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The poor within our ranks

The poor within our ranks

A related post previously appeared in The Guardian.

By Michael Keller

“Men don’t know what it’s like to be women…. White people don’t know what it is like to be black. Wealthy people don’t know what it’s like to be poor.”

Despite a few of its luminaries, such as Paul Farmer, hailing from humbler backgrounds, the unique perspective of international aid workers from disadvantaged backgrounds is not often heard in the sector. But, we have recently seen widespread, welcome discussion of the overrepresentation of “Posh White Blokes” in aid. This year’s excellent World Development Report even explores how most development professionals “have never personally experienced the psychological and social contexts of poverty or scarcity; as a result, their decision-making processes may differ from those of people living in poverty.”

Perhaps 2015 will be the year we hear more from expat aid workers for whom a steady salary and free housing are viewed as privileges, rather than a sign of sacrifice compared to what could be earned back home.

Increasing the number of international aid workers who grew up poor would bring several significant advantages to the sector, which remain beyond reach if we continue simply hiring elites from developing countries and calling it “diversity”.

First, heightened awareness of the impression one gives as an aid worker in poor communities can ensure a minimal level of alienation. It is much easier to be attuned to beneficiaries’ disdain for privileged classes when you have stood on the outside of your own society looking in. For this minority of aid workers, running loud generators all night to keep the AC on is not normal. Having the driver wait with the always-pristine Land Cruiser while you enjoy a restaurant he could never afford is not normal. Popping over to the other side of the continent for a vague workshop is not normal. Because these things are not normal for the majority of our planet. And doing them makes us even more incomprehensible to impoverished locals… and, more importantly, vice-versa.

Knowing what it feels like to come into contact with people from an economic class far above your own can serve as a powerful tool in understanding how communities perceive the behaviour of aid workers and how foreigners can better gain local trust and respect.

Second, the minority of aid workers who did not grow up in relative wealth are, I suspect, healthily sceptical of the presumed expertise of external actors, including their own organisations. Having witnessed the limitations of domestic NGOs, as well as the habitual failure of their own political leaders to adequately address the needs of the poor, these aid workers are less likely to put unrealistic amounts of faith in the ability of outsiders to solve an issue as intractable as poverty. True change, they realize, tends to start with the will to change.

Third, an aid worker who herself has been the subject of charity might expect beneficiary humiliation rather than gratefulness when the goodies are loaded off the truck, and think of tactics to mitigate it. Personally, I can’t claim to have been raised in a refugee camp, but the day I found a holiday basket of food donated by a local charity on my family’s doorstep after school was not exactly a highlight of my youth.

Fourth, money is valued more by those who have had less of it, with important consequences for aid programming. I’ve often been struck by most aid workers’ incomprehension of the strongly incentivizing (or disincentivising) effects of small sums of money on local populations. People who value USAID cardboard boxes for their roofing qualities can change their behaviour considerably for a few extra cents.

A common lament today centres on the absurd inability to hold workshops in some countries without distributing hefty per diems. Yet at some initial point, someone thought it would be appropriate to pay people the equivalent of several days’ wages performing back-breaking labour to sit in a room for several hours while getting free meals and having tea or Fanta breaks throughout the day. And enough aid workers thereafter felt that the amounts of money involved were small enough not to bother eliminating; as long as they fit in the budget, why bother worrying about the effects of a few dollars at the household level? Unfortunately, it doesn’t take much money to cause significant damage to aid programming.

This value attached to a single dollar, along with a more personal sense of solidarity, may also be an important clue as to why lower-income people tend to give more money to charity than the well off. The poorest quintile in the U.S. gives more than twice as much to charity as a percentage of income as the top quintile. Perhaps this also means workers from less well-off backgrounds feel more personal injury and are less tolerant when $20 that they, or their grandmother, donated is wasted or stolen.

Fifth, personal experience with unusual coping mechanisms can add insight into seemingly odd beneficiary behaviour. The fear of not knowing whether basic necessities will be available to you can lead to all sorts of seemingly irrational decisions that cannot be captured in any logframe but must nevertheless be considered and mitigated. A farmer keeping his children out of school to work in the fields perhaps makes more sense to someone who has skipped doctor’s visits for lack of health insurance.

Sixth, many of the most committed aid workers I know are not only the poorest, they actively avoid climbing the career ladder to more “desirable” posts. “Making it” to a cushy UN job can be viewed as joining the elitist club they see as out of touch with the realities of aid work, which are best witnessed close to the ground, far from cluster conference rooms.

Career advancement in aid means becoming a manager of other aid workers, leaving direct, front-line work to newcomers, the less qualified, and eccentrics. On a bureaucratic level, therefore, aid organisations would benefit from fostering a culture in which frugality and a deep affinity for “down-and-dirty field work” are virtues, rather than signs of madness or failed careers.

Where can we go from here?

While aid workers from poorer backgrounds could bring numerous benefits to the sector, the priority must of course remain on having a professional and quality workforce. The good news is that aid organisations don’t need to sacrifice quality of staff to hire more aid workers with personal connections to poverty. Plenty of them are getting the same quality education as wealthier aid workers, but they are held back by several factors the aid sector needs to more consciously mitigate.

Getting a foot in the door of the aid industry is a daunting task for all newcomers. For those with no connections and not enough money to self-fund internships (or even flights to interviews), the door can seem firmly shut (see: the unpaid internship question). Employers should ensure that at least some funded internships are set aside on a needs basis, and make it clear to university career centres that they are interested in addressing the underrepresentation of poorer aid workers.

In hiring, meanwhile, the industry fails to assign any usefulness to employee (expat or local) experience of poverty. However, placing more value on this factor, and looking for applicants with the qualities described above, could dramatically influence the direction of the sector’s most fundamental debates and give voice to the poor to a degree that no empowerment initiative or listening exercise has managed to do.

Beneficiaries have often seen me as a Posh White Bloke simply because I am a white bloke. Let’s hope for a day when the ironic association between foreign aid worker and wealth is no longer as instinctive. Aid organisations and academics can play a big role in getting us closer to that point; they can start by exploring this issue in greater depth and seeking out the perspectives of aid workers from disadvantaged backgrounds.

For an extended discussion on this topic, see Michael’s Facebook page. Michael Keller is an international development expert, having worked in Africa and the greater Middle East for a number of international aid organisations. You can follow him on Twitter.

Featured image shows a row of homes in Camden, New Jersey. Photo from Wikimedia Commons.

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7 thoughts on “The poor within our ranks

  1. […] Going under the surface is scary. But unless we open up the conversation on racism, sexism, and privilege in the global development sector, we will continue to perpetuate the same, tired system and make […]

  2. […] Going under the surface is scary. But unless we open up the conversation on racism, sexism, and privilege in the global development sector, we will continue to perpetuate the same, tired system and make […]

  3. Thanks for this post.

    I grew up in a relatively disadvantaged region of Italy. Personally, I am by no means poor, but certainly I was not rich, either. Many people in the community – my friends’ families – were on some form of benefits.

    When I give seminars on international aid to students at the local university, I always try to relate with the things they have experience of. To begin with, many of them are attending university thanks to a scholarship. Cash-for-work? It’s not much different from the social work schemes for the long-term unemployed we all know. Migration? Everyone in the room has a relative who went to seek fortune abroad. Drought? We all remember the years when water supply was rationed; in the late 1990s we would only have running water from 6am to 11am. Washing your car during the driest summer months was forbidden and you could be fined if caught (still today, I consider car washing a luxury). Floods? The last one was in 2013, 16 casualties and a few thousand displaced. And talking about health, we all know of our grandparents’ siblings and cousins who died from malaria and measles, or were maimed by polio. Not to mention gender issues.

    I feel that exposure to all these things (even if not direct) made it easier for me to relate to poor and to disaster-stricken people, as well as to adapt to life “in the field”. But now I realised I never highlighted this kind of stuff in any of my work applications, and I don’t even know if they would be well received or not. Back when I was striving to get my first aid-related job, I was told I didn’t have “developing world experience”: my parents did not bring me on holiday in Morocco or paid me a summer camp in South East Asia. NGOs didn’t care about the skills I developed when working as a waitress (instead of traveling the world); I didn’t fit the profile.

    By the same token, I fear that an applicant from a really poor background will feel compelled to highlight in their CV that they got a University degree and maybe some volunteering experience, but they won’t be able to explain (or they will fear it’s not appropriate to mention) the fact that they know exactly how food vouchers work because that’s how their family used to pay for groceries. And on top of that, probably they will also see that those who get jobs are the richer kids who traveled a lot and could afford to take unpaid internships to gain experience.

  4. […] The poor within our ranks | Michael Keller – WhyDev Having more aid workers from disadvantaged backgrounds could help […]

  5. Cammi

    This is so refreshing to read. Although I would be considered privileged by many standards, relatively, my childhood was one of poverty. As a young woman of Indigenous heritage, with a single mum to raise me, life was difficult. I have only managed to get as far as I have (Masters of Development Studies) through generous financial support in the form of scholarships, an amazing family, and a huge dose of determination. I have worked in the local charity sector, housing women at-risk of homelessness when I myself was living in someone’s garage. I am certain that the perspective I can bring to the table in terms of development is incredibly valuable and MUCH needed. Specifically, the issue of shame and guilt, something I wrote my masters thesis on, is so pervasive in the welfare sector (including in Australia), that development workers have to re-structure the ways the deliver aid and assistance otherwise the psychosocial health of ‘beneficiaries’ is going to suffer dramatically! Thanks for writing this up.

  6. Irene

    Thank you so much for this. As a woman of color from a low income background, this piece resonates with me. Development is still privileged white-male dominated. Quite sad that the leaders in our field have no idea what they are trying to ‘fix’ and most believe they have all the answers.

  7. When I arrived for my first aid job in Zimbabwe, I remember first telling my mother in Nebraska, who worked so hard on our farm and in her profession and raising kids, that I had a maid. She scoffed. I made excuses. We both felt bad.

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