Last month (in honour of our 500th blog post!), we launched a new feature called Why We Dev, which gives you a chance to ask all your questions to a special guest.
Our first guest is J. (aka, Tales from the Hood), veteran aid worker, well-known pseudonymous blogger and indie author. We’re printing his answers to your questions this week, and part 2 features a grab bag of questions on different topics in development (see part 1 for his answers to other questions on volunteering and good aid practices).
If tech was going to save the world, which kind of tech do you think it would be?
Some kind of app that makes people utterly abandon the notion of trying to come up with tech that saves the world.
How do you feel about microfinance geared only towards women?
It’s one tool, and a pretty specific one at that. If the context and the results of your assessment process lead you down the path to microfinance, targeted toward women, then great, run with that.
Don’t fall into the trap, though (like the volunteer apologists do), of trying to apply microfinance for women as a panacea. Sometimes microfinance is not the right intervention. Sometimes it does not make sense to target women or only women. There are no silver bullets.
In many developing countries, school dropout is huge, and the quality of teaching in public schools is often weak. In your view, what should be done?
This is a problem in many developed countries, too. It’s hard to make generalities here. From what I understand, the causes of high dropout rates are varied. It’s important to not presume an approach or solution without first knowing the root causes of the problem. At the end of the day, people throw education into their household economy calculations. If they perceive the investment in education as affordable, and the return on that investment as high—benefits outweigh the costs—they’ll prioritise it. If not… well, then we need to be looking at where it is breaking down in a specific context.
That said, and speaking now for my own country, the U.S., I think just paying teachers as the professionals they are would be a start. Maybe levy a tax specifically on famous athletes and movie stars to pay for that increase. Maybe also encourage a culture of valuing education and literacy.
What are your thoughts on anthropologists working in development?
My graduate degree is in cultural anthropology (I wrote my thesis on rural outmigration in the Mekong Delta), so it probably won’t surprise you to hear that I’m generally positive towards it, although I’m not sure I’d recommend it. The challenge for the anthropologist is going to be around identifying what, exactly, she or he does in development. Those I know in the industry with anthropology backgrounds eventually have to combine that with something else. General management or some aspect of research (evaluation, assessment, etc.) seem to be the most common.
If you’re already educated as an anthropologist, prepare to articulate specific skillsets (other than speaking really good Wolof/Urdu/Quechua) that are relevant to development.
What skills are most vital to the world of development today – not the ones that will get you hired, but the ones that can actually make the most positive difference?
Well, I hate to seem unimaginative… but if you can’t get hired, it’s hard to make that difference, isn’t it? (No—starting your own NGO is not an option.)
Look, I can give a laundry list of skills like writing well, being good at statistics or proposal development, having solid interpersonal skills, etc. The aid industry is large and diverse, and there’s a lot of space in here for all kinds of people to pursue careers that both make a difference and also align with their personal passions and interests. But two areas of need that I come across on a regular basis (by which I mean more or less daily) are HR and finance. HR staff and accountants willing to work in difficult places, under sub-standard conditions, for a pittance. Not the traditional aid worker, but there you have it.
And maybe that’s the point. The skills are not particularly the hard part. The people I see most consistently wash out early are those who envisioned themselves as what I call “backpackers with a purpose”, and are unable to handle the work-a-day reality in aid. Even in that mystical place called “the field”, it’s mostly office work: being part of internal business processes, handling information flow, meeting deadlines, responding to the needs of internal clients, etc. So yeah, you have to have skills, but there’s a fairly wide menu of options to choose from. Sticking with it when your life doesn’t turn out to be like Angelina Jolie’s is the hard part.
If development has so many problems, and many people in the sector think development aid (as opposed to emergency aid) should end, what’s a current Development student to do? Sell out for a private consulting firm?
You could always sell out for emergency aid.
More seriously, keep the faith. The development sector does have huge problems, and many people currently in development are highly sceptical of it. But that doesn’t mean the problems have no solutions. Nor does the fact that many old-timers are sceptical mean that you have to be.
Pursue your career. Come to it understanding the issues as much as you can, but with fresh eyes on those issues.
Do you have tips or advice for students about to enter fieldwork for the first time?
Jump vigorously into the work. Bask in the glow of having landed that field job. Enjoy it unabashedly. Refuse to allow the crabby, jaded veterans in the office or team house deflate you. Understand that there are many out there who envy what they perceive to be your life.
Walk, don’t run, toward workplace relationships (I mean normal friendship and camaraderie here). The giddy Energizer bunny and the dour newbie who tries to be as cynical as the veterans are equally disdained, and both tend to get sidelined very quickly.
Be circumspect. Take time to find those confidantes with whom you share your struggles with culture shock, aid world crises of faith and frustration with the organisation or system. Be slow to have an opinion about the competence of colleagues you’re meeting for the first time, and slower yet to state that opinion openly. You don’t want to be the one who, after 37 days on the job, knows everything about everything, is critical of everyone and is endlessly complaining.
Be direct and ask for what you need. Just because you’re new doesn’t mean that you have to suffer in silence when your computer won’t connect to email, or that you can’t take a sick day when you’re actually sick. Don’t be a diva, but say what you need.
Don’t be a poser, and maybe err on the side of underselling yourself slightly (underselling yourself too much can have negative consequences, too). Be confident about what you know and what you can do, but don’t wade in like some kind of field badass on your first job.
For students and researchers, all of the above potentially apply, plus one more: actually hear the answers to your deep, probing questions. Most aid workers in my immediate circle are okay being asked tough questions about tough subjects. What pushes us around the bend, though, and makes us want to stonewall every student, researcher or journalist who comes after, is when we give honest, thoughtful answers that are obviously not heard (frequently because the person doing the asking has already made up her or his mind).
Do you have any practical safety tips for humanitarian and development professionals?
Sure. Nothing earth-shattering, but here are my pro-tips:
Use sunscreen. In 20-something years of aid work in a number of very dangerous places, I’ve only been shot at a few times, never been taken hostage, never been violently assaulted, never been through a checkpoint that went full-on. But on every single response I’ve ever been on, without exception, there’s at least one person on my team who goes down for the count during crunch time because they went to the field without sunscreen, got badly burned and got sick. (PS. Brown team members burn, too. I don’t care where you’re from: put on the damn sunscreen.)
Wear your seatbelt (or helmet, if you’re on a motorcycle). The majority of aid worker deaths are related to motor vehicle accidents.
Obey organisational security protocols like curfews, buddy systems, check-in/check-out procedures, etc. You’d be all indignant if the security manager second-guessed your assessment methodology or complained about how you wrote your donor reports, right? Don’t assume you know better than the security manager.
Don’t do dumb stuff. If the advice of the entire humanitarian community is, “Don’t cross into Syria”, DON’T CROSS INTO SYRIA. If you see mob violence or hear shooting in Secteur A, DON’T WALK INTO SECTEUR A. Common sense.
Disable geotagging on all of your social media, go easy on the selfies, and get out of the habit of telling the entire world where you are every few hours.
If you’re traveling to a medium- or high-risk context for work, insist that your organisation provide or pay for you to take a Hostile Environment Awareness Training (HEAT) course. There are many different organisations that provide this kind of training.
Featured image shows a village outside Luang Prabang, Laos. Photo from Wikimedia Commons.