Challenging Our Predispositions.
Updated: Sep 1
“Typically, other people’s problems seem simpler, uncomplicated and easier to solve than those of one’s own society. In this context, the decontextualized hunger and homelessness in Haiti, Cambodia or Vietnam is an easy moral choice. The burdens of manic consumption and unabated careerism are not easily pitied as crumbling shanties and begging babies. Unlike the problems of other societies, the failing inner-city schools in Chicago or the haplessness of those living on the fringes in Detroit is connected to larger political narratives. In simple terms, the lack of knowledge of other cultures makes them easier to help.” – Rafia Zakaria
The definition of development changes each day, as society progress and our needs, transform and continue to become more complex. As a result, the Western perspective of development can be considered inherently contentious.
During my immersive university program within Cambodia last year, I wrote a brief reflection on my experience of our home-stay within a small village on the island of Koh Pdao, within the Kratie province of Cambodia. Within this piece, I wanted to expand on these reflections and thoughts.
The intention of our home-stay was to be fully immersed into another culture and to observe this wholeheartedly without any cross-culture interference or impositions. Immersive experiences are vital within the development field as well as for any traveller wanting to contribute responsibly within the country they are visiting. This is not only for individuals to fully understand the culture and society they are participating within, but also to give a voice to the locals who are often forgotten when tourism and Western development initiatives are involved. While I still debate whether our time within the village didn’t create any burdens for the locals. What I can say, was this was an initiative run by the locals themselves and created an income for many local families. It was a learning experience for us all, as we were both exposed to differences and many cultural barriers that we otherwise may not have experienced.
Each one of us was hosted by a family who lived on the island, and with such multitudes of generosity, they provided us with accommodation within their homes; despite our ignorant cultural understandings and language barriers. Their generosity and selflessness to accommodate for our needs, all while trying to celebrate Khmer New Year, (one of the largest celebrations for Cambodian’s every year), was a privilege and honour. But again, I do want to acknowledge that our presence did cause many impositions for our own benefit.
The small relationships we formed with our host families are a beautiful testament to the human connection and a wonderful reminder to remember what’s most important in life. How wonderful it is to have a good belly laugh with a stranger trying to figure out a situation that we both are not entirely sure of.
Going into our home-stay on the island of Koh Pdao, I instinctively had the pre-judgement that their ‘basic’ way of living would in no way progress them as a society. Having no running water or electricity, we were being immersed into a way of life quite different from our accustomed comforts and routines; and I am okay to admit that it initially terrified me, and as a result, made me very quick to pass judgement. However, having the privilege to fully immerse ourselves for a length of time within the village, my naive and ignorant values were deeply challenged and shifted.
My pre-judgements were from my perspective, (obviously), something that is a very common thing to do; especially when it involves getting out of your comfort zone. However, this is then where individuals risk the tendency to quickly fall back to what they are comfortable with and neglect the respect of acknowledging and appreciating a difference in culture. This is also where we see the development of irresponsible tourism and the risk of colonial values and impacts within vulnerable communities arising.
I was challenged with this thought process during my experience, and through a lot of discussion and deliberations, I decided I was going to shift my judgement and challenge everything that I ever thought was right; and in doing so, I learnt more about myself than the ways to ‘fix’ this island that I initially thought was best.
The first thing to address here is the narrative of development. If we ‘flip the perspective’, there is a lot more for us to learn.
To approach development with the perspective that we are the ‘developing’, and remote communities, such as Koh Pdao are ‘developed’; we would write a very different narrative. The village of Koh Pdao was far richer in a variety of other aspects of life. This community had mastered collectivism, they had created a strong sense of community, there was non-material attachment, and they were selflessly welcoming, generous and most importantly, they were in the present. They had developed significantly further in a lot more aspects of life than Western societies ever have, and ever will.
Although I acknowledge, that there are serious development issues within this village, if we flip the perspective at times, we can begin to have a better understanding of these communities and work together to meet the development needs that are necessary and needed. Not what we think is best. But most importantly, through this process, we give these vulnerable communities a voice. Self-determination is key if we are ever going to see an alleviation in poverty or positive progress within vulnerable communities.
Coming to terms with this perspective reminded me of several things, all involving privilege, entitlement and ignorance. And through reflection on my previous thoughts and writings, regarding this important thought process and perspective, one thing I don’t think I articulated succinctly enough was regarding the contrast between what I expected, and what I learnt through this immersive experience. What struck me so profoundly during my encounters, was that what we thought was best as development students, was ultimately not what was best at all.
During our time on the island, we had a meeting with the village Chief; who I have regretfully misplaced his name. He was an elderly man who had lived his whole life within Koh Pdao and gone through many significant life experiences, such as the Pol Pot regime. We discussed many things with him and enjoyed an afternoon asking questions and learning about the politics of the island. One question, however, that has stuck with me ever since was concerning what development initiatives he would like to see within his community. Initially, we all thought we knew what his answer was going to be. We all assumed that he would suggest better health care facilities, maybe even a health clinic, as well as better school amenities and anything that would better facilitate education and health. After all, this was a ‘primitive’ island that had no running water or electricity. But to our ignorant surprise, the Chief suggests better quality roads and bridges.
I was shocked…but not at his answer. I was shocked at my predisposition and assumptions. I was embarrassed that I thought I knew what he wanted, and in doing so, undermined the development needs of this community. I was a student in the last year of my International Development degree, how could I be so wrong? I had to remind myself again, of my privilege and remember, that what may be something that would benefit me, will not necessarily benefit another group of people living in an entirely different way. I had let my privilege and entitlement get the better of me, and it contributed to my thought process so easily and so unknowingly. It’s something we all need to be aware of and keep in check.
When I stepped back and evaluated the village Chief’s answer, it made complete sense. If you don’t have adequately built bridges and safe roads, how would individuals even get to these health clinics and schools that I was so eager to propose and build?!
How ignorant I felt in assuming what was best for these people. It wasn’t my place to do so; I was just a guest, so how would I know? How many other times has this happened in similar situations? The West dominants a majority of aspects within this world, including the interventions for vulnerable communities. With dominance comes power, and with power comes the tendency to belittle communities that are vulnerable; resulting in the assumptions of what’s best and creating a lack of understanding towards the real benefits and needs at hand.
Often these assumptions that derive from our personal Western experiences can cause far more detrimental impacts than anything beneficial. It comes down to considering what these communities need and not what we think is best. It comes down ultimately to communication, understanding and learning. We need to re-learn the narrative of development and remove all Western pre-judgements. The right answers do not come from short term projects, assumptions, or good intentions.
When we consider electricity on the island, something that is a luxury and necessity for the West, but something that this community has never had, and have lived comfortably without ever since the invention; we need to consider is it worth it? If foreign intervention was to assume that this was a necessity for development purposes for this community and decided to instigate the establishment of electricity on this island; the impacts would be far more damaging then the benefits of the electricity itself. The question is, what do we sacrifice? Do we create a dam for the creation of electricity for this remote island? Which would decrease the island’s supply of local fish as well as potentially lead to seasonal flooding, that is currently unnatural to the island. Or do we leave the situation be, considering they have lived comfortably without it throughout the village’s history?
When we break it down into examples like this, our assumptions and interventions without giving vulnerable communities a voice seems absurd and shows how extremely harmful it can be. Who gave us these rights to assume and implement action with these assumptions? Our assumptions are inherently derived from colonial tendencies. I also like to flip the perspective at times and ask people whether it would be acceptable if groups of individuals from other communities came into our own homes and decided to make changes without asking. How crazy would that be!? If you feel uncomfortable with that concept and notion, how is it okay to do the same in any other community?
These concepts also go hand in hand with all unskilled volunteer tourism programs too. While we may have good intentions, these intents are doing significant damage and cannot be justified through our selfish desires and needs to feed our own self-gratification. Because ultimately, that is inherently what it comes down to when we begin to realise these detrimental impacts; it’s essentially about putting our own wants and needs before these underrepesented people.
Kho Pdao provided me with so many precious and valuable life lessons as well as the knowledge that I have taken home with me and continuing to practice at home with my international development education; and here’s hoping that my experiences from Kho Pdao can teach you too.
Let’s start to challenge the definition and narrative of development and empower those who are in the middle of it. When we know better, we can do better; it’s as simple as that.