Remember Neo…there is no “field”

15 Jan

As this blog is also dedicated to those current and recent grad students seeking to dive headfirst into development, humanitarian and education work, I thought that this blog post I came across was worth passing along to our readers.

Last week, WhyDev blogger, AidSource co-founder, and author of “Disastrous Passion: A Humanitarian Romance Novel” (next on my ever-expanding reading list) “J.” (the elusive name only adds to the amusement and contemplation provoked by the post) recently wrote a piece on WhyDev about the myth of “the field.” Piggybacking off a recent rant on AidSpeak concerning the murky definition and romantic delusions about the obsession development workers have with working in “the field,” J. comments on the perpetual mystique and intrigue of this broadly defined place in international development and humanitarian work that young adventure-thirsty jobseekers like myself so often discuss as the place they feel they belong. J. comments on years of experience in development work, roughly a 50/50 split between international and HQ roles, and regards the two ostensibly unique placements within the development world to be remarkably similar. As the AidSpeak post highlights:

  • Work in HQ: Go to meetings. Stare at a computer screen. Send email messages. Occasionally visit project sites and talk to beneficiaries. Be responsive to the needs of donors.

  • Work in “The Field”: Go to meetings. Stare at a computer screen. Send email messages. Occasionally visit project sites and talk to beneficiaries. Be responsive to the needs of donors. Have a housing allowance. Awesome Facebook updates.

J. explains how in his own experience, it is the HQ-level jobs that enable you to decide and dictate where the indispensable funding that drives development work will be allocated, and in “the field” you are essentially relegated to a position of accepting these decisions as they are handed down from above. The myth of autonomy and being able to make a direct impact on the ground as you see fit is in reality at the whim (no matter how well thought out) of individuals and teams working on the other side of the world. Additionally, the post comments on a topic that has been discussed elsewhere on HREC, in regards to the hesitation of us international development folks who wish to work in foreign locations but do not want to fall into the ‘white savior industrial complex’ or Neo-colonial manifestation of the ‘white man’s burden.’ This is a difficult catch-22, especially being a tall white male with a fairly substantial blonde beard, with which I personally have qualms on a regular basis (I have qualms with the catch-22, not my amazing beard). J. talks about how despite “our” best intentions to breed “local” interventions with local ownership, we essentially “re-cement the divide between “us” and “them” every time we refer to the place where aid supposedly happens as the field.” J. offers a piece of unsolicited advice, for readers to “understand and be honest about your motivations—the “why” matters. Find your spot in the overall scheme of what needs to be done.”

I loved these posts. Through my current home-based consultancy work, I am continuing my own search for a position in this mythical “field,” specifically in East Africa with a desired focus on refugee education. I would argue that the motivations for individuals wanting to work in the “field” are not always confined to the desire to make what they possibly erroneously assume will be a tangible, direct impact on the ground. That is certainly part of it, but even in the smaller NGOs for which I have worked in the past where one would assume more direct impacts could be made, bureaucracy still thrives, and making a direct impact is always a challenge (don’t get me wrong, I am confidant that I personally helped improve the lives of many people, and I have those smaller NGOs to thank for that). In my travels I have even heard horror stories from Peace Corps volunteers who lived, worked, slept and ate with local communities 24/7, and they were still unable to get their organization to provide them with funding to carry out even basic projects that they knew the community truly needed, simply because it did not fit within a larger global development goal-oriented framework.

The posts allowed me to re-evaluate what truly inspires me to want to work in East Africa rather than in NYC or DC at HQ level where I could have the power to determine what communities and what issues get focus and funding. At the end of the day, aside from my powerful distaste for the lifestyle in the Northeastern United States (no offense NYC and DC, I had plenty of fun out there, but this California boy had his fill of that pace of life), I simply fell in love with East Africa in my various work endeavors. I fell in love with the people, with the cultures, with the communities, and those communities were the most welcoming I have ever experienced. I developed an undying passion not to help poor starving Africans, but to learn from the most resilient people I have ever crossed paths with. To draw from my own upbringing in relative poverty and apply my life experiences and my expertise to grow alongside those with whom I worked in Kampala, in Arusha, and in so many rural villages in between, was what motivated me to get the M.A. required to get the jobs that I saw essential to truly making an impact. To me, “the field” is more of a state of mind – it’s getting out of the classroom, getting your face out of books, and LIVING life while conducting work that truly benefits the lives of other people. I have never been concerned with money, I have never been concerned with titles, and I have never relished the glamor and intrigue of being based internationally. I just love to travel, and I love to live with peoples that are radically different than my own, while at the same time highlighting the beautiful and inspiring similarities that bond and bind all of mankind together as one.

This blog discusses education and human rights. And my work abroad taught me not only the true value of education, but it taught me what it means to be human. That understanding, and that experience, I believe, is essential for development workers to truly be in touch with those they seek to work alongside in order to make the world a more just and livable place for all human beings. More than that (stop reading if my hippie-talk is too much for you), life is all about connection, and sitting behind a desk in the community I am seeking to work with is a far more connected and active process for me than sitting behind a slightly nicer desk in HQ. A neophyte to the world of international development and humanitarian assistance, I eagerly await how a few more years of work abroad will shape and mold my perspective, and perhaps I will eventually get tired of that game and return to HQ where I may feel I can really make a difference. But gaining that perspective is what life is all about. Hats off to J. for allowing me to turn inward and think about these ideas, and for the inspiration that has come about because of it.

And maybe it IS time to reactivate my Facebook account…

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