Who Should Work in Development?

In the spirit of the inherent self-centerdness of blogging, let’s devote our inaugural post to professionalism in the development industry.

In response to well-intentioned amateur aid work in general but especially Kristof’s NYT piece on DIY Aid and the common defense that “at least they’re doing something”, J over at Tales From the Hood writes: (the site is currently down but here’s a blockquote…)

Any career or life path or vocation requires dedication at some level, requires the possession of specific knowledge, and requires the mastery of certain skills. In the United States, at least, if someone wants to be a junior accountant in an even marginally reputable company, he or she needs to have an accounting degree.

And yet, I am repeatedly amazed at how irate and indignant and self-righteous and self-victimizing people get at the suggestion that exactly the same should apply in the humanitarian aid world. Frankly, I am astounded at the amount of pushback on the suggestion that a Masters Degree should be a minimum for aid practitioners (one example). Otherwise logical, intelligent people – people who would probably agree without hesitation that physicians need to have specific education and pass some kind of minimum-standards certification before they are allowed to diagnose and treat even one single patient – seem to think that it’s okay to blithely go off and start an NGO or project in some third-world community where they then spend the next months or years sort of trial-and-error-ing their way through people’s lives.

Such a perspective, in my view, can really only come from either stunning naïveté or bald arrogance.

Harsh? I don’t think so.

In my experience, the vast majority of the time these people simply do not want to hear that perhaps they should do/have done things differently, or that – very frankly – the world does not need yet another small start-up NGO. And further, in my experience, the very best case scenario is that after a few years they might eventually come around to learning exactly the same lessons that “the establishment” has known for decades.

I agree with this to a certain extent, in that I do think a fair amount of “helping” done by well-meaning but inexperienced foreigners probably causes more harm (or at least confusion) than it’s worth.

So I agree that the public perception of development work should be de-simplified somehow, and I would argue that schools, newspapers, and NGO marketing in the developed world all have a part to play (and a share of the blame for the way the developing world is currently imagined). Apart from that though I’m not sure what can really be done, because as we all know it’s hard to even define “the development industry” so you can’t exactly have a licensing board for it.

On the other hand, I’m sure a lot of today’s respected NGOs started as DIY aid of some kind. Though maybe the occasional success doesn’t excuse playing trial-and-error, I don’t know.

What do you think? Should people be discouraged from “at least doing something”? Or who exactly should be allowed to do things?

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About marisa burton

graduate student, masters of development studies, IHEID, geneva
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5 Responses to Who Should Work in Development?

  1. Tim says:

    They are at worst neutral and I believe in fact the agregate effect is positive. However people perceive aid workers, of any kind, saviors. Isn’t it tragic after all we found that we are not really super heroes? What do we do next? To find the scapegoat(s).
    You see, the aid industry is not only cash- and respect-rewarding, but can be also somehow fame-risky.
    Some else are missing on the platform. We need them, for joining effort or at least replacement of scapegoats.

  2. marisaburton says:

    For sure – a huge part of the problem is this idea that foreign “savoiurs” can just ride in on white horses and “rescue” poor people. And I think a lot of people, while they do also feel a genuine compassion, are also attracted to the idea of being the one on the white horse.

    The point for me is that people need to understand that it’s so much more complicated, and I think actually that some of these DIY projects are probably worse than neutral. To take a common example, think about flooding a market with free donated T-shirts: it’s not only not that useful, but it might drive the current T-shirt seller out of business, and he won’t necessarily be able to start up his business again in six months when people want to buy T-shirts again. You can mess up local markets that way. And more generally these people collect funding in order to do these projects, so if the project ends up falling apart or not being effective, that’s a waste of money that a more solid project could have made good use of.

    • Tim Fang says:

      I agree and get your point.
      Somehow I wish terrible cases like this making bigger trouble- then people start to look at it seriously.(This applies to climate change soon. We will have active governments soon after a major disaster due to climate change.) The impossibility of MDG is already a tragedy only if doesn’t look like bloody. Fortunately (or unfortunately if thus the world devotes less) the dynamics of Africa seems changing, no?

  3. Kitty says:

    I think the idea that only people with a specific type of University education should be allowed to “do development” totally undervalues the importance of local knowledge. While I’m sure there are some small-scale “DIY” projects that do more harm than good, I can also think of plenty of large-scale programmes/projects carried out by international organisations (run by people with University education coming out of their ears) that have done an awful lot of harm.

    I don’t think bad development projects are a problem that can be solved by requiring practitioners to hold a particular qualification… and in any case, surely it shouldn’t be us setting the criteria, it should be the “beneficiaries”!

    • marisaburton says:

      To be fair to J, the original post is a bit longer and does mention local knowledge as an important thing that amateurs tend to lack. And since the post is a response specifically to aid start-ups run by foreigners (Kristof’s article) I guess actual locals are exempt. Though it would seem like some of the criticism (lack of technical project management skills etc) should apply equally to local start ups, so I don’t know.

      Personally though I agree that choosing any particular degree (or even insisting on a degree over experience etc) as some kind of pre-requisite is a bit silly, and I and I also agree with you that some programs run by “the establishment” are at least as ill-conceived as Kristof’s DIY schemes. In fact parts of the “establishment” are guilty of their own brand of DIY aid especially in the form of “send crap you don’t want anymore to Africa” campaigns, or just aid marketing in general that features helpless African victims just sitting around waiting for outside help. These kinds of campaigns service that same simplistic idea of development I’ve been talking about, and reinforce it in the process (if a big NGO is doing it, it must be useful).

      So my argument is less for some kind of specific qualification for development work and more for broad recognition that development work is complicated and should be preceded by thoughts that are more complex than “at least I’m doing something”

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