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.
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.
Latest posts by J. (see all)
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