It’s not really possible to think for very long about the problems inherent in seeing the aid world through a “the field”, versus “everywhere else that’s not the field” lens, without at some point also having an honest conversation about expats. The whole notion of there being this place called “the field” as the place where aid supposedly happens, to the exclusion of pretty much anything else that goes on anywhere else, is intrinsically tied to the idea of expats; specifically, the idea or the belief that the aid endeavor somehow needs expats at all.
It’s an explosive topic. I’m not sure I know of a better way to make tempers flare at the project site or in a team house than to suggest either of the opposite ends of the possible spectrum on this is issue.
The idea that somehow there is an inherent and specific need for a foreigner—me, perhaps, or maybe you—to go to another country to do something to help the local people there is seductive and intoxicating. It feels natural and logical. There is obvious need. We can see it. There is a deficit of response. No one else is stepping up (or at least not enough are)—ergo, I have a role to play in implementing a solution. For Americans, at least (and probably plenty of others), the ideas that “you can be special”, and that you, armed with nothing more than a can-do attitude and a passion for change, “can make a difference”, are all but mainlined to us in utero. For all of our emotional attention to all things “local” (empowering, facilitating, capacity-building, and on, and on), and despite occasional expressions to the contrary, I have yet to meet an aid or development worker who truly questions her or his relevance and potential contribution to relief aid or poverty reduction. Of course I’m relevant. Of course we’re relevant. Of course we have something to add. And once you agree that you’re relevant and have a contribution to make in general, it is only a very small logical step to the belief that you’re specifically relevant over there, in “The Field”, if you will.
The idea that aid (including development, relief, and poverty-reduction programmes) is a thing which at some level requires a foreigner, an expat, to leave here and go there to do is one of the Great Unquestioned Assumptions of the aid industry as we currently know it. Openly doubt the need for expats, and you can expect a stream of self-righteous, self-preservationist, maybe technocratic, and surely emotional reaction.
Paradoxically, this emotional need for and/or to be expats runs directly against the grain of aid and development doctrine that local knowledge, local wisdom, above all local people are already sufficient raw material to solve their own problems. This also–the intrinsic, superseding-all-things-external quality of “local”–is seductive and intoxicating. It feels like a self-evident truth. We want it to be true. I don’t think I can think of another single element of aid industry thinking that gets more lip-service than the importance of local. No article of faith in the Church of Aid is drummed into our skulls with more fervent regularity, from our first 101 class on global citizenship, clear on through to retirement, than, well, you know, local. It feels ethnocentric to question it even in the silence of our own heads. And just like real doctrine in a real religion, anyone foolish to speak up with an opinion to the contrary, may be granted an initial period of grace, but will eventually be cast as a heretic.
The Church of Aid doesn’t burn its heretics at the stake (thankfully), but make no mistake: the stink of “ethnocentric”—of questioning too loudly or for too long the omnipotent value of everything “local”—is not easily shed, and carries with it some sometimes harsh real-world consequences.
The facts and our own eyes tell us that neither of these doctrines is true. There are plenty of concrete examples of times and places where all things local, in fact, were not sufficient. Moreover, if you want to participate in this industry, in my opinion you have to, at some stage, come to the place where you make peace with the reality that your job is somehow about causing change to happen—which inherently implies a value judgment. Something in or about a local context somewhere, has to change.
By the same token, we can all recite examples of instances, some of them famous, where outside “assistance” made things worse. Many have written, repeatedly, about how deeply wanting to help, and embarking on a course of action intended to help, in no way predetermine help actually happening. It is factually inaccurate to think that foreigners—expats—somehow add value by definition.
And perhaps the larger point is really that no matter your perspective on the expats versus local issue, there is plenty of evidence out there, both historical and as recent as last week, to support your position. Just as there is evidence out there to support the opposing position.
So where does that leave us? In my opinion it leaves us at the beginning of what will almost certainly be a difficult, emotional, and also absolutely necessary conversation. Of course I cannot claim to know all the outcomes or revelations along the way. But from where I sit right now, the following feel, well, self-evident:
(For goodness sake) We have to talk about it: We have to talk about this tension between the need for expats and the value of all things local. We cannot afford to leave un-discussed our attitudes, beliefs, values, and assumptions about both of these opposing doctrines. We have to find ways to talk about these things that are productive. We need to find ways and forums for talking about these things other than (equally) either attacking those who see it differently, or finding justification to revel in ethnocentrism (speaking to both sides on this). Both sides have to be willing to give—neither is 100% correct. There are exceptions to both. As Aid Leap so aptly put it in reference to “evidence”, so here, too, we all need to come to the conversation assuming the good faith of the other.
No one-size-fits-all. I do not see an in-principle universal stance on this issue. There are times when “local” is absolutely the only path that makes sense. There are times when bringing in a foreigner really, truly is the best option. There are instance where local very obviously has to change. There are cases where there is no conceivable good reason to send an expat. It’s case-by-case. We have to use both factual knowledge and also wisdom. We’re looking for guiding principles, but not universal statements.
We have to recognize the reality that aid is an interconnected, global enterprise. We can no longer isolate what happens in a village in Mozambique (or wherever) from what happens in a conference room in Brussels (or wherever). They’re interconnected, and not just in some sort of nebulous “we are the world” way, but often and increasingly literally. As in, there’s an open Skype chat or Google Hangout happening between the two. Discussion about the relative contributions of people from there and people not from there, and where they are all located geographically as they make their respective contributions, has to happen in the context of this understanding.
We have to separate thinking of individuals from thinking about systems and structures. To me, this is basic. As individuals, we are not the structures that we’re part of.
We have to separate the expat experience from the expat contribution. I loved my own experience of being an expat in this place called the field. It was fun and exotic. I was special. I got all sorts of formal and informal perks, just by virtue of being foreign. I had all the classic epiphanies, the moving conversations, the realizations. I felt close to the action. Felt like I was “actually doing it”, while all my colleagues in HQ just “supported” the real work that I was doing. There is no question that I benefited, at least professionally, from “The Field.”
And more than anything else, the tenor of reactions against “The Field” seemed to beat this same drum. People clearly enjoy being in the field, wherever that is. But that all as may be, it is simply far past time to have an open conversation about actual contribution. I realize this is difficult for expats. Our own relevance comes naturally to us. The field is good for us, but are we good for the field?
We have to find ways to articulate the need for change in ways that do work, but that also do not unnecessarily demean or disrespect. This is the classic post-postmodern aid industry conundrum. Regardless of where we’re from and where we’re looking, we see things that have very obviously have to change. Yet out of some too-vaguely defined sense of “respect culture and custom”, we don’t speak up or act. Or we speak up or act only partially. Tom Paulson had a great piece on exactly this issue, here. This is a major part of what I was getting at, a long time ago, here.
This is in no way license to be ethnocentric. The preferred option, obviously, is for strong leaders to speak up and enable action within their own communities (whether we’re talking about Afghanistan or New Jersey). But this is not always feasible or even possible. We need to get our heads around how to think and talk about what we do in those kinds of situations.