“Stories Matter. Many Stories Matter.”

“If you can fill the unforgiving minute

With 60 seconds’ worth of distance run,

Then yours is the earth and everything that’s in it. . .” [If, 1895]

It seems like an alternate reality where the man who wrote the words that symbolized most of my decisions and actions since the time I was a teenager, also wrote these words urging the United States to assume the task of developing the Philippines, which it had just colonized:

“Take up the White Man’s burden—

Send forth the best ye breed—

Go bind your sons to exile

To serve your captives’ need;

To wait in heavy harness

On fluttered folk and wild—

Your new-caught, sullen peoples,

Half devil and half child.” [The White Man’s Burden, 1899]

Then again, it was 1899. Likely absent of the academic and political scrutiny of terminology that exists today and did not restrict wordsmiths back then. Even so, having no illusions about Kilping’s opinions, I take him as a product of that time- a British Colonialist. But that is not my ‘single story’ of him. It is not as if this is an alarming peek into Kipling’s colonialist bent that would have me relegate my admiration for ‘If’, because I appreciated his strong-worded prose and mature yet endearing anthropomorphism just as much in the ‘Jungle Book’, which also sports imperialist connotations.

 

Transnational Single Stories

This steadfastness in the face of some probably demeaning transnational single stories is perhaps assuaged by the fact that for any Rudyard Kipling who could have hurt my sentiments as an Indian, I found a Ruskin Bond who invigorated the landscapes of India with both beauty and vigour. Again, in my personal interactions with Arabs and North Americans during my life in these countries over fifteen years, I met just as many without preconceived notions about Indians as I did ones that did have those notions. In fact, my cocooned teenage person had single stories for the North Americans, Latin Americans and Europeans I first met as an undergraduate, while they didn’t. I was also in and out of India thrice during my lifetime, as a child, a teenager, and as a twenty-something, and each stint has been crucial in unfurling my own understanding of the many single stories Indian sub-cultures have for each other. Or those that resident and non-resident Indians- that immigrated to countries all over the world over the last 5 to 10 decades- have for each other.

 

The thing is, the disparities amongst subsets of Indian society is starkly evident to Indians across more parameters than just caste or income or amenities, much like Chimamanda said in the case of her single story for the domestic help at her home. In India, the innumerable cultural norms increase the differences between cultures to the point that Indian historians and political thinkers are only slightly more adept at wondering how the country ticks as a whole. And they’re likely no better off in terms of arriving at an answer! The result then is that most Indians, within India at least, are caught up in their own single stories of each other.

 

The second reason why the concept of a single story is not as entrenched in my life is that immigrant Indians all over the world in professions prominent and not, and the centurion Bollywood, brought both India to the world and the world to Indians. And my eclectic interests in everything from writing to dance, art, cooking, genetics, film and theatre, music, architecture, and history, exposed me to the multitude of reasons the world sought India. There were reasons I could not identify with as much, like religion and the lure of spontaneous human connection with strangers from a different part of the world. And there were reasons that I could relate to, like the challenge of fusing artistic sentiments across different literary, musical, dance, dramatic, gastronomic histories, or that of addressing the inequity in distribution of basic amenities like health, security and education in communities in India. Either way, I was gradually exposed to many stories that the world has of India. And most of the non-Indians I met in and outside India epitomized that.

 

But an interesting illustration of the ‘single story’ stereotyping in the case of India is the recent barrage of comments on social media about the gender bias and resulting security concerns for women travelling in Indian cities. The initial set of comments following the CCN iReport by “RoseChasm”– about a University of Chicago student who underwent trauma following sexual harassment in cities in India- were scathing judgements of Indian men as a pedigree, including several abject apologies by Indian men. Given the brutal gang rape of a 23-year old in New Delhi last December that was also due for judgement and sentencing the same month that this story came out, the debate became very colourful and touched on many issues. There were arguments ranging from the prominence of sexual crimes to dangers of widespread racial bias in countries outside the Global South. Although several people spoke of the dangers of painting the men of an entire nation as perverts or worse, criminals, my favourite version of this response came from another student on another academic trip to India, who simply painted many stories of Indian men. She spoke of the men that made her ramen, sold her groceries, made her tea, and jovially and humbly spoke about their lives to her. It brought to mind the many experiences I had with unknown Indian men that I had used to remind myself of the many good-natured men in India, following the highly publicized case of the Delhi gang rape.

 

Here I want to point out that having many stories is not just about having good stories to balance the bad ones, or even about using these stories to reach one conclusion. I think a valuable extrapolation of Chimamanda’s prescription to collect many stories is to not assume that you need a denouement, but rather just have a posse of stories that represents the multiple facets of any one community.

 

The ‘Single Story’ in International Development

I previously said that there was an appeal to addressing the challenge of inequity in distribution of basic amenities like health, security, and education in communities that drew many students and professionals from outside the Global South to these countries. In light of the burgeoning field of international development, a ‘single story’ does not take the form of uncensored, unanalyzed opinions by all those with a license to open Facebook and Twitter accounts, like those I spoke about in the previous section. In fact, perhaps because it is the domain of relatively far more informed, inquisitive people, its elitism can go unnoticed.

 

One of the ‘dangers’ of an incomplete story can come from “exempting colonialism” as Chimamanda said, and it is highly unlikely that those entering this field of work will be ignorant of these facts, these “second stories” in the history of such countries. It is the risk of another aspect, which comes from what she succinctly worded as “patronizing, well-meaning pity”. Extrapolating from Chimamanda’s statements, I think this can take two forms. One, the realization may be absent that people in these communities are capable of complex emotions and identity struggles even though they still struggle to meet the basic needs for food, clothing, shelter, and health. So the ‘single story’ of abject poverty and/or helplessness is evident. Secondly, the motivation for such work might be rooted partly in pity, from a desire to ‘save’ or make a difference. Coupling that pity with a lack of realization of the complex existence of individuals in these communities prevents the formation of “a connection as human equals”, which is essential to ‘make a difference’ in a particular community.

 

This is best illustrated in development literature that focuses on participatory initiatives, one of which is Stan Burkey’s People First: A Guide to Self-Reliant, Participatory Rural Development. He cites a 1984 survey by the then-Director of the Canadian International Development Agency, on the main reasons for the failure of rural development programmes, and the list includes: (1) the heterogeneity of communities, (2) the disconnect between the aspirations and interests of target groups and the organizational network involved, (3) the rigidity and over-idealization of economic, political, and institutional environment, and (4) constraints of technological options for specific communities. The observation on community heterogeneity resonates with Chimamanda’s ‘single story’ concept. But these aspects go beyond that to point to the need to remove both blueprint-oriented and top-down approaches to fostering ‘development’, and incorporate the specifics requirements of each community into any initiative. There are multiple examples scattered across Burkey’s book, describing cases where individual initiatives reaped better benefits that top-down initiatives by development agencies and organizations in the same community, and cases where development initiatives failed but niche initiatives using social network structures specific to that community flourished. He quotes field ‘experts’ and community members alike, all of whom support the need for participatory, niche approaches to sustainable development. Autonomy, cooperation, and self-reliance rather than “dependency” (that became synonymous with post-Modernization) are the pillars of development. In essence, it is necessary to relate to the community you’re working with to achieve any success in development intervention.

 

I think that a macro-scale evaluation of the term ‘development’ also builds a case for community-level self-reliance that requires close association between the interventionists and the community. The term went from being about recovery from colonial pilferage to Modernization, to Dependency and underdevelopment, to global interdependence and the biosphere-scale Ecodevelopment. ‘Development’ is both about global-scale activities and local-scale activities. Because no nation is isolated, what happens in one place affects others in innumerable- and often unpredictable- ways. This uncertainty in predictions- in addition to two other factors- indicates that perhaps interventions should be smaller in scale. The second factor is the repeated failure of mimicking strategies used for Europe and North America’s growth curve post-Industrialization in the countries in the Global South in a different era altogether. And the third factor is that of the changing definition of what it means to be ‘developed’. My definition of development is rooted in the basic needs approach, wherein a local scale of operation would allow for aboveboard participation, equity in resource contribution and distribution, and factoring in ecological interdependence into sustainability initiatives specific to that community. This addresses the values or principles publicized in the name of ‘development’- democracy, equity, economic growth. This small scale fosters a “people first” approach, drawn from the ethic of basing political, economic, and the overall social benefit, on human/personal development.

 

A case-by-case intervention necessitates that people interested in this field actually spend time to find out what individual communities need in terms of specifics, and work with the idea of coaxing “sustainable development processes powered by people themselves” (Burkey). It is an understanding that I think is imperative to people in planning, not just development. While applying for a grant for a public wastewater treatment project in New Delhi, India, my colleague and I were told that the reason why our project got the grant was because we factored in community education into our implementation tactics- a strategy introduced purely due to some financial considerations, yet it was what wound up getting us the grant. That was my first critical lesson in developmental planning. A year later while coming up with the framework for a socioeconomic analysis of the communities to be affected by this project, my professor used her experience with institutional set ups in peri-urban India to give me some sage advice: the outcome of such an analysis should not be formed based on the project’s own goals. It may very well be that I would have to tweak, dramatically alter, or perhaps abandon the project altogether as a result of the analysis and that I should be prepared for that eventuality. That was my second critical lesson in developmental planning: whatever the value of my socio-environmental intervention from an academic, economic, and/or innovation standpoint, I could not make an intervention on behalf of the community and expect it to work. Fully incorporating the opinions of the community on the intervention by assuming our equality in shaping the project reflects the “connection as human equals” that Chimamanda spoke about.

 

Basically, in the field of international development there is an ideological move to small-scale interventions and self-reliance. This in turn illustrates the success of cases of development interventions built on tangible local participation over those that were not. And local participation is tangible only when the communities are viewed as “human equals” rather than a community to be lifted out of their situation of abject poverty, inequity, or whatever else.

 

Globalization & Pop-Culture ‘Development’

Chimamanda’s disdain at Virgin’s mistaken referral of Africa as a country reminded me of a sort of “pop-culture development” ethic propagated by the foreign aid “industry”, and of opinions by famous economists and theorists like Noam Chomsky, Jeffrey Sachs and William Easterly that dominate the academic arm of this rhetoric. My final discussion on the Single Story concept is with respect to globalization and the seemingly grandiose “interconnectedness” it facilitates. Can globalization facilitate the spread of enough stories to wipe out the “dangers of a single story”?

 

The biggest argument for globalization is the spread of information, and of access. It is true that it has perforated physical barriers through means ranging from social media interactions to cheaper transportation to hefty foreign exchange transactions. But it is just as true that it had added another chasm of social difference, the digital divide. So who all get to tell their story? And thus, how many different stories is one likely to hear if not everyone gets an equal chance to tell their story?

 

There is also the issue of what is means to know more as a result of globalization. I have three main concerns with this: one, if you do know more, what are you doing with that? Two, does knowing more on a global scale make you any more competent at doing, which happens on a local scale? And third, does knowing more on a global scale pre-empt you from knowing more about the local situation? Now these concerns are not pertinent to the spreading of more than one story of a place. But they will likley become relevant when people are challenged to make sense of the many stories they hear. And perhaps act on them.

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