One sign that the U.S. political scene has reached rock bottom is David Brooks writing one of his weekly columns about development workers in Nairobi. In “The Rugged Altruists,” Brooks discusses the virtues possessed by three smart, young development workers in the course of doing this work.
The first is courage – a willingness to move to a place foreign in all senses of the world. They go to learn about what they don’t understand, and put themselves in situations for which they have no paradigm. Through this process of immersion, the come out stronger on the other side, more well-rounded and knowledgeable about a new culture.
The second virtue is deference, which Brooks describes as “the willingness to listen and learn from the moral and intellectual storehouses of the people you are trying to help.” People often come in thinking they know the answers to the problems they’ve come to try to solve. Quickly they realize how little they actually know – a multitude of cultural nuances and specific, sometimes heartbreaking fundamental barriers they never could have imagined exist. The adaptable ones step back and take a moment re-calibrate their expectations, before approaching the situation from a different angle. They accept what they don’t understand – context – and seek out teachers to show them the way.
The last and, in Brooks’ opinion, most important virtue is thanklessness. When there are no prizes for first place, nor much recognition at all for a job well done, the work becomes a labor of love, driven by passion more than anything else. Sometimes the problems are so great that incremental improvement becomes the barometer for success. Will it change the world? Probably not. But it will make a big difference for a few people – maybe even a whole community – and that is laudable.
These virtues exist everywhere I’ve been. The IT manager at the MFI I worked for in the Philippines used to tell his team of programmers that they should strive for anonymity. No one acknowledges the IT department unless something goes wrong. Yet, without their work, the organization could not function as well as it does. Leaving a legacy in the form of perfection, where no one realizes the importance of your work, is the ultimate goal.
In Ghana, my Ghanaian coworkers would stress about how it was a travesty that the rice farmers they worked with had no market for their paddy, or that the largest juice processor rejected an entire harvest of pineapples because they’d mismanaged the finances at the company. My closest friends worked for Engineers Without Borders Canada, an admirably driven group committed to making agriculture more competitive in Africa. On one memorable occasion, over a few Stars, a few of them were talking about how much shit pigs could eat. “Back in the village when I had typhoid, I was shitting outside my hut every ten minutes. Every time I went outside, it was gone.” Another day, another dollar.
Now, in Kenya, the mixture of talent and principles on display is unlike anything I’ve ever seen. On a daily basis, I meet people who, within the development community, are legendary for changing the paradigm altogether. It is an easy place to feel inspired.
I think Brooks nails the virtues. But these virtues are not necessarily elemental. People are always looking to challenge themselves in different ways, and putting yourself in an unfamiliar situation where you have to rely on your wits and judgment to figure out the right moves is not uncommon for any young person I think. Showing deference to people more knowledgeable is certainly a virtue learned through experience, but it is also common sense. And thanklessness, to me, comes with the territory. In the beginning of the article, he segments development workers into the ones making a difference and those just taking up space. I have my own opinions about what works and what doesn’t, but I think it is unfair to make judgments about the latter. Everyone is out here for different reasons, but a common denominator is the belief that you can make things better, which is a noble motive. Some people are doing a better job than others, but everyone is trying.
The broader goal of achieving perspective is important. Escaping the bubble that influences the way you see the world and surrounding yourself with people who bring to bear a set of life experiences completely different from your own expands your own worldview. Being somewhere different from where you were formed influences your political and religious views. Basic fundamental values, concepts of right and wrong, should be malleable in the face of new information. Pursuit of different perspectives – which are often radically different in places where the value system is defined by forces you’ve never encountered – offers the chance to truly empathize with people, based on tangible experience rather than abstract ideas.
I see the virtues Brooks highlights in his column everywhere I go. Everyone shares these virtues, but probably doesn’t ever actulaly think about them (with the exception of deference). There also people hungry for perspective, trying to understand how everyone else thinks and learn how the world works. That is probably what makes people on the road so interesting.