Angelina Jolie saving lives in Beyond Borders

The myth of “the field”

Last July, Alison Rabe argued that aid workers belong in the field. J. responds by saying the field doesn’t exist. 

A few months ago I wrote a little rant about “the field.” Continuing that train of thought, now…

There are few fixtures of the aid industry which hold as much mystique and show as much staying power as the concept and romance of “the field.” No other grail is so fervently sought among the bright-eyed, hopeful students and newbies as the field. The field, they believe, is where the action is, where they’re actually doing it, whatever “it” is. The harder or more exotic the field location, the better. Cubicles and conferences room in, say DC, are a necessary evil to be put up with until such time as one can escape to the field. There is no aspect of a young aid professional’s experience so frequently inflated or over-stated on resumes or at happy hour as time in the field. “Nearly one year” is always better than ten and a half months, and so on.

By the same token, there is no other trump card played with more authority and self-assurance, whether to put upstart newbs in their places or to establish one’s own silverback status, as years in the field. Years in Kabul or Huambo or San Salvador (and, for reasons I fail to grasp in 2014, Cambodia) make you a hardcore, front-line badass who makes things happen. Years in Brussels or Singapore or DC (the latter, at least as dangerous as Phnom Penh) makes you a pansy cubicle-farmer who goes to a lot of meetings and writes papers that no one in the field will ever read.

Some of you will call me an aid world heretic for this, but it’s got to be said: It’s time to recognize that “the field” is a relic from a previous era in aid history. Like VHS tapes and personal CD players, “the field” is an artifact left over from a time when white guys in khakis and untucked shirts (or maybe white women in a sexy, black tanktops) left someplace comfortable and civilized to go someplace difficult and dangerous, where they would do aid to beneficiaries.

Angelina Jolie saving lives in Beyond Borders
Angelina Jolie saving lives in Beyond Borders

I can think of few aspects of the culture of the aid industry which are more counterproductive to what we say we’re trying to accomplish, than to keep alive this notion of this mythical place called “the field.”

The reality of the aid industry today is that it no longer (if it ever did) conforms to a field/everywhere else way of thinking. It is far too common, even now in 2014, to think and say that there’s this place called the field where aid actually happens, and then there’s everywhere else—HQ, maybe—where other things get discussed or done, but what does not happen in the field is not really aid.

It’s time to recognize that this is just plain incorrect. Make fun, if you will, of what goes on in well-lit UN conference rooms in Geneva, or at the global HQs in Washington, DC, Oxford, New York or Singapore (I certainly have and sometimes still do). But it’s important to understand that those things are not just “support” or “fundraising.” They may not be particularly Facebook- or edgy memoir-worthy, but the workshops, meetings, strategy sessions in the humanitarian capitals are every bit as much aid work as are running cholera clinics in Port-au-Prince, getting a truckload of non-food items across the Acekele border crossing, or being the accountability officer in Goma.

More specifically, to see the field as the place where aid really happens, as compared to everywhere else, is to also miss a basic reality that the decisions which truly make the most difference are not made in this alleged place called the field. Implementation and technical teams at or very near the point of delivery need to be staffed by competent practitioners, and they need to be well-led, of course. It’s important to have solid people there. But look at what gets decided where:

At the project site, or at the country office you get to decide things like the training schedule for the nurse/midwives. Or maybe you get to decide on the wording of the questions in the household survey instrument. You get to decide which trucking company to go with for next month’s shelter kit delivery. Those are all important, of course, and they must be decided well.

But in the everywhere else, you decide or participate in decisions about where the funding goes. This region gets 2/3, that region gets 1/3. You decide which countries get funding. You decide what sectors get prioritized. These places, more than those. These people, not those. Maternal Child Health, but not harm reduction. At the project site, you basically implement the decisions made by those who are elsewhere. When I was a country director (during my own years in this alleged place called the field), I tried repeatedly to articulate and implement a strategy which focused on particular sectors in particular parts of the country where I worked (Vietnam). But at the end of the day, aid industry Darwinism took over and I implemented the grants I could win—which were not necessarily in my sectors or geographic areas of preference. I might have been on the so-called front lines, but the real decisions about where and who and what had been made elsewhere.

To use another example, in the early weeks of the Haiti earthquake response, World Food Programme (WFP) provided nearly 50 metric tonnes of food for earthquake survivors. The decision to make this amount of food available was made in Rome. The decision about how the food was to be divided up was made—well—globally, via email and internet, by the heads of relief and food programming of the various INGO partners (several INGOs did the distribution for WFP). The decisions about targeting (they targeted women on behalf of households) and ration size (50 kg. bags) were made by WFP with some input from NGOs, again more or less globally.

In the end, the relief operations teams in “the field” got to decide things like how to divide the tonnage and territory among themselves, where the distribution sites would be, exactly, and to some extent their own individual modes of beneficiary registration. I was in Port-au-Prince at this time, working for one of the INGOs tasked with distributing that WFP food, and I remember that period very well as a time of crazy ‘round-the-clock work. But in the end, we were implementing decisions made by others who, in some cases were thousands of miles away.

Beyond the basic, structural realities of the aid industry, there is also a deeper, darker problem perpetuated by the field versus everywhere else thinking. Our continued fixation with the field crystalizes residual, essentially ethnocentric notions about those who need help, and about those who do the helping. No matter how much lip service and maybe even real effort we devote to valuing all things “local”, to local capacity building, or local empowerment, to trying to break down the divide(s) between expats and non-expats, we re-cement the divide between “us” and “them” every time we refer to the place where aid supposedly happens as the field.

Speaking to the empowered, globally-minded Westerners now, we might say that we want Ugandans or Indonesians or Bolivians or whomever else to be empowered owners of their own development, but every time we refer to where they are as “the field”, we underscore our perhaps unconscious views that they are undeveloped, while we are, well, developed. By continually invoking this notion of the field we reinforce the very divides we say we want to bridge; we further solidify the very inequities we insist we want to eradicate. Inevitably “the field” becomes an even more deeply entrenched separation between “us” and “them”, whether the “them” is those we claim our projects and programs help, our local colleagues with whom we like to say we’re so close, or our colleagues hunched over desks in nice offices, writing the grants which keep our salaries flowing, and the position papers which (hopefully) keep our employing agencies credible.

Yes, the field sounds exciting. The field sounds romantic. Set in UN cubicles of New York or Geneva, Emergency Sex would hardly be worth reading (although I think it’s safe to say that more or less the same shenanigans go on there, too). But set in the field, it feels like a furtive peek through the locker-room door into a world that seems both exotic and foreboding. But the romance and the exotic factor of the field are chimera. The number of places in the world where you truly cannot get good internet or a cappuccino become fewer and farther between by the day. And in this context, the field becomes a huge distraction.

I can’t say I have the answer to the question of, “if not the field, then what?” I do know that how we think and speak (or write) about aid matters. I prefer to think about what I do and how that fits into the overall picture more than the where I do it. How does what I do today fit into the grand scheme of aid somehow making it into the hands of those who need it most? How does what I do today contribute to improved efficiency and effectiveness of the machine intended to make the world better? It’s not about the where: I know people living in places which, if I was to name them, would make anyone’s list of places in “the field”, but who cannot articulate a straight line of logic between what they spend their days doing and the amount of poverty in the world becoming somehow less.

And so, if I could be indulged to deliver one bit of unsolicited advice, it would be simply this: Understand and be honest about your motivations—the “why” matters. Find your spot in the overall scheme of what needs to be done.

But stop fixating on the where. There is no field.

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J.

Aid worker since 1991. Aid blogger since 2006. Cynical since Ronald Reagan. Smartass since birth. Don't hate. Home-brewer. Motorcyclist. Indie Author. INTJ. Formerly blogged as "J." at "Tales From the Hood". Founder of AidSource. Author of Disastrous Passion: A Humanitarian Romance Novel.

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34 thoughts on “The myth of “the field””

  1. Why write ‘There is no field’, which is transparently untrue? Why not write ‘the field isn’t the only place useful work is done,’ which is what you actually mean? If I want exaggerated headlines that aren’t representative of the content I’ll read a newspaper.

    Of course the benefits of spending time in LDCs, meeting actual poor people, etc. are exaggerated. Of course they do, in fact, exist. There’s no need to respond to one exaggeration with another.

  2. I think the article raises a good point, and as the author has elaborated in other responses, the distinction is that field-based work still appears to be held superior to HQ-based work in the hierarchy of the development business. I agree whatever you do regardless of where it is, can be useful or otherwise; there shouldn’t be discrimination based on location. Having said that, I’m reading Ben Ramalingam’s “Aid on the Edge of Chaos” and revisitng David Mosse’s work, both which query how effective policies made back in HQ (or regional, or head office) really are when minimal flexibility is allowed to revise objectives once initiated in the actual country/location required. I would still say that the idea of ‘the field’ is useful but context is required e.g. I worked in Kabul and rarely got to visit the provinces so the idea of it being difficult and ensconced amongst the communities is entirely false; I saw much more of compounds and military bases. I wouldn’t call Kabul ‘the field’. I did however, spend a year conducting research in rural villages in S.E.Asia where there weren’t basic services and it took a fair while to even get to some of these places (boat, hike) – I would call that the field, and it definitely changed my perspective of what the reality was for these communities and how isolated they were. There were definitely no cappucinos or internet access there…but maybe the difference between field(s) and HQ(s) are more degrees on a spectrum rather than a clear divide?

  3. This is, by far, one of the more interesting discussions I have seen in a very long time. I’m a bit surprised by how many of the comments continue to – purposefully or not – enforce some invisible divide between a physical place known as “the field” where relief/dev response “happens” and everywhere else. I don’t see the author as taking one side or another but, quite simply, suggesting that relief/dev is a very complicated process and that all parts of it matter because they affect (or should) all the other parts. The whole point is that there shouldn’t be any “sides.”

    I have worked “in the field” (a few years for those of you who care) and am, now, based in HQ (again for a few years – for those who care). I find it interesting that “in the field” people develop ever finer distinctions of what that term means (e.g. here in the Capital is not “in the field” but out in such-and-such village it is or here in the village is not “the field” but out in such-and-such camp it is). By the same token I’m surprised that so many people in HQ tout their -very well documented and extensive- time ‘in the field’ as a reason to make decisions that very likely would have infuriated them when they were “there”. Clearly, being located in one physical location or another isn’t a defining factor here and “time in the field” doesn’t automatically make you align with one way of thinking or another.

    I have to admit – embarrassingly enough – how little I questioned that divide until now. The issue is – in my view – not that one place counts more or less than another, but that we really shouldn’t be perpetrating a fictitious divide where none exists. What happens in the aid capitals and HQs defines the parameters of “the field” by policy – many “pencil pushing bureaucrats” that I know have more than a decade of experience ‘in the field’ – and the lessons learned at the “point of implementation” (it is hard to stop saying “the field”) should inform decisions at HQ. On the face of it this is a painfully simple idea that we all probably agree on to begin with but mask over when consistently enforcing this barrier that doesn’t (or shouldn’t) exist.

    I’m reminded of reading “Delivering Development” and fixating on the simple notion that development was not necessarily “good” or “bad” but that it was simply an intervention (social, political, economic, etc.) that affected different places in different ways and that the continued rhetoric around whether development was good or bad (e.g. Sachs vs. Moyo) was distracting from the question of *how* development affected different places in different ways. If we understood this, I think our whole industry would be a lot farther along.

    In any event, call me what you will but I’m very happy to see this discussion happening. I feel absolutely more compelled to respect those “pencil pushers” when at the point of implementation (getting easier, see?) and help them understand what the lived experience of that place is as well as being more patient with the frustrations of those in “in the field” and helping them understand the – just as real and difficult if for very different reasons – limitations that exist at HQ.

    Thank you.

  4. I think the author gives to the processes taking place “wherever else” the same exaggerated value he claims everyone else gives to “the field”: the actual fuck ups happen when people who have never experienced what is really like to implement an aid operation on the ground -with all its real-time constraints and its unforeseeable last-minute problems-, try to coordinate with people who have never experienced the reality of HQ -with all the slower-paced work, and the negotiations and the paperwork needed to come to any decision.

    Pretending aid workers can do a good job without actually learning how work is done in both environments is quite shortsighted, as actual aid work is in itself an inseparable combination of both realities. In my (very) short life as an aid worker my experience is that no one screws things up more than people who have spent their entire professional life in one and only one of those two work environments.

    And the part about “the field” being an ethnocentric concept that divides “us” and “them”… interesting thought, but a bit farfetched, in my opinion. As far as I know, whenever someone talks about “the field” it´s short for “the place where you go from theory to practice, from planning to implementing”, not “the place where everything is underdeveloped and crappy and people are helpless victims”. As I see it, the author´s refusal to provide an alternative concept to substitute the one he attacks speaks by itself.

    Actually, I liked very much his post titled “The Field”, at “Tales From The Hood”, about the field itself being overrated. I fully agree with him on that, and also on the stupid notion most aid agencies and INGOs have that just by spending many years “in the field” one might be any good at his/her job or have any special insight on how to properly conduct aid programmes.

    Anyway, very interesting article and discussion! ;)

  5. Yes, elevating “the field” to trump-card status is wrong. And it’s a term that strengthens the division between “them” and “us” in a way that entrenches power imbalances.

    But making decisions (anywhere) without a rich understanding of the places that decision will play out in and the lives of people living in those places, is worse. And that’s what I see, at conference after conference, in many online debates, meetings, etc.: People with influence over policy and purse strings who have no real understanding of the lives of the people for whom all aid/development work is ultimately for – the poor. You cannot get that kind of understanding just from reading academic papers and listening to conference presentations, no matter how thorough you are. You need to spend time with people.

    And that doesn’t mean going to meetings in Nairobi or Kathmandu (or even Kigali or Lilongwe) rather than Washington or London. It means spending time with people in poor rural communities, in slums, in refugee camps, etc. Better still, it means being part of those very communities.

    If you don’t want to call that “the field”, fine, I will agree with you. But let’s not make it acceptable to make decisions that affect people’s lives without first understanding those lives properly. And I can’t see any way of getting that understanding other than by spending time with people.

  6. I sit in a capital city now, where I confess I am guilty of rolling my eyes at people with no “field” experience making decisions that affect people with tons of “field” experience. But I couldn’t agree more that “the field” is a vestige of the industry that needs to be banished from our lexicon and our conceptual frameworks of aid.

    J’s question for us, “How does what I do today contribute to improved effectiveness of the machine intended to make the world better?” should be printed and taped onto all our computer screens, which we all use whether we’re in Geneva or Gaborone. Whether or not one has a clue about “local realities” depends not on their location, but on how often they ask this question and how they conceive of and conduct their roles.

    What fascinates me in this discussion as an M&E/KM person is the role information plays, depending on where you are among the many “layers” of aid, rather than either/or, in the field or not. (See graph: http://www.how-matters.org/2012/06/25/its-the-layers-justin/) A person may have less financial power depending where they sit, so it’s also important to understand informational power.

  7. I think some of those commenting have conflated two obviously related, but distinct issues:

    1) Does this place called “the field” exist? Yes or no? I argue that it does not, at least not in the way that the aid industry has been romanticized (even in *our* own minds) for much too long, now. Clearly, this remains an open debate, but in my opinion, continued insistence on visualizing what aid is and does in terms of a “field” and, well, every places else that isn’t this “field” ultimately hurts and holds us back more than it helps us. I’m quite okay with the reality that many disagree.

    2) Which matters more; which helps more, does more “good”, etc.–the work done in this mythical location called “the field”? Or the work done in the everywhere else? In my opinion they’re both critically important. No where in this article, or anywhere else, have I said that the work of doing the delivery at the point of delivery doesn’t matter. But I am saying that the work which happens in the everywhere else also matters. Equally so.

  8. So it matters not where you do it, but what you do. Does this mean we need to start recruiting on this basis too? Field specialists vs HQ specialists?

    One of the things that has always bugged me about recruitment is how time spent in the field so heavily outweighs any other kind of worthwhile experience, at least in the eyes of HR.

  9. When you’ve had colleagues in HQ refer to your “recent field experience”, and you know that you were never more than an annoyingly long cab ride from an international airport, you immediately understand what a debased term this is.

    In terms of hum response I think the only useful distinction albeit a bit militaristic is “working on the response, within the AO (area of operations)” or “working on the response, outside the AO” because the latter entails particular additional responsibilities on you and the organisation (security, conduct and so on). And if you’re outside it doesn’t matter if you’re in Lodwar or London or wherever, as long as you’re doing some thing useful.

  10. Owen Barder – I agree that “on mission” is a term that rubs people the wrong way. The article is a bit long for me to read just at the minute, but I do think it is important that we make some kind of distinction between work in an office, and work we do in locations where affected people are living (I really don’t like the term ‘beneficiary’ either).

    The job skills required to do the work we do from an office only, compared to the work we do in often very remote and challenging locations, with populations we are serving – can be very different. I don’t think it is very good to lump them all together, without appreciating the distinctions.

    Some people who are very good at working in ‘the field’ can sometimes lack the strategic planning or foresight skills needed to work on tasks assigned for office-based staff, while people good at office-based tasks sometimes lack the perspective and communication skills needed to work directly with populations of people participating in whatever the program being delivered is.

    Anyway! I know the term ‘the field’ really bugs my sister. I will pass this on to her!

    Cheers,

    Annie

  11. Hey J. Can you do a full disclosure and tell us how long you have worked in HQ and how long in “the field” (i.e. not HQ based?) Would help to let us know where you are coming from as well….

  12. I dislike the term “field” for a difference reason — for the same reason that I dislike the term Near East, which locates an entire group of countries in relation to England, rather than in relation to themselves. I live in Palestine, so it’s not “the field” to me. “The field” is a term that concretizes aid workers at the center of the web of relationships.

    But there are other parts of this post that rub me the wrong way, if I’ve understood correctly. It is certainly true that aid work happens in Ramallah and in DC, Tokyo and Oslo. But Palestinian development doesn’t happen anywhere except within the Palestinian community. What happens “out” should only support what happens in (and certainly not the other way around), or aid is just self-serving. Moreover, the idea that aid workers would want to be in HQ where decisions about funding are made is, well, infuriating! We should ALL be fighting to have decisions about resource allocation made by people affected by the decisions. Period.

    1. Yes, I’m sure this post rubs lots of people the wrong way.

      But I’d venture that you perhaps haven’t fully understood correctly. To paraphrase what I’ve said below, what happens in Ramallah matters. Of course it does. And *of course* whatever aid or development takes place in Palestine (or anywhere) has to be done well, in the full sense of what “done well” means. And the exact same applies to DC, Tokyo… [THE LONG LIST OF CITIES NOT IN "THE FIELD"]. Development aid for Ramallah doesn’t materialize out of thin air. Moreover, by the time development aid reaches Ramallah, the real decisions–how much, for what, targeting whom, other conditions and parameters–have been made long ago.

      No need to be infuriated. I’m not saying that everyone should want to work at HQ. It takes good people all through the aid industry to make things work well. There need to be good people who understand both the local and the global context, working at the project/programme level. But I am absolutely saying that those working there, near or at the point of delivery, need to very significantly dial back the “I’m the one on the ground actually doing it” rhetoric.

  13. For me – and I write as a humanitarian rather than a development worker – the field is a concept that has value as a space where the aid industry meets its purported beneficiaries, and where the conceits of those air-conditioned offices – whether they be in DC or Khartoum – are challenged with the realities of the lives of the most vulnerable. To deny that there is any difference for an aid worker between being in an HQ office or in a refugee camp is to deny that one’s reality and the work you do is affected by your proximity to those in need. It is exactly this perspective that has encouraged the bureaucratisation of aid as implementing partners and top heavy hierarchies increasingly distance decision makers from beneficiaries. Of course as the industry has grown there is an inevitability about this – but in my experience it is the field and proximity to the vulnerable that most effectively challenge our assumptions about what we do and our supposedly universal theories. The field – if it is to mean anything – is where the lives we seek to impact are lived, and if those people are to drive what we do then their reality cannot be something of which we are ignorant.

    1. For me, also writing as a humanitarian, not a development worker (although the difference between the two is very often negligible), sentiments like the one you share here are part of why I wrote this article in the first place.

      “I’m in close proximity to beneficiaries, and you’re not, so I know more/better than you…” is its own kind of conceit.

  14. Excellent article – I wrote a post on my blog when I first went into the field in Rwanda (being a new to working in development). The term stuck in my throat. It only has a notional mention at the beginning of my post – but for me it strikes me as ‘us’ and ‘them’…which seems to go against the grain somewhat?

  15. Thoroughly enjoyed this. Also just finished reading Missionary, Mercenary, Mystic, Misfit and thought the passages on this subject were fascinating.

    Question: Even if you figure out that your spot in the overall scheme of things is to be in London, DC or Brussels, should all (or most) people entering a career in “aid” have spent a least some time working in a developing country so that their decisions may be better informed by the realities on the ground? Or is that a bit of conventional wisdom we should discard?

    I suppose it would be different if you decide to work on other development issues such as migration/trade/tax where more of the delivery is in the places I mention above.

    1. Once more, I think the point is to focus more on the what the why, than the where. The work that happens in Darfur matters. The work that happens in Brussels matters. It’s time to stop thinking and acting as if the former is “aid” and the latter is, you know, something else that’s somehow not aid.

      These days, when I’m involved in the hiring of field-based key staff (I can’t stop saying “field”), I try to find those who have HQ experience. The number of aid workers on the “front line”, “actually doing it”, who have no idea how the system works, how their own organizations work, and who lack simple respect for their colleagues in HQ (and the work that these colleagues do)(see, for example, the comment by Simon Robbins, above), is, I think–obviously this is a casual observation–as big a problem in the industry today as is HQ staff who lack field experience.

  16. Great article, as usual J. Putting my thoughts into words and one of the huge reasons why I am seriously considering leaving my job ‘in the field’ to work at a HQ… Most of the time I feel like I am a fraud for being an American working in Kenya. This job should be held by a Kenyan.

    Plus, I am at the point where I want to be looking at larger global issues. I want to find out “How does what I do today fit into the grand scheme of aid somehow making it into the hands of those who need it most? How does what I do today contribute to improved efficiency and effectiveness of the machine intended to make the world better?”

    The field is such a huge draw for newbies, but it does get to a point where you wonder if all you are doing is purchasing lunch for meetings…

    1. :) Obviously this could all be part of a much larger and longer discussion.

      I think that there are many, many good reasons to have foreigners–expats, if we must use that term–who occupy aid industry positions in countries that they’re not from. There are many very legitimate reasons to have a non-Kenyan, and perhaps specifically even an *American* (I can hear everyone gasp. OMG!) working in an aid job in Kenya.

      But you’re right. It’s more about where one fits in, where one’s skills are of most value. And, for those who, for a wide range of similarly acceptable reasons chose to work at an HQ, we need to end this sort of industry arrogance based on the country or district in which one’s desk resides.

      1. 100% loved and agreed with your article. Especially that bit, “where one’s skills are of most value”

        Another point that’s overlooked is the idea of “comparative advantage”, where can an individual apply one’s skills best? My comparative advantage as an American probably gives me a better chance at lobbying Congressional leaders (not that I’m any good at it). People like yourself and Tom Murphy obviously have a knack for writing/blogging, perhaps that’s a better use of your time and resources to make a difference.

  17. Growing up in MT, “the field” was where the cows went out to pasture (still is, actually). Or, “the field” was where everyone ran when the cops busted an under-age house party.

    Otherwise, great article. :-) I think the challenge is having/using the right vocabulary then which would better articulate what is meant by “the field”. As a Cube-Farm Aid Worker, I appreciate you opening up 2014 with this discussion!

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