Neo-colonialism and Development Practitioners St. John’s University Kurt Rietema

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  • Neo-colonialism and Development Practitioners

    St. Johns UniversityKurt Rietema

  • First Image: Feeding Yellowstone Bears

  • Second Image: Jane Goodall with Chimps

  • What are the similarities / differences?

  • Categories for Consideration:

  • A Collision of Two Worlds- Using these two images as a metaphor for development can be inherently offensive. Yet perhaps some of our approaches to development are even more demeaning to the communities we work with. But what is undeniable is that in development work there is often a collision of values, of worldview, and mergers of cultures. The question that remains is how can we do development that doesnt seek to assimilate or unnecessarily impose the values of the development agency/practitioner onto the communities we work with.

  • Role of Development Practitioner- Sometimes development practitioners have patronizing and neo-colonial attitudes and postures towards the communities we work with that appear like tourists feeding the Yellowstone bears. Our failure to recognize power dynamics, our short-sighted goals, our motivations, the psychological, emotional, social and geographical distances we place between us as professionals and the clients we serve ends up fostering distrust and codependent relationships that ultimately fail.

  • Role of Development Practitioner- How might we as development practitioners cultivate attitudes and approaches towards the communities that we work with that look more like Jane Goodall? How can we develop that trust that is built over years, that is cultivated by proximity, lack of barriers, that doesnt create dependency, but allows the community to thrive in its natural habitat, where we dont seek to assimilate, but to advocate to outsiders on their behalf by creating awareness of the detrimental effects of policies and practices outside of the communitys control?

  • If youve come here to help me, youre wasting your time. But if you have come because your liberation is bound up with mine then let us work together.

    quote attributed to Lilla Watson, an aboriginal activist.- Watson makes the radical assertion that while many communities certainly need development, outside assistance, and liberation, they may not be the only ones who need help. Those who come to serve and help also need liberation of an altogether different sort.

  • It seems that the wealthy are poor in a way that is a mirror image of the poverty of the poor. Having too much is as bad for us as having too little. Too little food makes us weak and at risk of disease; too much food makes us overweight and prone to heart disease and diabetes. Water in the Third World is dirty and bad for our health; water in wealthy nations is sometimes bad because it gets polluted with chemicals from our progress. The poor have unfit housing; the wealthy are often slaves to their house payments. A poet, Octavio Paz, said that the rich have too few fiestas and are poor, while the poor have too many fiestas and are also poor.

    Bryant Myers, Walking with the Poor

    Poverty (and Privilege) Alleviation?How do we interpret this data?At first glance, some might suggest that Hispanics and Blacks have a lot to learn from Whites in terms of acquiring wealth. Yet when given historical context to this were given a fuller picture that this wealth was acquired not simply through merit alone, but that some were systematically excluded.

    Poverty (and Privilege) Alleviation?From Handouts to Hand ups to a Hand downAn important distinction has been made between aid and development, between charity and justice. It isnt simply about giving the poor a handout, but also a hand up. Perhaps its time to add a new category. Maybe the privileged also need a hand down, a way to bridge the socioeconomic chasms that exist. Many challenges exist to doing this. How can we avoid class warfare? Can this be done without creating new categories of disenfranchised persons? Are measures like this necessarily coercive and if so does personal autonomy demand that the privileged make this by choice?

    A New Paradigm for Practitioners[Teachers] forget that their fundamental objective is to fight alongside the people in the recovery of the peoples stolen humanity, not to win the people over to their side Paolo Freire, Pedagogy of Hope- What if as development practitioners we understood our work not as an attempt to bring a certain community up to Western notions of decency, not to win people to our side, but to fight alongside them in the recovery of their stolen humanity? Perhaps along the way we realize that were fighting alongside them for the recovery of our own lost humanity.

  • References

    Freire, P. (2003). Pedagogy of Hope: Reliving Pedagogy of the Oppressed. New York: Continuum.

    Myers, B. (1999). Walking with the Poor. New York: Orbis Books.

    Pew Research Center (2011). Median Net Worth of Households, 2005 and 2009. Retrieved July 6, 2013 from

    [Untitled Feeding Yellowstone Bears] Retrieved July 6, 2013 from

    [Untitled Jane Goodall with Chimps] Retrieved July 6, 2013 from

    Watson, L. [If you have come] Retrieved July 6, 2013 from