I’ll be the heretic and just say straight out that I didn’t love the Al Jazeera The Stream show on something about expat aid workers and INGOs. Okay, I’ll back up and say that I normally like The Stream. I like the format, I think Malika Bilal (@mmbilal) hosts well. I like Al Jazeera’s frequent focus on international aid and development things. And to their credit, they did reach out to @ShotgunShack and me, initially to participate (but to their not credit, the producers wouldn’t roll with us because we’re pseudonymous). My reasons for not loving it did not have anything to do with Al Jazeera, necessarily.
I didn’t love it, because it was a somewhat predictable array of commenters, saying what felt to me like the Highly Predictable Things (the HPTs): Theme and variations on Locals know everything, foreigners know nothing, aid is another kind of colonialism. Yadda yadda. Yadda. It’s a song and dance that we’re all quite familiar with by now. I most enjoyed the quiet irony of the fact that the springboard for an entire discussion about foreign aid organizations and foreign aid workers apparently failing to “get it”, was a television show (“The Samaritans”), that lampoons INGOs and expat aid workers, written and produced by people who by their own rather cheerful admission have never worked for an NGO…
At least Christopher Guest actually learned to play guitar when he lampooned heavy metal music in This Is Spinal Tap.
I know this will be hugely unpopular in some corners of the aid and development world, but it is time to speak plainly: We need to move past the supposed opposing tensions of “local” and “expat.” It is an outmoded way of thinking about what we do, and it leads to totally unhelpful arguments about how we do it.
Yes, I know. We can all recite examples, both ancient and recent, where local knowledge, wisdom, know-how, whatever was what was needed to address the issue or solve the problem. And we can also all (or at least those of us who have been around a bit) think of examples of exactly the opposite. To espouse either one solely is to be naïve about the realities of the real world, now.
By the same token, I think we can all recall examples of times where highly qualified local people took menial positions, compared to–or perhaps even supervised by–expats who were in every way their junior. That is something for which those of us in the aid industry should (and among those with whom I am close, do) feel acutely ashamed, and make daily effort to redress. Yet at the same time, I can also think of examples of the exact opposite. Examples of times where conscious decisions were made to advertise and recruit good, prestigious, well-compensated positions as “local”, only to have those same positions lie vacant, month after month, the much-touted local capacity not pitching up for whatever reason. Platitudes about what should be done are easy to voice. Doing what should be done, and making happen what should be made to happen, are tough in the real world.
Speaking to aid industry insiders of all stripes, now: If want to turn it up to “11”—that is, if we want to take our game to the next level—we have got to stop fixating on who is from or not from someplace. We have got to expel this emotional blockage about expats versus locals. We have got to begin from the assumption that both have contributions to make, every bit as much as both have limitations and blind spots. We—all of us, expat and local alike—have got to let go of antiquated notions of what an expat is, how he or she looks. An expat aid worker in today’s world can be from anywhere. And she or he might have been a local aid worker, only last week. It’s about gaps and capacities, not what logo is one someone’s passport. We have got to get past the opposing tensions of “one size fits all”, and “no size fits us.”
No, it will not be easy. Different salary and benefits packages is an explosive issue, and one which I do not see an easy way around. We just have to muscle through, in good faith, equally honest about benefits as about costs. Whose voice matters, and the extent to which we privilege local or outside, or vice versa, will also be potentially explosive, and never resolved globally. It’s highly contextual. Working through these intensely cerebral and also intensely emotional issues, finding resolve, then the context changes, and we have to work through them all, laboriously, again—this is fundamental to the commitment that being an aid worker requires, more so, even, than willingness to eat strange food, endure harsh climates or illnesses, or work in the face of the threat of violence. This is what makes aid work difficult. If you think of aid work as a calling, then this is the call. Anyone can learn to behave properly in checkpoints, remember to take their Malarone every day, or use radio call signs. But comparatively few have the ability to navigate the wilds of culture and ethnicity and emotion. But this is the requirement for aid workers, regardless of where they sit, their origin, or color.
This is “11.”