You got the job, you are on the ground, now what?
I came up with these points on “on the ground work” in a developing/less developed country. Not in a classroom, not in the Global North. I am not assuming to know everything about working overseas, or to be an experienced “hand” in development, but these are a few points that have come up in discussions and in my own observations.
1. There are very few bleeding hearts.
- A bleeding heart is someone who cares deeply about all the social malaise in the world on too personal of a level – they do not last long
- A bleeding heart would likely lose his or her mind in a deeply impoverished country. You have to literally walk by profoundly entrenched poverty and its concurrent social impacts on a day to day basis and without proper judgment, filtering, and thick skin – you will sink.
- You cannot stop and help everyone, and you cannot stop and explain to everyone how sorry you are that the world economic system has left them impoverished
- You need a filter, a damn good one, to operate without losing your mind. Your filter depends on you – it could be actions such as exercise, cultural immersion, drinks in the pub, cheap paperbacks or long walks. Or it can be, and usually will have to be, an internal “gut check” every once in awhile.
- You do not need a heart of stone; you need to be both focused on your individual task and conscious of the “big picture”
2. Nobody sits around debating social theories, capitalism, socialism, development theories and imperialism, or all the other “isms”. They are far too busy.
- At least very few people debate these issues beyond a bull session in the pub
- The reality is that being conscious of these theories is very helpful, but it can only go so far
- In my opinion, the best NGO/development workers are skilled, experienced personnel in logistics and program management. Private sector experience goes a long way. Being able to understand the realities of politics, domestic and international, is a vital skill.
- You do get discussions about the difficulties the United Nations and seemingly every other NGO has with bureaucracy, and with logistics (the power went out again!).
- You are more likely to hear a voiced complaint about making a business from poverty, the white land rovers, and the insane salaries of some NGO workers. It generally doesn’t come with more of a theoretical base than, “it reminds me of ‘White Man’s Burden, Lords of Poverty, or Dead Aid”.
- To be frank, check your theoretical biases, about countries, NGO’s, and everything else at the airport and focus on your job. Maybe once you leave, you can re-filter everything through a theorized lens.
- You will often find the very people most often attacked for pretty much everything wrong with development (the UN agencies, the USA, the World Bank, embassies, military consultants, et al) are a lot more knowledgeable than your text book or academic journal gave them credit for. Sure, you will find a dunce every once in an awhile, but don’t miscount people’s skills and knowledge. They probably read that book or journal article on Structural Adjustment Programs in the 1990’s as well. They might have written it.
- The only exceptions are history and, depending on where you are working, colonialism. You should be conscious of the history of the country you are working in, and colonialism and its present day echoes are still going to be part of your day to day life. That being said, people do not generally sit around discussing colonialism, instead they work in a context where colonialism was and still is a force.
3. Your local partners usually do know a lot, but they are not perfect
- If you are in a developing country, you need to trust your instincts when things aren’t working and bring in the expertise you have
- You might be wrong, or make a cultural mistake, but it can sometimes be better than sitting around and doing nothing
- People who are not afraid to voice disagreement and to make a stand on an important point are going to be successful in a development context
- Your local co-workers are not rich, though they do, by and large, have good jobs. They will be struggling with family issues, finances, relationships, and putting their kids in a good school. These pressures will affect their work performance, just as the pressure of living in a different culture affects you.
4. Don’t take point # 3 too far
- You can read a million books, learn a bit of the language, eat the food and have 10 friends on your Facebook from the country, and you still will not know enough about Ethiopian/Indian/Peruvian/wherever culture. You are not from there; you are the “Other”. You always will be. Deal with it.
- You are stinking rich. Compared to most of the people in your work, in the country you’re visiting and working in, you are rich. Even if your bank account says otherwise, the locals know that back in your country you can earn a wage exponentially larger than they can make, even at a menial job. And in many cases in the West, you get paid money by the government when you don’t work – something pretty alien to a lot of nations. Trying to explain the difference between a “student” or “intern” salary and a “western” salary is pointless. Trying to explain “cost of living” is pointless. You are rich. It is what it is. Deal with it.
- Spending less money than you need, or less then the next person, doesn’t make you any better of a development worker, traveller or visitor. Contribute to the local economy. You are a valuable source of foreign exchange to whatever country you’re in, don’t pretend otherwise.
- Spend your money on sustainable and local products. A t-shirt made in China has gone through too much of a supply chain to pay much of a dividend to an African or South American street merchant. Especially since it was donated and likely undercut the local textile industry. Drink local drinks and eat local food. It’s healthier anyway.
- For heaven’s or mother earth’s sake, seriously, do not argue over inflated prices for foreigners that end up being the equivalent of cents or pence. This is easy to learn the longer you stay in a country as you become accustomed to the right prices. If you are getting ripped off, then walk away. Do not ever yell at a merchant or taxi driver. You look like a bleeping idiot. If you find yourself arguing over the equivalent of 20 cents USD for twenty minutes, take a deep breath, you’re in the wrong. See point 4b.
- Your local partners will be right a lot of the time, or something will transpire that will make you realize why a certain course of actions were taken. Sometimes waiting is good as well. Find your voice and use it and let them use their voice
5. Ex-pat communities are small, imperfect, and interesting
- Ok – so some people will party too much, or not enough, for your liking. Deal with it.
- Some people are boring, some people are interesting, and it’s no different from home
- There will be huge disparities in living arrangements, backgrounds, salaries and jobs. Don’t get jealous, and don’t spend a month’s salary on taxis and dinners at the Sheraton. Or don’t assume everyone can drop money on taxis, beer, food, and weekends away camping in remote and expensive safari lodges. Don’t assume we all have drivers to take us from point A to B.
- Don’t think for a second you won’t need someone from your own culture to talk to every once in awhile. You are not T.E. Lawrence (Lawrence of Arabia) or Jake Sully from Avatar. Not only will they be valuable sources of advice, if they have been there longer than you or even if they haven’t, but they might turn out to be a good friend.
6. Learn patience
- It’s not “African time” or “Indian time” or whatever “time”; it’s just the way things are because of the reality of life. Again, be patient, take a deep breath, and work on something else if the plan is delayed.
- You are not going to change the world on your own– if you haven’t figure that one out, you need a new career. You can change a corner of it, and together, the world can really make some great changes in a lot of areas (environment, poverty, health) but keep it in perspective. Don’t be a bleeding heart, focus on your work and do it the best you can.
DISCLAIMER: This is my point of view, on the few months I have lived in this world. People will wholly disagree with some of these points and are encouraged to do so.
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