I was born and brought up in Scotland but throughout my school days I had a dirty little secret… my parents are English. I was terrified that my school friends would find out and taunt me mercilessly for this. To this day, one of the easiest ways to annoy me is to tell me that I am ‘not really Scottish’. This has nothing to do with any latent anti-English feeling. I love England and indeed have chosen to live in England for over a decade. But I find it insulting for someone else to question my identity. For a start there are some outward signs that I suggest I am Scottish (my addiction to diet irn bru, my usage of the word ‘wee’ to mean something other than urine…) but more important is the fact that I FEEL Scottish. Telling me that I am not really Scottish makes me feel that you are invalidating my experience – suggesting that my self-identity is somehow fraudulent.
Perhaps the above explains why I get so fed up with the constant sniping in international development circles about whose voice is authentic and valid. I think that those who work in international development are often afraid to express the complexity of their experiences and feelings because they fear they will be shot down as not being experienced enough to hold opinions (or worse, accused of being racist). There are some brave exceptions (see for example this remarkable account of development work in Haiti). But too often those who do express their views attract a barrage of criticism from people saying they are not experienced enough to comment.
Take this excellent series of articles by Martin Robbins commenting on the development industry propaganda-machine he encountered when visiting Kenya. Before long, comments accusing him of only having visited Kenya twice appeared. Laura Seay received a similar response to this article about journalism on Africa with one journalist accusing her of not having spent enough time living in Africa to be able to comment. Members of the African diaspora have also been accused of not being African enough to comment on Africa as described by Ida Horner here.
I think these comments are missing the point. People’s experiences are ALWAYS valid. Even if someone has visited a country only once, the experience they have there is still valid. If your experience is different, by all means, describe it. If you disagree completely with the conclusions they draw from their experiences – great! Explain why you disagree. Engage with the debate. Use it as an opportunity to move the discourse forward. But please don’t discount an opinion because the person writing is not African (or Scottish) enough to have it!