We are like this only, but why? A lesson from Haiti

I have often wondered why we Indians wait on the government for everything that involves common goods. We complain about not having irrigation canals for the farmers, we complain about insufficient electricity, we complain about urban congestion, and we expect the government to fix all of it for us. When the government fails in providing us these either due to incompetence or corruption or both, we start blaming the governments, the politicians, and the bureaucrats. Admitedly, I have done my fair share of complaining as well. But why do we do this, especially knowing fully well that a lot of these problems can be solved by simply involving the entire community and working together? We have seen examples of this, but they are become isolated incidents: hailed as miracles and quickly forgotten.

I think I know now. It occured to me when I was listening to the episode “Island Time” on This American Life (on a side note, TAL is one the best produced radio shows in the world, and if you are not subscribed to its podcast, then you are missing out on something great!). In act two of that episode Apricot Irving goes to a Haitian-run hospital and meets with an American doctor Steven who used to head the missionary hospital but left in order to help foster a “new” post-earthquake Haiti at the Haitian-run clinic.

Here she noticed that all the Haitian patients ask for the American doctor and don’t trust the Haitian doctors who are equally qualified. This is no different with other Non-Governmental Organizations (NGOs) as well. When a foreigner heads an NGO, then things begin to fall in place because people listen to the foreigner. But put a Haitian in charge and suddenly things become very diffcult to accomplish. Despite this, Steve, the American doctor, refuses to head the hospital. He insists that a Haitian should lead it and Steve should just be a doctor there.

When asked about this, Steve said that the common model of a foriegner-led NGO would work for his hosptial very well, but that leads to the ‘plantation attitude’ where all Haitians start looking up to foreigners to solve all their problems. This forces Steve to take on the mantel of a ‘benevolent dictator’ to save lives. The problem with this model, he contents, is that then Haitians will never become independent and self-sufficient because they wont trust themselves to depend on themselves. They will always look for a benevelent dictator. However, by putting Haitians in charge, things suddenly don’t go smoothly at all. Things that could be fixed very quickly with a benovalent dictator model doesn’t get done, and in case of the hospital, it means that many people who could have been saved by timely treatments, surgeries, or medicine simply die. The very idea that you can do something very quickly and easily to save someone, and yet you let them die because this way Haiti will be more independent in the long run goes against the moral fibre of many NGOs and volunteers. So, the benevolent dictator model perpetuates itself.

But, if Haitians are to become truly independent, then that is the price to pay for nation/community building. It’s a slow and painful process which may take a generation to come to fruition, and people are going to be deperate, poor, and some who could be saved are going to die. But at the end of it, it is hoped that the Haiti that comes out is a self-sufficient, independent, and properous Haiti that does not need NGOs to survive. In NGO parlance, this called Capacity Building.

Let’s come back to the case of India. Colonial India was governed as a dictatorship, although not a benevolent one. It was impressed upon the populace that foreigners, and people who are educated and trained abroad, get things done and others simply cannot do the same things. It was the classic ‘plantation attitude’. After independence, India had a great opportunity to change that attitude by indulging in capacity building. But again, here the price to pay was a long prolonged period to struggle, poverty, desperation, and avoidable deaths. For the Indian leaders, much like the NGOs in Haiti, this was too steep a price and went against all their rules of morality. So instead, they chose to adopt the benevolent dictator model of the more educated and better trained people running all the affairs within the government and not letting the common people learn to take care of themselves without the government.

So now, Indians continue complain that the government doesn’t provide electricity, doesn’t dig irrigation canals, and so on. The dependence over a benevolent dictator is now etched in India’s cultural memory, and it won’t be erased until people are forced to make lives better for themselves without the hope or expectation of the government (the benevolent dictator) lending any support. Real progress can happen only after that.

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