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What is development for?

2010 October 12

An aid worker went to an African village and asked what the community needed.  This is not a parable, but a true story (though, of course, it is probably both). It was told to me by Charles Elliott from his time as director of Christian Aid. The elders were asked whether they would like a well, or a school, or a clinic, or latrines.

After conferring they said: “We would like a new graveyard”. The aid worker was perplexed. “We don’t do cemeteries,” he replied, “it’s not part of our development brief. Would you like something else?”  The elders deliberated again and then replied: “No, if we can’t have that, we won’t have anything thanks”.

What is development for? This week the think-tank Theos, along with Cafod and Tearfund, held a seminar with that title to question the received wisdom that to live well all we have to do is strive to maximise our personal wealth, freedom and choice. That consumerist approach brings us ever-more stuff – but it also brings overwork, stress, addictive activity, depression, anti-social behaviour and family dislocation. Poverty, as Tearfund’s mission statement points out, can be spiritual as well as material. Is this the kind of ‘development’ we want to offer the world’s poorest people?

Definitions of the good life vary according to circumstance. “Development is the new name for peace,” said Pope Paul, during the Cold War. But in a culture like ours, whose default impulse is Utilitarian, we might take as a starting point what it is that makes people happy.

A few years ago there was an interesting experiment in which a group of  psychologists descended on Slough, of all places, to try to make people there happier. We all generally misjudge what makes us happy. It is not winning the lottery or celebrity, they proclaimed, but a peculiar cocktail of more exercise, more sleep, less tv, more time with friends, and more laughter.

The good folk of Slough were encouraged to smile at a stranger, phone a friend, indulge in a small treat, do a random act of kindness for someone, and count five blessings at bedtime every day. They were asked to plant something and watch it grow, and have an hour-long uninterrupted conversation with their spouse each week. All this reduces our sense of alienation from the modern world and we become happier. We could all add to that list: singing with others is a key thing for me. And any communal activity creates purpose as well as closeness.

We all know when we are unhappy. But happiness is usually something which passes our consciousness by. I thought that last weekend when we had a family outing to the seaside. We stayed in a near perfect hotel (the friendly Qwesty Cymru in Aberystwyth), saw a version of Shakespeare’s Dream which was hilarious and inventive (the Propellor Theatre Company), ate the best cooked breakfast I have ever had (local bacon, sausage and laverbread) and walked a clifftop path in a light breeze and skin-tingling sunshine.

In a moment, looking down on the sea, I reflected on what happiness was. Yes, it was about having the money to do those things, and the good health to do them, but it was fundamentally about relationship; having time with family and friends (our son had invited a schoolchum along). We laughed and played games all the way in the car on the three hour drive.

There was a cost; the drive was not exactly carbon-neutral. The challenge is to work out how to have the good things without imposing cost on others – and how what we want for ourselves can be extended to others. Family, friends, time and sufficient opportunity and wealth to enjoy them. It ought not be beyond the world’s wit to work out how everyone can have that. But to do it we first need to become conscious of economic and political priorities which we generally accept without thinking.

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