Valuing communities over individuals

aidnography is critical of the way One Laptop Per Child has presented the results of an experiment where they dropped off Android tablets in a village in Ethiopia, and the kids quickly learned to use them. They reasonably point out that saying “I thought the kids would play with the boxes” feels a bit elitist or even racist. No question.

But then they go farther. The penultimate paragraph begins “The biggest question I have is whether through ‘dropping off laptops’ children will really be learning skills that are valuable for their community, helping them making their community more resilient.” That seems like a reasonable standard, no argument here. However they continue: “and also helping them to stay in the local area.” Slow the hell down. “Helping people stay in the local area” is an awful goal for a development program. If they want to, of course they should stay put, but the idea that we should push people toward staying put is somewhere between foolish and offensive. As I’ve argued before, meaningful development is impossible unless people leave the countryside. And what if we had focused on helping Oklahomans stay in the local area during the 1930s? The best-case scenario is that the US would still have an enclave of incredibly poor subsistence farmers in Oklahoma. The worst case is a famine. Or imagine the mass death that would have occurred if the Irish hadn’t been allowed to leave their home country during the mid-19th century.

This attitude comes from treating communities as if they were sentient beings with rights and feelings, and, even worse, that their rights and feelings supersede those of actual people. I find this approach so alien and confusing that it’s almost incomprehensible, since it seems to imply that we should feel bad if a village ceases to exist, even if all the people from that village moved on to nicer areas and better jobs.

Hat Tip: Development Impact

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