Sep 19th, 2016, 04:30 PM

The Big "EYE" of Development

By Faith Toran
A village in Burkina Faso. Photo Credit:Matthew Schoenfelder
Implicit biases and their effects in developing countries

Open your eyes, now close them. What did “U” (the semi-circle, that has yet to reach maturity) see?  I opened my eyes and closed them, I opened my eyes again and closed them, I opened for a third time and closed them and I still saw the same thing. A village full of despair, complacency and poverty. I was in the “third world.” 

Two planes and one very long car ride later and I arrived in the village of Karentenga in the Center-Northern region of Burkina Faso on Aug. 22, 2013 as an Education Development Agent.  There was no running water, electricity, and cell service worked if you stood under a  tree. Poverty greeted me at every corner, and educational disparities lurked behind every courtyard door. Clearly there was much work to be done.

When I first opened my eyes in Burkina Faso I thought I got it. It meaning an understanding of what was necessary to combat social afflictions and to educate people so that they could reach a place of autonomous sustainability. I have had my fair share of inconveniences, and at the time, I felt that qualified to make these assumptions. My implicit bias projected from my eyes and onto everyone and everything around me.

Photo Credit: Faith Toran

When I arrived, I was Supercalifragilisticexpialidocious. I knew the importance of education and had extensively researched development efforts to increase student retention. I was ready. I was walking, breathing and sneezing development. Spreading my globalized germs all over the place, I was sick with implicit bias. Could it have been my cultural hybridity foundation, being a displaced person of the African Diaspora who was geographically situated in America? According to Silvio Waisbord (Professor of Media and public affairs at The George Washington University, Dr. Waisbord has published articles on news and politics, journalism, global health communication, communication and social change, and media policy.), the origin of development meant imposing and emulating Western political, economic, and educational models on developing countries. He said this was the only way to develop them. Was this the beginning of my implicit biases, deeply rooted in it's definition? Did I see the world, with one big eye, one perspective? Did I need a second eye? Hmm ... two eyes might balance things out.

Self-Portrait. Photo Credit: Faith Toran

In theory globalization and modernity made perfect sense. It was simple, colonization screwed up parts of the world and we the west had the resources and knowledge to fix it. Where do I sign up? It didn't seem that complex of a solution, or at the very least, it had its own manageable complexities. Either way I had arrived in the developing world and all I could do was cry. I cried because the  longer I stayed, the more I realized I didn't get it at all. My journey suddenly appeared to be a lot more challenging than how I expected it to be.

I cried again when I conducted a three month needs assessment and realized that I was the one in need of an education, a cultural integration, local language acquisition, communication skills, a listening ear and an open mind. We think we get it but we cannot even understand it until we have the courage to "emerge from self-incurred immaturity." In this rural village in Burkina Faso, I observed development impartation occurring from a "top down" development model, without proper needs assessments or community relationships. While these efforts were implemented with good intent the developers seemed unaware of their implicit biases. In fact, the resources that were distributed did not meet the needs of the community. Consequently, the agency made several communication errors that could have resulted in a public relations issue, negatively impacting their brand and stifling the village. I made a vow to self, to close my eyes and see with my ears. Seeing with ears was one of the most transformative moments of my life. 

As a way to further explore my own implicit bias and the Western development model at large, I recently spoke with AUP professor Tanya Elder, PhD. Elder is intercultural, interracial, and international, having been born in Spain to a Swedish father and an Anglo-Burmese mother. As a young child she moved to South India where she lived for 10 years. She then attended school in the US and earned her BA from Amherst College followed by a PhD in Linköping Sweden. Since then she has lived and worked in France, Senegal and Sweden and conducted research in Africa and Asia. She is at home in the world.

Interview with Dr Tanya Elder

After an enlightening talk with Dr. Elder, I began to analyze development from a historical lens, we see that "top down" models of development communications tend to be infused with implicit bias. For example: the Satellite Instructional Television Experiment in India, was an experiment  where modern technologies were used to create behavior change models that addressed agriculture, family planning, education practices and health. The resultants of this was that there were modest changes in behavior.  I wonder, were these developers "seeing with ears?" Is it our unwillingness to listen and evaluate our implicit bias that cause us to neglect the power of knowledge? Knowledge that can be acquired through participatory models of development communications? Where is our humility, where is our love?  How far have we really moved away from the origin of the way we define and conduct "development?"

 Burkina Faso, West AfricaPhoto Credit: Faith Toran

These "top down" models of development communications  neglect the power of "seeing with ears" and the power of the participatory model of development communications that I have experienced to be an effective model towards capacity building and self -sustainability. If self-sustainability is desired, one could agree with Paulo Freire who said, "The greatest humanistic and historical task of the oppressed: to liberate themselves." This might begin to be accomplished by understanding our implicit biases, strategizing precautionary and contingency plans to combat our bias, and  restructuring and redefining the term development and the dominant modernization paradigm of development communications.. Did we begin development on a "top down" model or "bottom up" model but were always situated somewhere between 1 and wherever the top is? What if we began development at the very bases of human existence and exchange? What if we began at ground zero? What if we began by "seeing with our ears? I wonder what would happen if we decided to become the infinite possibilities of sustainable development instead of cultural invaders?

So, do we want to develop our world, or destroy it. Close your eyes and open them, close them again and open them, close your eyes and see with your ears.