04/10/2012 12:39 pm ET Updated Jun 10, 2012

Confessions of a Development Dilettante

I took one introductory international relations class my freshman year of college. It was painfully dry; I spent lectures slouching in back, admiring my combat boots and writing bad poetry. After that one foray into the formal study of international relations, fully half of the rest of my literary arts major courses were pass/fail creative writing workshops. Before and after, I worked in many countries, involved in various development efforts -- but strictly as a "creative writer" or "artistic type." Essentially, I figured "development" was what humanitarians used to improve human welfare, and "foreign policy" was what governments used to increase power.

I actually bought that there existed such a binary. I had nothing to say about foreign policy because I wasn't, in my estimation, involved in it.

Then former State Department Policy Planning Director Anne-Marie Slaughter's provocative piece on collaborative power came out in The Atlantic in late 2011:

Instead of seeking to structure the preferences of others, those who would exercise collaborative power must be demonstrably willing to shift their own views enough to enter into meaningful dialogue with others.

This connective sort of vision, plus Slaughter's willingness to interact over Twitter with citizens curious about foreign policy, is probably part of why she has over 28,000 followers. I thanked her once for this kindness to "regular people." "You're most welcome," she tweeted. "FP is all ABOUT the people!" is?

Folks, I was actually blown away by this. After eleven years in development in nearly as many countries, I managed not to connect those particular dots. The experience of the artist is the experience of the body: each place I went, I saw, heard, and felt things, then wrote them down. I was a development dilettante. If you asked me for the history or the facts in depth about any of these places, I either never knew them or forgot them. What "discourse-friendly" things I did notice and say, I did so largely after the fact.

A short survey of examples:

Sustainable forestry in central Russia: I remember first the birches and the 9th-floor Soviet-era apartment I climbed down and up daily, the fish heads on the stairwell. Then I remember the unprecedented stakeholder involvement in community forest zoning initiatives.

Reproductive health in Ecuador: the quilted hillsides I flew through in a truck with female doctors who giggled in a row during lunch break, doctors who created makeshift clinics in cold, distant churches in which to give women their first-ever gynecological exams. Then the effect prenatal care has on mother and infant mortality rates.

Literary translation in Bolivia: the dry, droll wit of socialist poet Vicky Allyón, her thick black hair and the way she moaned about motherhood to her two young adult daughters, her white mop of a dog. Then the great importance of literary translation to the cultural exchange required for international development.

Chinese dissident refugee advocacy and PEN Center formation in Mongolia: endless shots of vodka under an endless tundra sky, mournful throat singing, the polished main square in the capitol of the most sparsely populated country on the planet. Then the roles of China and Russia in Mongolia's mining industry... and in Mongolia's refugee policies.

Traveling to the home of an exiled dissident in China, sitting across from his wife, where he would never sit again, while outside agricultural university students held a candlelight vigil on their athletic field, standing in the shape of a heart for the Sichuan earthquake victims. Then I remember that I never studied Chinese politics in depth.

Freedom of expression in Turkey: the Finnish author who joined me on the deck of a boat on the Bosphorous as I watched the lights on the water. I told her I couldn't seem to escape my own thoughts. "No," she said gently but emphatically, "Your thoughts are the most wonderful thing -- because only you can have them." Then I remember someone gave a presentation about international copyright.

Founding a theater group for Congolese refugee girls in a Nairobi slum: the girls' incredible voices, the girls inventing a song on the spot and harmonizing seamlessly without rehearsing or using a single musical instrument. The heart-lift I'd get upon entering the slum's church compound, finding the girls by following the scraps of song floating above the red tin roofs. Then the importance of safe space for youth in post-conflict zones.

I've feared that my failure to acquire a more immediately applicable skill set -- the admirable fact-focus and research of a journalist, for example, or the sorely needed medical care a doctor offers -- affected negatively what I could offer on the miraculous opportunities I had to be out there. I thought maybe I should know more before going to these places, before coming home and talking about them. But: the term "superpower," the billiard-ball theory in that terrible international relations textbook? I didn't connect to them, didn't fathom their applicability or see them in what I had experienced. Whatever I did know, I concluded, it wasn't anything about foreign policy.

Then I encountered Slaughter's idea of collaborative power and was reminded of the speech by Pulitzer Prize winner Junot Diaz at last year's conference for the Association of Writers and Writing Programs:

I couldn't read a story, poem, or newspaper where I saw a Dominican kid reflected back in any way. I write to leave mirrors for the future... If a human being grows up in a world without reflections of them, they themselves will grow up to be monsters.

I've wondered for months why this idea of collaborative power meant so much to me. I realized: it's because I can see myself in it. It's a term I find familiar already, somehow; it's a framework I can get behind. I'll leave it to the "discourse-friendly" scholars and seasoned foreign policy veterans to take issue with Slaughter's position (which they do, and Slaughter welcomes the debate) because frankly, I haven't studied enough of the facts to use that lexicon instead of it using me. But could the artist's fidelity to the information of the body, the five senses -- the response to the immediate situation based on intuition and not researched theories -- offer a kind of perspective on and practice of development work that might well fit the 21st century?

It's a century wherein we know so little of what comes ahead, so previous frameworks might not be as relevant; it's one wherein most of what remains of America's potential for international leadership lies in the portable concept that every human has a right to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. This concept is a socially enacted one, a sense of belonging (being seen, perhaps) that we must acknowledge as a central need of youth, who comprise nearly 50 percent of the Earth's population and 90 percent of whom live in the developing world. Perhaps the concept -- and Slaughter's ideas, and Hillary Clinton's policies, for that matter -- are indeed (gasp!) "soft"... but "soft" are the issues that ultimately make or break the international attitude toward America, since they in turn determine who out of that 50 percent will grow up to want to use "hard" things like bombs, guns, and terrorist tactics because they didn't get stoves, medicine, and schooling. That's what I'd guess, anyway, but who asked me? I didn't study this stuff.