This isn’t a new hope.  You can trace it all the way back to the Enlightenment, and it still pervades liberalism, conservative, any form of fundamentalism today.  It pervades the academy, Churches, the world, really: “get people to think like us, walk like us, talk like us, and we can call that progress, and the world will be better.”  At the time, I criticized my friend from a thoroughly Augustinian, neo-conservative viewpoint:  “No, sorry, no matter how cool our technology gadgets are, even should a period of Golden Peace fall down upon us from heaven, humans are still humans, and whether you want to call it sin or something else, we mess things up.  We always will, and we’re a broken society that needs forgiveness.”

I don’t entirely disagree with that sentiment, though nowadays I find it a bit morbid and cynical, and I think it should be tempered with more hope.  I’m far more concerned in Morocco with a different question, namely whether or not this notion of progress is elitist or arrogant.  Quite literally, what would that picture of progress look like to a Moroccan who has almost nothing but is still happy?  At the time, it didn’t even occur to me; I was still too focused on human nature to comment on human progress despite its nature.  The idea of helping all society develop toward something better is certainly a beautiful one, and let’s be honest, the best fight against terrorism is a war on poverty, not a war on people.  Someone ought to start that fight, because as I look around me, we often attack the symptoms of poverty but not the causes.  The system just remains intact.  So, if we agree that poverty is a problem, and we agree that we need to do something about it, what’s holding us back from that, and to return to the question above, what’s arrogant about wanting the world to do away with poverty?

Nothing.  But in the same way that wars are first fought sometimes with words, other times with force, the “war” on poverty has to be approached first with humility.  We have to know how to fight it or it will be a disaster.  And, for me, that translates into a complete recognition that our presence here, helping other people, is on some level about us and not about the people we are trying to “help” or “serve.”   If we can’t admit that we’re getting something out of this – getting more than giving, even – then we’re doing an injustice and our work isn’t just selfish but also colonial.   That is, I came here because I wanted to, not because someone needed me too, not because I was self-less.  The fight against poverty (or hope toward any level of social progress) is lost unless we stand together with the poor, in solidarity, hand-in-hand.  And that doesn’t mean grabbing their hands and dragging them where we want them to go.  It means helping them determine what climbing out of poverty looks like for them, which I think is one of the most important points – what is poverty, really?  What’s necessary to living a sustainable, happy life?  It isn’t iPads or automobiles.  It isn’t big houses or televisions.  It isn’t an Ivy League, liberal educations with multiple degrees that still can’t give you a job.  It’s a funny thing that we’re taught when we’re so little the difference between needs and wants, but then we live the rest of our lives as though the needs are entitlements and the wants are needs.

So, are we progressing toward some utopia?  Eh, I don’t think so.  I just think we have to figure out first what we want to do together to make our world better, and then how we’re going to do it together while recognizing all of us want a little something in it for us.  So much of life really just requires us to be honest about why we want the things we want.  Then, maybe instead of trying to move or push people forward to some unrealistic heaven-on-earth we’ve concocted for everyone else, we could at least take baby steps away from the hell some people are living every day.

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