Posts Tagged ‘language barrier’

Development Thought for the Day

Newspapers back in  the UK almost never use the word ‘expert’ in a headline. In articles, it is mostly only ever used as a description of a specific person, e.g. ‘Dr Nobbs, an expert in …’

Contrast that to here, where ‘Experts’ (often capitalised) feature large in the media landscape:

  • ‘Experts call for new investment in roads’
  • ‘More anti-retroviral drugs needed say experts’

Often these ‘Experts’ are anonymous, or identified only by their institution, e.g. ‘World Bank experts’. There may be a slight bias towards anonymising expatriate experts over national experts, but they do it to both.

Part of the explanation, I think, is linguistic: in contrast to Western cultures, one is much more likely to be called here simply by what one is (white person / mother / father / old man / child / doctor / mechanic) than by your name. However, in a country where the political leadership is somewhat dysfunctional, I also wonder whether it is evidence that the technocratic dream lives on … ?

Aid workers are from Mars, Researchers are from Venus

One of the reasons for my recent radio silence was that I was attending a workshop to discuss a new research project into which we had been roped. It was a faintly surreal experience for me and, I guess, the other field representatives*, who were drawn from various other developing countries across the globe (Africa, South America and South Asia were all represented). The proposed outcome of the research project was to draw lessons from our various experiences and to distil them into some kind of model / analytical framework which could inform future work in our sector. The organisers were very keen that it should be relevant and useful to us in the field. And therein lay the disconnect.

I’m a bit of a sceptic when it comes to these kind of social science frameworks: I think they are often (but not always!) either trivial (i.e. don’t tell us very much and are only useful as a kind of mnemonic so we don’t forget critical elements when doing our strategising), or are instantly refutable when you add another case study. (Most such frameworks are based on a pretty small sample size of case studies, mainly for cost reasons, I imagine.) But I’d signed our organisation up to the research effort (note to self: in future, read the proposal first), so it ill behoved me to completely diss the idea, and, I can see how such things could be useful to organisations, such as BINGOs and donors, who regularly work across multiple countries and regions.

But useful to us and our colleagues here? No. Every country has its own contexts and unique set of circumstances. Multi-country analyses will only ever encapsulate a very small part of these complexities and variations. If you want to understand social science issues in a specific country then read a book about the place or talk to people who work there; don’t rely on some grand intellectual framework because it will almost certainly lead you astray.

This doesn’t mean we don’t want to take part  in the research. There’s a small amount of money that comes with it, which will be useful**, and the exposure our organisation will get as a result is often worth having – at some point down the road it may lead to more substantial funding. But the main output will not, in itself, be useful here. I could see my fellow field representatives struggling similarly to fit what was on offer into what they need.

Been there, done that

One of the most surreal aspects, though, was that I had this strange feeling of déja vu, but from the other side of the table. In times past, in the search for local partners, we’d called meetings where we’d made various offers / suggestions as to how we could work together only for our would-be collaborators to ask for entirely different things. It is immensely frustrating – for both sides!

For the local partner, a necessary realisation is that, once the funds have been raised, there is often not much that can be done to repurpose things: we are all committed to a certain path (agreed or not), and that one should simply focus on making the best of the situation. One way to do this is simply to stop disagreeing: unfortunately lack of disagreement does not necessarily translate into whole-hearted buy-in which can act as a significant drag later. This, however, is an extremely common approach.

For the international partner, the challenge is to discern the underlying reasons for the objections. Sometimes these may be purely selfish, e.g. a desire to capture more value in the form of allowances for local partner staff, in which case it can be good to hold relatively firm. If the reasons for objection are better founded then maximum flexibility for now, and lesson learning for the future is the way forward.

Ultimately, of course, we want to bridge these gaps: get everyone talking the same language and moving towards genuinely shared aims. Development research that is more directly useful in the field would be … well, useful! So even when these disconnects happen it is always worth carrying on talking, and it makes for good bar chat when back with the locals: “Incredible! They just didn’t get it!” (Building rapport / going native.)


ps. The title of this post should in no way be taken to imply different planetary ‘genders’ to development workers and researchers, it just sounded better this way round. The researcher role also can be easily extended to include donors and BINGO head office staff.

* The others were at least all nationals of the countries where they live and work. I am definitely uncomfortable ‘representing’ the interests of the communities we support when my own life experience is so very different.

** Much more dangerous is when NGOs rely on such grants to cover core fieldwork costs. The entire thrust of such projects is oriented to delivering international research outputs, rather than meeting the actual needs of the communities, and who will continue the fieldwork when the research project comes to an end? These kind of projects should be outlawed.

Dealing with Criticism

I promised a response to GL’s guest post on how conservation NGOs respond to criticism, and here it is.

The first thing to note is that I don’t think this analysis is particularly unique to NGOs or the conservation sector. Governments, donors, hell probably even academics can come over all defensive when their pet projects are criticised. I, at least, am no saint and I reckon I must have used several of the strategies GL listed over the years. Unfortunately, as in all walks of life, such defensive responses can get pretty nasty, even potentially career threatening, and although truth may win out in the end, this can be scant consolation at the time.

The second thing to note is that it is always easier to criticise than to do. Critics of aid and development projects, and academic critics in particular, can be amazingly naive in their lack of understanding for the myriad pressures and resource limitations with which a project manager must cope. Critics sometimes push their own pet agenda without regard for the bigger picture. My own favourite example: when, as a tiny start-up NGO, we were criticised for not having a “working definition of poverty”. We didn’t have a working definition of the forest we were trying to conserve, but we didn’t believe that was constraining our work. (GL’s own work, I know, has rather more meat than such petty complaints.)

I see several aspects particularly germane to NGOs working in the international conservation and development sectors:

  1. Tax payers in donor countries seem to have a pretty jaded view of official international development assistance and have already priced in expected levels of corruption to their views. Although I have no data to support this, I would imagine that BINGOs as a whole have an almost squeaky clean image in the minds of many people. Whilst I am sure they back that up with an absolute intolerance of internal corruption, most people in developed countries may not have even considered that BINGOs may fail with many, or even any, of their projects. The idea that your personal donation was or might be money wasted is a pretty big turn off for future donations. So BINGOs perhaps feel they have to cultivate an aura of unerring invincibility? On the other hand, given the sheer scope and size of some of these organisations, you would have to be pretty naive to not expect a substantial non-zero failure rate. Do any NGOs, large or small, ever report these? I know we don’t, or at least not publicly on our website, unless buried in an otherwise long, and generally positive report.
  2. Overall, international conservation and development have a patchy record at best. If you went back 30 years and asked people then working in those fields, my guess is that most would have hoped / expected that things would be a lot better now than they are. However, the international aid is very bad at recognising failure (Owen Barder singles out lack of adequate feedback loops). Instead there is a culture of declared project success. BINGOs may have better systems than most to cope with this, but the interchange of staff with bilateral and multilateral aid organisations means that they cannot be immune to this kind of blinkered approach creeping into their work.
  3. The obvious corollary, and much remarked upon, is that international conservation and development is difficult, really difficult. With limited resources at our disposal many management decisions may be taken at the project level which are not as fully informed as we might like. So there is always likely to be plenty to criticise. Good project managers will recognise this, accept the criticim, and move on, but that isn’t always that easy because …
  4. … for most people working in conservation and development their work is a vocation not just a monthly pay cheque. Criticism, especially unsolicited criticism, nearly always has a personal impact, whether or not it is intended that way. However, when critiquing someone’s development project, you may be cutting a lot closer to the bone than, say, dissecting a company audit. In our sector people take their jobs home with them in the evening; shrugging off criticism is a lot harder when it matters more.
  5. Hence when delivering such criticism, diplomacy is advised. As I’ve previously remarked, it is easy to cause offence and or blunder across unseen cultural boundaries, even when you’ve got plenty of experience. BINGO staff might be paid handsome international salaries, but that does not mean they will have left all their cultural ties at the door, nor would we want them to do so. That said, the BINGOs could also do with getting rid of the bad apples, regardless of any immediate fallout; I’ve come across some astoundingly unprofessional people working for BINGOs (a tiny minority) who appear protected because no-one wants to face up to the challenge of booting them out the door.

I ordered the above points in this manner because it gave them some kind of logical flow, but, to my mind at least, they are in clear diminishing importance. Often NGOs seem to be regarded in almost saintly terms – indeed I do not think I am immune from this fallacy – but the reality will always be much messier. This blog exists in part to document the ‘ugly side of conservation and development’. Whether the general public is ready for such nuanced views is less certain. (A question crying out for a good research project, surely!) In the meantime, we can expect BINGOs to continue to gloss over their failings and be rather less tolerant of criticism than their saintly image might imply.

Language Barriers: Real and Imagined

We are quite excited here about expanding our work into a new province. There are a couple of donors involved, and one, having wiggled their toe in the water for quite some time without achieving much, was in something of a hurry to show some results, so the preparations, at least for the initial bit of work, were quite rushed. After an initial recce visit – which went very positively with good early relationship building – we developed a plan of action almost entirely by email; the provincial officials were copied in all the relevant exchanges except for our contract negotiations with the donor. However, when our team recently showed up in the provincial town to begin work they were met by an entirely different attitude; the officials claimed they were expecting some kind of special rate for collaborating in the work (on top of standard per diems), and complained they were not fully informed.

The demands for special rates were downright greedy, unjustified (folks – this is your job!), and completely at odds with established norms (we pay the government standard rates for a reason); as such they were relatively easily rebuffed. Such obstructionist behaviour, however, is not exactly uncommon hereabouts; the real challenge is to work out why such unnecessary obstacles are being raised, and then to treat the cause, not just the symptoms. The clue was in the second – on the face of it, ridiculous – complaint of being uninformed. At first they said email doesn’t work very well in their office, but they had previously admitted to receiving all the emails, although they never replied. Then they explained that they had expected formal letters addressed directly to them rather than just being copied on a general correspondence over email.*

This is a bit pathetic. However, we can make a few more educated guesses. The emails were all written in English (otherwise the donor wouldn’t have understood). Both the provincial officials involved speak reasonable English, and it is clear they understood the emails well enough. But I had written the emails rather than my local counterpart. My use of language is very different to most local people and infused with Western norms. We can never know for sure – if they had wanted to be straight with us, they wouldn’t have invented their various complaints – but if I had to guess I would say that the officials were intimidated by my linguistic style (and choice of communications medium). They felt unable to reply in kind, and, as a result, felt as if they were not in control, and responded with a couple of rounds from the bureaucrat’s arsenal of prevarification and obstructionism.

Development workers are nearly always outsiders. Our differences are myriad; some obvious, others subtle. My local colleagues and I like to think of ourselves as experienced in what we do; my language was appropriately diplomatic and our (local) general manager did not notice anything in the emails which might have given alarm. Nonetheless we stumbled. The complaints raised were pathetic and deserve scorn, but no-one likes to feel intimidated, and we can understand when someone thus affected might lash out in some way.

Officialdom here needs to grow up, and stop requiring every little issue to be the subject of a special purpose workshop requiring people to travel from all over just to discuss fairly simple matters. Officials uncomfortable moving any faster will throw up any number of obstacles including apparently imaginary communications failures. Underneath, however, there is a very subtle but very real language barrier which takes real courage to cross.

*  It is one of those oddities of life out here that one receives 1MB emails just to invite one to attend a meeting of some sort when a two line plain text job would suffice. Instead, you get a formal letter that has been signed by the big boss and then scanned in full colour, before (to save on the stamp?) being emailed out to one.

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