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To truly begin thinking about global goals, we must find ways to interact with power, privilege, and politics without sacrificing our values.

One of the things that made me want to work in development is the seeming morality of this work, the idea that it is not for profit or power or privilege. Unfortunately, in my few years of experience, I am learning that this ultimately idealistic way of thinking is simply not the truth.

The fields of development and humanitarian work have been around for a long time. They are not innovative arenas brought forth by technological advancements. They cannot be connected to the ideas of one individual or ideology. They are reactionary and, at their very core, rooted in a shared responsibility towards a common good – aren’t they?

I have seen profit and power and privilege take center stage while equality and justice and the lives of human beings take a back seat. It is not difficult to understand that power dynamics play a role in every part of our existence but it has become increasingly difficult to claim that development and humanitarian work are making the sort of difference they ought to do.

Perhaps I should take a step back and clarify the most basic point of departure for my argument; whose language are we speaking? No – I am not referring to English, although I suspect an argument can be made based on the dominance of English as a lingua franca. Rather, I am referring to the way in which we speak. Why is it that when the Europe Development Days are mentioned, most people have no idea what that means? Why is it that when we say MDG or SDG, so many people wonder if we are referring to a food component that may or may not be toxic? How can we claim to have established global goals that the majority of the globe is not cognizant of?

In a recent conversation, I casually mentioned CBO’s (Community Based Organizations) and continued my argument only to realize that the highly intellectual and influential individuals  I was conversing with, had no idea what this acronym meant. I continued to speak at length of ‘livelihood’ until it became apparent to me that when not speaking directly to the colleagues whom I work with on this issue, this word did not imply any sort of meaning. It has become quite evident that we have somehow come to speak to one another – to converse within our bubble of ‘development’ while seeking to influence what is outside of it. We refer to ‘definitions’ conceptualized by certain organizations as if they are infallible, as if our acceptance of an authority to define grants absolute legitimacy. I cannot claim that this field is the only one with jargon, but development is a sector different from others.  

I will leave it up to you to specify the particularities of this difference, but we can base it in the assumed moral dimension previously mentioned. If we are to accept this assumption, we are faced with another shortcoming. The interplay between development, human rights, global politics, and economics is one that is riddled with complexities. Development policies are heavily influenced by political motives, which are intertwined with economic agendas. Human rights are highlighted time and time again as the molten core of our global goals, but are often overshadowed by the aforementioned components of the developmental equation.

This amalgamation of influences dilute the moral aspects of development, making them highly arbitrary. This, in turn, becomes a barrier to understanding the logic behind where, when, and why we do development work. Why do we carry out development here, and not there? Why do we choose this implementation mechanism, and not that one? Is it because a certain path guarantees funding? Is it because it grants a pat on the back from the international community? Or is it truly based on our principles of justice, equality, and human rights? I fervently challenge you to seek answers to these questions.

We have long worked towards a set of common goals – from MDG’s to SDG’s to human rights and peace agendas at the local and global levels. Two crucial questions I pose here are these; why do we still exist, and how long will we continue to?

There is a plethora of ways this question can be answered, perhaps invalidated. However, I believe that it is of utmost importance to first clarify our role as development practitioners within global development. In a functional and efficient international system, we would have a very different role than what we have come to be. States would exercise their authority in a way that places people at the center and prioritizes the well-being of human beings as their unit of measurement of success. Governments would envision the responsibility to serve and protect at the crux of their very purpose. Development would be an assumed and integral part of governance. For the time being, we do exist.

Perhaps the time has come for a good look in the mirror, the time to examine both the outward aspects of our work – like the way we communicate with what is outside our developmental bubble – and the innermost details of what, who, where, and why we work to ‘develop.’ Consider the 71st session of the United Nations General Assembly (UNGA). Yes, it has brought together many world leaders armed with moving speeches that, for a string of moments, may have inspired a sort of shared moral responsibility between the ears on which they fell. But what happens when the microphones are turned off, podiums set aside, and lights turned off? Do the summits that we hold and the resolutions we adopt truly contribute to actualizing the sort of development we envision? If past circumstances are any indication of future outcome, the morally infused dialogue displayed at the ongoing UNGA session will be paralyzed by power and politics.

We must reform and transform our existence. From addressing our often alienating discourse, to examining how and where we fit into the global system in which we work, it is crucial for development to take on a different form. The powers at play with and against us cannot be thought of as separate to our existence, but central to it. We do not, fortunately for us, work in a secluded bubble. So, in order to truly begin to think of global goals, it is quite evident that we need to identify the elements integrating us and the aspects of our efforts which divide us. We must somehow find ways to interact with power, privilege, and politics without sacrificing our values. We must not exist to exist; on the contrary, we should work towards our own extinction. 

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Photo of Ruba Ahmad by Ruba Ahmad