I just got back from Glasgow where I was attending my first ‘sport for development’ conference. It was actually called the 3rd Commonwealth Sports Development Conference: Achieving Sustainable Development – Building capacity in communities, clubs, and NGOs. It was actually quite relevant since I have been thinking about the idea of sustainability lately. I wasn’t really that satisfied with some of the sustainability talk, but I did meet some pretty interesting people. If I stay involved in this type of work it seems like conferences are a fairly common feature. I think that there are sport for development conferences occurring every week for the next few weeks in Europe, Canada, and the U.S. The week before the conference in Scotland there was a similar one in India. I haven’t really kept track of it, but I imagine that for the last couple of years, since sport for development has taken hold, there has been a conference at least every month. I might be exaggerating though. They might just be more frequent right now because of the build up to the World Cup in South Africa.
This congestion of conferences brings up a lot of issues, but one thing that it brought to focus in my mind was how much of a business the development/aid world is. A few weeks ago I came across an article by Ravi Kanbur through one of the development blogs I read. The author identifies himself as a poverty professional and the article goes through his internal debate regarding this line of work: flying off to conferences, being put up in hotels, writing about poverty, researching poverty, and basically making a living off of poverty. You can rationalize this self-doubt away by thinking that if you are helping people get out of poverty then it doesn’t matter if you are making money off of it. There are many professions that capitalize off of the negative. Doctors make money off of the sick, lawyers and police officers make money off of crime, psychiatrists make money off of the mentally unwell.
However, I feel there is a slight difference. It seems that many of the people who attend these conferences are outsiders. They are not living in poverty. This by itself doesn’t have to be a problem; doctors don't have to be sick to help people. However, the difference is related to accountability. The system is set up so that the poverty professionals are not really accountable to the people they are lifting out of poverty. If your doctor or your lawyer makes a mistake there are systems in place to hold those people accountable. I don’t believe it is the same for the development sector.
The article I linked to advocates for poverty immersion trips. One week trips that allow poverty professionals to become connected to the context in which they work. Seems interesting, but I am not sure how effective a one week trip would be. I have been in Lesotho for a few months now and I still don't know what the hell is going on. I also find it laughable because it emphasizes how much of a divide there is between poverty professionals and the people they serve - assuming they are serving people living in poverty. The fact that they are so far removed from a situation that they have to be flown in for week long immersion trips seems ridiculous.
June 8, 2010