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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