There is a spark of creativity that exists in all of us– yes, all of us. Creativity is not simply something that manifests itself when we pick up a paintbrush or instrument, it is our most basic desire to create something, anything that is unique. Woven into the DNA of our humanity, this spark is the driving force behind our need to think critically, express ourselves, solve problems, empathize with others, and build a life for ourselves. It should come as no surprise, then, that creativity is not nonessential or superficial, but rather fundamental to true human flourishing. Indeed, creativity is that which transforms the dull and lifeless into the colorful and vibrant; the flat into the three dimensional; the generic into the irreplaceable.
Unfortunately, this spark can either be suppressed or kindled, depending on one’s circumstances. While it’s true that creativity can never be entirely eradicated from the human spirit– a person always has, at the very least, their imagination and unique thought processes– lack of opportunity, wealth, and freedom all serve to greatly hinder people’s ability to be creative. Those of us who have been born into more privileged positions, in terms of socioeconomic status and nationality for example, have nearly endless avenues through which we can express our creativity and shape our individuality. We can choose what to eat, what to study, where to study, where to live, what career path to follow, what we want our personal style to be, if we want to get married, how many kids to have, when to have those kids, and a host of other things, ranging from the mundane to the life-changing. The list is not quite as long for those who have fewer freedoms and resources.
I would argue, then, that at the very heart of international development should be a concern for human creativity. Of course, this means expanding people’s economic opportunities so that they are eventually able to have creative control over some of the decisions I listed above. Even more basic than that, though, I think it means molding our very development processes in such a way that they enable the flourishing of human creativity. It is not enough to invest finances and other resources into a community if we are, at the same time, stifling such a fundamental component of human nature by imposing one-size-fits-all development “solutions” on them. Not only does such an approach fail because it does not take into account the particular context of the local area and people, but also because it ultimately dehumanizes the very people it is trying to serve. By dictating the way in which communities must overcome poverty, we treat their residents as generic recipients of our own all-knowing “genius,” rather than treating them as individuals who deserve to have the opportunity to build creative and practical solutions that reflect their own values, culture, and desires.
There are a number of ways to incorporate creativity into the core of development process, though. One form may be to welcome participation at all decision-making levels, so that people are able to build their community in the ways that they want, rather than having a pre-made model handed to them. Another way, seen in CLI’s work, is to promote entrepreneurial development, in which individuals are given the training and resources to create a unique business or community project that can then support them financially and benefit their community. Whatever the method may be, it is up to development agencies to recognize that if they are concerned with improving human wellbeing, the importance of creativity cannot be ignored.