Saturday, April 25, 2015

Douchey Douchebagitarianism

This week, the Guardian did a piece on the End Humanitarian Douchbaggery campaign. It’s a couple of guys who wanted point out the inherent hypocrisy of going to another country and volunteering, when you’re not remotely qualified to do such activities at home. They’ve got a clever video.

On the surface, it’s funny. They have some really great points and offer some good advice. I’ve often thought along the same lines: what if Malawians came to America and started telling us how to plant our fields? What if we started talking about North America as one homogenous place the way we talk about Africa?

However, the message here is so pitch-perfectly snarky that it kind of hurts. I’ve got mixed feelings about voluntourism, but the fact that these guys choose to make their very valid point about doing research and approaching service with a Humble Heart in the snarkiest, eyeballing-rolling-ist ironic way possible invalidates their point. It’s just so…off-putting.

As an added bonus, their video makes us all feel better about ourselves because it pokes fun at an easily hate-able Other:  hipster wannabees/trustafarians taking selfies with little non-white kids for many Facebook likes. 
We hate those.

Except…… I’ve never met any of those people. Further, I’m not sure anyone is going to look at this campaign and think “Gee, that’s me!” I’m sure they exist, but I want to say: hold up a minute with the judgement. Let’s not assume that everyone is an asshole.

I pick on this not as an apologist to voluntourism, but to make a point. After ten years in development, I’ve learned to drop the assumptions. Not only is it unnecessarily divisive, but life is way messier than you anticipated. Yes, development work should be done by those qualified to do it. Yes, foreigners can and do displace local labor pools. Yes, you should educate yourself as best you can before traipsing into an unknown situation. 

But here’s what really annoys me about this campaign: being so cool as to point out how others have got it wrong infers that you’ve got it right.

And that, I certainly don’t believe.

The thing is – you could do all the right things, do all the Fair Trade Learning you want, but you will never definitively know what kind of impact you’re having on another human. You can do all the research in the world, read all the organizational philosophies you want – you will just never know. I'm not saying you shouldn't do those things; just get used to ambiguity, too.

Organizations are made up of humans, who are inherently imperfect. We all make assumptions. For example: Organization A swears that everything is reciprocal, community-driven. Well guess what? Ideas about community development are not homogenous, even among the “locals”. But…but…we did a community mapping program! Well, guess who goes to those meetings? It’s the same people that do here: the ones that have the time, the status, the gumption.  Community-driven approaches are great, but let’s not kid ourselves. They aren’t what everybody wants. They’re what the majority wants. (And usually, the majority wants whatever will bring them the most money...but I digress…)

This campaign, in all its slick jingo-ism misses the mark. It’s cute, but I’m tired of being cynically cool. I want sincerity, I want thoughtfulness, I want to believe in something that doesn’t catch my eye because it’s a funny made-up word about a vaginal cleanser. Community engagement for social change either at home or abroad takes work. Sometimes it takes volunteers. It takes unbridled stupid optimism, guarded wisdom, time, careful collaboration and a whole lot of open-mindedness.  It takes all of that and so much more.

So, yeah, I get their very valid points about being humble, making educated decisions, putting others first and taming unbridled bravado. I just wish they would’ve taken that same advice in their messaging.

Sunday, April 19, 2015

Fast Facts About African Agriculture

Today I spent learning this new program, Picktochart (
Wish I'd had this program when I was in 4-H!

Saturday, April 11, 2015

A New Job, Part Deux

An appropriate question, tucked behind the door of a
truckstop bathroom in Zambia.
I thought that buying a house would be fun (all those HGTV shows couldn’t be wrong, could they?). Imagine my surprise when the process was much more emotional and fraught with fear than I anticipated. Where do I find a plumber? What happens when my wash machine breaks? What the heck is escrow?

Job hunting is much the same way. It sounds like fun to start a new job, turn a new page, but it is fraught with more emotional pitfalls than a Nicholas Sparks novel. I’ve already written about a good way to start. But, somewhere in this process you have to figure out more or less where you want to go, and what skills you have to get there.

What skills have I picked up during the last ten years in International Development? Some days, it feels like just showing up. Other days, it feels like something useful. Here’s a run down of some of the more useful aspects:
  1. Experience dealing with being totally overwhelmed and under-prepared: In International Development, this seems to be concentrated in two- three week stints where you asked to do the impossible. My first four months on the job in my first job ever, I got sent to set up an office in Azerbaijan (negotiating the lease, buying furniture, finding and setting up the phone system). I’d never even done this stateside, let alone in a foreign land where I didn’t speak the language. How this was a good idea, I don’t know, but I learned a ton. Somehow, in spite of myself (and more likely, because of better local staff) it got done.
  2. Flexibility: Every year I am asked by my current employer to rate myself on how my work flexibility. Every year, I laugh. This is the same firm that once asked me to fly to East Timor on three day’s notice.
  3. Ability to “Learn on the Fly”: No one on staff that knows how to use pivot tables, or create maps from GPS data? No problem. It only takes time, and electricity (and likely, a fair bit of You Tube). I actually love this part of my job.
  4. Writing/Copy-Editing: Reports. Reports, reports, reports. No longer a dirty word, learning to write well (especially technical writing, translating M&E data into digestible results) is extraordinarily important. So is scanning the previously created field document for typos, or mis-captioned photos of cattle going to the bathroom.*
Many of these are “soft skills”, transferrable anywhere, which gives me hope. I have managed get experience in something, however non-technical.  I doubt my new office environment will really be curious about the going price of copy machines in Baku however, so I must still rephrase my experience and retool my resume.

After covering this ground, I’m now left with the darker, more existential part of the job hunt experience: actually applying. Which leads me to my next hurdle: geography and phase of life has means that for wider options, I may have to look outside the field international development. If not entirely, then at least cutting down on the 30% travel I did before moving to Malawi. But what do to? Where to start? It’s scary. It’s liberating. 

Perhaps it’s not my skills set that’s limiting my exploration. It could also be lack of my own imagination, willingness to give up my frequent flyer mileage status (Platinum, FTW!) and my professional (and somewhat personal) identity.

I suspect that last step – personal identity – is the doozy. But I'm hoping that, much becoming a first-time home owner, once you get over the initial hump everything seems to work out ok.

*really happened

Sunday, April 05, 2015

Happy Easter!

Good Friday and Easter Monday are still public holidays here in Malawi, so I am off, exploring this lovely country. See you next week!