Patient bear

Patience in development work is more than a virtue: it’s a necessity

We don’t do patience well in the developed world. We jump in our cars to drive for ten minutes rather than wait an extra two for the bus. We complain when queues at the supermarket are too long. We tell people that the food at a particular restaurant is fantastic, but it’s not worth the wait.

In most developing countries, however, patience really is a virtue and seems to be a fundamental difficulty for professionals working in the aid sector who were raised in developed countries.

It seems that many people in the aid sector embrace the idea of changing the world (or at least a small part of it) without recognition of the thousands of years it has taken for most communities to reach their current situations. Even when solutions to issues are apparent, such as medication for health problems, aid workers need to understand that communities may not be ready for this response and we need to move at their pace. (Of course, these issues are compounded by power structures of who will operate projects and how these will impact current hierarchical structures, but that is a different discussion.)

Take, for example, the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs). The idea that 15 years of MDGs could solve global poverty or even put us on a clear, linear path towards global well-being was a clear fallacy despite the best intentions. Eradicating extreme poverty requires resources; institutional change at macro and micro levels; and time.

This is not to say that the establishment of the MDGs was a mistake or misplaced faith. In most cases it is vital for planning, monitoring and evaluation purposes to focus on working in time-frames of 3-15 years. However, we should also acknowledge that we likely will not make a huge impact on poverty, good governance, etc. unless we use these shorter time-frames to focus on the bigger picture decades down the line.

Even if all of the MDGs are achieved by deadline (unfortunately that is highly unlikely), there would still be work to be done. Women’s representation in parliaments worldwide would be far from equitable (MDG3); maternal and child mortality rates would still be disproportionately higher in developing countries (MDGs 4&5); and the entire international community would still be dealing with the effects of climate change for decades to come (MDG7).  Beyond these simple, obvious areas for continued work and advocacy, the MDGs were never the panacea to development because every problem in development is a wicked problem.

Development is not like rocket science, where the calculations and the resources amount, effectively, to a rocket launching and later landing. For every solution in the aid sector, more issues will be created. Ernesto Sirolli provides a simple, but clear example of this at this point in his engaging and entertaining TED talk on the need to listen. It is our role, as development professionals, to identify and mitigate these issues before they happen, where possible. And the only way to have any sense of these risks is to be patient, to research, to listen.

It is also to be remembered that many developing communities place community above outputs. We can have all the Logframes and Process Indicators we want and explain to beneficiaries how we will improve their lives, but we have to understand time operates differently in the UK, Australia or the UN offices in Addis Ababa than in the communities that we work in.

Relationships can be more important to these communities than material wealth and so time is understood differently. A meeting to secure a $100k grant can wait an hour while somebody assists their cousin to move house or help to look after their neighbour’s baby. That is a present concern and one with clear, tangible ramifications that can help somebody they care about. Perhaps there is a lesson for us all in such an outlook.

Patience in development work is more than a virtue: it’s a necessity.

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Aidan Craney

Aidan Craney has worked in various welfare and development settings for the past eight years. Currently based in Suva, Fiji, he is working on the design, implementation and evaluation of youth-empowerment projects. Not as patient as he'd like to be, you are equally likely to find him ranting about development issues or Australian Rules football. He can be followed on twitter at @AidanSeamus

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4 thoughts on “Patience in development work is more than a virtue: it’s a necessity”

  1. As a person who comes from a developing country, I’d like to say that the whole cultural validity thing can be taken too far. It is precisely the kind of short-term adherence to status quo that ignores long-term 100k$ grant meetings to help out cousins and relatives that contributes to the mess developing countries are in. You can learn from them, certainly, but they must also be open to learning from you.

  2. As necessary as patience is for on the ground work, we’ve got to remember that aid workers are often the bridge between the developing world and donors/organizations, who with all of their demands, restraints and expectations are the ones who insist on timely action. Of course, then there are some insistence where time is of the essence – emergency relief namely. Urgency is always going to be an issue as NGOs are understaffed, overworked and being pulled in multiple directions by the needs and wants of all the stakeholders.

What are you thinking?