The world inside the development bubble
This is what I see..
I have always been a strong believer in finding the satisfying job, that which allows my interests and personality to blend seamlessly into a dynamic work role. After all, doesn’t everyone? My first internship in Nigeria working in the development industry would appear to satisfy this criterion. What I am discovering is how utterly naïve I was to the workings of the industry and those it sustains a livelihood for. I assumed these people to be “likeminded”, just adding one and one together. But any job has limitations, and the development sector is no different. Any job can only ever give you one perspective on the massive global workplace. And so that is what I am quickly discovering. We can all wrap our heads around the bits and pieces of what people are doing in what industry, but the how is something you can really only gauge through personal experience in situ. Development is perhaps 5% about “helping the poorest and most vulnerable”, and 95% office relations and deskwork where like anywhere, people worry and pay attention to issues surrounding social stratification. It’s a huge business where the buzz words “money where it is needed” become paradoxically mixed with the corporate rhetoric of “value for money”. Fortunately for me, my life experience has marked my perception differently. My personal philosophy and experience with travel, has been and continues to be, conditioned by a process that few relate to. For this reason I find myself to be not so “like” them. Firstly, from my very small window to look out on this macro size phenomenon, I do not wish to denigrate the work done by those in development. Indeed there are many people pushing above their weight and sacrificing their free time for the belief in a positive change towards a better future for the next generation of a foreign nation. From this viewpoint their work is perceived and marketed quite successfully as noble and altruistic. But I don’t see this so I cannot help but come in critical. My restless energy together with a post-university frame of mind is my undeniable present outlook. It’s one where ideology still punches above working with present realities. This is perfectly acceptable for now, but something that with time will without doubt wither away. I’ll probably end up more jaded in the sink hole of realism as I progress. But then I am generally not good at predicting how I’ll feel in five minutes from now. Too much can change too quickly.
So the development industry is a funny world. The echo of colonialism very evident and in some ways still perpetuated. It’s a world where the “humble” development worker enjoys exceptional living arrangements in hotels (similar to their colonial forebears), all expenses paid extras, generous holiday allowances, company cars and drivers so one can live it up in the world’s poorest and most dangerous places. It’s no lie that aid consultants receive generous six-figure salaries plus perks. Poverty is the “game” for many to seek a “name”. The image of the white rich altruist is a strong caricature visible to the African. My perception of the way Africans see this (perhaps only Nigerians), is that this white development industry is socially appropriated with a certain subset of behaviours, capacities and abilities inherited from colonial perceptions. These brutal shades of colonialism in this part of the world are strong, and as such lead me to question the motives behind spending loads of dollars to prop up these “aid colonies”. I come to question how aid effects influence – and what the benefit is for the providers of aid. There is the argument for governments to increase aid to 0.7% of GDP, in line with the global “norms” outlined in the Millennium Development Goals by the United Nations. Another part of me criticises these “norms”, whose are they and do they include the opinions of those they affect? I also come to question the superficial intentions of these governments, and whether 0.7% means anything if not just to add an additional zero to some present worker’s salary. There are some similarities with problems in indigenous Australia. The dichotomy of white wealth and dominance over black poverty and subjugation comes to mind. I am almost certain that here in Nigeria social and cultural barriers are greater problems that money cannot solve alone. In the case of Nigeria and those that fund the project I am interning in, I think – what’s in it for the UK? I am sure both nationalism and the need to polish colonial prestige are core reasons. Aid provision is thus a mere compensation for past wrongs. Appeasement or patching up history – I remain for the moment undecided. The British colonial legacy from my perspective lies in maintaining its historically accrued moral capital. My mind wanders in this post-colonial thinking, as Nigeria is still very much a country rooted in the post-colonial thinking. There is a national need to undergo a cultural decolonisation as so to build on and strengthen the positive aspects of unity that can place it in better stead for the future (something for a future post). Most Nigerians and foreigners doubt this will ever happen; it is perhaps that stagnant thinking to see nothing beyond failure into the future that precisely prohibits this. I still have a lot to make my mind up about and with such a short time in this country, I know it won’t be sufficient. There are things that frustrate me and similarly there are advantages here that one must seize on. I want to make sure I remain conscious and open throughout the process.
My first week interning in Abuja, Nigeria has been one massive information overload. Abuja is in interesting city, the traffic is the first impression that is indeed a sight to behold. Anarchy manifests its dark side at all intersections. Here, excessive use of the horn is the only way to fight ones way through, with a careful eye and experience absolutely essential. It goes without saying that I will not be driving a vehicle at all in Nigeria. One does wonder how the country roads are going to fare up given that the intersections in this “planned city” are in total disorder. My head has also been in total disorder as I try and wrap my head around the new environments, people and languages I am being exposed to. Infinite acronyms to learn and placing names to faces and trying not to let the heavy palm oil base in foods lull me into a dreamy headspace. It is truly challenging to negotiate corporate “development” speak, replete with its use of jargon and neologisms that achieve meaning only due to their construction amongst individuals. Language excludes as much as it includes. Placing myself somewhere on the inside was a tiring process. Working in a professional African dynamic is challenging, and to the outsider it appears chaotic and emotional. Yet with time I find myself slipping into those same patterns which now assume a new mode of normality.
One resonating aspect from this week’s experience starting my internship was examining the intentions of all of the people working in the program. Early in the week a workshop was run to harness leadership skills, facilitated by a qualified psychologist from the UK. His style was clear and well guided a person of merit who demonstrates years of practice in the profession. And like my aunty and many others in the academic profession, he was well traveled by virtue of his career. At the end of the workshop, the team-leaders asked us to thank him as he had reneged on other engagements to give the workshop here. Again, I noticed how someone “doing their job” is recast in this context as an “altruist” despite receiving payment and professional accolades for doing their job. I started to think beyond this smokescreen of altruism that was starting to do my head in. What do these people get from an experience working here, how does this kind of experience add to the social interactions with colleagues out there in the white academic world? Intent is hard to diagnose, but I do consider how these actions are framed to outsiders. We always need to analyse this very carefully.
Before I came to Nigeria, it seemed almost impossible to explain to close friends and family what it was that I would be doing as an intern here, but finally I think I can give a less abstract outline. The project seeks to promote greater accountability in Nigerian states. The focus is civil society and building horizontal relationships with partners that wield some influence over public affairs (in short, lots of meeting with lots of people). Civil society is a broad term, but in Nigeria it seeks to work with influential partners such as unions, media houses, church/mosque leaders and others to help and provide resources so they can lobby their governments more effectively. It’s crucial when considering the endemic corruption and lack of transparency. The fun part of my work is that based in the capital, I get to do a bit of travel to the states and plan to write more about those experiences as they happen. It’s been interesting to work with many locals, get to know them and hear about their differing backgrounds and experiences.
Before finishing, I want to hold true on the promise to share a good story out of Nigeria, amongst all the highly publicised bad news spread internally and externally, there does exist unique special moments that have really impacted me. So my first story comes in the form of the cleaner that services our apartment. His name is Innocent, but he told us just to call him by his nickname INC, which he explained stood for Incredibly Noble Character – which was said like a joke but has some truth to it. He is from the state of Cross River down by the border with Cameroon in a dense area of tropical rainforest. His family moved to the capital in search of a better life, his work as a cleaner facilitates his bigger goal to make it someday as a musician. Even with the tragic passing on of his mother two years ago – a victim of disease at 40 – he still believes that the city has been a force for good. Over the past few days we have been hanging out as friends, going around town. I share my passions with him, my time in Brazil, my passion for Afro-Brazilian music and its roots and origins in Nigerian Yoruba culture. He wants to introduce me to the folk in his neighbourhood that play music. He promises me it’s much cheaper than the overpriced expat/elite supermarkets in the area I am living in. To connect is to live. And whilst many of those working in development pursue vertical connections with superiors up the chain in this industry to further their careers, I seek out horizontal ones. I want to engage with those that live and breathe this country, they are what Nigeria is becoming. I want to listen to them; I want to hear what kind of country they want to live in 20 years. I want to have the time to share what they imagine with me.
And I go on imagining what country this will be in twenty years, and I am hopeful. What I hope for myself is that I’ll be around to experience the difference I know it will be.