Monday, October 8, 2012

Development: The Good, The Bad and The Ugly

Every career has two sides. There is the good. A teacher nurtures and assists someone gain knowledge. A nurse fosters the healing process for patients. A development practitioner makes positive, and hopefully sustainable, changes in the lives of the vulnerable. The other side is the challenges faced. Perhaps for the teacher a student just is not getting the material. For the nurse a prognosis could be complicated, for the development practitioner maybe project funding was cut. The ugly is possibly the worst part of a person’s career. Dealing with standardized testing and failing students for the teacher, nurses’ dealing with a standardized health care system and for us development practitioners the list of the ugly is long.

The big picture is how I like to see my chosen field. With most development initiatives results are hard to track and it may take years to gauge impact. These days development has a role alongside government initiatives. Many argue that development is hindering the role that the government is responsible for. I believe this to a point but also see the need/place for development, but I digress. Aside from the highs and lows of any profession there are those colleagues that you just wonder about and often ask yourself, “why in the hell did they choose this career?”  This post is dedicated to one of the ugliest sides of development.

Development has been a field dominated by white males, and now even more increasing by white females.  Often these practitioners are in countries where they are the minorities. Race and nationality are aspects that do matter in this field. For an example I recently read a post from the Center for the study of African economies (CSAE) entitled, “White man’s burden? How the presence of foreigners can change behavior.”  See: csae/white-mans-burden/presence-of-foreigners.The post articulates how a researcher completing his field work in Sierra Leone received 'special treatment' for his identity. If you do not believe me regarding my estimations, do a google image search for aid/development worker and you will see who google thinks is in this profession (not to mention some poverty porn).

Part of my issue with this posting its ugliness, and how blatant it is. As a non-white development practitioner that has at some point in my life benefited from a social welfare initiative, I find this revelation baffling. Personally, I feel that I can relate at some level with those that the development initiatives I am involved with are attempting to reach. No I do not understand 100%, but enough to see things from a different angle.  What motivates people to become development practitioners? Is it guilt, adventure and fame, etc.? Or am I generalizing too much and some people do genuinly care and are good at this work? In my experience, I have found mostly the first to be true. The latter are few and far between. The author goes on to say, “This is an experience shared by researchers and expat aid workers who try, but fail, to ‘fit in’. The sad truth is that foreign development researchers and practitioners bring with them a whole set of perceptions and expectations.” Development practitioners, whether expats or nationals, rarely can understand what the lives of the people they are trying to help are like. No amount of integration changes who a person is and the experiences that they have lived. This is probably the only point of this “sad truth” in which I agree with in this post. The rest is a complete ploy to make you feel sympathy to the challenges a white person faces in the field.

I do not apologize for the next sentences. I feel no empathy at all for these sort of practitioners. (I do not mean racially, yet the mentality) In fact, they are missing the entire point of their work and probably never got it in the first place.  I have commented but my post was never placed on the site. This was my response: “While I agree that foreigners of Caucasian decent are treated differently, I would like to say that this issue is not solely about race. I believe we must also take to task the issue of privilege, perhaps even white privilege. I cannot to relate to your experiences as I am not treated that differently in the field, which is until it is made known which passport I hold. Even then I am identified by the origin of my family. While you may think this is positive, sometimes it is not as rosy as it sounds. I have been told 'that I get it,' the struggle that is, or when I disappoint people when they expect to meet the porcelain skinned, blue-eyed skinny rich ex-pat female. This brings me to another issue. Your post does not mention the role of the media, which has a profound effect on how the rest of the world views foreigners. Perhaps even explains how people view my identity when in the field.  Many foreigners have problems with the whole idea of White Man’s Burden.  I hear your point about research being skewed but I argue that that would also be true if an urban person or someone from a different ethnic group within the country where to conduct research. Also the idea of research itself is a very western concept and does not translate to a rural person of the global south. Do minorities in the U.S. or other global north countries act differently when you go to their neighborhoods? I think so. Privilege does that. I do not discount how hard it is for you in the field, because it is. I'm sure you have had your share of reverse racism. The only aspect of your post that I do not understand is what part of it is new information? Seems to me this is a much older debate. Again, I thank you for your post and I'm open for dialogue.”

I believe the posting of Duncan Green (, “Do’s and don’ts on research -> policy and the state of Development Studies in Ireland,” mentions relevant aspects on research that the author should take note of.  I would also refer this author to see this post on racism and bias at,

In future posts I will elaborate on other ugly aspects of development. I would like to reiterate that every career has its ugly parts. The ability to persevere while dealing with the ugly probably means that you love what you do. I heard a recent quote that rang true. “Your career is what you are paid for but your calling is what you are made for.” Perhaps assessing whether your career is your passion is the first step to figuring out if you have what it takes to weather the ugly. 

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