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.

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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*.

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.


An Unexpected Return To History

It is perhaps a little paradoxical to say that, in studying the Internet, I have discovered a new love of history.

Maybe ‘love’ is a little strong; let us go with ‘appreciation’. After years of hating history at school, and not understanding why studying history was important, I have unexpectedly found it to have woven itself back into my academic interests. Bear with me: I promise there are some reflections here that I hope we can all learn from!

Let me start with why I never liked history in the first place. For me, history was always associated with learning the names and dates of Anglo-Saxon battles. I remember learning about the Romans. I know that Henry VIII had six wives, three of which were called Catherine. I have sparse memories of dressing up in a pinafore and a bonnet, and going on a school trip to a place where we made bread. We studied World War I and the Battle of the Somme. These examples do not mean to trivialise the importance of these moments in history; nor to attack the design of the UK’s History curriculum. For whatever reason, History was just not a subject that I saw the point to. And so, when we had to make our subject choices in Year 9, I chose Geography and my days with History were over.

The revival of history in my educational interests first emerged in my undergraduate years. It was while at SOAS that, for the first time, I came across histories I was interested in. I wrote essays on the impact of colonial legacies on democratisation processes in Africa. The contribution of Botswana’s historical pre-colonial institutions in its management of ‘diamond-led’ growth. The importance of the 1951 Geneva Convention in shaping current policy approaches to refugees and forced migration processes. And the representation of South Africa in films such as De Voortrekkers (1916), Jim Goes to Joburg (1949) and Come Back, Africa (1959).

All of a sudden I found myself fascinated, disappointed, enraged and intrigued by these historical narratives.

Again, during my current postgraduate studies, I find myself drawn to history. This wouldn’t be much of a revelation was it not for the fact that I study the Internet – that whizz-bang, techie, supercharged technology that has come to revolutionise, re-define and re-network the world. What has amazed me is that there is space even here, for a consideration of historical narrative. Mark Graham, for example, compares the discourse around the arrival of the British East African railway (which connected Mombasa, Kenya to Victoria, Uganda in 1903) to the discourse around the arrival of undersea fibre-optic cables in East Africa in 2009. The hopes pinned on each period of connectivity transformation for sparking Africa’s growth and development are strikingly similar.

For anyone interested in the media and journalism, Elizabeth Eisenstein’s book The Printing Press as an Agent of Change is a powerful read. In this current age of digital journalism, citizen journalism, free press debates, issues of censored journalism, and a multiplicity of other issues currently swirling around in the complex media ecosystem, a look back at the days of the first printing presses in Western Europe is fascinating. The parallels between the tensions of new media then, and the tensions of media change now, are striking. And then there’s Tom Standage’s book The Victorian Internet (1998), which tells the story of the telegraph and how it transformed the Victorian world in a fashion not dissimilar to the transformative spread of the Internet.

This blog article is not meant to debate the parallels and differences between previous technological revolutions and the revolution of the Internet. Despite the historical parallels the Internet is arguably unprecedented in its potential and impact. Rather, I highlight these examples to frame two key reflections that I think are worth sharing:

History has to be relatable. My hate-love-appreciate relationship with the study of History is testament to how important it is that the subject tells histories you can connect to. For whatever reason, my 11-year-old self never connected with the Anglo-Saxons, or the Romans, or even to World War One. At SOAS, I found a closer connection to historical narratives in my studies – perhaps because my parents, and extended family, are all from South Africa. And while studying my postgraduate degree here in Oxford, I found a connection to the historical work of authors such as Eisenstein and Standage – likely because my work experience is in online and digital journalism.

History is about learning lessons. Finally, I ‘get’ the point of studying History. This might sound a little cliché, but, fundamentally, the study of History allows us to better understand our present, and to better plan for the future.

If we can learn lessons from historical experience then we can make better choices.

For development, the connection here is pretty simple. Relating in some way to historical narratives of development will a) avoid repeating past failures and b) encourage better decision-making and policy choices. For example, how are m-agriculture development approaches learning from the mistakes and challenges faced by more ‘traditional’ development agricultural interventions? How well do development practitioners and policy-makers understand, and take into account, historical context?

Ultimately, I have found that it is important to study historical narratives because it forces us to look backwards. In this age of the Internet – where time and distance are compressed, where the pace of life has sped up, and where the world never ‘switches off’ – it is important to not get swept up by the speed afforded by technology and the excitement of the ‘future’.  Rather, in this fast-paced digital age, there is perhaps an ever-greater need to make an unexpected return to history.

Commentary, Experiences

Volunteering: The paradox at the beginning of an aid career

As commencement has come and gone and the Class of 2014 is entering or returning to the working world, I’ve been thinking more about how people begin careers in international development. Most often, by my guess, they get their start by volunteering, often at schools or orphanages, during post-high school “gap years,” undergraduate summers, or between college and graduate school.

I began that way myself, starting with volunteering at a small NGO in Uganda during my final summer of college and later serving as a Peace Corps Volunteer in Rwanda. I’d estimate that at least half of the students who studied development in my graduate program had similar experiences.

Aspiring development professionals aren’t the only people who engage in volunteer work abroad, of course. In fact, the majority of short-term volunteers are not probably future aid workers, but rather other students or people on vacation from their regular jobs.

In this day and age, when anyone with the money to travel can land a volunteering gig in a developing country, volunteers too often have little to no technical knowledge, project design or management experience, language skills, or cultural understanding. I myself am not a teacher but have taught English abroad. I know people who aren’t construction workers who build houses in developing countries every summer. I’ve heard of Peace Corps Volunteers with no medical training delivering babies. I’ve talked to missionaries who visited Bangkok’s brothels to persuade sex workers to leave, only to remember upon arriving that they didn’t speak Thai. A missionary in Rwanda once asked me whether the country had gorillas or guerrillas. The list goes on.

Many poignant articles have illustrated the uselessness, and even harmfulness, of poorly-conceived volunteer programs, especially those at orphanages and schools, which seem to be the most common. There’s no question in my mind that short-term, untrained volunteers are often ineffective at best, and I think most aid professionals would agree.

The thing is, it’s difficult to get a first job in development without having prior experience, which can often only be gained through volunteering. In fact, many (most?) aid professionals, like myself, got their foot in the door by doing volunteer work.

The aid industry is quite odd in this way: professionals ridicule volunteer work, but won’t hire new people who haven’t done it. This is just another way in which the aid system is broken.

You can’t get a “professional” job until you’ve gained experience by doing something the industry considers ineffective and antithetical to its actual goals. It’s a classic case of “you need experience to get experience,” and volunteer opportunities allow people to fill in that gap.

Part of the problem here is that students seeking careers in international development are frequently oblivious to the problems of volunteering, as I was when I volunteered as an undergraduate. I didn’t realize that these problems are widely recognized and well-documented. With the explosion of the Internet and social media, though, more and more young people access, and participate in, the conversation in the field than before. Many of the undergraduates I know today have a far more critical perspective on aid than I did as a college student, which I think is thanks largely to Twitter and to blogs like these, which didn’t exist when I was in college.

But still, colleges send their students off on ill-conceived volunteer programs every summer and praise them for working in orphanages and schools and doing other jobs they’re unqualified for and that could be done by a local. Schools should provide more guidance to students looking for volunteer positions and encourage them to carefully consider the impacts of their actions on local populations, rather than blindly praising them for “doing.”

Ultimately, it is hiring managers who are responsible for, and positioned to, bringing an end to the paradox of starting an aid career. As a nice guest post at How Matters recently discussed, they need to look beyond the simple fact of having volunteer experience and question how applicants perceived their experience and what they learned from it.

But changes in the system will take time and may never become the norm. Meanwhile, what should today’s students and aspiring aid workers do, when their institutions encourage volunteering, current professionals in this field started this way, and even entry-level jobs in development often require it? People who want experience abroad aren’t going to stop volunteering, but here are a few suggestions to encourage conscientious volunteering:

  • There’s lots of advice out there on how to volunteer effectively. Follow it.
  • Before volunteering, study development as intensively as you can. Try cross-registering or doing independent studies if need be. Read blogs and follow people in the industry on Twitter.
  • Study abroad in a developing country before going abroad to volunteer.
  • Try to do volunteer work that is supplementary to what already exists, rather than taking over existing positions or creating parallel ones. (One way might be to provide after-school tutoring or English conversation practice instead of working as a teacher.) Supplementary work allows volunteers to add value and is less disruptive.
  • Advocate for better practices within the organization you volunteer at: talk to the leaders about the need to replace international volunteers with local workers.
  • Longer-term volunteers are usually more useful, so stay as long as you can and volunteer with the same organization the whole time.
  • Don’t volunteer at an orphanage in Cambodia. Just don’t.

Finally, I’d love to hear from aid professionals who started their career without volunteering, so please share your stories and advice in the comments. Anyone?


vectorised nepal LGBTI 1 VII.jpg

On 22 August, I participated in Kathmandu’s Gai Jatra Pride festival along with three other representatives from the Embassy. It was an amazing experience, with a brilliant blend of the traditional Gai Jatra festival that falls on the same day, LGBTI symbols and banners, and a huge number of participants of all ages – in costumes, dressed up in sarees and in casual clothes.

The parade was organised by a local LGBTI rights organisation called Blue Diamond Society (BDS), which the Norwegian Embassy has supported since 2008. An Australian friend heard that Norway had officially supported the parade and that I had gone to it as part of my job, and made a simple joke: “that’s so Scandinavian.” Because I am a perpetual over-thinker of all things, that got me to… well, over-thinking.

According to my personal value system (and, to an extent, that of my country) BDS, Gai Jatra Pride and other measures to improve the human rights and welfare of sexual and gender minorities in Nepal are very good investments. The advocacy of BDS has been a direct cause of Nepal being one of the most progressive countries in the region with regard to LGBTI rights, a milestone of which was the inclusion of a third gender category in the 2011 national census.

The vast majority of the people in the Gai Jatra Pride parade were not Western or Norwegian, neither are the majority of the people doing the campaigning, advocacy and project work. They are Nepali LGBTI activists exercising their own voices and carrying out work based on to their own perspectives and values.

However, the choice to support BDS over another Nepali organisation working for something completely different is, as my Australian friend touched on, informed by a very Scandinavian value system.

I can think of other countries whose majority values I would not be as happy to see reflected in development support.

This is another case where it’s difficult to reconcile an anthropological attitude of cultural relativism to development work – though if the focus is placed on local agency the mental acrobatics become a little bit easier.

The situation in Uganda, where I have also done project work, is a very different one. There, mere association with LGBTI causes could be a huge detriment to the perceived trustworthiness and ethical stance of a development partner in the eyes of many local stakeholders, even if their involvement in the country were far removed from LGBTI advocacy.

Though activists in Uganda have held their first two Pride parades in 2012 and 2013, it would be impossible to take these processions through Kampala in the same way as Gai Jatra Pride wove through Kathmandu, at least without grave danger to the participants.

Even in a remote location, activists join the parades at great personal risk.

A common argument from Ugandans speaking out against LGBTI rights draws on arguments of cultural relativism and indigeneity.  “Homosexuality,” the argument I have often heard goes, “is not part of our traditional African culture.” However, others have argued that the wide-spread vehement hatred of LGBTI in the region is at least in part a consequence of the significant presence of Christianity, originally brought to Uganda by the colonizing British and more recently by evangelists like Rick Warren from the US (and other places.)

The issue seems to be relevant to a greater or lesser degree in a lot of – or even all – development work. The UN in Nepal has recently been subject to a lot of criticism from Nepali commentators because of its increasing focus on measures combating ethnic and caste discrimination, which some feel is an unwelcome foreign imposition in the way local society works.

vectorised nepal LGBTI 2.jpg

Of course, this work is largely carried out through working together with Dalits and indigenous groups that are themselves Nepali activists. But even if we’re just supporting local change agents, the choice of which agents to support represents a value judgement. On the level of principle, do the facts that we have money to spend and the inclination to do so give us the right to make these judgements?

Should our Western values automatically be given a privileged position?

My opinion is that Norwegian support to LGBTI rights and welfare in Nepal should not cease – rather the opposite. My motivation in writing this is in part an attempt to counter the lack of attention paid to the Pride procession at Gai Jatra in Nepali media (as of now, I have been unable to find any mention of it.)

But that’s what I think.

Should what I think matter in this context? And how do we decide when it does, and deal with the ethical consequences if it doesn’t?


The Complexities of Cultural Development