So for a while now I’ve been wanting to write a blog about my feelings on development aid. International development is the field that I’ve wanted to work in since I was about 13 (around the same age when I decided I wanted to join the Peace Corps). But now, as I’m doing development work, I’m not so sure this is the field in which I should be working. Or the field in which anyone should be working—at least not in its current state. I’m going to get into why I feel this way a little bit later, but first, I’d like to share a little story about something that happened to me recently that proved to be the perfect metaphor for how I feel about development aid.
So a few weekends ago, a group of volunteers and I went to the town of Imlil located in the High Atlas Mountains to begin our ascent of Mt.Toubkal, the highest mountain in North Africa (4,167 meters or 13,671 feet). The first day of hiking was pretty simple. We had a volunteer with us who had already summited Mt.Toubkal, the path was clear, and it was a beautiful day. With the exception of some pain in my hip joint (which adequately made me feel like I was a 70 year old woman), everything went swimmingly. Later that night, once we’d all had a chance to rest and eat some dinner at the refuge where we were sleeping, it was decided that we would wake up at 4am the next morning to begin our hike so that we could watch the sun rise from the summit of the mountain. While a few of us were nervous about hiking in absolute darkness, we agreed that it would be amazing to watch the sun rise from that altitude and knew that we had someone with us who had done exactly the same thing before. And so, at 4am the next morning, armed with nothing more than a few headlamps and cell phone flashlights, we began the ascent.
To say that it was dark was an understatement. There wasn’t a single other group of hikers out that we could see and the only source of light other than our own were the sparkling night stars. It was incredible.
I would lie and tell you that the reason we stopped to take so many breaks on the way up was to admire the stars, but this would be only a partial truth. The path was steep and rocky and even people who were in good shape would have to take frequent breaks; plus, my hip was acting up again. We climbed for about two and a half hours before we could finally see the sun peeking out over the mountain tops. About a half hour later, we finally reached the top. The view was amazing. We could see rows upon rows of mountains that had a bluish-gray haze over them that reminded us of the Smoky Mountains. The peaks were all dotted with white, glistening snow and at the bottom of the mountains was a clear blue lake. We would have stopped to admire the view for longer except that we weren’t at the summit yet. There is a large sign that marks the summit of the mountain and none of us had seen it yet. We all began to look around us, knowing that the sign had to be right around the corner, probably hidden by some boulders. And then there, off in the distance, someone spotted it.
We’d climbed the wrong mountain.
Upon realizing the humongous mistake we’d made, we started desperately devising a plan about how we could get to Mt.Toubkal.
1) Stay on top of the mountain ridge we were on and try to walk all the way over to Toubkal on the top of the ridge.
2) Descend the mountain that we were on and then start over and ascend Toubkal.
3) Invent a teleportation device with which we could teleport to Toubkal.
4) Give up the pursuit of Toubkal and just be happy that we’d climbed a mountain.
Considering that my hip was giving me incredible pain and that it was already around 9am at this point and we still had to hike all the way back to Imlil that day (another 8 or 9 hours of hiking to add to the 5 we’d already done), a few of us ruled out option number 2. And seeing as we didn’t have the materials to invent a teleportation device, or that it wasn’t a particularly time-efficient option, we ruled out number 3. That left option 1 and option 4. I think by this point several of us were leaning toward just giving up and heading back, but hey, we’re Peace Corps volunteers. We don’t give up that easily. And so we all rose to our feet (painfully, on my part) and began trying to hike across the top of a mountain ridge toward our destination. Sound crazy? Well it kind of was, but like I said, we were optimistic.
Not a half hour later we were stopped again. We’d reached the edge of a cliff and a deep trough lay between us and our destination. At this point we knew that the only way we’d be getting to Toubkal that day was to retrace our steps all the way back to the beginning and start over. Despite knowing that we didn’t have much of a choice, we took a vote, and pretty much agreed that we had neither the time nor the energy to summit Toubkal that day. And so we turned our backs on the sun and headed back down the mountain.
In hindsight, it was pretty funny that we had climbed the wrong mountain. I mean it’s the highest mountain in North Africa for god’s sake, it should have been obvious, right?! But at the time we felt tired and defeated. As much as no one wants to admit it, we all wanted that photo at the top, the one with the sign in the background and us in the foreground with our arms raised in triumphant victory.
So that’s “mishap.” And like I said earlier, I’ve been wanting to write a blog post for a while now about how I feel about development aid. I swear I didn’t plan it to happen like this, but us climbing the wrong mountain turned out to be the perfect metaphor for why so much development aid doesn’t work.
Stay tuned for part 2. . . . .