Thoughts on Rugged Altruism

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.

A farmer with One Acre Fund

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.

3 thoughts on “Thoughts on Rugged Altruism

  1. Jennifer Lentfer

    The fact that so many people feel called to help is hopeful. However, the biggest thing that well-intentioned do-gooders (and NYT columnists, Kristof and now Brooks) must recognize is that in the developing world, local people with that same combustible mix of indignation and vision are often already organized and doing something about whatever problem they are concerned about. Thanks for highlighting these folks. Their stories are ones that need to be told, and retold…

    I’ve worked with over 300 grassroots organizations in southern and east Africa in my career. Most were linked to churches, schools, or clinics, assisting children by extending services into areas that are not sufficiently reached by government or international agencies. A UNICEF-sponsored mapping exercise identified over 1,800 of these groups working with children affected by AIDS in Malawi alone (NOVOC, 2005). has already registered over 110,000 local organizations and movements working on a wide variety of issues in 243 countries. They estimate that there may well be over 1,000,000 such local groups operating across the globe.

    Yet, the web of local organizations and grassroots leaders in the developing world are still largely undocumented, unrecognized and under-resourced around the world, offers an opportunity for sustainable and large-scale responses to relief and development that even the most comprehensive and impactful macro-level, white-in-shining-armor efforts may never be able to accomplish.

    It’s the local activists that are the true heroes and the true experts about what’s needed at the community level to fight poverty or conflict or AIDS or climate change. It’s time for a dose of humility in the sector to acknowledge the vision, structure, and impact that grassroots activists and community leaders around the world do have. It’s also time to get existing and effective community groups the resources that they need to address their own priorities—something that can truly fuel a foreign aid rethink.

  2. Pingback: The Rugged Altruists | My Transitions (2010-11)

  3. Josh Post author

    Thanks for the comments Jennifer – I read and enjoy your blog. I agree entirely with what you say, but I feel like people like us are really part of this community that is in the “know.” We debate with one another about the merits of different approaches to aid and development, while most people out there never even consider the issues. I think Brooks and Kristof would probably agree with you on almost all of these accounts, but they want to reach the audience that is not you and me. In doing so they will drive more resources to the causes you and I care about, and that money will inevitably be distributed to these networks of great local NGOs that are doing good work. What they want more than recognition is money, and creating awareness is crucial.

    I’ve written about this a few times. I’d be interested in hearing your thoughts. Thanks again.

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