Archive for the ‘Development Workers’ Category

The minutiae of cultural differences

You are walking along an unsurfaced road. A motorbike is coming towards you. You step out of the way towards the side of the road. The motorbike follows you. You both get annoyed and you have to step off the road entirely in order not to get run over.

“A bit rude!” you think.

“Why did he have to move to the smoothest part of the road?” thinks the motorcyclist.


Humble gratitude

“Receiving aid is a privilege, not a right.”

So said I a couple of days ago. Something worth remembering, especially for those of us who work for NGOs and are fond, as I am, of bashing donors on a regular basis. Unfortunately always easier to remember when you hear others complaining than when launching into one’s own remonstration.

Thank you.

Paying for performance: the business class edition

Chris Blattman thinks that regular business class travel could be a symbol of all the wasteful excesses of the development industry*, and has suggested (symbolically, I am sure) that cutting back on business class travel by development agencies could be a new a Millennium Development Goal. But, as various commenters point out, there can be legitimate reasons for investing in business class especially for taller or older folk, and those who have to travel a lot (though I’m with Blattman on the issue of ticket flexibility being an irrelevance). So why, if you want to motivate your best staff would you want to take away an important symbol of your regard for their worth?

To me this question is the international jet-setting equivalent of the perennial poser of what to do about per diem culture in developing countries. Such payments are supposed to be reward for taking on extra or additional duties, and the hardship of being away from base, but have come to be completely subsumed in working practices as an automatic entitlement. I doubt that things are quite so bad amongst the the WB and UN global travellers**, but as symbols of their status as important people, I can see how business class travel and 5 star hotel accommodation is something of a badge of honour.

When evaluating these kind of perks, whether per diems or business class travel, the question that really springs to mind is: how good exactly are these best staff of yours? My experience of dealing with the UN system is somewhat limited, but my impression that its previous reputation for being something of a sinecure for the moderately accomplished is no longer accurate. However, even if your staff are geniuses (and I don’t hear many people questioning Jeffrey Sachs’s intellect), results from 60 years of international development aid are rather modest at best. Maybe humanity would actually be better off if some of these high powered folks were inventing whizzy new technologies or teaching the next generation rather than racking up air miles by the jumbo-load?

In conclusion, I am inclined to agree with Blattman that travelling business class as standard is indeed an unfortunate, highly visible symbol of wasteful overindulgence on the part of the aid sector. And in so far as it may encourage beneficiaries to puff themselves up with their own self-importance (as measured by the seniority of officials they meet rather than the extent of their actual achievements), then it could be worth cutting down on. But really I would mind much less if only I thought their work was delivering bigger results on the ground.

* My inference as to what he thinks it is symbolic of.

** For a start salaries are likely to be much better, so additional perks are not so important to overall remuneration.

St Paddy’s Pifflery

Earlier this month the Irish celebrated St Patrick’s day. If you are an expat working in the aid sector posted to the capital city of a developing country you might well have received an invitation to a St Paddy’s day celebration at the local Irish Embassy. Or you might not. It really depends upon which circles you move in. Here is Bottom Up Thinking’s simple cut-out-and-keep guide to getting an invitation to this and similar soirées.

May be invited Won’t be invited
Has almost zero contact with aid beneficiaries Works directly with aid beneficiaries
Sits in endless meetings and workshops which achieve very little Attends as few workshops as possible because nothing gets done in them
Most meetings in air-conditioned offices Meetings often under a tree or in the local school house
Constantly harasses grantees/subordinates to comply with long lists of conditions Is constantly harassed trying to meet latest ridiculous donor demands
Lives in a nice big house, with maid and gardener, rent paid by employer Lives in the bush; cadges a bed for the night with friends when up in the big city
Job satisfaction from a big salary and drinking oneself silly with friends at the Irish Embassy Job satisfaction from actually helping poor people and sense of worthwhile achievement
Gives/receives large amounts of cash to/from drinking buddies at pet NGO/donor at end of each year when surplus budget needs to be used up Has to write ten pages of meaningless donorese just to get enough cash to pay themselves and colleagues

Sour grapes? Me? Am sure I wouldn’t want to talk to most invitees any way, it’s just I do like a touch of the black stuff every now and then …

On whose behalf do they speak?

How Matters recently featured a guest post by Scott Fifer on the need to listen to local leaders, especially when they say “Thanks but no thanks.”

As with the paper on which I commented yesterday, Scott was making one of those obvious points which are too often forgotten, and I found myself agreeing with just about every word he wrote. However, I was also a tad concerned that the excellent points he was making all depended on one critical question which was never fully addressed: to what extent is Scott’s local partner, Abel Barrera Hernández, actually a good representative of the people Scott and Abel want to help?

Us expatriate advisers often worry a lot about the extent to which we should speak on behalf of the beneficiaries we are seeking to support, but can suffer serious blind spots when it comes to our local partners. As far as I could tell from Scott’s post Abel has not been elected by the people of Guerrero, Mexico. Even if he is extremely popular, and has helped the people there a lot (Scott implies both), they might not agree with Abel when he argues against the GO Campaign providing funds to improve the local school with a new floor on the basis that this ought to be the government’s job.

“Admittedly, part of me wanted to say to Abel, the hell with the cultural traditions, and to hell with the government! These kids need an education. These kids want and need books and desks and chairs and a floor.  But that part of me shut up (mostly).  My years of grant-making have taught me to know that I don’t know it all. And if a respected leader and human rights champion is telling me my well-intentioned ideas don’t fly with him, then I gotta figure he knows more than I do.”

It seems that Scott and Abel came up with a solution that sounds sensible and will give the practical support to the communities they need, so, without knowing anything more about the situation in Guerrero, I do not wish to imply any criticism of this particular instance; indeed the conclusion they reached sounds praise-worthy. But we do not always get it so right with our partners selection, e.g. in Guinea-Bissau it appears IUCN put rather too much trust in their local partners when they embarked upon a community conservation initiative on the Cubucan peninsular.

Local partners are vital to the success of development projects, but just because they are local and they are your chosen partner, does not necessarily make them good, nor automatically entitle them to speak on behalf of your would-be beneficiaries. Both labels have to be earned, and sometimes you might even find that actually it is the international partners who do a better job of protecting the interests of the beneficiaries.

Why expats bargain hard for their taxis

The Roving Bandit ponders the ethics behind bargaining down a taxi fare when one can easily afford to pay more. As the Bandit himself realises, this is hardly the most pressing problem on the planet, but, hey, us expats working in the Aid industry do like to agonise over these sorts to things.

I think can think of three legitimate reasons an expat might legitimately bargain down their taxi fare:

  • They may be a very junior intern / volunteer who really does not have any cash to spend, and has to eke out what little they have over the time they are here. The whole accounting for their life out in whatever far-flung place they have gone to depends upon the fact that life is significantly cheaper than wherever they call home. Quite simply they cannot afford to pay the rich white person’s fare.
  • Alternatively they may take this taxi on a regular day: over-paying today means over-paying forever, and that may have a more significant impact on their costs.
  • Finally they may be concerned about sticking out as a rich fool, and thus making themselves a target for thieves and other chancers. If they can bargain hard in the local lingo then that might signal they are not such an attractive target.

However, I suggest that the reason most expats bargain down the cost is that they think it is not cool not to bargain it down, and feel they would look silly to their friends and work colleagues (local and expat) if they paid way more than the going rate. And looking silly does decrease ones social capital which may impact upon one’s ability to get useful stuff done. But mostly I reckon folks just don’t want to be taken for a ride when they go for one.

Book Review

Happy 2013 to all my readers. Hope you had plenty of festive cheer and all that!

If you went away did you experience the latest bit of air travel nonsense? I mean when, taking off and coming into land, they tell you to turn off all electronic devices, including a basic Kindle, but leave the airplane entertainment system going. Cos the ultra low energy requirements of e-ink are really going to interfere with flight computers over all the electromagnetic waves given off by those bright LED screens right in front of us, yeah right! Kindles (and other e-readers!) are perfect for those of us who regularly travel long distances, but alas our airlines are all still stuck in the 20th century, and so the e-readers suck for ~30 minutes of each flight.

Mini-rant aside, what you have on your e-reader ought to be much more interesting than when you are and when you are not allowed to read it. Part of my xmas relaxation was reading The Hydrogen Sonata*, the latest in Iain M Banks’ loosely related Culture saga. (The ‘Culture’ are a “post-scarcity, hedonistic, Machiavellian, libertarian … infinitely capable, technologically miraculous, polymorphously perverse” pan-galactic society of various humanoid races plus super-powered artificial intelligences that dominate the universe 10,000 years from now.) If you cannot stand science fiction and get weirded out by ‘little green men’ and related subjects then I suggest you stop reading now. Those of you still with me may nonetheless be wondering what a review of a sci-fi book is doing in this particular blog.

The answer is that horrible little cliché about art holding up a mirror to our world. Science fiction is no different in this respect from other art genres, and offers imaginative opportunities not afforded to story-telling situated in more conventional settings. Reviews of the Hydrogen Sonata on the interwebs (epitomised by that in the Grauniad from which I lifted the above quote) have centred on the major theme of religion in scientifically advanced societies that permeates many of the Culture books.

But reading it I was struck first and foremost by the incredibly strong parallels between the Culture’s efforts to deal morally with other alien societies and the conundrums of expatriates working in the Aid sector, especially in how to navigate the sense of neo-colonialism that permeates much of what we do however much we may wish it did not. The Culture’s almost omnipotent resources, of course, put in the shade even the best present day efforts of the international development movement, but can equally be read as a fantasy of how we wish the UN and other big agencies would work. Equally, as almost always happens in Banks’ novels, when things get martial, they are a fantasy of how we wish the American armed forces, technologically superior in every facet, would behave if they had the scruples we do. (Indeed Banks conceived the Culture as much as a reaction to the right-wing world view that is prevalent in much science fiction.)

So if you’re an expat aid worker in search of a rather more lyrical reaction to the contradictions of our lives than that provided by Stuff Expat Aid Workers Like, then I can heartily recommend a spot of Iain M Banks. From the short biographical details available it does not appear that he ever worked or volunteered as an overseas Aid worker, but he hits the nail right on the head time and time again. His books are both wish fulfilment for our frustrated, ill-informed work and a reminder of how far up our own arses we can sometimes go with moralistic agonising. They are also stonkingly well written!

If you are entirely new to the Culture universe, which can be pretty baffling, then starting with one of the earlier books (Consider Phlebas and the Player of Games), may be easier, but there are only very loose plot connections between the different books, so jumping straight in with the Hydrogen Sonata or one of the other more recent books should work fine for those more intrigued by the aforementioned parallels with the Aid world than with pure entertainment.

Happy reading for 2013!

* Disclaimer: I have no connection whatsoever with Iain M Banks or his publisher. I wasn’t even asked to review the book. I will not earn any affiliate / referrer fees through this link.

(Post updated later on 08/01/13 to correct statement of Bank’s inspiration for the Culture: as a reaction to right-wing imagery in other science fiction, not religion. Doh!)

(Not) Speaking on behalf of poor people

While I was away my long-ago written contribution to Stuff Expat Aid Workers Like finally came out. For those of you who missed it, here it is again (slightly edited to restore the original intended meaning of the final bullet point). Those sensitive to sarcasm should stop reading now.


“Please can you speak on our behalf?” (Image: Avatar – the ultimate white knight movie)

From time to time, every Expat Aid Worker will be asked to speak on behalf of their project, and, by implication, on behalf of said project’s supposed beneficiaries. This could simply be in a workshop, which is not such an issue. However, it may also involve fronting up to the insatiable maw that is the modern international media circus. It’s these circumstances that fill the newbie EAW with trepidation. Oh, the moral minefield through which she* will have to tread!

  • On the one hand this could be a great opportunity for the EAW to get her name out there. It could be just the career break she needs. Plus the oxygen of publicity can be great for Field Cred!
  • Except that all EAWs are justifiably wary of White Knight Syndrome. Being called a White Knight (or Lady!) instantly reduces the EAW to some totally insensitive boor.
  • Moreover, except for those EAWs who have utterly succumbed to the Dark Side, there is still a kernel of idealism that EAWs like to nurture inside their hard candy shell of cynicism. Falling into the White Knight trap is simply terrible for one’s idealist karma.
  • The veteran EAW will thread this needle by prefacing her points with the disclaimer that she really has no basis on which to speak for her project’s beneficiaries, but here’s what she thinks any way.
  • Unfortunately this will be cut by the film editor, and the EAW will have to tell everyone she knows how she hated being portrayed as the White Lady she is not. This makes a good excuse to let everyone know that she was interviewed by the media, even if it was only featured for 5 nano-seconds on an obscure piece put out during the graveyard shift on Crap Network News.

The smartest EAW, however, will realise that all of the above is utter tosh, and will instead write a snarky blog post about it, explaining the Lewis Carroll-esque contradictions of her position: that frequently in such situations there is nobody else in the room in a position to speak on behalf of her project’s beneficiaries, so if she doesn’t step up to the plate, they’ll be left entirely unrepresented.  Anyone agonising about such issues are therefore just spouting self-indulgent pretentious BS.

And who needs karma any way? If her project’s beneficiaries had even a fraction of their fair share, they wouldn’t need the EAW to speak on their behalf in the first place.

*All male EAWs are honoured to be called she or her, as nothing else quite demonstrates our gender sensitivity than not objecting when others get it wrong.

The need for self-doubt

I, and many sages wiser than myself, have frequently remarked upon the lack of an adequate feedback mechanism in the aid industry. Randomized Control Trials may be the new M&E gold standard but they suck compared to the rapid feedback of no customers that a businessman with a duff idea experiences.

If the system in which you work has little capacity for self-correction, then, to my mind, it makes it all the more important that we contain such a capacity within ourselves. Which is why I totally agree with Dialectician Terence’s critique of the dangers of over-confidence and self assurance within the development sphere. Whether the road concerned is going to hell, nowhere, or somewhere in between, at best hopes will be raised and money wasted; at worst poor peoples’ livelihoods opportunities could be significantly knocked back.

And yet the conservation and development world holds plenty of attractions for the messianic side that lurks within many of us. Moreover, the need to prise money out of sceptical donors readily pushes us into over-emphasising the potential benefits and pooh-poohing the risks. It can be a short step from there to starting to believe our own guff. Whether it is the Millennium Villages Project or the One Laptop Per Child initiative, we can all too easily find ourselves on a runaway train of propaganda and self-justification.

I’ve had personal experience of working with such people. When they are on the money there is no better ally to be had. But when they lose the plot it can be incredibly difficult to persuade them of the merits of an alternative path. Constructive criticism is dismissed as base politicking, and a multi-stakeholder partnership can, in their eyes, be suddenly transformed into a conspiracy to block progress. When they perceive the project is threatened, then everything becomes about defending the project.

We all have our blind spots, and over-confidence is a dangerous trait in many walks of life. But the project success rate in conservation and development is not good. Even if we have good reason to think our proposal is the best thing since sliced bread, we should be wary, for many before us, equally able, have failed. Thus the capacity for self-doubt is, I think, one of the most important assets you can have if you want to work in conservation or development.

Is development work a route to compassionate conservatism?

Excluding the missionary types most conservation and development workers I’ve met are about as far, politically speaking, as you can get from the neoconservative agenda of Bush junior. However, they all do start out with a substantial minimum quotient of compassion that differentiates them from the average denizen of Wall Street. What I think few of them expect is the degree of conservatism many will take on as a result of a field career in development.*

This came up in a conversation not so long ago with a good friend of mine here. We were discussing the various Occupy <insert-capitalist-symbol-of-choice> protests. My friend’s point was that while she sympathised with friends and acquaintances back home who supported – and may even have actively participated in – the protests, this sympathy was tempered by the fact that the 99% in America are way better than the 99% in this particular part of Africa.

However, it was not just this sense of perspective that lessened her sense of agitation, but also the experience of living and working in a country where the day to day management of government responsibilities is so often completely dysfunctional. In contrast you rapidly come to respect those businesses which can reliably deliver a consistent service at a competitive price; mobile phone companies being the best example. (This experience is may well be different in countries like Ethiopia which reportedly are getting their acts together quite impressively.)

Thus it is, in many developmental discussions across various sectors, that often we seek the involvement of the private sector and other non-governmental actors in preference to the government-centric approach which many officials take as a default. Even the public-private sector partnership beloved of developed country economists leaves us shuddering: how can such a thing work with a government notorious for not paying its bills on time? Similarly, Norman Tebbit’s injunction for young people to “get on their bike” and find some work is a message that many a time we wish we could deliver in its starkest terms to apparently apathetic aid-dependent communities.

I doubt this will translate into many additional votes for right wing parties all of a sudden – development workers (except for the missionaries) are definitely socially liberal – but it is an interesting case, perhaps, of the collision that many of us experience as we grow older between the high ideals of youth and pragmatism in a world consumed by self interest.

* The exception would presumably be all those development economists who dominate the development blogosphere, or at least those sections of it that I follow.

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