Years ago, I was talking to a potential donor about a development project in Latin America. Before I could get a full sentence out, this person interrupted me and blurted out, “I won’t support what you are doing because all of Latin America is corrupt.” As you can imagine, I was taken aback by that person’s willingness to label, in one phrase, 626 million people spread across 33 countries and dependencies.
In short, it is impossible to label any highly diverse group of people. I can’t accurately describe my son’s fifth-grade class in one sentence, much less countless people groups spanning over 7 million square miles. That said, let’s dig deeper into the colonial roots of such an exercise. Notably, the overwhelming number of political scandals in the U.S. and Europe over the past 500 years are conveniently ignored when colonizers (and their descendants, us) attempt to paint the 2/3 world (i.e., less developed countries) as backward, corrupt, or whatever other pejorative is used.
From Tammany Hall to Watergate and Abscam, not to mention the scandals being investigated in the US today, there are countless examples of corruption in the West. Thus, to engage in development work with honesty, transparency and authenticity, we must acknowledge our own history and that corruption is a reality in all human endeavors when/where limited resources are being allotted among a population. Instead of us/them language, honesty demands that “we” be used when describing human shortcomings.
If we are to decolonize development work, in keeping with our Guiding Principles, we must begin with a bit of self-awareness. Do we see other cultures and people groups as more/less corrupt than our own? Do we see other cultures and people groups as more/less deserving or more/less “able” than our own? If so, why? Is there a demonstrable and empirical basis for that judgment? To be sure, we all bring prejudices when we show up as our authentic selves. The real danger is when we bring them without self-awareness and a plan for overcoming our own cultural biases.
If I could go back in time, I would tell that person, “Yes, Latin America is corrupt but no more or less than the United States….and that is all the more reason for us to engage there. Corruption invariably shifts wealth to the elites. Our model is a counterweight to that because we work on the local level among the disenfranchised!”