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The development workers’ guide to talking to other people about development

The development workers’ guide to talking to other people about development

We’ve all experienced it. The eyes soften. The lips purse in a gesture of understanding. The inner parts of the eyebrows curl upwards, as if a fast-acting, emergency shot of Botox has been delivered right between them. Sometimes, the head tilts. Even more rare is the slow, rhythmic nodding that may occur as you continue speaking. It’s as if moving the head up and down gently will somehow coax your words into their ears, swirl them through the auditory canals, and facilitate entrance into the brain, so that full comprehension can occur.

They say that development is such a complex game, that there is no rulebook. There is no guide, no Bible, no Wisden’s almanac. You just gotta get out there and play whatever comes at you, because you never know what’s heading your way. Thankfully though, as unpredictable as things can be while navigating through work, there is one thing that is always predictable. Non-development folk. Those who we shall now refer to as “citizens”.

So, keeping this in mind, here is a simple guide that takes the individual brain-work and spontaneity away (because we all know that they’re not sought after qualities in this industry), and does the thinking for you. What better way to respond to a predictable response, than with an equally predictable response that you read off some website?

First, some ground rules. Your mileage may vary. Maybe people that you meet don’t immediately assume you’re a nice person just because you work in a caring industry. Maybe there are other, more obvious aspects of your personality that dissuade them from this notion. For instance, maybe you think that wearing T-shirts that say “I’m with stupid” or “I may not be Santa but you can sit on my lap” are amusing. Maybe you’re the kind of person who, when excited, exclaims “squeee!”, or actually pronounces the word “LOL” when someone says something funny, instead of laughing. Or maybe you’re that kind of person who always has to outdo the other people you’re talking to, whether it be that extra dangerous stint you did in Mozambique that time, or that cab driver in Islamabad who drove 15 km/h faster than everyone else’s cab driver. In any case, your mileage may vary.

Second of all, there’s no accurate way to actually predict what people are thinking when they say the following things. Being able to do that would mean that we’d have some sort of Obi-Wan Kenobi-like ability to read people’s minds, and we all know that kind of scenario isn’t even slightly believable. Especially when George Lucas is behind the prequels.

Finally, whatever you do, do not – even for one second, take this advice seriously.


They say: “You must find your work so fulfilling.”

What they mean: “You’re poor.”

You should say: “Actually yes, I do. And that’s the reason why I can afford to live on two slices of stale bread a day, while all the time paying off two student loans from the time George W Bush’s dad was in power. And how about you? How do you find your second Ferrari in relation to your first? Drives well?”


They say: “Do you find it difficult to maintain a relationship when you’re moving around so much?”

What they mean: “You’re lucky that you have a good excuse to fall back on to explain why you’re still single. With the combination of your repulsive personality and Hobbit-like looks, I doubt you’d find anyone willing to look at your twice, even if you stayed in the same place for more than 12 months at a time.”

You should say: “Very difficult. But for me, relationships of a romantic nature come second. The only relationships I really care about, are those of the stakeholders that I seek to empower, through active participation in poverty reduction schemes. This is what I stress to the women/men that I meet on the two or three occasions I actually get to date every year. Funnily enough, they never seem to reply to my emails after.”


They say: “I wish I could be more like you, but I just don’t know if I have it in me.”

What they mean: “When I say have it in me, I mean, I’m not sure if I could give up my lifestyle of free boardroom drinks every Monday, Tuesday, Thursday and Friday. Plus, our company gave us free iPads last year. Have you seen this amazing app which can help predict your wife’s mood based upon the timing of tidal waves? Amazing…”

You should say: “Sure, I had a promising career as an accountant/brain surgeon/plumber once too, but then I started to realize that this is where I wanted to be. How does that app work again?”


They say: “I help people too you know, I work in a hospital/help old ladies cross the road/help people choose worthwhile stocks/help increase the gap between rich and poor.”

What they mean: “OK, look, just because you hug orphans on a daily basis, it doesn’t make you any more of a nice person than me. After all, I even gave up a yoga mat last year for those poor folk in Haiti. That’s right, an entire used yoga mat.”

You should say: “It’s great that you doing your bit to help others. After all, we can’t all abandon our day jobs to work in poor countries. We still need doctors, lawyers, accountants and people to increase the gap between rich and poor to make the world go round. I’m not sure if you’ve ever heard this quote before, but Bono once said, “Be the change you want to be in the world”.  I think it was after they released Joshua Tree. It’s a good principle to live your life by.”


They say: “Wasn’t there some book written by some African lady who said that aid didn’t work anyway? What do you think about that?”

What they mean: “Please help me to confirm my long standing confirmation bias that donating to aid programs doesn’t actually have any long lasting effects. After all, the iPhone 5 is coming out and the idea of playing Words with Friends HD on a screen with pixels so small that they can be barely considered individual particles has me in ecstasy.”

You should say: “Personally, I don’t think we should gather all our information about a very complex topic from just one source. It’s far too simplistic a view to take and doing so would be a far too lazy response about a topic that deserves much more attention. You cannot try and pick up all the nuances of aid and development from just one person. Anyway, I just read Peter Singer’s The Life You Can Save, and he said the exact opposite, so there.”


So there you have it. A simple guide to answering questions about development from so-called citizens. One final tip. Sometimes, a particularly well-read citizen might ask you something a little more in depth about your work – for example, how exactly do you promote social inclusion in a society that does not value individual rights, or what does the evidence say about the relative benefits of micro-savings versus micro-finance, or what exactly does capacity building mean? In this scenario, there is only one sensible response. Run. As fast as is humanly possible. Nobody, and no guide, can possibly teach you to answer questions like that.


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Weh Yeoh

Co-Founder & Board Member at WhyDev
Weh Yeoh was born in Sydney, Australia, and has lived, volunteered and worked in Cambodia for the past 3 years. He is a professionally trained physiotherapist who has completed an MA in Development Studies. He has a diverse background, having travelled through remote parts of Asia, volunteered in an orphanage and adult shelter for people with disabilities in Vietnam, interned in India, and studied Mandarin in Beijing. He is an obsessed barefoot runner and connoisseur of durian.

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8 thoughts on “The development workers’ guide to talking to other people about development

  1. Ava

    Weh, I have only read a few of your posts so far and I feel compelled to tell you that you are fantastic.

  2. Yes, yes, yes! +1 for @rishie_'s idea.

    "It's great what you do and your project sounds really important, but I feel like giving a goat. Do you know where I can do that?" (="I want to tell my friends what I did and what you said sounds complex and may even imply that I am part of a system which dispossesses and oppresses")
    "I know sponsoring a child is not the best form of development, but I want to teach my son that not everyone is as lucky as he is." (= "I am graciously kind to lesser people.")
    "It kinda makes you wonder…" (= "I cannot fathom anything other than my current situation")
    "Wow!" (= "Zzzzzzz……"

  3. Tashi

    Great piece, all that was missing perhaps was "International Development?!? Whats That?".

  4. This made me laugh out loud. Thanks Weh.

  5. Excellent! But what about that initial reaction of: "You work in development, eh? So… you're a fundraiser?"

  6. I'm definitely going to use some of these lines the next time I'm stuck at some hideous party with someone asking, 'But what does that mean?'

    You should make this into a series of, 'Shit people say to development/aid workers' .. except, of course, we're so results-driven that we have concrete proposals to follow-up with.

  7. Ati Aziz

    Smiling as I read this from the beginning to the end. 🙂

  8. Hilarious! Really enjoyed reading this. Thank you!

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