Commentary, Experiences

Dear Backpackers

I have spent the last couple of weeks in Colombia. I went there partly to celebrate graduating, partly to visit a friend and partly just to go somewhere new. Side note: Colombia is great! Go visit.

Colombian cities are pretty good at viewpoints

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One of the reasons I became interested in international development (of which there are many) was my desire to go overseas and to see new things. It’s a selfish reason. I know that there are a bunch of problems with volunteering or working overseas. The majority of development work should be carried out by people from the place being ‘developed’ – that just makes sense. But when you’re laying out your career aspirations, it’s useful to be honest.

I would like a career that takes me to new places and challenges my worldview, I want to go see the world. I dread the idea of finding myself living where I grew up. (I also want to be able to do creative work, to contribute to something meaningful and to be able to live comfortably while doing it. I’ll probably have to choose between these, but that’s a task for another day). And so, these factors all considered, international development seems like a good fit – it’s got ‘international’ right there in the name!

Now, some people might argue that I could discover new places just by visiting them. I could go on package tours or plan long backpacking trips. I have always heard this referred to as “going travelling”. And, I’ll be honest, the thought of it brings me out in a rash.

When I lived and worked in Kampala my friends and I would see backpackers in a bar and groan. They were always dressed like they were about to hike over a mountain when they were, in fact, simply having a few beers in a nice bar in a large, cosmopolitan city. Leave your safari boots at the hostel. And then they’d be overenthusiastic about every ‘authentic’ detail – whoa, man, is that a genuine calabash? – while simultaneously only hanging out with other backpackers.

Not every experience is life-changing. Having a couple of drinks in a bar is pretty similar no matter where you are. Try talking to some of the ‘authentic’ Ugandans all around you. This phenomenon was such a recurring one that we joked about starting lookatthisfuckingbackpacker.tumblr.com*.

Santa Marta is both a tourist destination and a working port, with all the grit that comes with that.

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In Santa Marta the other week I overheard a group of white people discussing which yoga retreat/hiking weekend was going to be the most rewarding, “spiritually speaking”. They were the only other white people in the restaurant. You’re making us all look bad! Yes, of course arepas are gluten free! Stop asking!

Irritating hipster parallels aside, backpacker culture can (inadvertently) stir up nastier waters. In Kampala, I always knew that I could turn up to a film premiere, fancy part or fashion event looking pretty much however I wanted. I could have been out partying for several days, dressed in a raggedy t-shirt, jeans and dirty flip flops and still get let into the VIP section. If my Ugandan friend came looking like that it’s likely that they would get barred at the door. Mzungu privilege. It’s an easy trap to fall into.

As foreigners, we should be making the extra effort not to behave like we’re trekking into the wilderness to experience the exotic delights of the new world. We’re in someone else’s city, their home. Dress and act appropriately. Of course, expat development workers are guilty of disregarding this advice too but, in my experience, they’re less likely to than backpackers. Why? Maybe because they work with and know people from the country they’re visiting. Maybe because they are hanging around long enough to notice people reacting negatively to their behaviour.

In the wake of the recent Brexit vote and the rise of xenophobia all over the Western world I actually think more people should spend extended periods of their lives living overseas. But living and travelling are hugely different. I propose the three month rule: three months in one place is enough time to get to grips with it. You’ll know your way around, you’ll have figured out where some of the better bars/restaurants/clubs are and, most importantly, you can actually form friendships that will distort your Facebook bubble and open your world up a little more.

After (at the very least) three months, you’ll have a genuine glimpse of how life somewhere else looks, really looks. Working overseas is a great way of doing that. If I learnt anything from Colombia it’s that while I genuinely do love travelling oversea, I greatly prefer living there.

Now to get back to reality and start churning out job applications.


*Still very happy to get this going if anyone is interested.

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Experiences, Learning

Development Hotel-ology

The closer I’m getting the end of my internship the more I reflect on what I have learned in 10 months working in the development industry in East Africa.

Besides the big important life lessons (I will probably write about that once I am back home) there are hundreds of small things I encountered that I would have never imagined to play a big role in my work. One of these interesting little characteristics of aid work is the importance of that one big question: Which hotel do we go to?

I always used to have quite a pragmatic relationship with hotels. Usually when I travel I want them to be cheap, more or less clean and in the best case offer a relaxed atmosphere that attracts like-minded backpackers. When I started working here I assumed that the choice for venues and accommodation would be driven by a similar kind of pragmatism. You want them to offer the service you need and the choice should be cost-efficient. Any average hotel with a conference room should do the trick, right?

Boy, was I wrong.

I work for a regional integration program and a big part of the job is to organize trainings, stakeholder meetings or policy development workshops all across the East African Community. With every new event the delicate question came up which hotel should serve as host. What I didn’t know: The chosen venue is so much more than just some venue. After 10 months of interning I present you a check-list for picking the right hotel for a fancy development meeting.

1. Think location.

All the three major cities of our region are crazy with traffic.

A commute from the airport to Dar, Kampala or Nairobi will leave you pounding your forehead on the dashboard and then slowly curling up on your seat sobbing about your stolen lifetime.

So, more than 3 participants coming from outside Nairobi? Pick that charmless hotel along that horrible airport highway instead of the nice one downtown. Similarly, you might want to find a place in the outskirts if your meeting promises to be long and boring. A small retreat at the lakeside in Entebbe (30 kilometers from downtown Kampala) makes it less likely for your participants to leave once they signed the attendance sheet.

2. Status matters.

I really don’t care if my hotel door has golden handles and staff in tuxedos. Turns out most of the people around me think differently. When I naively asked why we could not simply take the cheapest decent option on the menu, my colleagues smiled at me and told me that simply nobody would show up. The name of the place needs to be known – unfamiliar hotels often raise some eyebrows.

Then it depends on whom you want to invite: You want the ministry’s Permanent Secretary? You better add another star. I have the feeling that counts especially for public sector people. Private sector managers aren’t convinced to attend by a purpose of the meeting but by the venue’s marble columns.

3. Individuals and their distinct tastes

You won’t believe the amount of small talk I come across among my coworkers about their favorite hotels: the nicest hotel garden, the conference hall with the great view or the one time when their favorite cheese was not on the breakfast buffet…everybody’s got their favorite.

Our partners behave the same way. My most baffling moment was when a representative of our Partner Organisation just ignored that I had rented a room for him at a perfectly nice (and expensive) hotel and decided to rebook himself into a fancier venue. What really left me in awe was that once I asked him if everything was in order, he started complaining about details like water pressure in his shower like a spoilt child. None of the other participants staying in the original location ever complained – I guess they don’t travel too often to development industry meetings.

4. A word to costs.

As I wrote above, I thought, with limited budgets for development aid, we would go for cost-efficient solutions. That’s pretty impossible with the local conference hotel industry mostly charging rates of 100-150 US Dollar per night for something that most of the people involved find acceptable (I think they are pretty fancy). Our headquarters force us to get three quotations, but if you prefer a different venue, that’s fine too. It is only when budget pressures get too high that we begin to start thinking about some “innovative solutions” to hosting (like using our partner’s facilities… crazy thought).

I never imagined that I would learn so much about hotels in East Africa.

Sometimes it really felt as if some participants in these meetings  cared much more about where they were discussing a policy than about the policy’s content.

Initially, I was quite sceptical of the development industry and wanted so see the truth behind the stereotypes. While I have been positively surprised in some aspects, the strange concept of discussing poverty reduction in a 4-5 star hotel seems to be the reality. If I think only about the total amount that we spent on my own hotel nights for the five meetings I attended in these 10 months, I get to about 20% of what I earned during my whole internship!

To most East Africans who – like me – usually opt for pragmatic solutions to accommodation and venues, all this has a weird feel. Regardless, if you want to play the East African policy game, you better have a PhD in the science called Hotel-ology.

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