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My new article on Vox: I went to Afghanistan to change the world. The world had other plans

I went to Afghanistan in 2004 to work for a leading humanitarian organization, naively certain that I could help rebuild a war-shattered country. Some aid workers are motivated by a sense of mission; I was driven by ambition, and a desperate curiosity. The conflicts in Afghanistan and Iraq dominated the news, and I wanted to be in the center of things. I wanted to have stories to tell.

Aid work also appealed to my sense of how the world worked. I assumed that development was fundamentally a matter of knowledge, not politics. I assumed that countries were poor because of a lack of knowledge; that people simply didn’t know the right policies to enact, the right institutions to build, and the right ways to run their governments. And we — those of us blessed to have been born in the developed world — could tell them.

The fact that I didn’t speak the language, or understand the culture, didn’t dim my enthusiasm in the least.

In the years since, I’ve worked in Iraq and across East and West Africa. I’ve consulted on peace and security issues, and worked for a foundation focused on human rights. I’ve seen projects succeed and projects fail. I’ve been bitten by a rat in South Sudan and driven across eastern Congo with a dead monkey. I’ve had friends and colleagues attacked, kidnapped, and killed.

My naiveté is long gone, along with my patronizing assumptions that development is simply a matter of us teaching others what to do.

I’ve seen the best and worst of international development — our desire to do good in countries far from our own. These are the lessons I’ve learned along the way…

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