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Development work & the myth of the “warm fuzzies”

Development work & the myth of the “warm fuzzies”

By Dani Barrington

I recently moved from Melbourne to Brisbane and needed to find a new round of services–hairdresser, chiropractor, doctor–and I dreaded each visit and the inevitable question, “So, what do you do for a job?”

I haven’t figured out a simple way of answering this question yet. I generally ramble for a bit and then conclude with, “I work with communities in the South Pacific to improve their water and sanitation. So, you know, water and toilets and stuff.”

The inevitable response to this is, “Wow, that’s so important! You actually get to CHANGE THE WORLD!”

At this point, I generally smile and nod, not having the energy to get into the realities of aid work during a ten-minute appointment.

But the more Fridays I spend with my development colleagues having existential crises over beers, the more I realise that we need to make it clearer to the general public just what development work entails. I do not spend my days floating on a self-satisfied cloud of “warm fuzzies.” Most of the time, I am mentally/emotionally/physically exhausted, and many days culminate in me curled up on the couch, questioning whether what I’m doing is the slightest bit useful.

I have chosen here to highlight the three biggest myths I regularly encounter from non-development folk:

1. “Communities must be so GRATEFUL to you!”

Not necessarily. The aid paradigm is shifting from giving people stuff (give a man a fish…) to teaching people stuff (teach a man to fish…) to finding out what people actually want and helping them to obtain it (working with a man to find out that his community hates fish, but there is an excellent local opportunity to buy and sell pigs, which he would like to invest in). From here on, I’ll refer to the new approach as participatory development.

I strongly believe that participatory development is the only (potentially) sustainable form of development–but in the short term, communities really want the free fish. In the past, aid agencies and governments have given them lots of fish, so that’s what they expect from us now. And when this young white woman comes in and starts rambling about self-empowerment and working together without giving out free toilets or water tanks, it’s generally met with suspicion and annoyance. These communities are well aware of their issues, and in general know what infrastructure they could use to tackle them. It takes a while to convince people of the merits of participatory development, which means a lot of time spent in communities with people being passively aggressive towards my team and me (resulting in a lot of “Everyone hates me and I feel sorry for myself” beers in the evenings).

My colleagues and I can only hope that communities are curious enough to stick with us in the longer term and realise that they actually do have the skills to achieve what they want without relying on a handout culture. (I should admit that the moment when individuals really “get” it is like a light switching on in their head, and THAT is a cool moment to be working in development). But if they do get to that point, communities SHOULDN’T be grateful to me–because they did it themselves. Some community members realise this, but others may still lack the confidence to realise how much they have achieved through their own hard work. Either way, I don’t actually desire to be anyone’s personal Jesus, I just appreciate having a job where I get to work on the sexy subject of toilets.

2. “So you build toilets, then?”

This stems from the fact that many people in developed countries also don’t realise that the handout culture is beginning to be superseded by participatory development. I don’t build toilets or dig wells. In all honesty, I estimate that 90% of the people in communities where I work are much better at manual labour than me (I’m fairly certain that the only time I’ve ever been praised for digging a hole was as a child building a sandcastle at the beach), so I would be as good as useless at installing a well. I guess the best analogy here isn’t an analogy at all–I’m an engineer. Everyone knows that engineers don’t actually build stuff…

But, I do have existential crises about what it is I actually DO do. I am WEIRD (Western, Educated, Industrialized, Rich and Democratic), and as others have discussed, I am constantly concerned that my entire sector is simply perpetuating colonialism and, in some parts of the world, potentially making the situation worse. When I receive e-mails from people wanting to work in development because they feel their current job is “pointless,” I feel like writing back, “Are you sure mine isn’t, too?”

3. “Hearing about our silly ‘first-world problems’ must drive you crazy!”

I am in a rare position of working directly in aid whilst being based in a developed country. (I have lived in developing countries before, but now fly in for a few weeks of fieldwork every two or three months). I have the luxury of living in a country where the public transport is reliable, my workplace is air-conditioned and my shower provides me gloriously hot water. And when one of these things fails me, I’m the first to take to Facebook to vent my frustrations. What is a day-to-day occurrence in the countries where I’ve worked (“No electricity for the next 15 hours? Oh Nepal, you can only laugh!”) becomes a series of texts to my friends and family. (“I’m in the worst mood of my entire life because the power is out, and the ice cream is going runny, and I’m going to curl up in a ball and cry.”)

I know people in the communities where I work also get frustrated by so-called “first-world problems.” People do not spend their entire lives sitting around lamenting their lack of income, but they too get annoyed when the brand of drink they want isn’t available at the canteen (although they may stop short of announcing it on Twitter). What you consider a “problem” is entirely dependent on what you’re accustomed to, and this means that if you want to vent to me about how your bus was ten minutes late and the air-conditioner on it was broken, I will sympathise. I am not going to send back a text telling you to “harden the f*ck up because there are starving children in Africa.” I completely understand your frustration, and you are completely entitled to it (so long as you don’t judge me when I text you complaining of a self-induced stomach ache from binging on melted ice cream).


I hope other aid workers find this post useful in both fostering solidarity (surely I’m not the only one who feels this way?) and helping them explain to their loved ones what their job is really like. Development workers aren’t really saintly individuals who want to be placed on a pedestal–we just want to do something mildly useful for humanity without losing our minds in the process.

Dani Barrington is a Research Fellow at Monash University / International Water Centre, an Honorary Fellow at The University of Queensland and Editor-in-Chief of the Journal of Humanitarian Engineering. She conducts participatory action research, so describes herself an academic/practitioner hybrid (the Prius of the development world). You can also follow her on Twitter.

Featured image shows children playing around a well in Jedane, Ethiopia. Photo from Wikimedia Commons.

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3 thoughts on “Development work & the myth of the “warm fuzzies”

  1. Rebecca

    I’ve never found anyone that can explain the approach so well. I find this also applies to working in more deprived communities in the ‘wierd’ world too, not just in developing countries.

  2. Such a great article. You’ve summed up how I feel on most days.

  3. Alex

    Great post – I can definitely relate. When I tell people about the work I’m involved in, I feel like responses range from ‘so you’re working in an orphange/build schools/teaching English’ to ‘you’re saving the world!’…when I’m really not doing either.

    I also love the inclusion of the point about #firstworldproblems…in addition to the terminology problems, I’ve often felt like the hashtag separates us into two humanities…where one is forever preoccupied by big problems of war, famine and disease and the other whines about the mundane annoyances of life. Can’t I complain about both?

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