A Retrospective in Humility: Lessons for Young Development Professionals.

Author:Knight, Elizabeth
Position:Commentary & Analysis

October 2017

My professional path has been a winding one, with turns that have taken me places I never imagined. Looking back on over a decade in international development, there is much I have learned and even more that I do not know. Nevertheless, I have been invited to share the bits that I have held onto with you.

So often in development an assessment leads to a plan, a plan leads to a request for proposals, a request for proposals leads to a proposal, and a proposal leads to a project. Like a doctor, we prescribe. In meetings, we speak about problems and leverage our knowledge and experience to make recommendations on how to fix those problems. We are speaking from our experience, yet the nuance is our self-awareness that it is only our experience.

In my career, one of the greatest lessons I ever learned occurred when I was a Peace Corps Volunteer in Severodonetsk, Ukraine during the Orange Revolution. When I spoke with teachers at the school I was working in at the time, it was clear that so many valued what was familiar to them. They felt safe in that familiarity, and it translated to a sense of stability for them. The idea of change, of democracy and a popular uprising, only incited fear within them. They were absolutely terrified that they would lose everything again, as they had with the collapse of the Soviet Union. While this was hard for me to comprehend intellectually, emotionally it all made sense. Without that experience, I would have never understood why someone may choose to elect a dictator as their leader. Without that experience, I would have never understood, on some level, why the Western solution was not necessarily the preferred solution.

After twelve years, my heart breaks at the reality Ukrainians face today. I often wonder, what if there had been dozens of "Westerners" in towns and villages like Severodonetsk, just listening as development plans were created to support the new government that emerged from the Orange Revolution. How could deeply listening have leveraged our Western strengths including money, influence, and yes, experience to support Ukrainian solutions to their most pressing needs?

This 2005 experience resurfaced later in my career, too. While working on anticorruption programs at the national level, I realized we were not having conversations about corruption that touched everyday life.

When a dear Ukrainian friend needed emergency surgery, the reality and normality of the entire system revealed...

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