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Warning! Take with a grain of realistic salt: working in development

Warning! Take with a grain of realistic salt: working in development

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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Alex Jameson

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25 thoughts on “Warning! Take with a grain of realistic salt: working in development

  1. I enjoyed reading this and learned a lot about working in international development. Thanks for sharing!

  2. Great post, Alex.
    On the bleeding heart front, I've been good so far, but I sort of wonder if in the long run I am cut out for development work. I mean, I can't even watch a sports game without getting emotionally involved – my friends were making fun of me for crying during the Mexico-Argentina football game when the Mexican passed the ball to the Argentinian.
    Excellent point about "you are rich." I think that when a lot of earnest young people go on their first development-related volunteer project or whatnot, they don't initially get this. I certainly didn't. I remember a guy I worked with in Burkina Faso back in 2006 once said to me: "Everyone in your country is rich." I argued, you know, cost of living, there are income disparities in my country, etc etc etc. I realize now that I should have just nodded.

  3. Thanks for the post Alex.

    It is an interesting starting point for people interested in working in development, but I would suggest also that readers take it also with a grain of salt and consider some of the comments. As you have stated here though, that was partly your intention.

    My largest concern was with point #3 – again whether or not you intended for it to be taken to its logical extreme, this is often the biggest and most damaging mistake made by development workers, so I would exercise caution. Having spent two years in Bougainville and five more overseeing development volunteers, I would encourage readers to take this as a point of encouragement to not lose confidence rather than one to always trust one's own "better" judgment. We actually advise our volunteers not to do anything for the first six months (aside from work alongside their counterparts), as it takes at least that long to detach somewhat from cultural assumptions. Short-term placements are particularly dangerous when the expatriate feels they have to "achieve something" before they finish.

    I would also like to add re: point 4b & 4c, expats should be aware of the artificial inflation their presence can produce. I agree that petty haggling over small prices is unbecoming and should be avoided, but short term economic stimulation may not be all good. Connected slightly to point 3, I would also recommend people resist seeing their own relative wealth in terms of opportunity and obligation to "do something". First and foremost, expatriates should focus on the job for which they have been employed. Side projects are more often about self-gratification than sustainable community development. It also sets a bad precedent of "foreigner as cash cow" which negates the ability of subsequent volunteers to build effective relationships.

    Finally, on point 5 – Beware the expat in culture shock, the burnt-out expat or the insular expat community. They will appear to have expertise on local cultural matters but are often reflecting their own inability to work cross-culturally. It is not easy and does take a lot of patience (point 6) and especially the humility to take a back seat in community development.

  4. Ai Leen

    "Aye" in agreement with virtually all comments made by 'Troubled' and Janet. Alternatively, maybe the article just needs to be posted in a more appropriate context or sufficiently introduced.

  5. Troubled

    (Part 2)

    The "why" is the marrow of this issue, and we do a most wonderful job of ignoring it at almost every level of the aid structure. You say "very few people debate these issues beyond a bull session in the pub." You know this how? Again, I beg to differ. A great many of the most enlightening, fascinating, and relevant theoretical, political, and hopeful conversations I've had in my life have been with "people" outside the pub – mostly locals if you get right down to it. Engaging people of different cultures in theoretical conversation serves mightily in one's task of understanding the situation or scenario to be dealt with, and how best to address it.

    You say, "You might be wrong, or make a cultural mistake, but it can sometimes be better than sitting around and doing nothing." I strongly submit that this statement alone has far reaching implications and often disastrous consequences, we have seen this scenario play itself out time and again. Thinking, considering, understanding, and most importantly reflecting on what it is that we are "doing" prior to doing it is critical. This cannot be stressed enough, simply doing without proper understanding of a situation is a sure recipe for disaster, and if you have little concept of the culture you operate in, you won't even know to what extent you have done damage at a local level.

    Draw back for a moment and look at the "Big picture" you refer to. Why is it that we seem to be facing the same scenarios over and over again, in the same places, with the same people and the same models of so-called help coming to the rescue? Perhaps with more, and varied experiences, you can start to tease out the finer points of the "why" I keep speaking of. When you do, the entire structure of what you've written about will be open for some very salient and necessary questioning, as will your conduct within it.

    These are incredibly complex situations, with incredibly complex solutions, if there any solutions at all without a total re-think of our roles in the root causes. Politically or economically motivated aid running on a steady stream of people wanting to do the "right thing" is not so slowly ruining nations all over the world, it is time to seriously reflect on the all-important "why's" behind each and every situation. To be frank, your post leaves me worried about that process.

    1. Alex Jameson

      Thank you for your frank appraisal.

      First off, these observations were not just culled from "spending time in a ex-pat community" wherein I "prevent any kind of clarity from creeping into the equation." I have spent many hours talking to locals ( I work solely with locals, period), living in communities far removed from large ex-pat communities. Again, these are observations – I did not write the ten commandments of development work – and I don't profess to know everything, and I certainly don't pretend I can overcome "obvious cultural bias" because I don't think that is possible. You can understand and work within other cultures, but if you have found the secret to completely overcoming your own "obvious cultural bias", you should share…

      As I said previously in regards to the "You might be wrong, or make a cultural mistake, but it can sometimes be better than sitting around and doing nothing" this is not a free ticket to not think critically. In fact it's an open invitation to think for yourself and be confident in your own opinions. Ask questions when you don't understand, offer a point of view.

      Again, why are you there if you don't have something to contribute?

      That is all. I might ask the point be retracted or I will rewrite it if it causes too much confusion. I am not naive nor do I disregard local opinion, I don't advocate simply "doing". It was a statement to counteract lack of action and lack of contribution. Again, it is not a ticket to act like a jackass in developing countries.

      My definition of a bleeding heart was offered to me in a discussion with someone with ten times the experience I have in development. It does not mean not to care! Of course, everyone cares; people should care about what happens. I care deeply about the youth I work with, to the point of exhaustion.

      Looking back, I should have explained this better. It's not a call to be a robot. It's a justification to people, perhaps at home, that don't understand why people elect to work in these conditions in the first place. A bleeding heart in my definition has always meant someone overly obsessive about helping everything, and I mean overly. This is the kid that brings home the dead animal and demands to his or her parents to take it to the hospital, that doesn't understand that death is a part of life. I define it as the person that jumps from the cause du jour, seemingly on an hourly basis. Bleeding hearts don't question why, they just think they can help everyone and everything all at once. This is someone who goes well beyond asking "why?" as you suggest is important and I agree, it’s what I suggest when I say don’t sit there and do nothing.

      These are the people obsessed with "wanting to do the "right thing", as you said. A lack of focus is as dangerous as what you accuse my need for focus as being; because they can't apply all that energy to a single set of problems – hence they don't get any actual good work done. Whether someone exists that fits my definition of bleeding heart doesn't matter, because outside of the development community, it describes the stereotype of the development worker.

      It appears you have lots of experience, and perhaps you know have a circle of friends and family members that completely understand what you do for a living. Well, that isn't the case for everyone and as you said in this day and age people don't understand, and are easily misled by the motives of development work. As an entry-level participant, who is getting paid very little, but with some experience, I still get asked at home what it is exactly I do, and why do I do it. Perhaps when questioning my experience, you should look at your own set of cultural biases and experiences to understand that most new entrants into development cannot fall back onto the same set of assumptions you now have about how your work is perceived.

      1. Troubled

        Thanks for your reply Alex.

        I will keep this one short, promise.

        While I appreciate your responses to both my comments and those made by "Janet," I will bring you back to one aspect of my reply. First, from you:

        "understand that most new entrants into development cannot fall back onto the same set of assumptions you now have about how your work is perceived.

        In from me:

        "A word of caution in this internet era – people who have never seen, nor will ever see these things first hand are able to access blogs like this, and they may or may not take your comments at face value and form strong, and damaging opinions based on them."

        My main issue with your piece is it comes across as a road map for others based on your personal and limited experiences. It IS NOT to degrade in any way, shape, or form what you are experiencing, what you are trying to process, or that you are trying to share it – what I am trying to do is caution you of speaking in absolutes and from a position of authority, particularly when your base of information is limited. You never know who is reading.

        I fully understand what you are going through, can completely sympathize with your predicament, and applaud you for writing in the public domain, but again I urge you to use caution in this type of forum when working through these issues. Words are very powerful things, and language should always be chosen carefully and used appropriately, it is one of the most powerful tools we have at our disposal. That holds true online, in person, or in print – in our own culture or in others. I have learned this lesson the hard way, believe me.

        Best of luck in your endeavors.

        1. Alex Jameson

          The title of my post asks the reader to take with a grain of salt. I added an additional disclaimer at the bottom. This is far more then is usually expected on a blog comment. I have used my full name, and contacting me for further details would not be a problem. I have responded in a timely manner (I do live in Ethiopia!) to every comment so far. I stand by my remarks, as a commentary and as opinion. It comes across as a road map more because of the point form format and I have taken pains to divest any idea of "authority" from my remarks. I talk and write in absolutes sometimes, because that is just the way I am, must be a cultural bias;-)

          That being said, I understand your point of view and I appreciate the advice. Social media is an evolving format, and whydev has done a bang up job so far in creating a space for debate and dialogue. In the future, I will perhaps, as much as I can, tone down the "telling it how it is" format that you suggested I used. That's a fair enough critique and again I appreciate the frankness.

          PS – for another look at what I am doing, with different take entirely checkout

          1. Just to speak on behalf of and Alex (not that he needs any one to speak on this behalf). Alex submitted his article to us and we decided to post it with little editing as that would have taken away his voice and its originality. We knew it would provoke some great discussion and debate, and it has. This is fantastic to read. This is one of the main purposes of That is, giving young, recent (and perhaps inexperienced, but I personally do not think that counts against. It usually gives a fresh perspective on issues) graduates and professionals space to voice their views and opinions and to generate discussion around such.

            We want those working in development and writing to us to be as honest and blunt (to a reasonable and justifiable extent) as possible about their experiences. We encourage it. We also encourage comments of substance such as those posted by Janet and 'Troubled'. Indeed, the comments posted in response have been incredibly insightful, critical and geniuine. This is what we hope to keep seeing from readers and writers on I have enjoyed the discussions between Alex, Janet and 'Troubled'. We would love to get a contribution to the site from 'Troubled' in the future. These are the kinds of debates (in tone, substance) that needs to take place on many of the issues in development raised.

          2. Troubled


            I hope that someday you are able to look back on this paragraph and think to yourself, "how on Earth did I write that?" When you do, you'll be able to see what I've been inferring in my comments:

            " The title of my post asks the reader to take with a grain of salt. I added an additional disclaimer at the bottom. This is far more then is usually expected on a blog comment. I have used my full name, and contacting me for further details would not be a problem. I have responded in a timely manner (I do live in Ethiopia!) to every comment so far. I stand by my remarks, as a commentary and as opinion. It comes across as a road map more because of the point form format and I have taken pains to divest any idea of "authority" from my remarks. I talk and write in absolutes sometimes, because that is just the way I am, must be a cultural bias;-) "

            It is not about punctuality of response, format of discussion, or proudly standing by your comments (as they are off target), or entrenching who you are – you are young and you will change in the coming years more than you ever thought, we all do and I don't think it ever stops, or at least it shouldn't. If you have to preface something with disclaimers, it's a fairly good indication you might want to sleep on it before hitting send, just a friendly tip.

            Thanks for passing on the other blog.

          3. Alex Jameson

            Troubled, you are off the mark on the disclaimer issue. But it's partly my fault – I shouldn't have called it a disclaimer. It's an invitation to comment and discuss, which is what you have done diligently. Some of your comments have made me reconsider certain positions (for example, the discussion of development theory in the field), which is good for me and everyone else reading the post.


            I am more then comfortable offering an opinion and having it critiqued or discussed. That is how debate and learning happens. You can disagree with my comments (or take them out of context) and that is perfectly okay for me. And to progress the debate and the learning, I repeatability stated that this was my way of looking at thing (so young, so inexperienced!) and that readers are free to have their own opinion.

            How much are you sacrificing when you write something that is not up for debate?

            What you have done is to accuse me of writing in absolutes – when I provided tonnes of room for disagreement and debate – and then ask me to write in basically more absolute terms. You also seem to be able to throw your own "absolute" terms up because of "experience" and have them held up as the undeniable truth. That troubles me. I will continue to hit the send button.

            Also, just on a technical issue, I need to put a "disclaimer" because I was not writing on behalf of my organization, yet it's referenced. I need to clarify that these are my words, which is no different then any number of "disclaimers" you will see on websites, blogs, tv shows, books and films. This is also why I decided on submitting to WhyDev instead of another blog, because Brendan and the crew there, in the creation of the blog, talked about creating an open dialogue for new entrants into development. They have backed up their words with actions and that is why I choose to submit here; I am allowed to post my ideas and I want to hear feedback. And I have provided heavy doses of comments here on other people's postings, challenging in the same way you are. That is constructive and that is good. I would much prefer that then someone lobbing a "good job" softball at me.

            It would be easy to post a blog with no muscle and no debate. I don't want to do that, because development already has to many "experienced" people running the show, making a muck of it, and they do it largely without real critique.

            This issue reminds of another blog post I saw on Bloodandmilk:

            BTW, I have another point going back to something you said before. Someone helpfully offered this analogy in regards to a "bleeding heart." It's akin to calling a lawyer an "ambulance chaser". This is a slang term used in North America. It is a slight against those that practise law, just as a "bleeding heart" is a slight to the those that practise development. A "bleeding heart" is a negative connotation, meant to deride the type of work we do as some sort of naive altruism. I don't want to be called a "bleeding heart" the same way a personal injury lawyer that genuinely helps people hurt in accidents doesn't want to be called an ambulance chaser.

  6. Troubled

    (PART 1)


    Your post leaves me deeply troubled, for a myriad of reasons, not the least of which is your need to share some very strong opinions based on precious little experience and an obvious cultural bias (one that can take many years and many experiences to understand and deal with, not overcome) – the root cause of the many ills contained in the aid/development world, politics aside.

    A word of caution in this internet era – people who have never seen, nor will ever see these things first hand are able to access blogs like this, and they may or may not take your comments at face value and form strong, and damaging opinions based on them. Reading the prior comments is evidence of this issue already.

    I will not go through your post and address each issue in turn, but instead I will ask that you consider the the following:

    While I am certain your motives are positive (I would like to believe you wouldn't be there in the first place, but one never can be sure these days as the opportunities provided to "us" can be many in these situations), you have highlighted in your post – with enthusiasm I may add – why many/most Westerners and Western aid organizations or Governments fall desperately short when working or helping in foreign countries and cultures, and generally serve only to create new barriers for the very people we are trying to help…

    Taking time to understand the culture you are operating in, and learning to respect it is of paramount importance, and while you do reference this, I don't think you've grasped what this actually means just yet. "We" tend to fail disastrously in this department the world over, and not always out of ignorance, but sometimes with great intention and lucidity and for personal or corporate gain. There are deep undercurrents surrounding the politics of aid, wars, and rebuilding, to ignore them is to empower them. There is always another "why" to be answered, and your reference to these bodies shows you have not yet connected these dots.

    You make some rather sweeping generalizations about so-called "Bleeding Hearts," I'm not sure what has spawned this line of thinking in your particular case, but it is often a coping mechanism for people. An easy target so to speak. Great issue should be made here, because this "focus" about which you speak – your stated method for dealing with what you're seeing around you, is a huge part of the problem with foreigners in less affluent nations. Unfortunately it leads to myopia and justification, and places undeserved importance on what "we" are doing in these places, and that we are doing rather than what is actually happening and most importantly, why. This is where the whole concept falls apart, from the U.N., to religious groups, to Governments, to many smaller aid organizations. You say "There are very few Bleeding Hearts" like it is a good thing, in my experiences I would suggest quite the opposite as most of the people I've seen working effectively in war zones or disaster areas over the years are exactly what you describe. Why? Because there comes with truly seeing and feeling a certain re-alignment of one's views, priorities, and sense of self importance. Spending time in a ex-pat community is a sure fire way to prevent any kind of clarity from creeping into the equation.

    (Con't below)

  7. Alex Jameson

    Why I don’t hire development studies majors

    Because the degree doesn’t leave you with any actual skills – maybe it would be useful for someone who’s been working in development and needs a frame. But it is not preparation for international development work. Learning a whole chunk of development theory has remarkably little to do with the actual work of improving lives and creating better opportunity.

    1. The comments on that blog post really opened my eyes…I am changing my opinion on that one.


      1. Alex Jameson

        Alanna, as in the writer of BloodandMilk? Nice. Your blog is awesome. You probably disagree with half the stuff I wrote, but either way nice to hear from you.

        PS. I saw Hans Grosling in Vancouver in March and it was amazing. If you hadn't had a chance to see him in person, you should, I am sure he makes it to Central Asia every so often.

  8. janet

    Hi Alex,
    I worry a little that despite the 'take it with a grain of salt' disclaimer, your observations can leave readers with a superficial understanding of what it means to exist in a new context. Of particular concern is the idea (in point #3) that doing something is better than doing nothing. This can be a dangerous belief, as mistakenly assuming we have the knowledge, skills, and right to do something has sometimes historically led to more harm than good, despite intentions. I just wish to offer a gentle reminder that 'history' and 'colonization' – the two exceptions to which you point (in #2) – are not over. We are in an ongoing process of creating history, and through that process there are very real colonizing practices. Certain practices that hindsight allows us to call colonization were not recognized as such in their present moments. Just a word of caution. Perhaps if there was more thoughtful discussion of how theory and ideas inform practice (which you say is missing, in #2) we could be more intentional in how we engage, and even when or how we choose not to.
    All the best to you,

    1. Alex Jameson

      Thank you Janet,

      I think you're taking my point much farther then I intended. It is not a defense of colonial ways of acting and thinking, full stop. It's more about questioning processes then demanding someone do something.

      To me, doing nothing is fatal, but asking questions, even ones that might make people uncomfortable, is needed. We all value local knowledge, but there has to room to add your two cents. Or what's the point of you being there?

      I do not want that point to be taken to mean that you have the "right" to do what you want in any given situation. Of course, that's paternalistic and neo-colonialist. My overall point is to have confidence in your own ideas, expertise and ideas. Asking questions of your local partners cannot be a bad thing. It's a good way to learn through understanding the process instead of just analysing the end result.

      1. Alex Jameson

        "ideas, expertise and ideas" – and confidence in your grammar!

        1. janet

          Hi Alex,
          I like what you said about 'understanding the process instead of just analysing the end result'. A good thing to keep in mind about life in general!

  9. POC

    Lots of good insights here. There's one perspective I'd love to see, however : what if you're a person of color in this field?

  10. Alex Jameson

    I knew the section on the use of theories in the field would be contentious. As an entry-level participant in development work in Africa my observation has been that the theories of development may indeed underline a lot of work that is done and the policies implemented, but they do not come up in discussion very often. Most certainly, they do not come up nearly as often as they did in my academic study. This includes discussions amongst your local partners as well as discussions with ex-pats.
    It should be pointed out that, just as everyone else in the world, the last thing ex-pats want to talk about is work when they are outside the office. So maybe we don’t debate development theory and the pros and cons of neo-liberalism because it’s more interesting and relaxing to talk about, oh let’s see, the World Cup! Or, people tend to discuss tactics about working in Ethiopia: who to talk to, which ways to show respect, when to stand up for yourself, what hotel has hot showers and of course, earning trust.
    The major “theory” or “ism” or whatever you want to call it that everyone debates here, local and international, is Chinese investment, construction and basic involvement in African affairs. I cannot say this enough. Ethiopians generally don’t like Chinese workers and their effect on the countries social issues, and the lack of capacity building, but do enjoy the roads, bridges and jobs (for now) that are being created. Is there room for us to debate this? Yes. Because, in my opinion, it’s having greater efficacy on Africa than any other set of policies, especially any originating in the Global North.
    Another reason I would suggest is that most development workers are employed by organizations that have long-ago adopted rights-based approaches, participatory monitoring and evaluation, tenants of human development and other “good practices”. In many cases, they developed these ideas in the first place. I work for a local and international organization that is:
    rights-based ; micro-finance; youth focused; participatory; community focused; gender balanced ;capacity building (my job); environmental conscious
    And most people I meet (local and international; except for military types) work for organizations that hit, or attempt to at least, on all of these fronts as well. My organizations don’t do it all perfectly, but as I have said on this site before, development is not a science, and getting it “perfect” every time is improbable goal for the development community.
    If the organization you work for, both local and international, is generally keeping close to how you think development should operate (most people I have met are of this opinion) then theoretical debates are not going to come about as much as they would in a more discordant policy environment.
    Should people in the field debate more “isms” and theory? Though my job is big, it’s for small outfits in Canada and Ethiopia, it’s still entry-level, and I am not in the big policy-making circles inhabited by the UN, INGO’s and government agencies. It’s tough to make a judgement call on that question at this point. Theory has value, and I am always up for good theoretical fisticuffs, but making room for it now (again outside of pub bull sessions) might be a difficult task.

  11. It's the bleeding heart that would get me, the other points are fine but I know I'd struggle with the inability to help everybody there and then.

  12. Alex, do you think that perhaps post-university, there should be more formal/informal discussions about 'isms' in the field. Theory, although we may not always be conscious of it, underlies much development policy and programming. It underlies our own approach to development work, what ever field it may be in. An uncritical acceptance of the theories can perpetuate ineffective, useless and just bad practices. whether they be philosophical (justice), ethical (utilitarian), economic (rationalism), etc. The 'human development' concept and approach, underpinned by a number of philosophical and ethical theories and judgements, has shaped development practice enormously. I think a greater awareness and engagement of the theoretical paradigms that shape development by those in the field (as opposed to those in academia) is necessary, even if not desirable or wanted.

  13. Great post, Alex. So good to hear voiced what I had suspected/hoped/feared. Not too sure where it leaves me, but it was fantastic to read. Cheers.

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