Global Conversations Beyond Discipline

Qualifying Success in Development

I pass a set of ruined train tracks every day on my way to work. That may seem like an in innocuous thing to take note of, and it is. But I notice it. Every day. The trains that once crisscrossed Ghana no longer pass by; they haven’t for years. The tracks are twisted and deformed. The food stalls that dot the roadside hastily preparing food for locals on their daily commute conceal most of the tracks. Children play around the small metal juts as though they were a natural part of the ground. The central train station is now a crumbling building with a local market inside. For someone who came to Ghana to make a difference, for someone who is trying to help build a better future for an under developed country, a railroad that no longer works makes me anxious. Why doesn’t it work? Why was it built? Who built it?

My generation, the generation that only read about the Cold War and was raised in the optimism of the years that followed, was conditioned to value change. Change in my lifetime has brought good things. In my short lifetime I’ve gone from seeing flying as exhilarating, to an unavoidable annoyance. From knowledge being a sacrosanct trait, to someone who spends too much time on the internet. In a short time my life has seen a spectacular amount of change. And it’s been mostly for good.

But the idea of looking to the past and seeing that things were better before, the idea that change could be a bad thing makes me anxious. Should we settle for how things are now? It’s an idea that’s almost alien. It feels unnatural. Maybe I just reflect a naive generation. There are plenty of things that have gotten worse in my lifetime. The state of the environment. The relationship between governments and citizens. Yet I’m still hopeful in this age and grateful to live in this time. But the idea that a civilization can fall apart is a frightening prospect. The idea that what we have built, what we have strived to achieve, will not last. That no one will take what we have done and learn and build upon it, scares me. When Rome fell, grand buildings like the Colosseum crumbled. But it wasn’t entirely due to natural erosion. Stone blocks were pillaged to build makeshift houses in nearby villages. How must it felt to live in the shadow of an empire that spanned the world?

I suppose that’s not comparable to a crumbling railroad, but in my mind it is. We can learn from failure. Discovering what doesn’t work is just as important as discovering what does, because failure can guide us in as much as success can. But I have to accept the possibility that everything I do will be for nothing. It’s a gloomy idea, but appreciating the difficulty of what we do here makes the times when everything goes right so much sweeter. Failure can qualify success.