All posts by Alison Rabe

Alison is conducting a research fellowship grant in rural Northeastern Cambodia. She is working with various NGOs and indigenous villages on community land rights. Whenever the rain lets up in the evenings, Alison runs around the lake near her house. If it doesn't, she runs and takes a shower at the same time, or stays in and practices the guitar. You can also check out her blog alicambo.wordpress.com.
A field. See, it's not so bad!

Send them to the field!

Development workers are living developed lives. Getting out into the romantically portrayed “field” is a rarity, a special opportunity, something to be bragged about over the internet. Although development workers are mostly working on rural development issues (in most developing countries a majority of the population is rural and depends on agriculture for livelihoods), they are living in the cities, far from those they are supposed to “develop.” The separation between cities and the countryside is not only geographical, but also cultural. How then can development workers in the cities know how to resolve issues affecting their “beneficiaries” in a faraway land?

To be most effective, development workers need to go to the field and stay there.

Working in the field would give development workers an opportunity to have a new lifestyle, localize their experiences and knowledge, cut costs, and ultimately give them the ability to do their jobs and deliver aid more effectively and efficiently.

There is very little information on this, but I think all of we development workers can agree that most of us live in city centres packed with expats of all shapes and sizes. It is unclear how this happened.

From higher-up academic-y levels that often influence how we do our jobs, some have argued that NGOs need to be close to country power centers in the city. Ironically, decentralization is now widely promoted as a vital component to “good governance” and “democracy-building.” And in developing countries where rule of law is often lacking, the top-down, state-centered approach tends not to work anyway. This point alone has made up many a doctoral thesis.

NGOs continue to perpetuate concentration of power in city centres due to their inability to communicate with local governments. International aid workers’ largely urban presence legitimizes undue power-wielding by national authorities and perpetuates the unequal development progress they are supposedly mitigating.

Theoretical issues aside (this is just a blog entry, after all), development workers’ distance from the field is problematic from the most practical point of view. The field is where the people are and where the culture is. We’ve all bragged about our Western “efforts” to “get down with the people” and “be more local,” which, in the cities, is much more difficult to do.

Development workers believe they are making an effort by taking a language course once a week with friends during their two-hour lunch breaks. They claim they love the local cuisine because they have a cheap set meal with English-speaking co-workers a few times a week in an open-air restaurant. They are so close to the local people because they had a five-minute conversation with their English-speaking landlady last night. Of course, this is all a cynical exaggeration, but there is some truth to it.

A field. See, it's not so bad!
A field. See, it’s not so bad!

Locals know what’s up 

Our best resources are the people affected by the projects we are trying to implement, and most likely these people are not in the city. International development workers’ main cultural and human resources are their local co-workers in their white-walled, air-conditioned offices. When working on issues affecting disadvantaged populations, however, local development workers are not omniscient. They too have a geographical and class distance from the populations that NGO projects tend to target.

From my experiences in Asia, getting at the root of the problem takes time and intimacy with the local people and culture in “the field” – a field visit or two is not enough. A person can ask as many questions as they possibly can think up over a three-day period and not get a straight answer that touches on the real issue. Situations are most effectively and thoroughly assessed through everyday relationships, through which free-flow, long-term conversations can take place.

The result of this would be actual outcomes, realistic approaches, improved partnerships and lines of communication, and generally more effective projects. (Not to mention the theoretical decentralization advantages of giving local governance a voice, see above.) The field gives easy access to our most knowledgeable informant: the beneficiary.

Culture is good for you

Sure, living in the field is difficult. I’m an extrovert, and the quiet of the countryside has sometimes felt isolating. I’ve been frustrated by cultural working differences. The internet speed leaves something to be desired. I crave a good burger every once in a while. Yeah, life is so hard.

Some might argue that because life in the field lacks pristine living conditions and Western-ish salaries, it might not appeal to the best and brightest. The assumption here, however, is that development workers have the same motivations as those that go into other lines of work, i.e., money.

On the contrary, many fellow aid workers I know came into this line of work wanting to accomplish the cliché but genuine goal of “helping people.” I’ve heard many development workers say how they were surprised, and even felt guilty, at the Western form their foreign lives have taken. They generally eat the same food, hang with similar people, and spend their days typing over their computers without breaking a sweat, much like they did in their home countries.

Many aid workers I know are not satisfied with this lifestyle– they recognize their distance from the “beneficiary,” shamelessly and blatantly noting the ineffectiveness of their own work. Many took on aid jobs expecting them to be more local or exotic, but city life sucks them into an international lifestyle, increasing their distance from the people they came to help. Although it is “difficult” to live and work in the field, at the same time, many aid workers in the city crave the experience.

Development jobs should fulfill their expectations and send them to the field.

The added bonus is that administrative costs would be greatly reduced. Office spaces in the field are exponentially cheaper than in the city. Overhead would further plummet when you cut out field visits and per diem expenses, which spoil us (get real people, we’ve all pocketed per diem money). Due to decreased living expenses, international salaries could also be reduced. Donors, are you drooling yet?

Western people flock to Western things, and some might argue that all of this will only bring Western food, lodging, and entertainment (in its worst forms) into the field. Studies have shown that people prefer to associate with people and places that reaffirm who they already are. This argument assumes that development workers may always prefer distance from local customs and populations, preferring instead to associate with each other over three dollar cappuccinos.

This may be true for some people that work in development, but much like we came into this field to help people, we also did it because we love living in a totally different place, we are fascinated by cultural differences, we enjoy ethnic foods, and, again, we have a heart for the disadvantaged. If this fact isn’t enough, development jobs could be re-drawn to attract people who are dedicated and passionate about foreign culture, language, and people, not just wanting an opportunity to be cool living in a city where they can have a fancy Western lifestyle. Job advertisements should promote cultural intimacy from the beginning.

Living in the field is sometimes difficult , but it is not agonizing. It is always possible to fill some of my Western desires (a lady I know at the market always sells peanut butter). At the same time, being deprived of the opportunity to eat a burger over English conversation every night has made my experience much more enriching. It didn’t hurt, either; the countryside life easily drew me in once I let it.

As for the rest of us still in the cities, we must make a concerted effort to resist our every Western whim and try to our best to get in touch with the local culture –that is, until the donors buck up and put us where we belong. Send them to the field!

This post originally appeared on Alison’s blog, “Land of the Blind.” 

Update 27 July

Reactions and comments from Twitter in response


Cambodian children meeting tourists. (Gloria Cheng.)

Why tourists should be buying from children on the streets

On a breezy Tuesday night on the riverside of Phnom Penh, Cambodia, I met up with a Cambodian friend for dinner. As we sat at our street-side table enjoying an elaborate and ridiculously cheap meal, a small, dirty girl carrying a fistful of long-stemmed roses walked up to me, reached out her hand palm-up, and looked up at me with her best sad face.

What is the true cost of buying things like flowers from children in poor countries?

I immediately said my token, “No thank you, I’m sorry,” and averted my eyes. To my astonishment, however, my Cambodian friend pulled 500 riel (USD $0.13) out of his pocket, picked out a rose, and sent the little girl on her way.

As an aid worker, I was enraged. “How can you support that lifestyle?” I gasped. “Don’t you know the conditions they live under? You just allowed that little girl’s enslavement!” He just rolled his eyes, shrugged a little, and said, “Well, maybe she needs it to go to school.”

I wasn’t sure how to respond. Instead, I had a flashback to a political economy class that I took during my undergraduate studies, when my professor told me whether or not I voted in the next election really didn’t matter (shout-out to Professor Jasper LiCalzi at The College of Idaho).

According to political analyst Kenneth Shepsle, the best motivating factor to get people to vote is to make the act personally, symbolically meaningful. Why do you vote, if you vote at all? Most people choose to vote for the symbolism, but few people vote for the actual effects of their vote. A rational person knows that their single vote won’t change the election, even in a more democratic country. Instead, people want to vote for the symbolism.

I always immediately want to refute Shepsle’s point by saying, “But if everyone thought that their vote didn’t matter, then no one would vote at all!” Unfortunately, that’s probably part of the reason why only about 60% of Americans voted in the last presidential election. In Cambodia, many people do not vote because they know that the outcome will be the same no matter what. They are focused on the effects of the act of voting, not the symbolism. Maybe if the symbol was more important, more people would vote.

I keep comparing this idea with the issue of buying things from kids. Most foreigners I know refuse to buy things from children for the mere symbolism of supporting child labour, but maybe, unlike voting, the effects are actually more important.

Cambodian children meeting tourists. (Gloria Cheng.)

For those of you that have already lived or traveled in countries like Cambodia, you may have encountered kids in tattered clothes, walking the streets at night, carrying knick-knacks in overloaded baskets. A simple walk leads to encounters with eight-year-olds selling books, bracelets, or flowers. Lounging on the beach is inevitably mixed with kids trying to paint your nails, thread your hair, sell you fruit, etc.

Even the simple act of stopping at a stoplight cannot be enjoyed without children peddling decorative, fragrant jasmine flowers for 13 cents each. I’ve seen a seven-year-old girl beaten up by a 17-year-old boy for trying to sell books inside his restaurant. A five-year-old jasmine flower seller stole 500 riel right out of my pocket while I was sitting on my moto at a stoplight. I’ve had long conversations with 12-year-old girls with no parents as they braided my hair and tried to convince me to give them three dollars. A young boy once asked me to give him eight dollars in exchange for a bottle of water so he could pay for a month’s worth of schooling. Persistent, entrepreneurial kids are selling stuff everywhere.

The first time I came to a poor country, I read some books beforehand that talked about horrible things, like adults taking in orphans and employing them as slave-peddlers, taking all of the money for themselves, or wealthy or middle class parents who refuse to send their children to school and employ them instead.

Similar stuff to what you may have seen in the movie Slumdog Millionaire. After reading about all of the problems associated with child labour, I stopped buying things from kids for the symbolism, refusing to support these horrible adults’ acts.

But my friend’s comment got me to start thinking about the effects of my imposing morality. Even if I don’t buy, and continue to theoretically oppose child labor, it still continues and the kid remains sad and hungry. If I buy, maybe they’ll have some food to eat, maybe to go to school. Then again, maybe it will go to their alcoholic father.

As Shepsle and my professor recognised, the symbolic act of voting only affects the citizen and their romantic, patriotic feelings about participating in democracy. One unused ballot doesn’t determine whether or not the candidate of choice gets elected. But children peddlers are real and raw. Their face is in your face, their bony, dirty hands clutching huge baskets that are far too heavy for them to carry.

So now, sometimes, I buy stuff from kids. Maybe by the end of my time in Cambodia  I’ll have two wrists full of bracelets, and I can think about each bracelet, each child, and hope that I lightened the load of their burdensome baskets. Maybe I can even help send one of them to school.

I do not claim to know the solution, but the right answer is much grayer than many of us recognise. I do think it’s important that we think about each situation on a case-by-case basis, using our best judgment. What is most important is that we think about it, instead of immediately imposing our aid worker ideals on irrelevant situations. Here are some pros and cons of buying stuff from kids to mull over:

To buy:

  • Pro: The kid smiles and probably even gets excited.
  • Con: The happiness, though perhaps genuine, is fleeting.
  • Pro: The kid has some money, maybe to go to school, maybe to eat. Education and food are good things.
  • Con: Maybe not. You’ll never know where the money goes.
  • Pro: It creates a positive interaction between you and another person that would not have happened otherwise.
  • Con: You still don’t know where the money is going, a factor which may be dependent on whether or not the interaction can count as positive.

…or not to buy:

  • Pro: You’re symbolically telling the kid that you do not promote his work activities.
  • Con: The kid keeps working anyway, and so do all of the other kids. Your high-falutin message goes unheeded.
  • Pro: You save money. You can’t rescue all of the street kids by buying all of the bracelets in Cambodia.
  • Con: But maybe you can feed one? Also, you miss out on buying some nice-smelling flowers or pretty bracelets, which you may have wanted anyway.
  • Pro: It’s easier to forget about the kid if you avoid eye contact.
  • Con: You have a negative interaction with the child, or pass up on having any interaction at all.

What do you think? Do you buy stuff from kids on the streets? Let us know in the comments.

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Update 22nd October

DevEconHealth responds to this post with a thoughtful and challenging post about the economics of buying from children. You can read it here.