Development as love – what I learnt from my Dad

In International Development circles you are supposed to say that your ideas about Development come from Sen or Ul Huq or Cardoso. You are not supposed to say that the most important lessons were things you learnt from your Dad. Nevertheless: for me, the most important lessons I learnt about Development were from my Dad. And the greatest of these was love.

When we discuss Development models we often debate their efficiency, but the most important issues are not extrinsic but intrinsic. The most vital exchanges we have with people are never trades – they are acts for which no one counts the cost or seeks reward. As a child my Dad took me with him to help provide meals and friendship for the elderly, and through that I learnt by his lived example that such support needed no justification (do visited elderly people produce greater economic benefit?), it was just fundamental to being a human being – that we help our family, and the world is our family. Likewise from seeing him in his roles as as church warden, youth club leader, charity trustee, volunteer, father and husband, I learnt that the higher goal is not that we should be independent but that we should be interdependent. Now, in Development, debates are rightly held about the different and complementary roles of the state, of NGOs, and of others, in ensuring that people get the support they need. What I learnt, from the smiles on the faces of the people whom Dad helped, is that vital in all support is that people know and feel that they are cared for.

I have been asked, as the son of the former head of the advertising industry’s trade association, if my going into Development was a break with my history, even a rebellion. But really it was a way to apply the values of my Dad – community, compassion, responsibilty, dignity, love. That everyone matters is not an ideological or a partisan value but it is a radical and profound one.

A few days ago, at the start of an Oxfam visit to the Dominican Republic and Haiti, I got a call from my family that Dad was at his end. All of my colleagues there hugged me and told me to hurry back, to cut short my Oxfam visit, as the most important thing was to be with him. Some friends kindly said they hoped Dad would recover, but the role of his medical care now was not to bring about a recovery – that time was gone – but to ensure that as he left the world he went well, with dignity and peace, that he could hear and hold his loved ones, could know that we were with him. We fed him, as he had once fed us, and we read to him, as he had once read to us. We read him Paul’s letter to the Corinthians, in the King James Version where – appropriately – “love” is translated as “charity”. It concludes: “When I was a child I spake as a child, I understood as a child, but when I became a man, I put away childish things.” But the most important things I learnt were from my Dad.

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Ben Phillips

About Ben Phillips

Ben Phillips, currently based in Nairobi, is co-founder of the #FightInequality alliance, the growing movement for a more equal world. He has lived and worked in four continents and a dozen cities, and led programmes and campaigns teams in Oxfam, ActionAid, Save the Children, the Children's Society, the Global Call to Action Against Poverty and the Global Campaign for Education. He began his development work at the grassroots, as a teacher and ANC activist living in Mamelodi township, South Africa, in 1994, just after the end of apartheid. All his posts are personal reflections. He tweets at @benphillips76