Monday, April 18, 2011

Living and Working in Aidland

What kinds of stories or people did you find in research that surprised you? How have you seen people coping with the cultural divides between foreign and local aid workers who spend every day together?

Heather: What has surprised me the most is the changes that have occurred over the last dozen years within the world of development professionals in Nepal. Many of the larger aid agencies, both governmental and non-governmental, have dramatically reduced their permanent staff, both foreign and local. There has been a turn towards hiring consultants and shorter-term contracts since in the mid-1990s. This is changing both the kinds of people who come to Nepal to do aid work and their relationship with Nepal.

Consultants and those on three to six-month contracts have less incentive to learn anything about Nepal, and being based in hotels or temporary housing means they have less reason to venture beyond a defined route between home and work. This new employment structure has also driven a wedge between long-term foreign residents or those on long-term contracts in Nepal and this new consultant class.

The Chinese, Japanese and South Korean aid workers who are becoming more numerous in Kathmandu are not following this short-term pathway. Instead, one sees East Asian nationals investing in learning Nepalese and making friends with local colleagues. There has also been an expansion of businesses and schools to serve this new group of foreign aid professionals. The shops that once catered to European and American families now are stocked with Korean, Chinese and Japanese groceries and household supplies.

Anne-Meike: I was initially surprised that a place like Phnom Penh could have become a destination for “lifestyle migration”--people mentioned how good it was for expat families with young children; how village-like, how easy, how comfortable. I know it’s a special case, simply because there are so many international aid workers there, but it amazed me at the beginning. It also meant that people could--and did--continue the kind of lifestyle they might have had in Europe or the US: buying organic vegetables, go to Yoga or Pilates classes, buy fair-trade accessories. It all makes sense, but I wasn’t quite expecting it.

The other big insight for me was how much was going on in terms of aid work that was NOT related to organizations or agencies. For example, quite a few of the people I talked to were engaged in “aid activities” in their free time, like helping to establish a local NGO, sponsoring their cook or domestic worker to learn new skills, spending time with Buddhist monks at the weekend.

I thought if their day job was all about aid, they might want a break, but some continued this in their spare time. Related to this, I was interested to see so many “aid entrepreneurs”--people who had come to Cambodia independently, and set up their own projects, kind of outside the established NGO/governmental aid sector. I think this is also worth looking into more.

- From an interview with authors Anne-Meike Fechter and Heather Hindman (Inside the Everyday Lives of Development Workers) by Daniel J Gerstle, HELO Magazine. Read the rest of the interview here.