This post is in response to this incredible blog post written by my dear comrade in chocolate appreciation and New Institutional Economics, Rachel.
I have written this post at the most appropriate place to write it – in between time. I have been in transit today, at the airport, waiting to board a flight, and on the plane crossing three time zones. In medias res, I will arrive at a new city, scrambling for lost time; syncing a new narrative, my narrative, in this foreign place, or rather, my foreign body will be syncing a new narrative in this city.
Airports are lonely places. This vacuumed space is the most political space humanity has built. Being searched at an airport is a disorienting experience. What was once certain is thrown out into the open as a question. The last time I was searched, I watched my clothes, my bras, my sweaty running socks become a point for verifying my legality. My body felt frightening when seen through the political lens. Metal detectors should not be so close to my sweat. Gloved hands should not ruffle and unravel gifts given to me with love and tenderness.
I realise that it is not my body that is frightening, but my body in this space that is frightening. The airport is where the personal is political. The space where your legality is scrutinised, screened, searched and stamped. The discourse of borders, interrogation, security, control, inspection, detection, the barbed wires and danger signs, the walls, the contained passages, even the very documents we carry, the passport, reminds you of this vacuum – a port where you pass. Your life which you once thought to be safe and familiar is observed as a danger; a foreign threat to be controlled and salinised.
The ‘wrong’ visa stamp, a visa a day too late, the ‘wrong’ skin tone, the ‘wrong’ book cover fractures your legality. Your right to occupy this space and move into a new political space is not down to you. The personal is political, as you say, in ‘all its rage, intimacy, and floating disorientation.’
As development professionals, we are constantly negotiating this vacuumed space, the space between the personal and the political. When you work in development, the communities of people in your life become networks of people. No matter how much you try to fix these relationships, there is no other place where Oxford, Kabul and South Sudan can exist together but in your life story. Any other place renders their configuration as broken.
Having networks as opposed to communities of people means every place becomes relative. As Teju Cole eloquently reflects, ‘Each place has its own worries, and there’s a sense in which what is visible is the wake of a particular history, fleeting active, but answering to a large and unseen thing. Each society deceives itself in particular ways. The forms of oppression that were practised here for so long lead to specific pathologies in the society.’ Relativity is determined by the political and the many ways neutral places are framed by power. Our work forces us to view the personal as political and no matter how much we try, we cannot simply take these lenses off and switch into ‘apolitical’ gear. This is dizzying as much as it is liberating.
Much like airports, you have unveiled what we know and live to be true – the personal is political. You want to run simultaneously to and from your past experiences, in the way people want to run to and from this space, where personal and political intersect, permeate, and percolate. People want to separate the two dimensions of this space. Politics and religion are taboo subjects at the dinner table.
Yet, in public life, we crave the space to openly acknowledge that these two dimensions ought to exist the way they are. The same Facebook I use to ‘check in’ at my best friend’s wedding is the same Facebook millions of activists around the world are ‘checking in’ to fight for Standing Rock. And as Alex Pentland’s research shows, our craving for this public space will not be satisfied in the digital algorithms of our Newsfeed reinforcing our own political views but in the real world, outside, where we can go and be confronted with someone whose opinion is in direct contrast with ours.
We want to compartmentalise the political and personal as ‘here’ and ‘there’, as much as we want them to coexist. Yet ‘here’ and ‘there’ exist precisely because here is here and there is there. The existence of one validates the existence of the other.
My food shopping ventures at an Afro-Caribbean supermarket in South London is a political statement because the foods I buy only exist here, in the migrant communities of South London and not there, along the organic foods boutiques in Baker Street and South Kensington.
The plantains I buy in these Afro-Caribbean food shops are political in the way that they exist here because of global trade, despite being grown there, in Colombia. The shop owners whom I buy from are political statements themselves in the way they are physically here but defined by the stories of political movement and political pursuit of well-being elsewhere.
It is this space which has made this year so painfully intrusive. Brexit, the global refugee crisis, Syria, Yemen, Eritrea, Colombia, the US elections. Issues which were left to the political vehicles of our societies to carry have been brought home, into family homes, at their dinner tables and served as the starter, main course, dessert and drink.
Our collective efforts to compartmentalise the two have been dismantled by the knowledge that our world is fundamentally connected not by technology, nor trade but by the fact that every personal choice, every action, every reaction has political consequences. This is heavy and it’s a challenge each development professional bears in their career. How do we merge the political aspects of our personal experiences and the personal encounters in our political work? Do I process Brexit as a Londoner, a (migrant) Brit, a social sciences academic or a development professional? As you ask, ‘how do you stay true?’
I think the answer is simple, in theory, but difficult in practice. We can stay true by showing up whole, by embracing the totality of the personal and political coexistence of life. What do I mean by showing up whole? I think the development field has a few lessons to offer us.
Wholeness is a paradigm shift
The Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) signal a paradigm shift in development. It is not that prior to this we did not acknowledge that poverty was a multidimensional concept. We did. It is a paradigm shift because we acknowledge as the status quo, that development is a multidimensional concept. Bhutan’s Happiness Index appears to be more in line with the ways we measure development rather than the GDP.
The multidimensional nature of the SDGs framework is one way we show up whole because we create a new model of reality where we do not need to compartmentalise reality. Yes, this means 230 indicators (every M&E nightmare) but also a more realistic perception of what change looks like. Similarly, showing up whole as development professionals, means acknowledging the multidimensional nature of the personal encounters in our political work and the political aspects of our personal experiences. In doing so, you unearth an infinite combination of ways to define what whole means to you and your pursuits.
Embracing wholeness allows you to embrace change
In not separating the personal and political, one can argue that we risk bringing bias into our work, a serious issue brilliantly covered in this World Bank 2015 World Development Report. Showing up whole, first and foremost, is acknowledging that these two aspects of ourselves are irreversibly connected to each other. When we are conscious of this, we can take appropriate action to address the unintended consequences of their coexistence. This recent research paper, by Institute of Development Studies, analysing three aspects of the sustainable development agenda show how the intersections in this new agenda present new opportunities as well as new challenges and gaps for development. In other words, they reveal new future scenarios which we can mitigate or harness positive change. Once we acknowledge the personal and political as whole (as you have), we can be truly open to the potential impacts and anticipate the unknown with a greater reflective awareness.
Wholeness is a process not an outcome
The current refugee crisis, the biggest since the second World War, has greatly affected the landscape of the development field. Bridging the humanitarian and development fields is now an urgent plan of action as seen in the Agenda for Humanity, presented at the first ever World Humanitarian Summit in May 2016. New development financing models are needed because existing ones cannot cope with the size nor the prolonged nature of the mass displacement of people around the world. The bridging of humanitarian and development fields shows us that ‘change’ in both fields should be envisioned as a process and not an outcome.
In the same way, showing up whole in our personal lives should not be a goal or an outcome. It is a process of constantly bridging the personal and political in whichever ways they may manifest in your home, your relationships and your work.
Oxford, Kabul and South Sudan are simply places on a map. Peckham, Beirut and Capitol Hill are distant locations with distant relations. However, just like the process (and Japanese art and philosophy) of kintsukuroi, we can use the interconnectedness of our personal and political lives to make these fragmented places a type of whole. They are your whole and my whole and in the next city we find ourselves in, they will continue to be whole, continue to be ours, politically personal and personally political.