Tag Archives: Development

Aleppians waiting in a bread line during the Syrian Civil War. Photo from Voice of America.

Cognitive dissonance in aid: A job like any other

This is the final post in a series of responses to Jonathan Favini’s piece on cognitive dissonance in the aid industry. Check out the other responses here and here, and share your own in the comments.

A few bullet-points, first, then narrative.

  • The opening scene of the barbershop in Jonathan’s article resonates: I had approximately the same experience in a small town in southern Michigan in about 1991.
  • Jonathan describes well the cognitive dissonance of being an aid/development worker, but struggles to convey the gaps between what we actually do, what everyone thinks we do and who we are. Hell, I struggle to convey them after more than a decade of writing specifically dedicated to that end. It’s mostly the point of my recent book, Letters Left Unsent (see especially the chapter entitled “Noble Savages”).
  • In this way, I think aid workers and the aid industry are actually analogous to porn actors and the adult film industry. Powerful, common perceptions about who we are and what we do seldom reflect reality… But since everyone thinks they know, no one bothers actually asking. Which leads to massive misperceptions by those entering or attempting to enter the sector. Which leads to people like Jonathan having cognitive dissonance straight out of the gate, before he’s got much more than entry-level experience under his belt.

How have you integrated recognition of the industry’s flaws into your professional identity?

In pretty much the same way a physician integrates recognition of the healthcare industry’s flaws. Which is to say that I acknowledge them openly, and then assertively use my own (current) influence to correct them or start to correct them where I can.

I recognize the faults and challenges, and take on as a part of my personal responsibility and ethics to do what I can to make it better. In this area, though, I don’t really see that aid and development is any different from most any other industry–the automotive industry, perhaps, or the food industry. I think there’s always a disconnect between, for lack of a better term, the business-end or “industrial” side of any industry and the thing the industry is meant to provide.

For example, the automotive industry is beset with drama and intrigue around what gets decided, how, where and by whom. Then consumers–people like you and me–certainly have opinions about what cars we like, would like to have (whether real and current or imaginary), all to come around to the realities of what we can actually afford.

And so, I suppose, in my professional life, like an engineer or a factory worker at Toyota, I have no problem acknowledging the limitations of what my chosen industry has to offer.

I may even be candid and open about my employer’s comparative and competitive advantages and disadvantages vis-a-vis other providers. I think we can safely assume that in 20 years’ time, the cars we drive will look and work and be quite different from those we have now.

And in the same way, with the aid industry, whether we’re talking about the technical specifications of the actual products we deliver or the industry’s nature and structure, the acquisitions, the shifts in power at the “top” of the industry itself (far from the factory floor, if you will), I think we can freely acknowledge flaws without ever abandoning belief in the value of the product itself or in our own individual and collective roles in making that product happen.

How have you learned to recognize development’s problems, while continuing to do work in the field or advocating for its expansion?

I think there’s a tendency to make this issue seem more black and white than it is, in fact. It’s partially to do with basic human nature–we gravitate toward explanations that feel simple. It’s partially to do, I think, with the way the discussion about aid has evolved, particularly on social media, in the past few years. And I think it also has to do with the fact that the major (which is to say, widely-read) critiques almost all come from industry outsiders who have a vested interest in articulating extreme critique. And here I’m talking specifically about William Easterly, Dambisa Moyo and Linda Polman (among others). “Dead aid” grabs attention, whereas “Aid with a serious, but ultimately curable illness” lacks punch.

Too much of the conversation, in my opinion, is polarized between “aid is dead,” and “OMG, we’re making poverty history!” The truth is that the vast majority is somewhere in the middle.

I think there’s perhaps a generational thing at play, too. Myself at 25, a year or two into my own aid career, I had all the answers. I could give the entire litany of everything wrong with the sector, every decision my boss and my bosses’ boss made was wrong, and so on. Now, 20+ years later, I’m not so sure.

Jonathan asks some tough questions, but lately I’m not so sure they’re the most relevant ones. The question, “Did I ‘make a lasting difference’ during my time as a PCV in Senegal?” is a very, very different question from, “Does aid work or not? And if not, how do we fix it?” And those of us who stick around come to understand that the things that make aid work or not, the problems in real need of redress, have nothing at all to do with whether the white guys and women in rural West Africa are “learning the language and finding a place in Senegalese society.” I think many of us had our equivalent of a barbershop crisis early on. Stay on for a while, though, and see how things actually work, and you begin to understand that the issues are different.

I stay on because I see the potential for good. I’ve seen the good actually happen myself. I stay on because I see the real possibility of changing the industry for the better and at the level at which it truly needs to change. I stay on because I still believe.

How do you motivate yourself on tough days when you doubt the impact of your efforts?

Let me start somewhere else, because I don’t really think this is the best question to ask here. I think it is absolutely critical to understand that this aid or development thing is a job, like any other (even if Peace Corps marketing says otherwise). Maybe you work some long hours. Maybe, in the course of this “ordinary job,” you go to some cool places and have some wild moments. But at the end of the day, it is a job. You go to work, you collect your salary or stipend, you pay your bills, and eventually you retire.

It is critical to understand that liking your job, that feeling as if what you do for work contributes to some greater good–“job satisfaction”–is a luxury and a privilege that many (perhaps most?) people simply do not have. I think too many people enter the aid sector because they anticipate a constant rush of, “I JUST SAVED A LIFE!!”

I see these people day in and day out in my real job: they’re the ones who very easily get bored or disillusioned and leave, or perhaps run off to start their own NGO, before they’ve really understood the reality. I think the sooner we understand that, like with any other job in any other industry, some days are going to be awesome and some days are going to suck, the sooner we’ll get past the stage of existential barbershop crises.

I don’t mean we should become apathetic. Rather, I mean we must understand that this job, this career, carries with it both positive and negative. And further, that just because we have a tough day at the office or in the village, doesn’t mean aid is broken.

And there, I’ve gone on preaching.

Featured image from Voice of America.

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What Tim Minchin can teach you about working in global development

I’ve been sitting on a number of career panels recently. Melbourne is the Australian capital for NGO HQs, social enterprise, development students and cafes. These events are popular. Students are thirsty for the holy grail of career advice. I’m far from the best person to offer advice for a number of reasons. I like to take a different tack.

Ask not how do you get a job in development, but how can you best contribute to justice, human rights and people’s well being.

I’ve considered a number of times asking attendees to “Sell me this pen,” or screaming, “Don’t start an NGO!!” Thankfully, I’m more reserved and promote a reflexive approach to my pitch.

Although Tim Minchin isn’t my favourite comedian (Aamer Rahman), his address to students at the University of Western Australia was poignant, unapologetic and irreverent. Just what I needed to inspire a click-bait friendly post about what he can teach you about working in global development.

1. You don’t have to have a dream

Recently, there has been a trend of blog posts and research advocating for a focus on short-term, discrete goals, particularly when it comes your own life. A range of PhD advice centres on chunks. Don’t get caught up on the whole. It is overwhelming. Break it down into discrete, manageable and achievable tasks.

A dream can be overwhelming, particularly when others speak of having or obtaining one. Ending extreme poverty comes to mind.

Minchin says to be “micro-ambitious” and work with pride on whatever is in front of you. It doesn’t matter if you’re editing a boring mid-term report for a disinterested donor or yet another grant application with a 0.01% chance of success. “You never know where you might end up.”

Working in global development is by no means linear, stable or secure. Yes, there are those who’ve wanted to work for “the UN” since they were the under-secretary of the Model UN at Parkville High School. But, shit happens.

2. Don’t seek happiness

“Happiness is like an orgasm. If you think about it too much it goes away.”

If you want to be happy, make someone else happy. This taps into the notion of mindfulness and awareness about being less selfish, less egotistical. It is difficult. Working in global development sometimes feels like a circle jerk. It can feel really good, and everyone in the circle is feeling good, but it is also wrong. The ethical, philosophical and very practical dilemmas of the industry are hard to reconcile and find happiness within. Can you work in a flawed industry and still do good? Let me put that another way. Can you work in a flawed industry and find happiness?

3. It is all luck

This is about privilege. You can always acknowledge it, and it is important to do so, but you can never outrun it. If you work in global development, you are lucky. Lucky to be alive. Lucky to be educated. Lucky to be healthy. You are privileged. Yes, you worked hard for it (some of you didn’t), but as Minchin says, “I didn’t make the bit  of me that works hard”.

Don’t take full credit for your successes and don’t blame others fully for their failings. It will make you humble, compassionate and empathetic. Although it sounds like something the Dalai Lama would say with an enlightened smile, they are wise words from a man who wears a lot of black eye-liner.

4, Exercise

Take care of your body. Run, jog, practice yoga, do aerobics, try heyrobics, eat well, sleep enough, don’t smoke, drink moderately. Working in global development will pit your emotional, mental and physical energies against the world, against violence, cruelty and hardship.

If you are lucky enough to work overseas, you will most likely experience stress, depression, isolation, compassion fatigue and perhaps even show symptoms of PTSD. You’ve got a long life ahead of you. Get active.

5. Be hard on your opinions

This is my favourite one. Global development is rife with entrenched positions, program inertia and anecdotal evidence. Change does start within. We’re always bashing other people’s theories of change, opinions about development minutiae and where to get the best coffee (Melbourne).

But, what about our own hard-won beliefs, biases and prejudices? “Be hard on your beliefs. Take them out onto the veranda and hit them with a cricket bat”. (A cricket bat.) You know nothing, aid worker. Many of our failings in global development are found in a failure to communicate because we are too wrapped up in our own beliefs.

6. Be a teacher*

Okay, so this is my new favourite one. “Even if you are not a teacher, be a teacher.” But, this comes with a caveat. This does not mean go and volunteer to teach English in Ghana during summer break. No. And I’m speaking to you, the 22-year old white female from [Australia, Europe, North America], studying business but wanting an adventure in Africa over the holidays.

If you want to teach, even just to give it a go – and will commit to it for a period of time – go and get a degree. Read John Dewey, Paulo Freire, Maria Montessori and Michelle Rhee, and get pumped about being a professional educator. You want to change the world and make a difference? Be a teacher.

7. Define yourself by what you love

It is not about what you are in opposition to; express your love for things, places, people and ideas you are passionate about. “Be pro-stuff, not just anti-stuff.”

Yes, yes, yes, we know voluntourism is the embarrassing, slightly perverted uncle of volunteering, but what are the alternatives? What should people who are willing to give their time, and pay for it, be doing?

You are anti-voluntourism, anti-TOMS, anti-IMF SAPs, anti-religion, anti-capitalism. But what are you pro?

8. Respect people with less power than you

How do you treat your interns? How do you treat the community members your organisation works with? Do you show friendliness or friendship?

Friendliness is benign. It is that demeanour you adopt when visiting communities. You arrive in a community and go through the customs of greeting its senior members, with a kind smile on your face, aware of your status and the blessings you bring. You soak up the exoticness of it, aware of your, and the community’s, otherness. You are a Big Man/Big Woman. The magical symbols and capital letters that represent your tribe give you power. At the back of your mind, you hear the faint whisper of Kanye. “I am a god / So hurry up with my damn massage.”

And there is friendship that is powerful, humble and respectful. It takes a step back, relinquishes power and empowers. You are small in the company of others, aware of your privilege but not consumed by it. R E S P E C T. Find out what it means to you.

9. Don’t rush

Relax. You don’t need to know what your career in global development or elsewhere will be. No one knows. It ain’t that simple. Take time to figure shit out. What are you good at? What do you love? Who do you love? What will people pay you to do?

Think carefully before entering global development. We need critical, reflexive, humble people; not just do-gooders. Hell, global development may not even need you. In the wise words of Tina Turner, we don’t need another hero.

Watch Minchin’s full address below.

Featured image by Lyndsey Brown.

Children line up to wash their hands at a Tippy Tap in Kitgum, Uganda

Accepting flaws and doing good: Some thoughts on cognitive dissonance

This post is the second in a series of responses to Jonathan Favini’s recent piece on cognitive dissonance. Stay tuned as the conversation continues, and share your own thoughts in the comments.

By Erol Yayboke

Jonathan’s post on the “cognitive dissonance” required to work in development aid concludes with a series of broad questions that can loosely be translated into: how do you (i.e. “older, wiser” development practitioners) sleep at night? Though not an entirely fair translation, his broader aim to question the “development industry” is well taken. Most of us have had similarly awkward encounters with our barbers, taxi drivers and cousins that left us wondering whether we deserved such praise.

Before offering my “sage” responses to the valid questions every development aid worker should ask of him/herself and others, there are a couple points I’d like to make about the arguments that led up to Jonathan’s questions.

First, the “development industry” is a totally theoretical construct that includes countless non-profit, public, private and multi-lateral players, all with competing resources and agendas. We (including yours truly) overuse and abuse it regularly. Also, “development” as presented in the article is heavily skewed towards how “we in the West” have an impact on “those in the rest.” It’s important to note that part of the complexity of development is the fact that this West-centric viewpoint is simultaneously paternalistic and not entirely accurate.

Employees at India’s Ministry of Environment don’t see themselves as working in “development” per se; much like my friend at the U.S. Department of Energy, they’re working within the bureaucracy to improve their country. In other words, there is simply no utopian singular entity called “development” – it is a complex web that doesn’t even begin to understand itself (just ask any UN OCHA employee).

In spite of this, some groups have shown remarkable successes in health, food security and generally getting people to care about things outside their own communities (which I posit is better than the isolationist alternative).

I recommend focusing on criticising and offering improvements to specific sectors and programs based on concrete evidence, as opposed to chastising “development” as a whole.

Second, some of Jonathan’s article relies on one unfortunate tacit assumption: that the Peace Corps is a “development” organisation. Despite claiming that it “[sends] Americans abroad to tackle the most pressing needs of people around the world” and work towards “sustainable change,” at best, the Peace Corps is a diplomatic ideal; it was arguably set up as such by Kennedy during the Cold War.

An admirable service organization that has undoubtedly “helped people build better lives,” Peace Corps is nonetheless one whereby, in practice, (mostly) young, energetic, bright Americans who often lack relevant technical skills (how many of us have met a health volunteer who didn’t know First Aid?) ingratiate themselves to communities that would otherwise probably never meet such aliens (double entendre intended).

More realistically (and acknowledged by the organisation itself), Peace Corps service is a time for self-discovery – as was the case for the volunteers Jonathan knew in Senegal – a time for Americans themselves to grow in compassion, worldliness and resilience. All noble outcomes, none of which have anything to do with “development.”

Now to the “sage wisdom.”

On reconciling the “industry’s flaws” with my own professional identity, I’d say that we live in a flawed world where nothing is ever perfect. Only by understanding and experiencing these flaws can we improve ourselves and the world around us. As professionals, we should constantly be in pursuit of more efficiency, effectiveness and impact. It’s important to establish meaningful metrics for your project (NGO, sector, industry, etc.) and for yourself, referring to – and learning from – them often.

I’m a believer in having opinions based on evidence and in the value of real, long-term, first-hand experience topped with healthy doses of skepticism (of which Jonathan lacks not). Ultimately though, we all must strive to first, do no harm – even the best of intentions have the potential for unintended consequences.

On recognising problems while continuing to work in this field, I’d challenge Jonathan to find a profession that does not toil with this (somewhat existential) question.

To most (in our “industry” at least) who look hard enough, the systemic flaws are readily apparent and littered with political, financial and sometimes even nefarious roadblocks. The challenge (and great reward if you succeed) is to find solutions that are politically supportable, administratively feasible and technically correct. If you can manage to do that, give yourself a hearty pat on the back and scale up!

As for motivation on those ever-present tough days where doubt creeps in? This is a very personal struggle that we all face at points, even while working on the most impactful of projects. Am I truly doing no harm? Am I actually “making a difference?” Alas, there is usually no black and white answer; there rarely is in life. However, the pursuit of impact should drive us to better understand and continually refine our efforts.

This desire for more evidence has even spawned a research-based “industry within an industry” (J-PAL, IPA, EPoD, Evidence Action, etc.) whereby some of the smartest people on the planet (full disclosure: though I work for one of these organisations, I am not one of said geniuses) study the most intransigent development issues. We’re learning more about our impact than ever before.

So, for an inquisitive mind like Jonathan’s, never was there a better time to lace on the boots and head to Busia. Along the way, try not to get overwhelmed with the scope and magnitude of the problems, but to break them into smaller, much more manageable (and ideally measurable) pieces.

My last bit of advice for Jonathan is to accept his barber’s praise. He chose to work in development in order to make a difference, something at which he will undoubtedly get better over the course of his career, as the “dual tides” of experience and healthy scepticism drive him towards greater impact. Jonathan – feel good about what you’ve done, and use the praise as motivation to improve the aid world, or whatever small corner of it you decide to call home.

Erol Yayboke is a Program Manager with the Evidence for Policy Design (EPoD) team at the Center for International Development at Harvard’s Kennedy School and a member of the Board of Directors of the Andi Leadership Institute for Young Women. He holds a Masters in Public Affairs from the University of Texas at Austin and currently lives in Cambridge, Massachusetts. You can check our his blog and follow him on Twitter. (Erol’s views are his own and do not represent the opinions of these or any other organisations.)

Featured image by Tippy Tap.

Books

MissionCreep #4: Arseholes, perceptions and books

Your hosts, Brendan Rigby, Carly Stephan and Weh Yeoh, are back with episode 4 of the MissionCreep podcast, bringing you fresh and frank voices in global development.

This time, Weh wants to know why there are so many egotistical arseholes working in development (it’s not law, after all!). Plus, Carly responds to a bureaucrat who doubts the effectiveness of aid, and Brendan asks about aid workers’ reading lists.

Join the conversation! Let us know how you deal with the arseholes you encounter, and send us your book recommendations. Leave a comment here or on Facebook, e-mail us at info[AT]whydev.org, and use the hashtag #MissionCreepDev on Twitter. We’ll respond online or on the next episode of the podcast.

Runs 37:39.


You can also listen to the podcast here or download it on iTunes (and a transcript is coming soon).

Brendan Rigby
Brendan Rigby
Carly Stephan
Carly Stephan
Weh Yeoh
Weh Yeoh

 

 

 

 

Articles referenced throughout the podcast:

Why competing over funding is killing development (and how we might improve)

The troll slayer: A Cambridge classicist takes on her sexist detractors

This is the No. 1 thing that holds most people back from success.

Essential reading on foreign aid

How humanitarian aid weakened post-earthquake Haiti

Putting our money where our mouths are? Donations to NGOs and support for ODA in Australia

Jihadists buy Islam for Dummies on Amazon

Book recommendations from the podcast: Thinking Fast and Slow, Made to Stick, Rohinton Mistry, The Power of Now, A New Earth, Daring Greatly, The Big Leap, Emergency Sex, Zen under Fire, You Are Not So Smart, Development as Freedom, The Bottom Billion and War, Guns & Votes.

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.

Jennifer Lawrence

Last Week Today: 5 September 2014

Committed to giving you last week’s globaldev news today

Pregnant women get special treatment, and it turns out some animals are no different. Pregnant pandas evidently have it really good – so good it’s worth pretending? This clever panda thought so.

Ai Hin in her enclosure at Chengdu Giant Panda Breeding Research Centre. Photo from STR/AFP/Getty Images.
Ai Hin in her enclosure at Chengdu Giant Panda Breeding Research Centre in China. Photo from STR/AFP/Getty Images.

For the two months Ai Hin’s caretakers thought she was pregnant, the panda has been living in a special aid-conditioned suite and getting extra bamboo. Seems worth it.

The week in news

Tragically, ISIS followed through with their threat to murder a second American journalist in retaliation for continued U.S. intervention in Iraq. The terrorist group released a video of one of their members beheading Steven Sotloff, who was later found to hold dual U.S.-Israeli citizenship. In the video, ISIS issued another threat, to execute a British hostage if U.S. forces don’t pull out of Iraq.

Nude pictures of Jennifer Lawrence and several other celebrities got leaked from their iPhones. Commentary on the photos quickly turned to outrage about the gender dimension of the scandal and sparked a new hashtag and then critiques of that hashtag, all within a few days. (Bottom line: if you look at the pictures, you’re part of the problem.)

Meanwhile, France’s former First Lady has published a tell-all book about her ex, President Francois Hollande. Her claims that he despises the poor probably won’t do much for his ratings.

And we don’t think there was a coup in Lesotho last week. But it’s not really clear.

The week on the blog

Poverty continues what the Khmer Rouge started

In the 1970s, the Khmer Rouge ripped Cambodian families apart. Today, Allison Smith says poverty is having similar effects, by forcing families to make difficult choices.

Cognitive dissonance: An unspoken qualification for aid work?

Aid workers know that lots of development projects fail, yet they stay in this line of work. Jonathan Favini asks how aid professionals decide to continue in an industry they doubt, and whether they deserve the inevitable praise that comes from friends, family members and even barbers.

The week in globaldev

What do voluntourism and global development have in common? | Devex

One Mauritanian man is fighting slavery in his country. | New Yorker

Corruption costs developing countries $1 trillion every year. | ONE Campaign

We might need a new term for “development.” | Poverty Matters

Is charity narcissism a good thing? | BBC

A change in global values? Maybe not.  | Monkey Cage

The story of one environmental activist in rural China | Policy Innovations

Why Bill Gates wouldn’t be able to get a job with a British NGO | Guardian

Upcoming events

Complexity? Nah, just a Tuesday. (Session 2): A conversation series for development workers | Melbourne, 9 September

Always on the go? Have a version sent to your inbox every Friday. Just sign up to the Last Week Today newsletter.
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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Last Week Today: 8 August 2014

Don’t have time to scan the web for global news? Want to know about development events and jobs? Sick of having a million emails in your inbox?

Want to know about development events and jobs? Sick of having a million emails in your inbox? – See more at: http://www.whydev.org/8-august-2014-the-week-in-links/#sthash.xI7M0fJI.dpuf
Don’t have time to scan the web for global news?
Don’t have time to scan the web for global news?Want to know about development events and jobs? Sick of having a million emails in your inbox?

We’re here to help.

Today we’re launching Last Week Today – a weekly post that has the best stories, news, events and jobs in global development.

Now you can breathe a sigh of relief. Last Week Today is all you need.

So grab a coffee, sit back, and enjoy the week’s best in global development.

The week in news

Niger is the French word for Nigeria, right?

CNN

CNN’s on-air mistake has reignited discussions about ignorance of developing countries, and brought attention to the network’s past misplacing of Ukraine, and Hong Kong, and London, and…

Washington, D.C., was abuzz this week with President Obama’s parade of autocrats (aka, the U.S.-Africa Leaders Summit) which brought over 40 heads of state to the White House.

In the rest of the world: this was a tragic week in parts of China and Nepal, and Afghanistan’s election crisis is worsening. South Sudan is facing a triple threat of violence, famine, and cholera. The ebola outbreak is reportedly spreading, though not as fast as our fears of it.

It’s not making global headlines, but our love affair with coffee may have some seriously damaging environmental consequences.

And in this week’s edition of is-this-for-real, USAID has evidently been sending young Latin Americans to incite rebellion in Cuba, using the cover of HIV-prevention workshops.

The week from the blog

NGOs can learn from YouTube celebrities

Most NGOs these days blog, tweet, use Facebook – but not many of them use video effectively. Our Communications Director Rachel Kurzyp explains how organisations could pick up some tips from (who else?) the celebrities of YouTube.

Starving for awareness

The UN is feeding refugees a starvation diet: 850 calories a day. When Francisco Toro found out about it, he didn’t “like” a post or order a bracelet. Instead, he ate a tiny bowl of sorghum and lentils – and nothing else.

The gendered lens is always a good bet for looking smart to your development friends. Cartoon by Kirsty Newman.
The gendered lens is always a good bet for looking smart to your development friends. Cartoon by Kirsty Newman.

The week in links

Tips for looking smart to development geeks | Kirsty Evidence

New research suggests there are three types of female aid workers. | Women in Aid

Africa’s rising, Africa’s falling…but it’s mostly rising. | The Washington Post

Two theories on why we’re so obsessed with giving away our old stuff | Blood and Milk

Beggars can’t be choosers, but are they really beggars…? | Good Intentions (courtesy of USAID’s Center for International Disaster Information)

Can volunteers really cause harm? | AidSpeak

No doubt about it, 850-calorie-a-day food rations aren’t enough to survive. | 850 Calories

Is Bitcoin the next big thing in financial inclusion? | Development Channel

Are health gains in developing countries really helping the poor? | Brett Keller

New evidence for the impact of education on women’s health | Humanosphere

The week in events

Complex? Nah just a Tuesday | Melbourne

Always on the go? Have a version sent straight to your inbox every Friday.  Just sign up for the Last Week Today newsletter.
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.

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Thank you, Allison – it’s not goodbye, but see you soon.

When Allison joined the WhyDev team in January 2012, the blog was a mess. The audience consisted of our mothers, our old university lecturers and that angry bespectacled guy who spends too much time on the Internet. We had some great contributions coming in, and the number of hits were gradually climbing, but we needed someone to take us to the next level. This person was Allison.

Although we (Brendan and Weh) know a lot about bromance and a little about development, we needed someone with a good vision for the blog and site to make it really sparkle, in a way that two straight men with the absence of the word “sparkle” in their own vernacular could ever achieve. Just for comparison, here is a screenshot from our old website. It’s functional, but a far cry from what we have now.

WhyDev screenshot, circa June 2012
WhyDev screenshot, circa June 2012

Two and a half years down the track, we have a new website, over 65 contributors – the bulk of them female – over 400 critical insights into how to do aid and development better and, as importantly, a reputation offline. Both of us have had countless individuals come up to us at conferences, workshops, and karaoke bars (Brendan only), expressing their admiration for the strong voices that have come out of WhyDev. Allison, you’re a big reason for all of this (Weh would particularly like to thank you for the random phone numbers from female followers).

As of today, Allison is vacating the Editor-in-Chief position at WhyDev, but no doubt she will be around and still heavily involved in other ways. So for that reason, it’s not goodbye, but see you soon. Thanks for all your hard work and help over the years.

Brendan, Allison, and Weh
She’s not that short, we’re just taller.

Despite her obviously diminutive stature, filling Allison’s shoes is going to be a big task. Fortunately, we’ve got some exciting announcements to make.

First of all, joining the team as Communications Director is Rachel Kurzyp. Longtime friend of WhyDev and prolific blogger, tweeter and all-round comms guru, we are extremely lucky to have her stepping up to guide the communications aspects of where WhyDev is going. Rachel has a great background in journalism, business and international development, and has the kind of adorable cynicism that we need. She’s fascinated by the intersection of international development, storytelling and digital technologies – all of this speaks to the direction in which WhyDev is going.

As impressive is the addition of our new Editor-in-Chief, Jennifer Ambrose, who won us over recently when she wrote “this is just another way in which the aid system is broken.” Jen’s background in research, international development and writing are perfect. Her main interests are in aid effectiveness, ethics in development, and narratives of developing countries, which align well with WhyDev’s values. Furthermore, she adds a lot to the team being based in the U.S. We might even have to start spelling organisation like “organization” from now on. Maybe not…

We’d like to leave the final word to these two, to answer the simple question – “How are you committed to getting aid and development right?”

Rachel Kurzyp, WhyDev's new Communications Director
Rachel Kurzyp, WhyDev’s new Communications Director

“I’m committed to helping the poor have an equal voice in global communications so they can control how they are represented, how their stories are shared, and choose if they want to participate in the digital world.  I’m excited to be joining WhyDev because we are all working towards the same goals and the team welcomes my need to question things, which is rare.” – Rachel

Jennifer Ambrose, WhyDev's new Editor-in-Chief
Jennifer Ambrose, WhyDev’s new Editor-in-Chief

“I’m committed to using evidence to better understand what works in development and advocate for organizations to create more effective programs. At the same time, I’m committed to making aid more empowering and responsive to local needs, by listening to people who are affected by aid projects and supporting grassroots development efforts. I’m excited to join WhyDev because I think it provides a much-needed space for critical reflection on all things development-related.” – Jen