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This post is now part of J.’s book, Letters Left Unsent, available on Amazon.
Posted by J. on January 13, 2013
Umm, Peace Corps? The Peace Corps offers hands on, serious development work and is the training ground for a significant portion of the global health and development community. Peace Corps service is community focused and can be very substantive. The New Peace Corps is represented best by its work in malaria prevention. See: http://stompoutmalaria.org/.
Yes, I assumed it would be a matter of time before someone at PC took issue here.
As I’ve written repeatedly, I think the approach of short-term volunteers doing so-called “hands-on” work is a highly, highly questionable one. The ability to find a few examples of volunteers not being run out of town in the dead of night by villagers is not proof that the approach is a good one. And this is not only my opinion: a very large and growing number of RPCs – people who got their start in your organization – say the same.
I’m not arguing that stompoutmalaria doesn’t or isn’t working. But I think we need to be straight with people hoping to enter the aid industry about what they’re likely to actually do. Of course there are roles which entail daily, direct interaction with “the poor” in “the field.” But even the RPCs that I’ve personally hired to my team, after spending two or three years honing their skills by practicing on poor people in other countries, end up mostly sitting behind a desk working with documents.
Thank you for this post! Best line: “More and more is being done by qualified locals. And rightly so.”
Here’s a link to an article I wrote recently about the Peace Corps malaria initiative and how it represents a changed approach for the agency, building upon the core niche of PC in local community understanding and support, and leveraging technology and the team-based approach of a new generation. https://docs.google.com/file/d/0B6IY3qx0-gwBeVRQenFIWW1ZN1U/edit
I’d argue that anyone who is working in international development who has not spent 2 or 3 years living with and at the level of the people we’re working with has missed a tremendous opportunity for learning and growth.
I agree with you that truly short term “drive by” aid worker experiences are largely ineffective both at delivering the aid itself and in enhancing understanding of development and the developing world. That approach is often pernicious to more grassroots, capacity development work. Truth be told, it’s not unique to Westerners. I’ve seen many examples of highly educated, host country development agents working for international NGOs, who live and were raised in the capital city, who are nearly as culturally out of place among the rural poor as Westerners who are doing good deeds in a village for a couple of weeks.
All that said, you are absolutely right, most professional aid workers spend far too much time at a desk.
Right. So look, I don’t mean to sideline this thread on PC-specific discussion.
“I’d argue that anyone who is working in international development who has not spent 2 or 3 years living with and at the level of the people we’re working with has missed a tremendous opportunity for learning and growth. “
This a common sentiment, and at a very basic become-more-mature, expand-one’s-worldview, gain-broader-perspective, develop-oneself level I’d agree. I do NOT agree that it’s really possible to ‘live at the level of people we’re working with” (many, many, many have commented on the impossibility of doing this, so I won’t belabor it here), and when someone (you, in this case) talks about doing so, I assume that what you actually mean is “go live in the bush” or something comparable, maybe in a local household, or maybe just in an inexpensive and intentionally not very nice flat. And yes, as I know from direct personal experience, this can have a very perspective-enhancing, worldview-broadening, appreciation-for-all-humanity-deepening effect.
But, also as others have written, myself included, the notion that having done so inherently makes one a more effective (“better”) aid or development worker is one that needs closer examination. There’s no causal linkage there. Living in a round mud house in, say, Ghana for two years doesn’t inherently qualify one to be better as a relief or development worker than a colleague who has not.
“… you are absolutely right, most professional aid workers spend far too much time at a desk.”
I think you misunderstood me. I don’t think that most professional aid workers spend far too much time at a desk. I think that increasingly, most professional aid work is desk work. The work that needs doing – if I had to guess, I’d say including your job – is desk work. We should spend as much time at the desk as it takes to get the work done.
very good stuff. and the truth. i’m lucky to have a skill that allows me to feel justified to occasionally step away from the computer for an hour or two per week (skateboarding!) but it’s only a matter of time before i am hopefully/regretably no longer necessary at all in that regard thanks to the local teachers becoming better skaters than me. they’re young, so it’s only a matter of time… FYI to anyone out there applying to work or volunteer with an NGO, if your application only shows that you want to get some cool photos with poor kids and not do any boring office work it doesn’t come across very well to HR.
As a RPCV I would say that the Peace Corps historically has been more concerned with sending volunteers of any size and shape in order to fill quotas from the DC office. While serving in Asia I was part of a GSA survey that examined volunteer qualifications and their related placements. The surveyor was stunned that I was in Asia and not Africa given my background.
I would not disagree that historically Peace Corps has made mistakes in where they have sent volunteers. But, this new administration is very focused on process improvement and leveraging the core Peace Corps advantages to make a difference in the field. In particular, Peace Corps in Africa is an important player in building capacity for meaningful local progress in areas such as malaria prevention, HIV/AIDs, girls education and empowerment, and food security.
I’d like to agree that both – A) Peace Corps is a fantastic way to get some hands on experience and B) Most NGO and development work does nowadays consist of a lot lot lot of desk time. You’re more likely to work in these organizations if you have skills with grant proposal writing or policy experience. I know from experience, having been in Peace Corps and also working with a lot of NGO people. And yes, most in the field stuff is done by locals which is as it should be, although it’s nice to have outside interaction as well. i like the idea of people actually going out there and seeing what their sitting at a desk is accomplishing firsthand though and I will never regret my experience in Peace Corps. Having that grassroots perspective changed the way I see the world AND development work.
Roscoe – I’m sorry your service did not fulfill your expectations. I work with recruiters and we try to match peoples skills and interests to the positions available. Sometimes that may not match up perfectly, but from the experience I’ve had with recruiting volunteers, I wouldn’t agree with your statement.
Thanks for reminding us of this. I remember reading Alanna’s post while in college, where I was one of the many eager and maybe idealistic college students hoping to land a job as an aid worker after graduation. Luckily I was able to begin adjusting my expectations early through your blogs.
Even today, with a few years in the field under my belt, this is still something I need reminding of. I spent the last couple of years managing M&E for an NGO in Haiti. As much as I wanted to get out in the field more often, and while I could have justified trips, it was always simpler to send my qualified Haitian staff than to work with my broken Creole or deal with a translator. And that to-do list of lifesaving reports didn’t get any shorter unless I was at my desk.
When people say they want to work “hands-on,” it seems it may be out of a desire for adventure as much as anything. I’m no different in wanting that. And I think the lack of excitement or adventure on a daily basis can be the hardest part of reconciling a desk job with whatever your vision of what life as an aid worker would look like. Seeking adventure was very likely one of the reasons (though hopefully not the primary) that some of us got into this line of work to begin with.
It bears mentioning also that ‘hands on work in the field’ is not, for most people, sustainable into the 30s, 40s, and beyond. Living in a place where you have to seal your mouth shut in the shower for fear of cholera, or can’t walk more than a couple of blocks from the office because foreigners keep getting kidnapped, or have to rely on colleagues returning from R&R for tampons, medications etc tends to get in the way of what most people want for their lives as they move past their 20s (family, long term friendships, quality of life, access to good healthcare and as little stress as possible).
Many of us who started out in the coveted hands-on jobs are now delighted to be in an airconditioned office back home.
As some one who has managed major programs over the last fourteen years, I concur with your assessment, it is mostly about data collection and process management. I see far too often over zealous young people out to “save the world” and presume that at 22 they are smarter and know better what people want than the people they are going to help.
I posted on a IinkedIn group asking is there a place for people who have an antethical view to aidwork as it is and are looking at how they can improve the actual long term impact rather than just perpetuating the cycle of funding, pointless program, funding etc.
In my case, I am working on a web platform that would cut back on the amount of office work that programs do encounter. In my last program I managed I had a dozen people just managing the data that the other 240 people were submitting.
Very honest! I agree that there really isn’t much so-called “hands-on” work to do in development in the context many outsiders believe. A lot of the work done in development is really around capacity building and strengthening of local institutions. So a lot of time is spent on brainstorming sessions, drawing and scribbling on flip-charts and and making presentations (I hate those) where people speak a lot of grammar to prove that they are smart :-).The only type of work which will take you to the field is M+E, supportive supervision and logistics, whether it’s distribution of nets,or condoms and drugs to health facilities or election monitoring. But these are usually very quick (perhaps quarterly or much less) ,and are handed over to the locals in the facilities who track progress using already designed forms etc while expats will most likely sit in the capital providing “technical assistance”. Yes, there is a lot of emphasis on experience, but also aid and development have really evolved to the point where practictioners are now highly qualified in the different technical areas too, because the various areas of intervention have become more specialised; thus it is only natural that one will find “well-educated city bound” locals in those positions.
Basically,if anyone is looking to go and live in the bush with the people and be hands-on, then the only job feasible is to teach at the village school, work in the Primary Health Care facility as the mid-wife’s attendant (most developing countries will not allow medical personnel unless they have passed the country’s board exams) or build bore-hole for clean water supply with the local churches or Islamic Councils.
Enough rambling,really insightful piece. I’ll come back.
As usual, J. you are spot on! I would add that those who want to do any meaningful relief or development work have to be willing to become active listeners more than proactive planners & doers. According to the research done in “Time to Listen” (https://www.createspace.com/3949712), it looks like 6000 “beneficiaries” from 20 countries have stated something really interesting here: “The general message was that if beneficiaries had been included in discussions, they could have helped make the aid much better – better targeted, less wasteful and more transparently delivered. If aid agencies and NGOs were more open about their budgets, recipients would be less suspicious that funds were being misappropriated. And if they knew when a project was likely to end, they could plan for the future and not feel abandoned.” Quote from this article: http://www.irinnews.org/Report/97291/Report-calls-on-aid-agencies-to-listen-to-work-with-beneficiaries
Here there is another review: http://www.how-matters.org/2013/01/23/not-your-usual-listening-exercise/
So, most of the work is office-based but the need to be active listeners is essential if they want to do “smart aid” and not business as usual.
This is certainly good information for people to take into account before starting a career in this field. I do think there’s a distinction worth noting, though, between doing “office work” in a place in or near the communities where programs or research are taking place versus working remotely. Even though the work might be almost identical, being nearby often allows you to do more of the “listening” that Solemu points out as important. It gives you the opportunity to be taught in person by the local staff and by the community members participating in the programs – if you are willing to learn. This usually improves the quality of your “office work.” Having an in-country position can also teach you how to learn about a new context and gives you some exposure to how to work in difficult environments – you learn which questions to ask and how to support local staff as they try to solve problems with very few resources, for example. These are skills that can then be transferred to future jobs in which you do almost all of the work remotely. So while yes, most of it is office work, I think taking an office job “in the field” does afford some additional learning opportunities if you put forth the time and effort to take advantage of them.
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