I was talking to my Dad on skype the other day and he asked me how my maid was. It was a question that felt strange and unnerving to me as I became confronted with an image of myself that I was uncomfortable with; that of the expat ‘development’ worker who hires a local (Togolese in this instance) maid.
I bring up my own involvement as an employer in the domestic service industry not as a well-paid development consultant, or even as an averagely-paid development assistant but rather as a barely-paid intern. The cost of labor is sufficiently low here that even while paying Esther well above the minimum wage, on my meager wages I am easily able to afford this service. I am able to have a kind of lifestyle I would not be able to have ‘back home’. This troubles me.
In a recent article on the use of domestic service, Zoe Williams detailed how at a conference on increasing the number of women in boardrooms, Virginia Bottomley told participants that “if you want to do well … do not do your own ironing, do not bake a cake. Women do well in India because of domestic help”. But, as Williams notes, “there’s an inevitable follow-up question isn’t there? What about the domestic help? Do they do well?” While (mostly) white, middle-class women have made considerable inroads (well, kind of) economically and politically, how have women (and men) outside of these categories fared? These questions bring up a number of issues around what role the domestic service industry plays in perpetuating race and class-based inequalities and hierarchies.
The topic of international development ethics and the role of Westerners inadvertently reproducing hierarchies of power has received considerable attention following the controversy that surrounded the release of the ‘Kony 2012’ video. In one of the most cutting criticisms, novelist Teju Cole described it as evidence of the ‘white savior industrial complex’. He talked about the existence of a sort of ‘hero narrative’ which needs dismantling; that is, that there is a need to recognise that the position from which many people want to ‘do-good’ is often a position of privilege.
Of particular concern to Cole is the power of sentimental needs- that behavior can be driven by a need to gain emotional satisfaction or to ‘make a difference’. While the desire to fight injustice is natural and admirable, problems arise when the process of gaining emotional satisfaction, or the feeling of ‘making a difference’ becomes the main goal, rather than the acquisition of more equal systems. The world becomes “nothing but a problem to be solved by enthusiasm”. While emotional ‘quick fixes’ may come from capturing a killer and feeding starving orphans, this does not address the more complex systems that cause these problems. And, in many situations it leads to the imposition of inappropriate and unwanted policies and the marginalization of local voices. To understand these more complex systems, and our place within them, necessitates engagement in a much more uncomfortable emotional and intellectual process of questioning privilege.
Much of the discussion around development ethics that Kony2012 provoked focused on the ‘public sphere’ of the development industry; that is, the goals and methods of various forms of international assistance from humanitarian and military interventions to food security, health and economics. However less talked about in these recent debates have been the dynamics of the ‘private sphere’ of international assistance; that is the practices and systems that expatriate ‘development’ workers engage in ranging from the types of bars and restaurants they frequent, to their use of services such as prostitution and domestic help.
These kind of ‘every day actions’ may seem minor, as mere side events to the major debates going on about international development ethics. However as a friend of mine recently noted, people underestimate the symbolism of everyday actions; they are the intricate systems through which the perceptions and stereotypes that allow inequality to persist are transported through.
There has always been something that has bothered me about the high use of domestic service in the ‘private sphere’ of international development and I have never been quite sure why. An argument that I hear often to justify the use of domestic help within this context is that the employer is doing the employee a favor by providing employment. There is truth to this; my housemate and I are currently Esther’s only employers as work is extremely difficult to come by here. However there are aspects of the way this argument is framed that trouble me. There is I think a pattern within these discussions where, although concern is expressed about major wealth disparities and inequality of opportunities, the conclusion often becomes that the best, and often only, thing to do to rectify the situation is to treat domestic help with respect. But should this not be a given? Should it not be the point from which we start the discussion rather than its conclusion?
To anyone who has watched Downton Abbey, this narrative should be familiar. In the earlier stages of the show, Matthew the middle-class character is troubled when he suddenly becomes heir to an estate and is assigned a valet who, among other things, assists him with dressing. Determined to reject what he sees as an extravagance of wealth, he rejects the valet’s assistance. This situation continues until Lord Grantham – wise patron that he is – cautions Matthew that by behaving this way he is insulting the valet’s profession.
As he comes to accept his new role, Matthew lets go of his misgivings and accepts the valet’s services. By doing so he came to respect the work of the valet which is obviously an important thing to do. However what is troubling is that when Michael chose to accept the role of his valet, it was used to symbolise the general acceptance Michael came to have of his new role and new willingness to ‘maintain the legacy of Downton’. Along with this came an end to his criticism of the incredibly unequal society he was now benefitting considerably more from; he became the wise patron rather than a potential social critic.
This, I think, is a dangerous position to be in. While it may be easier ethically and emotionally for me to frame my role as the ‘neutral employer’, this would be a misrepresentation of the situation. Describing how racism is treated in ‘The Help’, Claire Potter argues that it is seen as “a personal problem, not a political one, a social issue that can be overcome by honest communication across the color line rather than a fundamental redistributions of power, money and public resources”. So too within the domestic help issue, when the main way to deal with the class/race issues comes to be to treat ‘the help’ with respect, it is easy to start seeing yourself as the ‘neutral employer’. Through doing this, awareness of the broader inequalities can be eroded.
The problem is though, what does this actually mean when acting out day-to-day actions? Should Matthew have continued to shaft his valet as a sign of protest at the system? Should I fire Esther in order to absolve myself of feelings of white guilt?
In efforts to acknowledge and challenge inequalities, it is easy to adopt a discourse of villainy; to see oneself as a personification of privilege, all behaviors laced with a kind of inherent selfishness and Western arrogance. The dangers of using this kind of grand narrative as a framework from which to work from in that it can lead to a kind of ‘development martyrdom’ where in an attempt to absolve oneself of this position rash and simplistic decisions can be made. I could after all have chosen to discontinue Esther’s services which could bring with it the emotional release of now being a ‘good’ development worker, but where would that leave Esther? These types of solutions ignore the everyday realities of the people caught up in these systems; they ignore how tangled up I already am in systems in ways in which there is no such thing as a clean break.
But I think that there is also something more personal. What happens when you become so fixated on not being the hero that you become the villain in your own stories? What happens when you stop recognizing yourself, having spent so long inspecting these layers of privilege? I am well aware of the opportunities I have been afforded by virtue of my circumstances. However while living in Togo (and elsewhere) my movements, and my ability to work is very much controlled by the various forms of harassment I receive from some men. I often find myself trying to shake it off, thinking that in the grand scheme of things, these small marginalization’s and everyday insecurities are insignificant, a kind of price I must pay. In resorting to a broad narrative of villainy (i.e that I don’t have the right to object to a situation because in so many ways I sit in a privileged position) I find myself becoming not only numb to the complex emotions and situations of others, but also my own.
In his Atlantic article Teju Cole writes, “I traffic in subtleties, and my goal in writing a novel is to leave the reader not knowing what to think. A good novel shouldn’t have a point”. Therefore he is not used to making arguments or providing solutions, but rather to posing questions and causing confusion. It is this approach that is needed when thinking about development ethics. Part of the problem in my mind is that we are still taught to see any contradiction and complexity in emotion as a barrier to action. When, for example, I have misgivings about the use of domestic help it is much easier to avoid these feelings through a no-questions-asked ‘hire them or fire them’, rather than see the difficulty and contradiction as an obvious result of the complex dynamics within which the issue is situated. What we are not taught to accept is the clash of these feelings that can unsettle us because the contradictions within them can show that there are not easy answers, there is not one road to take.
What this means for the domestic service issue I really have no idea. But perhaps, as a starting point, next time my dad asks me how ‘the maid’ is I can tell him that she is good, although she is having to move to Cote d’Ivoire in search of more work. I can tell him that things are tough here and that maybe we should have a conversation about why that is
 Not her real name.