Every country has a scent. In countries where bodies smell like bodies, you catch it in the airport: some musk of water and mold and mud, livening the pocked fluorescent halls. In countries where bodies are purged of their scent, the water still holds it. Wait until you get to the hotel, run a hot shower, and stand in the little tiled room to soak in the smell of that place: jackfruit, sumac, sewage, beef. And under these strong notes of food and refuse, some human fragrance, not quite sweat and not quite sex, crushed from no single body.
A country where bodies smell like bodies, blooming with the human accidents that money mitigates, is likely one of Pope Francis’s favored peripheries. But you will catch its scent in the wealthy as well as the poor, in everyone’s sweat: on the brows of suited men who bow in for a handshake, in the armpits of old women on a crushing turn in a bus. Smelling the smell of a place, you come to know it in a way you will never know your own home—unless, when you return to the place you came from, you examine napes and hair, trash and water, seeking the secret notes that you, yourself, also carry.
If you are the typical Western visitor to such a country, moving from one affordable luxury to the next, do you have the patience to encounter this scent, to be troubled by its wonder and not just its offense?
And if you are the typical international development practitioner—a mid-grade tourist paid a handsome salary to distribute money and surveys—do you transcend the visitor’s expediency? Can you muster a respect for the dignity of the periphery, no matter how it smells, beyond an accounting of the dollar signs and data points stamped on wounded heads?
Contemporary international development is more or less an outgrowth of trends arising from World War II reconstruction, mid-century anticommunism and decolonization, and contemporary globalization. What began as an effort to stabilize European trading partners and outwit the Russians has somehow morphed into what Peter Buffett, son of Warren Buffett, described in a 2013 New York Times op-ed as “the Charitable-Industrial Complex.”
Buffett, a musician who never expected to helm a major family foundation, describes his discomfort at finding that international development trends are frequently steered by government, investment banking, and corporate leaders who search “for answers with their right hand to problems that others in the room have created with their left.”
What he’s talking about is typified in Bangladesh. I manage a large-scale child protection project in Khulna, the country’s semi-rural southwestern region. Dhaka’s capital city skyline looms large in the local imagination. The poor—especially girls and women looking to escape servile marriage—long for jobs in the country’s 28-billion-dollar textile industry. They hope to sew for H&M, Wal-Mart, and other corporate behemoths, even if the job renders them vulnerable to catastrophes like the 2013 Rana Plaza collapse, or workaday disasters like the ever-present fires burning off acrid, black billows from the country’s main Export Processing Zone.
Mothers—sometimes accompanied or followed by their children—migrate to the Dhaka slums to work long factory hours at low wages. Local and international non-profits set up scholarships, after-school child care, and health clinics to try to keep these little families afloat. But what do these families really need? Dignified work. This need is within the purview of people like the conflicted young H&M executive I met in the Dhaka airport. “We’d like to pay higher wages,” she said, “but no one in Europe or the U.S. will pay more for a T-shirt.”
Reflecting on Dhaka’s smoldering EPZ, I have thought often of Lewis Hyde’s Christ-haunted classic, The Gift, and its account of how Protestant Reformers and Catholic capitulation transformed Christian usury laws—a transformation whose echoes are still felt in today’s charitable-industrial complex.
In Deuteronomy 23, Moses sets forth a “double law” of usury—prohibiting the practice among Jewish brothers, but allowing it when Jews lend money to foreign strangers. Early Christian communities determined that usury-exempt brethren now included the entire Church body, but they allowed Christians to exact usury from “enemies of the Church”—namely, anyone “whom it would not be a crime to kill.” Almost a thousand years later, attitudes had changed; Aquinas and other thinkers agreed that a Christian must not “take usury from a brother, and all men should be brothers”—or, as Hyde puts it, they resolved that Christians should not use usury to fleece the vulnerable and so “make a living off another man’s need.”
Chinks in the practical execution of these ideals paved the way for Martin Luther’s radical push to segregate Church usury laws from civil usury laws. The end result was larger Christendom’s agreement to segregate each person’s civil self—bound primarily to profit-driven market ethics—from his or her moral self—bound primarily to God. In Hyde’s take, this schism transposed Moses’s “double law” from tribalism to classism. It justified setting up societies of “cordial strangers”—people whose principal connection is not family, ethnicity, or religion, but only a market’s equable trade on reasonable terms of interest.
Those who struggled at market success for whatever reason—age, illness, nationality, bad luck—were subject to a newfangled “charity” that bore little resemblance to Aquinas’s caritas, that state of friendship in which gifts course back and forth like blood pumping to and from one heart. Instead, this market-bound charity regarded wounded peripheries in the same way that Moses’s law once regarded strangers: as foreigners barred from actual inclusion and the benefits thereof.
And this, of course, is what the charitable-industrial complex still prizes. It bears limited desire for economic transformation in the poorest of the poor, whose class is a cog in the machine of Western productivity and ease. Their misery triggers a great Rube Goldberg contraption along which you’ll find me ruefully grabbing a few five-dollar H&M T-shirts and passing the profits along to conflicted multi-millionaire philanthropists—some of whom probably know in their hearts that they, like me, are making a living off another man’s need.
Together, we alternate between pangs of compassion and demands for “Return on Investment” from projects attempting to address the knotty intimacies of child well-being, which is most often stymied by addiction-driven violence and the eons-old enmity between men and women. Even Ivy League researchers cannot concoct data points to confirm the “impact” of such projects. No one can codify the hidden work of human transformation in these distant lives.
As Hyde puts it, a market-based relationship is not an effective “agent of transformation, nor of spiritual and social cohesion.” Only a gift, given at some humbling, sheer personal cost and received totally freely, has this power.
Every October, I make the long flight from Washington, D.C. to Dhaka, and then to Khulna City. Due to the region’s radical Islamic violence, I enter Khulna with a truckload of shotgun-toting teenage policemen and get lodged on lockdown at the fanciest hotel in town. Each morning before the teenage police pick me up, I dine alone in the vaguely space-age restaurant. And each evening after they drop me off, I go alone to the rooftop, where three dollars buy you one night’s swim in the city’s only public pool.
The only feminine garb allowed at the pool is a swimming burka—or, in my case, a loose t-shirt and pajama pants—so I am fully clothed as I step into the cool water. I float the way my grandma used to float, one clean breaststroke after another, and shut off the auditor’s mental buzz of budgets and surveys.
In my twenties, I observed that Western colleagues who rose above our industry’s stereotypes of paternalism or idealism were able to spur uniquely effective cross-cultural work. And in my thirties, I have found that the best way to rise is to present myself as an emissary of a distinct culture—not a superior culture, but a coherent one, a culture that forms its members according to recognizable values of family relationships, sexual ethics, integrity, and religious devotion.
Hence my swimming in my pajamas. Although it’s a bit awkward, I can accord with principled acts of modesty—and it’s an act of deference that will be relayed with satisfaction from hotel management to my Muslim and Hindu colleagues. I know that small gifts like this will open my colleagues to consider what Christianity might truly mean, beyond its Mammon-skewed tendencies.
I get out of the water and stand sopping wet at the parapet’s fence to watch the city and let my clothes dry. As they stiffen, there is a moment when I catch on my skin the mingling scents of this country and my own—distinct, and in some ways at odds: a mossy, fishy trace of Sundarbans and jackfruit, laced with the tart scent of a body reared on beef and pork and limestone-silty water. For a moment, these blood heat-borne scents stop my heart and remind me that even as I live, I die back to the dust from which I come.
What does Western moral culture have to offer a person grappling with the fact of her slow exile to the final periphery, where the body decays and earthly treasures cannot save? Lewis Hyde says that Christendom’s tribalist-to-classist usury law switch effected not only a public schism, but a private schism too. “Now each man is divided,” he says, for when “each man has a civil and a moral part, the brother and the stranger live side by side in his heart.”
To coax a fissured person into one, to heal that severed bond, is to nurture a being who can see herself and God and so, in love, see another.
This essay is based on remarks delivered at the University of Notre Dame for the conference “Trying to Say ‘God’: Re-Enchanting Catholic Literature,” in June 2017.