Monday, January 9, 2012


After spending the holidays in Cambodia, TBB West headed to Gujarat, India, where we have now been studying agriculture for about two weeks. We have been in our homestays for one week, which has been exciting and overwhelming at the same time. I love my family, which consists of a mother, father, sister, brother, and grandma. Maggie and I are right next door to Kelsey and Nicki, who live with a host of energetic cousins and other assorted family members.

Thinking about this blog, I have realized that to those not familiar with the program I am on, the posts might seem like a confusing (though of course awesome) mish-mash of “Now I’m in country X!” “Now I’m in country Y!”. But it’s not quite like that.

The overarching theme of Thinking Beyond Borders is studying development: first and foremost what it is, and then how it affects the lives of people all over the world.

The word “development” carries interesting connotations in America because it can have such disparate meanings. We think of “developing countries” and in that context view development as humanitarian aid (delivering food, medications, etc. to people without resources).

But when we see the word “development” in a context like “the forest was razed to make room for a new condominium development” most of us would have a very different reaction. We would think of the destruction of something beautiful and diverse by humans who want to homogenize the area and maximize its economic profit (rows of identical buildings will bring in the cash). The humans who run this process are even called “developers”!

So is development good or bad?

If you are a skeptic you might argue that these are two different senses of the word “development”, and that it’s not fair to conflate them, but I would disagree. On this trip, I have not only been reading expert opinions on the topics we are studying, but also talking about those same issues with my local friends and families, and seeing their manifestations first-hand through our work projects. And more and more I have come to believe that “development” is actually a word that encompasses a whole spectrum of meaning, including both the first and second contexts above, as well as everything in between. That’s why we have to be so careful when toss the term around.

Recently my host family here took Maggie, Nicki, Kelsey and me to a nearby market (the surrounding farming villages, like ours, all sell their products at the central town where the market is located). On the way there, on the side of the road, I saw a billboard advertising apartments in a new complex. The sleek building depicted on the sign was a definite contrast from the brick and tile houses of the village, where you are more likely to see a camel or a water buffalo than a car or a computer, and below the image was the slogan, “Here you can fulfill all your dreams. Create a better lifestyle.” (for the curious, the signs around here are a mixture of Hindi, Gujarati, and English).

In an apartment complex, my family couldn’t live with all their cousins, aunts, uncles, brothers, and sisters together. They (and we) couldn’t play with baby goats or watch the sun set as they walked home from the temple. But before the forces of Westernization/modernization that brought the apartment complex arrived, the family didn’t have running water, an enormous labor saver, or electricity, which allows us to play music on speakers, put food in a small refrigerator, and have lighting at night.

So what to do? Regardless of who we are or where we live, we all want to “fulfill our dreams” and improve our existence. But it’s not always clear what the “better lifestyle” we’re seeking actually is. That’s why the words on the sign to me seemed to unite the disparate versions of development that I described above. Development isn’t good or bad; it’s just different. It’s about people and cultures changing. To presume that development of any kind will “fulfill all your dreams” is downright foolish, but it is no less foolish to vilify development as something destructive. All we can do is learn as much as we can about the world, in order to make the best decisions possible.