Monday, October 25, 2010

Reservations on preservation

This past Sunday, I had the rare pleasure of traveling to Agra and viewing one of the 7 wonders of the world: the Taj Mahal. While it was a breathtaking experience (seriously, I had a rapid-fire gasp reaction upon first sight), the uncontrollable crowds, the random graffiti and the putrid smell of urine wafting from odd corners got me wondering about a conversation we recently had here in the Delhi office. Over a shared meal, a group of us (including myself, another white lady, and a handful of locals), waxed philosophical about the sad state of monument preservation in India. The gist, to boil it down, was that having so many historical sites, and so many other pressing needs (economic development, health, environment, etc), what is a country like India to do with its monuments?

- Do you (wealthier, so-called developed country group) just come in and preserve it yourself, having the time, the money and the know-how?

- Do you instead invest in “capacity-building” of local preservation groups at the risk of erosion in the mean time?

- OR, is there a third, perhaps controversial, option where you let nature take its course, for better or for worse? (Meaning, is there really a point to preserving something if it can’t be naturally be preserved in its home environment? Could erosion or historical sites just be part of the natural evolutionary process of societies?)

Now, I won’t expound too much on my thesis – to be honest, I’m not sure what I believe – but I did see an interesting parallel in this discussion and one which I often have with myself or colleagues regarding development work. What responsibility does a wealthier, more experienced group of people have to assist those in a less stable position? And does this assistance in some way hinder (or even harm) those on the receiving end?

When you’re talking about monuments, which occupy a clear physical space and can easily be categorized in terms of developmental stages (e.g., $1 million = power-wash of all pee-pee), the thinking is somewhat simpler. But when you start talking about “humanitarian” assistance (e.g., improved health and welfare of mothers and their children, improved service delivery to needy populations, “systems strengthening”, etc), the picture suddenly becomes a whole lot more fuzzy.

I know, I know I know – somehow I get to talking about this sort of thing, every single time. But I can’t help it – it’s important, particularly in my current moment. And if you take the example of the monument as a paradigm, perhaps we in the development world haven’t fleshed out our own options:

- Do we come in, heavy-handed and with guns blazing, and take over the whole damn show?

- Do we patiently hand-hold and provide technical assistance, all the while watching progress move at a snail’s pace?

- Or do we just let things evolve as they may, and trust that in the absence of interference, the natural course will right itself?

The first option was exercised through many of the early development years – by peace corps and USAID, through all their invasive early measures – resulting in total rejection by those waving the “cultural competence” and “sustainability” banners. Who do we think we are, landing in foreign countries and asserting our own ideas of health and welfare without so much as conferring with local authorities? (in a way, the legacy of those days remains)

The second option is the train we’re currently riding, on which, if this project is to be an example, it takes nearly half the project’s 5-year life span just to get programs up and running (and even then we don’t have nearly enough information to be able to tell if we did anything of use anyway). By now, we’ve spent millions and billions and dollars on “development”, yet we haven’t the systems in place to even tell us if what we contributed amounts to anything more than what would have happened in our absence. (despite this, even I get a warm fuzzy feeling when I think about all the “good” we’re doing)

And the third option, as ghastly as it may seem, has been implied by more than one development (so-called) expert/article, which I’ve alluded to in earlier posts. Maybe the best option really is to rip off the floaties, throw the baby in the end and let it struggle until it finds its way. (think of all the natural political movements that aren’t happening because the mother [development aid] keeps the hungry baby [recipients] placated with a pacifier that soothes but doesn’t rectify anything.)

So what’s the answer? I don’t know – but if you’ve read this far, I’ve given you enough to think about, so the least I can do is reward you with a few snaps from my trip to Agra :)

Thanks for letting me vent!

1 comment:

sahar said...

hi ghaz
khobi? khosh migzare ?
bebin on axet ke roye ye takhte sangi neshasty to delhi on takhte chi hast? chon sher haye farsi neveshte shode rosh ?
axaye kheili ghashangi gerefty thanx
we miss u
take care
boos boss