Send them to the field!…again

Thank you all for the wonderful discussion and responses on my latest post. I love talking about things like this – this is how we make aid better!  I apologize for the late response…After a year of working in “the field” in Cambodia, I’m now working in an urban center in Sierra Leone. Ironically I just returned from a three-day field visit, where I had to figure out a village’s complex land issues…in three days. I am my own worst enemy! Joking. Anyway…

I hope I can respond to most of your comments. To clarify definitions for the sake of this discussion, I tried to use the term “the field” in the context of my post to define places that are geographically close to the beneficiary – who are usually in rural areas. I should have more clearly defined the urban/rural distinction, but I made an assumption that we would all agree that right now, most development programs are focused on issues in rural areas. Other increasingly popular programs also place a value on rural areas at their foundations – those that focus on “good governance” and “democracy-building” based on a principle of “de-centralization.” Yet, as I argued, most of the international workers that help with these programs are based in the city.

Of course, I would not purport that people working on urban issues should live in the countryside. And sure, urbanization is increasing, but I would argue the majority of development will and should stay in rural areas for quite some time. De-agrianization is not even close to becoming absolute and most people, I would argue, will continue to rely on the land for subsistence and small-scale commercial agriculture in the countryside.

Anyway, this is all outside of the scope of the meat of the debate here – no one is trying to argue that people working on urban issues should live in the countryside. As for those of you who would argue that people working on projects affecting rural people should work in the cities, here are some of my clarifications.

I do not try to make the absolutist argument that “field experience” inevitably creates competence, or that lack of it indicates incompetence. I do believe that field experience (using my above definition of “the field”) increases the chances of competence – both on the job and afterward. Life in rural areas in developing countries is challenging, requiring self-development. It’s often lonely, requiring introspection. There are language and cultural barriers, requiring a constant realization of country context. Project activities and impacts are in-your-face on a day-to-day basis, requiring constant project re-evaluation. It requires one to ask the questions, “Why am I here?” “What are we doing?” or even, “Who am I?”…opposed to the questions that I often found myself asking when I worked in the city: “Who are the people in these pictures?” “Where can I find this information or data?” “What are the impacts of our project?” And then the existential crisis: “Why am I sitting at this desk all day living the exact same life I could be living at home, but with slower internet?”

I’m being a bit facetious. Sure, maybe the work from city to field isn’t all that different, but the lifestyle necessitates a different approach and perspective to the work. Relevant information is more accessible. It’s easier to conduct activities or make changes that actually affect beneficiaries because they’re right there. And perhaps most importantly, the lifestyle necessitates both professional and personal growth.

We can still do capacity-building and report-writing and all of the things we internationals are meant to be doing in the field. In fact, capacity building in particular is even more needed in rural areas, especially in local government offices. De-centralization, anyone?

Certainly both rural and urban local aid workers are essential to the operation of an organization. Relocating international workers will not replace local workers – it will simply put the two side-by-side instead of having them (sometimes) communicate electronically. And sure, I would never undercut the work of local development workers and their cultural understandings, but we should not depend on them entirely. There is undeniably a class divide between local aid workers and beneficiaries, and this is exacerbated in urban areas. I saw this a lot in Cambodia, for example, where ethnic Khmer people in the city, from the city, were working on rural development of indigenous peoples – as opposed to indigenous peoples I worked with in the rural areas trying to create indigenous networks in their home communities.

I should explain my personal background, where a lot of my beliefs come from. My first development job was working in rural Cambodia as a volunteer for an organization. The field staff spoke such little English that I found my efforts there quite useless. I spent most of the time communicating with international staff via my computer. But I used my location to do something else too: I stuck my nose in a book and learned Khmer. After three months, I was able to do my job. One year later, I returned to that same rural area to work with indigenous people on land rights issues, and I feel as though my work during that year was incredibly effective because of (1) my location and (2) my language abilities. I gained a better understanding on culture and localities from each daily conversation. People – including the beneficiaries – were incredibly open and responsive, and often told me they respected and trusted me more because I lived there and had invested in them and their country. I was able to spot a huge gap between what our local staff were doing in the project and what the project did for the beneficiaries, and re-wrote the project. I had one-on-one meetings with local government officials who became invested in our project and engaged with each other, local organizations, and communities.

I’m not saying these things can’t happen on a short-term field visit, translated or no, but aren’t the chances of success higher? And aren’t the field workers coming out with more knowledge, character, and experiences than they would have from sitting in a clichéd air-conditioned office all day?

Even beyond the amazing things we can do while we’re in the field, it is also what that experience enables us to do later. “Where” I did my work led me to a different “how” I think about my work. (Again, I don’t think field experience automatically does this for everyone, but it did it for me.) I’m now working in Freetown, Sierra Leone on rural land issues. Even by working in the city in a different country, my field experience in Cambodia has given me a fresh outlook on my city to field work. I have noticed that I now approach work and the ex-pat lifestyle with a much more respectful and curious localized focus: learning the Krio language, learning about history and culture, making local friends, cooking local food, etc… and most importantly, I recognize that I cannot know or understand everything about this place, even by doing these things. I cannot place the country, project, or beneficiaries in a text box in Microsoft Word. Locals are complex human beings too, not just pictures on a page, with their own culture, language, and dreams. I know the beneficiary and the real issue is always much more complicated than I think it is.

I do make about one field visit per week, and I recognize maybe it is not enough. I might be more effective if I lived right where the problems were, and maybe someday I will again, but for now, my experience in the field has given me all the perspective I need.

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One thought on “Send them to the field!…again

  1. casuckling says:

    Great post. It amazes me how few aid workers bother to even basic language training. I think the problem is workers in the aid industry are organised according to sectors (water, health, education etc.) and not regions/countries. A useful analogy for a better system is how mountain rescue works. You have to know the landscape in detail, understand what will work, and understand when to turn back..

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