“It was the worst night of my life, I couldn’t sleep. That was the first day I spent away from you guys.”
“Then why did you do it?” I ask her.
“I mean what we had was good but I wanted a better future for you, a better quality of life.”
My path into international development begins where all knowledge unfolds, through the inquiry of one’s personal experience, and where all life unfolds; my mother. On 31 December 1996, my mother took an eight-hour flight to London, alone and 6891 kilometres away from our home.
When she arrived on 1 January 1997, she was one of the 19 percent of migrants leaving themselves behind for a new job, for somewhere foreign, here in the UK. ‘A better quality of life’ became her voice-over.
As I packed my bags and joined my mother three years later, my world was no longer a singular narrative of the way the world was. My new life in London, was always juxtaposed with a different picture of what life was somewhere else, two or three hours ahead of me. Through this experience, I realised that people’s definitions of home, of wellbeing, of prosperity, correlated with their current realities of ‘development’. Development took a philosophical turn; one which crossed geographical borders, social borders and fixed categories of knowledge. I found it problematic to define development in economic terms or social terms or anthropological terms.
My story continued where mothers continue their stories; their daughters. During my six-week journey in India, in 2009, as a Prime Minister’s Global Fellow I met a young girl, living with her family of six on the streets of Mumbai. Her name is Nandini. When I met Nandini, she had been living on the streets her entire life, her home built around two large cardboard boxes.
My experience on this Fellowship, meeting with diplomats, senior government officials, esteemed artists and business influencers to discuss India’s development, increasingly became white noise to her story. There were gaps in between these two worlds that I struggled to grasp; questions of extreme inequality, caste discrimination and gender inequality co-existing amidst India’s meteoric rise as an emerging economy.
On my last night in Mumbai, I went to visit Nandini and explained to her parents that this was potentially our last encounter for a while. Her parents asked me to take their four children back to London with me because in my mother’s words, ‘they deserve a better future, a better quality of life.’
So, I have been silently carrying these words everywhere in my work, in pursuit of this better future, this elusive ‘better quality of life’. In our daily efforts, our work in development often stays at this technocratic level, where we spend a lot of time trying to build this vision of life without making space to break down our understanding of ‘development’ or at the very least, challenge what we do in international development, what we define as ‘development’.
The visible sides of development that are the agendas, the policies, and the programmes are deeply contextualised within on-going perspectives of what ‘progress’ is, what ‘development’ is. Moreover, it is political and framed by people who have the power to define it.
In making space to address the assumptions and ideologies driving our actions, we acknowledge there is no ‘right’ way to do development, and more often than not, how we are doing things is one way and not the only way. In doing this, we also invite ourselves to acknowledge that international development is absolutely personal, thoroughly political and a profoundly philosophical interrogation of what we deem to be worth pursuing.
This blog is a personal space to dig deeper; to explore the personal, philosophical and political lenses framing our work.