Monday, November 28, 2011

Inside the Everyday Lives of Development Workers

Below, author Anne-Meike Fechter speaks about her new title, Inside the Everyday Lives of Development Workers:

When I began research among international aid workers in Cambodia in 2007, I hadn’t quite realized what a diverse and complicated, transient and highly mobile world it was. Among the people I spoke with were high-school leavers who had their first experience of riding on the back of a pick-up truck through the Cambodian countryside wedged in between piles of agricultural produce (strictly forbidden by their organization), who were trying to figure out if they could imagine a life in development. There were those who had only planned to come for a year to support a local NGO, and who had found themselves extending their contracts, extending them again, and then applying for a follow-on job in Lao PDR. Some people that I encountered early on had left by the time I returned half a year later – they were fed up with their organization and infuriated by what they saw as mind-boggling aid bureaucracy and incompetence. Their departure was sometimes commented on: ‘well if you can’t deal with that, you won’t last...’. Others yet had begun working in the refugee camps on the Thai-Cambodian borders in the late 1970s and were still here, thirty years later.

What they had in common, despite their utter diversity in many ways, were their full-time jobs as aid workers. As my research progressed, it became clear that there were a wealth of issues that they were contending with: work and personal life were closely intertwined; development practice harbored, perhaps unsurprisingly, many frustrations, as well as unexpected social and emotional rewards. Yet, the rich and complex lives of these people who were so central to delivering aid, seemed comparatively invisible in existing literature on development: official reports, the bulk of development studies are focused on ‘the world’s poor’, the recipients of aid, leaving out those without whom things would not happen. In order to help putting aid workers themselves onto the agenda - of researchers, policy makers and practitioners - my co-editor, Heather Hindman and I collected studies on national and international aid workers from across the world, which make up our edited volume, ‘Inside the everyday lives of development workers: the challenges and futures of Aidland’, which came out in paperback earlier this year.
We thought it was time that development workers were given the attention they deserve, rather than being treated as mere ‘implementers’ or ‘brokers’ for overseas aid programs. It is evident that they themselves are keen to tell their stories: the numbers of aid blogs, practitioners’ network forums, and even aid memoirs is forever increasing. But how does this matter for development studies, and for aid practice? As the different case examples in this collection show, neglecting the professional and social beliefs and practices surrounding aid work may be detrimental to the overall project of development. As becomes clear from the chapters, it is useful to know who joins the aid sector, the values and attitudes they hold - and what makes people leave their jobs. Rather than portraying them in a permanent present, our aim is to capture them as people with a past- and a future, for which they are constantly trying to align their personal and professional aspirations. Issues such as maintaining personal relationships, constant mobility, increased outsourcing practices, and safety and security issues are important for many - yet these concerns, and their consequences, have not yet received the wide recognition in the development literature or in policy and practice that they deserve.

The reasons for this relative invisibility are manifold, and likely deep-rooted: if development is thought of as a ‘helping’ profession, then it would appear unseemly to spend too much time navel-gazing and pondering the fate of the helpers, since the needs of aid recipients are clearly paramount and more urgent. And yet, such considerations have not hindered the establishment of a solid body of research for example in nursing and social work on practitioners beliefs and motivations, and their working experiences, knowledge which feeds directly into training initiatives and better recruitment and retention policy and practices. At the same time, one could argue that excluding aid workers from analytical view may hide a multitude of sins, such as the considerable salary differentials in the sector between national and international staff and the detrimental effects this might have for aid delivery, or the daily tensions and frustrations which are inherent in aid work, but which aid workers are usually expected to ‘get on with’, without particular support from their employer. We thus hope that looking at aid workers’ everyday lives can be a first step to raise awareness of these issues, including the flaws and ambitions that characterize them as human beings, the challenges they face, and what this means for everyone else engaged in their shared project of overseas aid.

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