Saturday, March 14, 2015

The Development Myth

Here come the goats! Here come the goats!
When I first moved here, the realities of what I thought my job would be and what it actually turned out to be was a bit jarring. I imagined I’d be delivering of goats to women-farmers while they sang, danced and ululated around me in the sunshine of a bucolic farmyard. Instead, I’ve developed a hunchback and squint-eye compiling bid matrices and no-conflict-of-interest forms in triplicate that justify why Fatso Investments (name of real firm) has the best goats for the best price.

Complaining one night over beers, a good friend of mine (who works in the UN system) laughed and then advised. “Remember, your job is not to do your job. It’s to cut through all the bureaucracy to enable someone else to do their job.” I laughed, ruefully.

This perspective just doesn’t mesh with the humanitarian stereotype. You know, the one of a Westerner who has assimilated perfectly to their adopted homeland. S/he lives in a mud hut, happily without electricity, eating street food, and cheerfully taking public transportation. They speak the language, get all the formalities correct, never point their feet where they shouldn’t. As such, they are able to do really effective cool stuff. They hand out blankets to AIDs orphans, mobilize community health programs, and rehabilitate boreholes with a toothpick and a smile.

I will never be one of these people.

I used to feel so guilty about this. Sure, I’ve eaten street food and murdered “thank you” in eight languages, but I can never quite move from “clumsy outsider” to “effective local”. I like roadside samosas as much as the next person, but that doesn’t make me Indian. I can admire, adopt even, certain things out of respect and even, enjoyment. I can slow down when I talk. Share my food. Sit in the driver’s office and get the gossip. But I’ll never be Malawian. The best I can hope for is cultural competence, not fluency.

I’ve gone round the emotional mill on this (sad, angry, frustrated, guilty). The development stereotype tells me that I should be good at all these things - but I’m just not. I have spent the last ten years carrying residual guilt about this until, last week, something caught my eye on a recent post on AidSpeak. J., was expounding on the skills needed to be a good development professional:

The value that foreigners (us) bring to the table is less and less about our knowledge and understanding of the details of local culture (local staff usually know organically in a few seconds those things that take us months or years of study to get right), or our ability to endure harsh conditions (the fact that we might be able to live like refugees for a few days almost never impresses real refugees), and more and more about our ability to engage with the global humanitarian system.

Suddenly, I feel so much better. I've stopped beating myself up over this. 

The truth is, I don’t think these people actually exist the way we think they do. And even if they did, there’s an awful lot of tedium that you don’t hear about in the run up to becoming that effective. Never once do you hear about cleaning data sets or editing quarterly reports. No one ever spends hours waiting for the lights to turn back on, or the government official to show up or fixing crashed computers.   But those things need to be done.

This misconception has to change. We have to start being honest about what development work looks like. And sometimes, it's boring.

Our lead farmers and local staff know Chichewa and how to castrate a goat much better than I do. But I do know how to jump the hoops of procurement and the industry terms (allowable and allocable anybody?) to get those darn goats in the first place. I can practically quote 22 CFR 226 in my sleep. The thing is, I never valued these things as “skills” because that’s not what I thought a “good” development practitioner did. The mundane is always overlooked, undervalued.

That’s not to say understanding local context is unimportant for expats, or examining the intricacies of the global humanitarian system are impossible for locals. I’m just saying: Let’s each play to our comparative advantage. My comparative advantage will never be goat vaccinations and chatting away in Lao/Chichewa/Hausa. It is in understanding and following a donor system, their regulations, and smoothing the way for smart, creative local staff who understand their culture and their context to do their job.

My friend was right, it's not my job to do my job. It's to pave the way for someone else. That realization adds so much value, so much relief, it almost makes the paperwork...palatable.

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