As I sit here typing on my computer in the office of AGLI, with the window open beside me, I can hear cars driving in the street, occasional honking, birds chirping, someone using an electric drill, and someone clicking away at a typewriter. On the balcony across the street from me, a man is talking on a cell phone, and below him someone has installed an air conditioner.

One can see the many faces of technological “development,” even here in Burundi, one of the poorest nations in the world. Though I was around the past decade brought internet cafés, cell phones, more cars and more televisions. And with the prospect of peace looking more promising, people are beginning to think about investing in Burundi again; the Chinese are said to be rebuilding a cotton factory, for example, and the World Bank has plans to invest in various improvements, such as $51 million to rebuild roads.

In asking, “which of these developments are good?” I do not want to deny anyone in Burundi the opportunity to consume anything that I have had the privilege to consume. My point is to pose the question to all of us, “What ought we to consume?” Or if the word “ought” sounds too stuffy, how about “what do we value in our lives?” We can ask this question repeatedly, iteratively, asking of each thing we want, why is it that we want it, and secondly, whether we want the consequences of what we must do (e.g. CO2 emissions or working long hours) to get that which we want.

For example, I value the ability to write on this computer and have it transmitted to my friends and family across the globe in a matter of seconds. Why do I want that? Convenience. Because without it, I would either have to write letters by hand and have them sent by post or I would have to live nearer to my family and friends. The latter would involve certain sacrifices, but it would have benefits as well – I would be able to actually see and hug the people I care about, and many other ways that people are drawn closer by living in the same habitat.

But regarding the former possibility, writing a letter instead, what might the tradeoffs be? Convenience, as I have said, but to what further end, or is that a sufficient good in itself?

If I wrote each letter, I would inevitably be led to change and personalize it, since I had to re-write everything anyway. And I might refine it each time I wrote it, or have new thoughts come into my head. And finally, investing that much time in the production of the writing, I would only include words that were worth the effort, and which would hold their value at least until they were delivered in the U.S.

Alternatively, on days that I had no thoughts that seemed worthwhile to communicate, I might instead turn my attention to the rest of the world around me; I might go out and strike up a conversation with a neighbor, or walk about the town and see what is going on, perhaps in the process running across a friend who I have not seen for a while, or meeting a new friend. Without carrying this train of thought further, I think it’s clear that what was at first a silly question now challenges the way we spend our time. Suddenly we are presented with trade-offs between alternative ways of relating not just to things or tasks but to people, the environment, our culture, and our community.

Although I have no real evidence, I would venture to guess that people in Burundi spend more time with their kids, family, and friends, spend more time singing, more time with their community and know their neighbors better, and consume a lot less of the world’s resources. Now to be fair, you can also look up statistics about healthcare, education, and so on, but is development merely a matter of trading the former for the latter?

Sure, if you want to do more, gadgets and machines can be useful, but what if you want to do better – ecologically, morally, and spiritually?