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A new Italian word I discovered today and the connections it made in my mind


Today I received an email from a friend and learned a new Italian word: oblatività. In English? Something like: altruism, selflessness, unselfishness. The origin of this word is in the Latin words such as oblativu(m), oblatus which means something like giving without the expectation of getting something back. If you Google it, you will find many links to religious website, but this is not what I want to write about.

My friend’s email included the text of the preface to a book which describes the struggle that sometime Italian teachers who are underpaid, unrecognized, undervalued face in making sense of their work. They struggle to overcome the perception that the kids they teach in high school do not care about writes and poet such as Dante, Petrarca, Foscolo, or Pascoli. How to interest students? This when I read the new word for me: oblatività. I understood it as way to transmit interest, passion, motivation from within. Not simple transfer of knowledge and information as required by a teaching curriculum, but the transfer of enthusiasm. Not an easy task, I think, but worthwhile keeping it in mind.

This reminded me of a short documentary (Arvo Pärt – 24 Preludes for a Fugue) I watched some time ago about Arvo Pärt, the Estonian contemporary composer. In it, he explains about his relationship with the music he creates and remembers one day, a cold day when he was in the street waiting in front of his house for a tram. While waiting he saw a street clearer (janitor?) working few meters away. Arvo Pärt was cold as he was just standing in the street, while the janitor who was cleaning the street looked warm and concentrated in his job. He went to hom and asked him: ‘what do you think? how should a composer write his music?’ The janitor looked at him and said: ‘I think one should love each single sound and each single note’. That was something Arvo Pärt had not heard or thought before and, he says in the documentary, that sentence opened up a new musical world to him. But how to do that? How to achieve that? It requires probably a lot of work and probably, I would add, oblatività. But can it be transferred to other areas of human life? Can it apply also to development work where, by definition, we aim at helping others?

That thought led me to something I read in the review that Duncan Green has written of the book by Ed Carr, Delivering Development. His review starts with: ‘In ‘Whose Reality Counts’, Robert Chambers caricatures a typical successful career path in development as ‘tying down, moving inwards and moving upwards’. ‘In rural development, professionals gain direct field experience only early in a career if at all’. After the year in an African village (PhD, living with the people etc), or volunteering in a local NGO, comes the life path of relationships, kids, a search for decent schools, more senior jobs etc. These involve moves first to the capital city, then back to Europe or North America and Development HQ. It’s a caricature, but it’s often horribly accurate.’

I agree with this. This is what usually happens. Though I am not sure it has to be horrible. It is true, as Duncan Green says that these initial experiences of that ‘year-in-the-village’ shapes each person’s thinking for the rest of their careers,’. That is part of the way we are. We need lenses through which to look at reality and those lenses are molded and shaped by memories and experiences. That brings me to the new word I learned today: oblatività (i.e. altruism, selflessness, unselfishness). I think there is a lot of it in the year in the village or in a province as VSO volunteer or Australian Youth Ambassador. But will the subsequent familiar career path destroy it? Hopefully not, though it is true that the bureaucracy and procedures of HQs can have that effect.

Recently I have been working quite a lot on political economy analysis which is all about understanding incentives, do ut des, political gains, individual power, party politics, etc. All important things and aspects of a society or a sector that we need to understand in order to shape and tailor development interventions and innovations. Trying to find what is at the same time technically sound and politically feasible. The real world were oblatività (i.e. altruism, selflessness, unselfishness) is a rare spice.

I guess for me to know and remember words such as oblatività can help to remember why am I doing what I like to do: to work in and research about development as well as (still) living overseas.

These were the connections, not fully logical or linear, started by a new word I learned this morning.

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