More often than not, international development is pursued as a purely economic process. Roads must be built, banks must be strengthened, housing improved, and health care should be made accessible. Yet the simple construction of institutions, the provision of infrastructure, and the implementation of social programming is not enough to solve all social problems because social problems are complex. It is common wisdom that these complex problems can only be solved internally, within the community, yet the community generally lacks the means to to action. Conversely, aid agencies frequently advertise for specialists in "capacity building" and yet within the job descriptions, the term "capacity" remains consistently vague. While capacity is best defined as an internal ability to pursue and implement active change, when the workings of communities are merged with capacity, the concept bubble stretches to a breaking point. The scale of the problem remains too much for the solution. Sometimes something else is needed, a strategy that is less direct than teaching job skills or creating new markets.
While in Cairo, I witnessed the transformative power of that simple social programming can have within the lives of youth who must grow up in poverty and who lack opportunities for personal advancement. Viable social programming, such as sports, music, or even the provision of a space to play, can transform a child's life. Certainly these things alone cannot remove the frustrations of poverty or the pains of social alienation, nor can these things provide the same concrete tools for personal advancement as education and job training. Yet these sorts of programs create opportunities for confidence and self esteem, provide opportunities to for children to communicate and express themselves. Self expression is easily undervalued because its role is immeasurable, but little imagination is necessary to recognize that a confident child will find more success in life than one who is alienated and unhappy. Even where opportunities are limited, those with confidence and pride will creatively seek solutions, believing that solutions are possible.
This evening I discovered the brief documentary Skateistan: To Live and Skate Kabul. This film shows the work of an ngo to bring skate boarding to youth in Kabul. It shows how a nice space for play, how basic access to safety and fun may wield a transformative power. The film reveals how something as simple as skateboarding can dramatic shape an individual's life. Now imagine, if a child impacted by something as simple as skateboard had the chance to go to school, to drink clean water, and to walk down the street without fear. Apply the same concept to hundreds, perhaps thousands, of children in a city like Kabul and the concept of capacity becomes strikingly clear. Suddenly the future isn't so bleak.