Category Archives: Career Advice

People wait at a UN distribution centre in Haiti.

On cognitive dissonance: Local ownership & constant learning

Jonathan Favini’s recent WhyDev post on cognitive dissonance in development raised issues that are near and dear to many in the sector, from recognising aid failures to working in a flawed industry to receiving praise from outsiders. A recent college grad, Jonathan ended his piece with some thoughtful questions to more experienced aid workers.

How have you integrated recognition of the industry’s flaws into your professional identity? How have you learned to recognize development’s problems, while continuing to work in the field or advocating for its expansion? How do you motivate yourselves on tough days when you doubt the impact of your efforts?

We’ve compiled several interesting and insightful responses from people with varied experience in development (and blogging!). This post is the first in a short series of reflections on these topics.

Chris Planicka – Program Associate, EcoAgriculture Partners & Aid Blogger

“These types of doubts and questions help me to remain humble in my work. I try to present myself as a facilitator or enabler, one who helps people to achieve their own goals but whose own role is minimal. Most people I work with, especially at local levels in developing countries, appreciate this stance, as they can see the problems in development work all too clearly.

Indeed, I am quite aware of the many problems in this industry, and sometimes the doubts Jonathan described, and other challenges, can be overwhelming. To motivate myself in this work, I try to do the following: learn from mistakes and errors (both mine and others’) to avoid repeating them and to improve other work; make special note of success stories when I do find them and remember them for future reference; and never take myself too seriously, especially in interactions with people offering praise for ‘doing good work’ or ‘helping people.’ They may mean well, but they do not fully understand the work I do (and that’s not really their fault, either).”

Chad Bissonnette – Co-founder & Executive Director, Roots of Development

“I couldn’t incorporate the industry’s flaws into my identity, so I decided to start my own organisation. That way, I decided I could work within the field, but as ‘outside the industry’ as possible.

Like most in the field, I am constantly observing and analysing the flaws of the industry, and using my conclusions about them to form the approach we use at Roots of Development. Since most of our budget comes from individual donors, we have even greater flexibility to do it differently. Most individual donors trust us enough and believe in our approach enough to allow us to do it the way we feel we need to do it. They let us mold, form and change our programming based on the direction of the communities with whom we work and the lessons we learn from working with them.

I think the days you find yourself doubting the impact of your efforts are very important. I have learned to take those days and use them to analyse two things: 1) Look at the effort to try and see where we may have gone astray or strayed from our core principles. 2) Make sure I am not solely evaluating the impact through my culturally-biased understanding of it and of standards of success.

I believe that when you doubt the impact of your effort, it’s either because the effort is actually flawed or because you’re judging it from your cultural context. In the first case, it’s important to identify where you went astray and get back on track. In the second, it’s likely you need to remind yourself whom the effort is actually for, and find out how they are feeling about the impact.

It is once again a reminder to me of how important local ownership is in every aspect of international development and how important it is for me (us) to remain in a supportive role instead of a managerial one.”

Check back next week for thoughts from more of your favourite aid workers and bloggers – and share your own responses in the comments.

Haitians wait in line for water and humanitarian rations. Photo by David Gilkey/NPR.

Cognitive dissonance: An unspoken qualification for aid work?

An earlier version of this post appeared on Development Intern.

Wearing the rather unkempt hairdo I’d grown while studying abroad in Senegal, I used a brief stop in Gettysburg, Pennsylvania (I know – not exactly the exotic locale you might be expecting from this blog) to get a dearly overdue haircut.

After a few wisecracks about my receding hairline, the barber and I drifted into the familiar realm of aimless small talk that accompanies a haircut almost anywhere. Before long, I was describing my work as an intern at Roots of Development. Deeply interested, the barber prodded me for more information. As he tamed my wild hair, I gave him what details I could – since I had taken the position only a few weeks prior, it was really not all that much. Seeking to describe the organisation fairly, and hoping to avoid industry jargon, I oversimplified and murmured something along the lines of, “We help poor people in a small town in Haiti escape poverty.”

I cringed as I repeated silently the organisation’s chosen discourse. “We work WITH communities who choose, build, manage and maintain their own projects. We support development without dependency.” Nonetheless, the clumsy summary I had supplied was ample justification for a firm handshake from the barber when I rose from his worn-in leather chair.

As he squeezed my hand, he hardened his gaze and said, “Thank you for the work you are doing. You are making the world a better place.” I smiled, returned his firm grip and walked out.

The next time I peered into the mirror, I found myself admiring the haircut, yet wondering if I’d earned his praise.

Working in development. By Ahmed El-Mezeny.
By Ahmed El-Mezeny

Certainly the intent of development is noble. At face value, the notion of alleviating human suffering, of improving living conditions or elongating lives, is unarguably good. That said, the disturbing truth is that academic and professional evaluations of the development industry have been largely negative.

Pondering these critiques, I stopped short of patting myself on the back.

In that moment of self-reflection (cue dramatic soap opera music and flashback effect), I recalled a particular conversation I’d had the previous spring in Senegal, with a group of five Peace Corps Volunteers serving there. They had diverse areas of work, two focusing on sustainable agriculture in rural areas and the other three partnering with small businesses in some of the country’s cities. A curious undergrad with similar interests, I used the opportunity to inquire about the Peace Corps experience, eyeing it as a potential post-grad plan.

“Do you feel as though you are getting a good cultural experience? Are you learning the language and finding a place in Senegalese society?” I asked.

They replied with a resounding yes. “The most powerful cultural experience of my life,” answered one. “It’s an opportunity like no other to spend some time in a country I might otherwise never visit,” said another.

I coughed awkwardly, knowing my next question was a tad stereotypical and would be less enthusiastically received. “Do you think you are making a difference here?”

A long silence followed, broken at last by a muffled, “Well…” Each articulated to me a well-processed answer, indicating it was a question they had received prior or, even more likely, frequently asked themselves. No answer was absolute. Soft, uneasy yes’s and very tentative no’s. Obviously, like me, they had gazed uneasily into the mirror a few times. Like most development practitioners, the Peace Corps Volunteers had chosen this line of work with a healthy dose of self-doubt and cognitive dissonance, or at least developed it during their time in the field.

A great wealth of criticism has come from professional, academic and institutional circles in the development community, forming a chorus of impassioned, and persuasive, condemnation. The age of unbridled optimism (or perhaps hubris) among development workers concerning our capacity to affect change is long, and rightfully, gone.

Most practitioners know aid can be problematic and that development rhetoric tends to oversimplify the causes of global poverty. They know the minimal funds that emerge from the “developed” world have a tinge of political interest or a bitter ideological after taste. Most are well-versed in development theory and criticism, having read books like The White Man’s Burden, Dead Aid and The Anti-Politics Machine.

Yet, despite their knowledge and concerns, most practitioners will, from time to time, be lauded for their compassion and praised for their generosity. Many – like me, following that overdue haircut, and my Peace Corps buddies in Senegal – will take a hard look in the mirror and wonder if they deserve such accolades.

Though I’ve given this topic a lot of thought, I’ve yet to reach a satisfying conclusion. I’m still not sure how to continue on as a practitioner without a healthy dose of cognitive dissonance. So instead of leaving you with some profound realization, I’ll end with a question to older, wiser (just take the compliment) development practitioners.

How have you integrated recognition of the industry’s flaws into your professional identity? How have you learned to recognize development’s problems, while continuing to work in the field or advocating for its expansion? How do you motivate yourselves on tough days when you doubt the impact of your efforts?

I hope dearly it’s more than the dual tides of time and apathy that have allowed the leaders of the field to remain there for a decade, or a few.

[Check back next week for a follow-up post featuring responses to these questions from several experienced development practitioners (and some of your favourite aid bloggers).]

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Young humanitarians: Challenging the stereotype of Generation Y

By Agency team

Gen Yers who are reading this will be familiar with a battle we share. A battle we could probably fight and win, if we could be bothered to get up off our parents’ couches and tear ourselves away from the screens we apparently love…but, well… “Meh.” Plus, I’m way too much of a commitmaphobe to risk engaging in a battle.

In case you’re not picking up on my sarcasm, the battle I speak of is the battle against the Gen Y stereotype. And for those of us who don’t identify with this stereotype, the message that we’re “self-centred, irresponsible, apathetic leechers” is getting pretty old.

Like every generation, ours has its faults. And sure, some of us need to say YOLO a bit less often and start thinking more of others. But, at least in the circles I move in, there’s also an abundance of millennials who are looking outside themselves and are fully awake to the world around them.

We care about global inequality, politics and the environment, and we’re optimistic enough to believe we can leave the legacy of a world with fewer scars than the one we’re inheriting.

If you’re in Melbourne on 30 August, you could be lucky enough to witness a 250-strong group of said humanitarian millennials converge on the Royal Exhibition Building for Expanse, a conference that aims to give Gen Yers “the tools they need to start the fight for greater justice and equality in the world.”

Expanse is the brainchild of Agency, a creative studio working in communications and media, and brings some of the biggest charitable organisations in the world together in one room. World Vision, Oaktree, UN Youth and ONE.org are all taking part, and they’re calling on “student leaders, advocates, speakers, thinkers and dreamers to join them.”

If you are a Gen Yer with dreams for a more just and equal world, then Expanse is the conference for you. You can use the Internet (coming out of the screen you’re glued to) while you read this to learn more and register for Expanse.

Oh, and in case you’re feeling anxious about it, you can check-in to the conference on your smart phone, and there will be hashtags and selfies-a-plenty, so you can ease your FOMO. We’ll just be using social media for social good, not evil.

Agency is a creative studio and social enterprise based in Sydney. The company works on branding, design, video and digital and interactive experiences for projects that further human development, foster human rights and drive social equity. You can check out their website or follow them on Twitter.

[Expanse is a one-day conference that uses interactive and engaging ways to teach young people about global issues and help them develop the tools to solve global problems. Organisations like WhyDev will be at the event to help participants understand global development networks and how they can participate in the community. If you're around (and aged 16-24), consider attending the conference, and be sure to stop by our table! We'd love to learn more about your interests and hear your ideas on how we can make WhyDev a better resource for young people. Use the code WD896 to get $5 off your registration.]

10-tricks

10 tricks to appear smart during development meetings

This post originally appeared on Medium and is reprinted here with permission.

There’s nothing I enjoy more than meetings. Particularly meetings with the donor, who’s the person who’s supposed to sign the checks that make sure you have a job for just a little bit longer. So while you may work for the good of the people of [fill in the name of the pile of smoking rubble you’re standing on that people insist is still a country], you actually work for the donor.

And donors love nothing more than holding meetings. Some common varieties are:

  • Synch meetings
  • Coordination meetings
  • Working group meetings
  • Budget meetings

And the dreaded, avoid-at-all-costs:

  • Pre-meeting

This last one’s the one you have before the really big meeting, so you can all go over what you’re going to talk about at the actual meeting. That meeting will usually involve multiple donors all brought together for some kind of conference or seminar or something else equally mind numbing. Those meetings generate things like “action plans,” which are promptly forgotten or subtly sidetracked because coordination means someone’s going to have to share with others, and that’s not how development work is done.

But rather than just surviving these meetings, here’s a handy guide for coming out of those meetings looking like someone who a) genuinely cares about the work you’re doing, and b) is a recognized thought leader among your peers. (Put that last one on a LinkedIn profile…it’s CV gold.)

Development meeting
Surefire ways to impress everyone in the room

1. Ask for milestones

This is a great way to get a lot of nods and approving noises from those around the table. It’s also a great way to throw a peer under the bus, and if it’s not a peer, good times can be had by all as you watch that person scramble to explain the various milestones in their amazing five-year plan.

2. Use “sustainability” whenever possible

This ties back to the first one, because if something doesn’t have “milestones,” it’s probably not going to be “sustainable.” Asking any presenter if they have a sustainability plan usually yields the same fun as the milestones question.

3. Flip through the handout while the presenter is still talking

Nothing tells a room “I’m already thinking a few steps ahead” better than rustling paper and moving ahead through slides that haven’t been presented yet. Combine this with questions about sustainability, and you’re sure to get that next Chief of Party gig.

4. Make notes on upcoming slides

This reinforces the idea that you’re looking ahead, past the point that your presenter is making, and are about to make some kind of statement that should make the rest of the group start shuffling through the handout as well.

5. Say, “I don’t see a gender component.”

Letting the group know you care very much about gender issues is something that will endear you to peers and supervisors alike. Donors love people who are looking for the gender angle, even if the project is the artificial insemination of goats in the Andes Mountains. It also puts the presenter on the spot and usually means they get to scramble to make that point out of sequence with their other slides.

6. Start a few sentences with variations on “I’m worried that…”

Some examples:

  • I’m worried that we’re not reaching the children enough with this.
  • I’m concerned about the optics of that distribution plan.
  • I’m guess I’m not sure how that can be sustainably implemented.

Nothing shows insight in development work like vague concerns. And you’ll never have to explain that concern because someone else in the room will second your thought immediately. Since you’re already planning on leaving the meeting early to demonstrate how busy you are, you’ve just generated about 15 minutes of discussion, which means you won’t have to hear many of the rest of the slides.

7. Suggest a follow-on working group.

Once the discussion generated by #6 has gone on long enough, speak up and suggest that a follow-on working group be convened to deal with that particular issue. It sounds like you’re creating more work for yourself, but one of two things happen now:

  1. Everyone is secretly hoping this won’t happen since it will mean more meetings. So you can keep re-scheduling that working group until everyone who was at the meeting leaves the country.
  2. Someone wanting to make a name for themselves will volunteer to chair that group. And then they’ll execute the plan in #1.

8. Humorously reference the ineffectiveness of bureaucracy.

During the course of the meeting, which is keeping anyone in the room from doing any actual real work, make an offhand comment like, “Well, you how long THAT’S going to take.” This is a tricky one, since the people who actually slow your work down are probably sitting around the table at the moment, so use carefully.

9. Openly mock the standing government.

The only real barrier to your success as a development organization is whoever’s currently sitting in the presidential palace/mansion/hut/hovel. You and the donor are the most effective team ever assembled for this kind of work, and the plans you’ve collectively put together would be an unmitigated success if not for the policies of the president/king/high lord of all he surveys.

10. Leave early because of a field visit.

No one in a development meeting would dream of keeping anyone from visiting the field. This is effective for a few reasons:

  • A lot of the people in the room have never been to “the field,” so they will be suitably impressed and will see your value to the organization.
  • Your friends in the room (and there won’t be many) will be impressed with your temerity, since they know you don’t have one.
  • If questioned later, you can complain that security canceled the movement because they don’t understand the real work that’s being done here.

Gary Owen is a pseudonym for a Former U.S. Army Infantry and Civil Affairs officer with two tours in Iraq supporting Operation Iraqi Freedom, who has been working in Afghanistan as a civilian development worker since 2009. A self-proclaimed “idealist with a mortgage,” his home on the web is the blog Sunny in Kabul, and you can follow him on Twitter. He’s also a semi-regular contributor to the Afghan Analysts Network and occasional writer for Vice News. Gary and his wife call Texas home, where they live with a couple of retired racing greyhounds and three overly needy cats.

russie-2003-02

52 pieces of advice for aspiring humanitarian workers

A recent post on AJE gave some very reasonable advice to those graduating in the northern hemisphere about working in the humanitarian sector. We’d like to give some unreasonable advice.

In the great tradition of our ‘52posts, we present a comprehensive list of every. single. piece. of. advice. you’ll need to outwit, outplay and outlast the humanitarian sector. Shout out to @rishie_ for suggesting we do this. It may be the most ridiculous form of link bait in the global development blogsphere, but you clicked through didn’t you? Enjoy.

*****

1. Ladies, pack tampons, because unless you have a cushy posting in Geneva or Phnom Penh, they don’t have them.

2. Learn to play office politics; every office has them, especially NGO offices.

3. Went through your university studies looking at history, IR, politics and cultural studies? Go back, do not collect $200 and do a technical degree. Education, engineering or economics. Get technical.

4. Went through your university studies with deep technical knowledge of education, engineering or economics? Go back, study history, IR, politics or cultural studies. Get deep.

5. You will spend 90% of your time behind a desk.

6. You’ll spend the other 10% of your time trying to use LinkedIn to get another job.

7. Getting a job has more to do with luck than hard work, intelligence or capability.

8. You know less about poverty than a small farmer in northern Ghana, who has zero years of formal schooling.

9. You know nothing, humanitarian worker.

10. Get field experience to gain valuable grass-roots knowledge and insights, and witness how programs and projects are actually implemented.

11. Get HQ experience to gain valuable upstream and advocacy knowledge and insights, and witness how policy and politics actualldetermine funding and priorities.

12. National aid budgets around the OCED are being butchered, shrinking the job market. What’s your plan B?

13. There are more and more social and online tools to help you manage your long-distance relationship.

14. Your parents will always, always say to their family and friends that you work for ‘charity’.

15. You can check your privilege, but you can never, ever out run it.

16. Foreign aid doesn’t stimulate economic growth. Best read up on your macro- and micro-economics.

17. Economic growth doesn’t address inequity. Best read up on your Marx and Piketty.

18. UN staff can claim business class on an airline for any trip of nine hours+, including a stopover. Wait until you see the per diem. That’s the ticket.

19. What few studies there are have been found aid workers have higher than normal levels of stress, anxiety and compassion fatigue. At worst, they can present symptoms of PTSD and are rarely supported by their organisations.

20. Drinking alcohol is not self-care.

It's a tough job, but someone's got to do it.
It’s a tough job, but someone’s got to do it.

21. The moment you think you are becoming fluent in the language of your host country is the moment you won’t understand your landlord telling you something simple like: it’s hot today.

22. Be cautious of personality-driven NGOs. Exhibit A; Exhibit B.

23. Pack some diphenhydramine or Benadryl before you get on that bus. I don’t care if you’ve never been carsick before in your life.

24. Indeed, feel free to self-medicate after you’ve self-diagnosed, and ignore your doctor’s warning to take those anti-malarial drugs because let’s face it, you’ll ignore anything we say about seeking medical advice anyway.

25. Can’t get a position overseas? Work in community development at home. The lessons you’ll learn will be invaluable in future.

26. Do not underestimate the value of good data and good GIS.

27. Be kind to your interns – they were you not too long ago.

28. Joseph Kony is still on the run despite almost 100 million YouTube views.

29. Don’t hate the player, hate the game.

30. Humanitarian sector is increasingly dominated by women, resulting in a lack of eligible bachelors.

31. The average humanitarian worker is a 30-something, single, white female. Except in senior management positions, where it’s mostly old white men.

32. You are not trying to work yourself out of a job. That’s ridiculous.

33. Don’t go and volunteer at an NGO that runs orphanages if you are not a social worker.

34. Don’t go and volunteer to teach English if you are not a teacher.

WCmeme

35. Advertising your humanitarian status on Tinder is a bad idea.

36. If there’s a lull in conversation, bring up the topic of whether aid workers should lead comfortable lives, or muse about your NGO opening a pool. This will keep the conversation going for hours.

37. It does not matter if you are posted in Ethiopia or India; bring a cardigan, because your definition of hot and cold are going to change.

38. Though it will be difficult, try not to become the cynical kind of expat whose main objective is to avoid being mistaken as a tourist.

39. You don’t get jobs by going in the front door. Everyone tries to go in the front door but it’s not wide enough. Always go backdoor.

40. Related to above, even if the word itself turns you off, learn how to network.

41. Just because people work in the “caring sector”, it doesn’t make them nice people. You will meet as many assholes* in the humanitarian sector as in finance. (*non-scientific, anecdotal evidence).

42. You will see alarming disparities in resources between the haves (UN) and the have nots (local NGOs). You’ll probably never get over it.

43. If you spend years in one country and never learn the language, you’re missing out. Learning languages opens doors.

44. You may have lofty dreams of improving lives, but if you can’t be good to those in your immediate vicinity, you ain’t going to improve nothing.

45. “I’ve learned that people will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel.” – Maya Angelou

46. By all means, play the poor humanitarian worker card with your friends back home, but never forget that compared to colleagues in country and those you’re helping, you’re the equivalent of John D. Rockefeller.

47. If you talk about helping people in an overly simplistic way, you’re doing a disservice to everybody. Helping people is never simple.

48. Always remember the principle of non-maleficence (The Anti-Angelina Jolie way): “Sometimes, it may be better not to do something, or even to do nothing, than to risk causing more harm than good.”

49. If the founder of an NGO says something like, “I was sitting at the market when a local boy, who couldn’t have been older than 8 came up to me…” followed by “…I was shocked and realised I had to do something about it,” get skeptical.

50. It doesn’t matter if you want to or not, once you work in the humanitarian sector, you represent it. Don’t be a dick.

This was recently posted by a UNICEF Ambassador.
This was recently posted by a UNICEF Ambassador.

51. Be good to yourself. Keep an eye out for signs of burnout and its triggers, before it happens. You’re no good to anyone if you’re already burnt out.

52. You can learn as much on blogs like WhyDev as you can after years at university. Listen to what your peers are saying and join the conversation!

adversity

Your organisation isn’t going to help you, help yourself.

This post originally appeared at How Matters

Generally speaking, it doesn’t matter how large or how small the organisation you work for is. If you work in aid and development, it’s up to you to look after yourself. Sure, there are exceptions out there. Anecdotally, Save the Children and MSF are both large organisations that are investing time and money into the mental health of their staff. But the reality is, for the bulk of them, the onus is still on the individual to take care of their emotional and mental wellbeing.

A volunteer in a large government volunteer program was working in an area of considerable stress, dealing with victims of sexual violence on a daily basis. She had put in an application to continue her association with this small local organisation, through another volunteer scheme managed by the same company. After she experienced mental health issues, she informed her employer that she was struggling and needed help.

The response that she was given was that she was jeopardising future placements through this company by requesting help. Quite simply, she was showing that she was not of the right fortitude to deal with the requirements of the job. They did however tell her that she was entitled to three hours of free counselling services. Over the 12-month period of her contract.

We put people in places where we demand a great deal from them, and expect our pound of flesh. But rather than give them the tools to do the job that is needed, we treat them with suspicion that they are incapable or weak when they need help.

How did it get like this?

Two years ago, WhyDev ran its first pilot program into peer support, aiming to match isolated aid workers around the world together, to support each others mental, emotional and professional well-being. Back then, the idea that aid workers were able to reach out for this kind of support was something of a novelty in itself, even more so than it is now.

An older man who had worked in the aid and development sector for a couple of decades felt the urge to write to me out of the blue. His email started politely, though (unsurprisingly perhaps) condescendingly.

“I am sure that you are a nice and well intentioned chap”, he wrote, much like the old uncle with a pipe in one hand and a cricket bat in the other, poised to strike you on the bottom just as you think you’re getting off with only a verbal warning. He continued to tell me how in his considerable experience working in conflict and post-conflict areas, he was yet to meet anybody who could benefit from this kind of support. What we were doing at WhyDev was, in his own words, “creating yet another coffee-club for people who ought to pull themselves together and stop whinging.” He urged that I “should put my considerable energy and brainpower into something worthwhile.”

adversity

It speaks volumes about the capacity of someone to provide empathy when their solution to a problem is to grin and bear it. It also says more about the aid and development sector when people who we can assume are in higher management positions have this attitude. When they were our age, they toughed it out, and learnt how to “stop whinging”, the younger generation simply needs to do the same.

It is for this very reason that progress from organisations towards true comprehensive mental and emotional support for aid workers is slow. Look at an example of who is green-lighting them (or not, in this case).

I have two simple suggestions on how we can start to improve the situation from an organisational point of view. The first is employ more women in management positions. The science has shown again and again, that on balance, women have more characteristics than men that are suitable for management. Humility, sensitivity and emotional intelligence, just to name a few. Surely these sorts of characteristics, not the overconfidence that male managers tend to display in their own opinions, are more likely to result in organisations that know how to care for their employees’ mental and emotional health. Not only care, mind you, but give them the right tools to do the job.

The second comes back to title of this piece. Realise that, for now, organisations are generally not going to provide staff with the sort of support that they need. This doesn’t exonerate them of their responsibility to do so. It means individuals who work in aid and development need to let them know that it is something valuable to them. And support each other. Changing the perception of mental and emotional needs of aid workers will take a long time. But collectively, it is possible.

John Steinbeck’s quintessential bromance novel, Of Mice and Men, contains one of my favourite passages that encapsulates what working in isolation feels like.

A guy sets alone out here at night, maybe readin’ books or thinkin’ or stuff like that. Sometimes he gets thinkin’, an’ he got nothing to tell him what’s so an’ what ain’t so. Maybe if he sees somethin’, he don’t know whether it’s right or not. He can’t turn to some other guy and ast him if he sees it too. He can’t tell. He got nothing to measure by. I seen things out here. I wasn’t drunk. I don’t know if I was asleep. If some guy was with me, he could tell me I was asleep, an’ then it would be all right. But I jus’ don’t know.

Crooks, a black, stable hand with a physical disability, is always someone who is on the periphery of everything. He has no measuring stick to which he can exist in his life. It’s just him. But we can help each other, by first helping ourselves.

DevPeers: Improving aid through peer support from Weh Yeoh on Vimeo.

Early results of the largest survey of humanitarian workers ever show that burnout is a key issue already. At WhyDev, we are raising funds for the next iteration of their peer support program: DevPeers.

We are currently halfway to what we need to get the program launched. Without it, we cannot support the hundreds and thousands of aid workers out there. All help is appreciated.

You can also register your interest in DevPeers as a participant.

Angelina Jolie saving lives in Beyond Borders

The myth of “the field”

Last July, Alison Rabe argued that aid workers belong in the field. J. responds by saying the field doesn’t exist. 

A few months ago I wrote a little rant about “the field.” Continuing that train of thought, now…

There are few fixtures of the aid industry which hold as much mystique and show as much staying power as the concept and romance of “the field.” No other grail is so fervently sought among the bright-eyed, hopeful students and newbies as the field. The field, they believe, is where the action is, where they’re actually doing it, whatever “it” is. The harder or more exotic the field location, the better. Cubicles and conferences room in, say DC, are a necessary evil to be put up with until such time as one can escape to the field. There is no aspect of a young aid professional’s experience so frequently inflated or over-stated on resumes or at happy hour as time in the field. “Nearly one year” is always better than ten and a half months, and so on.

By the same token, there is no other trump card played with more authority and self-assurance, whether to put upstart newbs in their places or to establish one’s own silverback status, as years in the field. Years in Kabul or Huambo or San Salvador (and, for reasons I fail to grasp in 2014, Cambodia) make you a hardcore, front-line badass who makes things happen. Years in Brussels or Singapore or DC (the latter, at least as dangerous as Phnom Penh) makes you a pansy cubicle-farmer who goes to a lot of meetings and writes papers that no one in the field will ever read.

Some of you will call me an aid world heretic for this, but it’s got to be said: It’s time to recognize that “the field” is a relic from a previous era in aid history. Like VHS tapes and personal CD players, “the field” is an artifact left over from a time when white guys in khakis and untucked shirts (or maybe white women in a sexy, black tanktops) left someplace comfortable and civilized to go someplace difficult and dangerous, where they would do aid to beneficiaries.

Angelina Jolie saving lives in Beyond Borders
Angelina Jolie saving lives in Beyond Borders

I can think of few aspects of the culture of the aid industry which are more counterproductive to what we say we’re trying to accomplish, than to keep alive this notion of this mythical place called “the field.”

The reality of the aid industry today is that it no longer (if it ever did) conforms to a field/everywhere else way of thinking. It is far too common, even now in 2014, to think and say that there’s this place called the field where aid actually happens, and then there’s everywhere else—HQ, maybe—where other things get discussed or done, but what does not happen in the field is not really aid.

It’s time to recognize that this is just plain incorrect. Make fun, if you will, of what goes on in well-lit UN conference rooms in Geneva, or at the global HQs in Washington, DC, Oxford, New York or Singapore (I certainly have and sometimes still do). But it’s important to understand that those things are not just “support” or “fundraising.” They may not be particularly Facebook- or edgy memoir-worthy, but the workshops, meetings, strategy sessions in the humanitarian capitals are every bit as much aid work as are running cholera clinics in Port-au-Prince, getting a truckload of non-food items across the Acekele border crossing, or being the accountability officer in Goma.

More specifically, to see the field as the place where aid really happens, as compared to everywhere else, is to also miss a basic reality that the decisions which truly make the most difference are not made in this alleged place called the field. Implementation and technical teams at or very near the point of delivery need to be staffed by competent practitioners, and they need to be well-led, of course. It’s important to have solid people there. But look at what gets decided where:

At the project site, or at the country office you get to decide things like the training schedule for the nurse/midwives. Or maybe you get to decide on the wording of the questions in the household survey instrument. You get to decide which trucking company to go with for next month’s shelter kit delivery. Those are all important, of course, and they must be decided well.

But in the everywhere else, you decide or participate in decisions about where the funding goes. This region gets 2/3, that region gets 1/3. You decide which countries get funding. You decide what sectors get prioritized. These places, more than those. These people, not those. Maternal Child Health, but not harm reduction. At the project site, you basically implement the decisions made by those who are elsewhere. When I was a country director (during my own years in this alleged place called the field), I tried repeatedly to articulate and implement a strategy which focused on particular sectors in particular parts of the country where I worked (Vietnam). But at the end of the day, aid industry Darwinism took over and I implemented the grants I could win—which were not necessarily in my sectors or geographic areas of preference. I might have been on the so-called front lines, but the real decisions about where and who and what had been made elsewhere.

To use another example, in the early weeks of the Haiti earthquake response, World Food Programme (WFP) provided nearly 50 metric tonnes of food for earthquake survivors. The decision to make this amount of food available was made in Rome. The decision about how the food was to be divided up was made—well—globally, via email and internet, by the heads of relief and food programming of the various INGO partners (several INGOs did the distribution for WFP). The decisions about targeting (they targeted women on behalf of households) and ration size (50 kg. bags) were made by WFP with some input from NGOs, again more or less globally.

In the end, the relief operations teams in “the field” got to decide things like how to divide the tonnage and territory among themselves, where the distribution sites would be, exactly, and to some extent their own individual modes of beneficiary registration. I was in Port-au-Prince at this time, working for one of the INGOs tasked with distributing that WFP food, and I remember that period very well as a time of crazy ‘round-the-clock work. But in the end, we were implementing decisions made by others who, in some cases were thousands of miles away.

Beyond the basic, structural realities of the aid industry, there is also a deeper, darker problem perpetuated by the field versus everywhere else thinking. Our continued fixation with the field crystalizes residual, essentially ethnocentric notions about those who need help, and about those who do the helping. No matter how much lip service and maybe even real effort we devote to valuing all things “local”, to local capacity building, or local empowerment, to trying to break down the divide(s) between expats and non-expats, we re-cement the divide between “us” and “them” every time we refer to the place where aid supposedly happens as the field.

Speaking to the empowered, globally-minded Westerners now, we might say that we want Ugandans or Indonesians or Bolivians or whomever else to be empowered owners of their own development, but every time we refer to where they are as “the field”, we underscore our perhaps unconscious views that they are undeveloped, while we are, well, developed. By continually invoking this notion of the field we reinforce the very divides we say we want to bridge; we further solidify the very inequities we insist we want to eradicate. Inevitably “the field” becomes an even more deeply entrenched separation between “us” and “them”, whether the “them” is those we claim our projects and programs help, our local colleagues with whom we like to say we’re so close, or our colleagues hunched over desks in nice offices, writing the grants which keep our salaries flowing, and the position papers which (hopefully) keep our employing agencies credible.

Yes, the field sounds exciting. The field sounds romantic. Set in UN cubicles of New York or Geneva, Emergency Sex would hardly be worth reading (although I think it’s safe to say that more or less the same shenanigans go on there, too). But set in the field, it feels like a furtive peek through the locker-room door into a world that seems both exotic and foreboding. But the romance and the exotic factor of the field are chimera. The number of places in the world where you truly cannot get good internet or a cappuccino become fewer and farther between by the day. And in this context, the field becomes a huge distraction.

I can’t say I have the answer to the question of, “if not the field, then what?” I do know that how we think and speak (or write) about aid matters. I prefer to think about what I do and how that fits into the overall picture more than the where I do it. How does what I do today fit into the grand scheme of aid somehow making it into the hands of those who need it most? How does what I do today contribute to improved efficiency and effectiveness of the machine intended to make the world better? It’s not about the where: I know people living in places which, if I was to name them, would make anyone’s list of places in “the field”, but who cannot articulate a straight line of logic between what they spend their days doing and the amount of poverty in the world becoming somehow less.

And so, if I could be indulged to deliver one bit of unsolicited advice, it would be simply this: Understand and be honest about your motivations—the “why” matters. Find your spot in the overall scheme of what needs to be done.

But stop fixating on the where. There is no field.

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


Weird.

Five rules for using Twitter as an aid/development professional

On a recent episode of The Daily Show, with stand-in John Oliver, a segment highlighted Hillary Clinton’s joining of Twitter. Jessica Williams, the ‘Senior Twitter Correspondent’, offered Hillary five rules for using Twitter. Here, I want to take those five rules, and adapt them to a global aid and development context.

If you are not already on Twitter, sign up. It is another way not only to receive information, updates and track key organisations and individuals, but also to network. In a recent Guardian Development Professionals live chat on career advancement, of which I was a member of the panel, ‘networking’ was THE key message from all panel members. Personally, I found a consultancy job through Twitter, have been able to connect with the likes of Owen Barder, Charles Kenny and Beyoncé (well, not yet, but here’s hoping!) and translate social media relationships into face-to-face meet-ups.

I'm ready for you too Beyonce!
I’m ready for you too Beyonce!

Twitter is a good way to build your personal, public brand in aid/development. But, if you are not familiar with the conventions of Twitter, its vocabulary, etiquette and premise, don’t be afraid. If a 3-year old can use Twitter, so can you (see below).

Screen Shot 2013-06-14 at 12.48.19 PM

These five rules will help guide you.

#1 Don’t tweet your junk

If you’d like, take this literally and as it was originally meant by Jessica Williams re: Anthony Weiner. It is a cautionary tale in creating your personae and brand. It means ‘don’t tweet your personal stuff‘; what you ate for breakfast, how slow the traffic is, your general complaints about waking up at a certain time. Don’t tweet this junk. If you profess to love the NBA and basketball, then go ahead and tweet basketball-related junk. That is fine. It’s your thing, and you will connect with other like-minded people. But, no one cares that you are going to bed at 10:14pm #sleepy. The same goes for aid/development. If you are passionate about and work in nutrition, make that your gig and tweet, discuss and chat about nutrition-related issues. Position yourself.

#2 Don’t be boring

This rule builds of rule #1 and is self-explanatory (for some). Don’t be boring. Be engaged, funny, interested, quizzical, coherent. I claim no objectivity here, but Weh Yeoh offers a great example of how to use Twitter effectively. I try to emulate him. Danica Patrick, NASCAR’s only female driver, may have 900,000 followers but her account is boring as hell. More followers =/= more interesting.

Boring.
Boring.

 

#3 Seriously, don’t tweet your junk

It is easy to forget that, unless you have your Twitter account locked, it is in the public space. Everything you write, send, reply to, is public. If you are particularly skeptical of aid and/or particular practices of certain organisations, you would do well to keep this in mind. You can still be critical of, for example, World Vision US’s gifts-in-kind (GIK) program AND hope to work for them in the future. Just be mindful of how you criticise. Tom Murphy, of A View From the Cave, is very good at presenting critical, but balanced, arguments and weighing-in on debates.

#4 Don’t be weird

Not everything that pops into your head can be a tweet. Easy to do, hard to remember. Make sure your auto-filter is on, and try not be weird. Save that stuff for Facebook, where friends and family will respond to updates such as, “Had the worst day today”, “Hello New York!”, “#PointlessHashTag”. It is easy to see a link to a particular global aid/development issue or an opinion about poverty, and immediately react with what you think is a punchy reply. It’s not. With only 140 characters, you probably will be misunderstood and hence, weird. You can also spilt your tweets into paragraphs, labelling them 1/3, 2/3 and 3/3. Just be thoughtful. Also, see rule #2.

Weird.
Weird.

 

#5 Highlight your superpowers (but set limitations)

There is nothing wrong with self-promotion, linking to your own work and generally hustling on Twitter.  Highlight your work. Share it with others who you think would be interested. Put yourself out there. Just do it with a modicum of humility and self-awareness. Be prepared to accepted criticism, rejection and silence on Twitter from aid/development professionals, who can be short, sharp or non-responsive. Remember, in the words of Kanye West, “you may be talented, but you’re not kanye west”.

Screen Shot 2013-06-27 at 9.25.23 AM

What rules do you have for being an aid/development professional on Twitter?

mr-fox-1080

Are development workers foxes or hedgehogs?

I was getting up to date on WhyDev and came across the post ’8 things I wish I knew before I started in development’ by Rachel Kurzyp.

This post makes a lot of valid points and is well worth the read. I must admit that I clicked on it with an expectation of banality – ever since the Huffington Post took the format of ‘X things to know about Y’ and flooded the internet with vapid articles such titles immediately provoke a sense of wariness – but was pleasantly surprised. In fact, I found one point, the second, stuck with me for several days:

2. It’s important to be a generalist

While it’s great to be an expert in a specific field it’s just as important to be a generalist. You need to be comfortable and able to take on general tasks when required such as basic admin, report writing and supply distribution. Humanitarian work is on-going, though there are periods of downtime, but you may be required to do dual roles in smaller programmes. You could also find yourself without work for short periods due to programme closures or waiting on grant approvals. This is when you can draw upon your past life’s skills and gain work in other departments or roles outside of the development sector.

I think this is sound advice. Trends and fashions change the prevailing winds in development at least as much as in any other sector. As nurses or teachers will tell you, any industry that politicians have direct and immediate access to is liable to get shaken up, oh, every four years or so. It would, therefore, be cruel to advise any wannabe development types (like myself) to specialise too soon. Besides, there are a lot of ‘basic’ skills and experiences you have to get under your belt before you can think about hunkering down into a speciality and living up to that possibly dubious ‘expert’ tag you’re itching to add to your Twitter bio.

This got me thinking about Isaiah Berlin’s famous essay The Hedgehog And The Fox which opens by examining the divide between specialists and generalists:

There is a line amongst the fragments of the Greek Poet Archilochus which says, “The fox knows many things, but the hedgehog knows one big thing”… Taken figuratively,  the words can be made to yield a sense in which they mark one of the deepest differences which divide writer and thinkers and, it may be, human beings in general.

Source: Flickr

It would seem to me that development workers are foxes, or, at least, better off being foxes. These are not categorisations intended to be taken as gospel truth, of course. Berlin goes on to point out that these lines could be, very specifically, about actual hedgehogs and foxes – i.e. hedgehogs know one way to stop a fox from eating them and it is a successful one despite the different techniques of the fox. But, as a thought experiment, it is a nice way to start thinking about colleagues or thinkers or professors or writers or, if you’re feeling particularly  brave, even yourself. It is especially interesting to examine the industry in light of this artificial definition.

Is it useful for development workers to be foxes?

I agree with the WhyDev post in that it makes those workers more employable and probably easier to work with. But is that missing the bigger picture? Perhaps the generalist outlook of development is misguided. Perhaps it perpetuates a system that seems to be addicted to reinvention, to new bold narratives of change and progress. Such things fill the blogosphere with laments and generally the big guys get pointed out as culprits – donors, governments, the military. While the notion of the development worker as a fox opens up excellent opportunities in punning blog post headlines, this could well be scant reward for collusion in ineptitude.

Alternatively,  you could argue that the hedgehog is a disastrous profile for a development worker. It suggests inflexibility which makes team based projects a strained experience at best. Is there anyway a development project, let alone entire organisation, would work without an emphasis on teamwork? Sure, the fox might go low on details but at least it will try to innovate and attempt different options –  the notion of listening to stakeholders at beneficiary and benefactor level seems too sound to throw away to me. That might be worth defending the vulpine status quo on its own.

Once again, the model is something of a nonsense but, play along. Think about it in a context close to you and see if it doesn’t stick in your mind. It did for me. If you have thoughts, please post them below so readers can access more coherent thoughts than my own. If it doesn’t stick with you then… well, that’s just typical fox behaviour isn’t it?

This post first appeared on Rowan’s blog, UpLook.