Inside the Everyday Lives of Development Workers

Back in February, Kumarian Press sent me a review copy of “Inside the Every Day Lives of Aid Workers.” I was pretty eager to get it, since J. (Tales from the Hood) and I had recently launched “Stuff Expat Aid Workers Like  (SEAWL)” and this seemed like a good complement to what we were doing.

I imagined reading about real-live aid workers and the challenges they face in their work. Maybe some studies about their lives complete with trends on income disparities or alcoholism or going native or something. Possibly some interesting narratives or stories or ethical questions they face that could spark reflection and discussion…

Well, seven months later, I had only struggled through the first 4 chapters of the book.

Then J. posted his review so, not to be outdone or shown up as the half-assed member of the SEAWL partnership, I decided I must plow through to the end, even if it meant skimming instead of really reading.

And… I’m actually glad I did because the most applicable and digestible information was found in the second half of the book.

Chapter 5 (Orienting Guesthood in the Mennonite Central Committee, Indonesia) was a good read (though in some places it felt like the author held the MCC in contempt for their beliefs). Perhaps I liked the chapter because I have known several people working with the MCC or basing their work on similar worldviews, yet I had no underlying idea of the concepts their philosophy is based on. I’m now wondering if Greg Mortenson stole the concept for 3 Cups of Tea from the Mennonites.

Chapter 6 (Everywhere and Everthrough, Rethniking Aidland by Keith Brown) traces the “birth, implementation and afterlife” of a USAID funded civil society project. It explores “AID politics” quite nicely, though the writing was a bit convoluted. I liked the concept of  “adding actuality to a virtual program,” eg., that moment when a project designed in DC without local input and aimed at fulfilling political motives of the US Government gets funded and needs to be implemented locally in a complex situation that doesn’t resemble the imaginations of those who designed the project. Unfortunately, I got to the end of the chapter feeling like “OK, we know this, and…?”

Chapter 7 (Anybody at Home? The inhabitants of Aidland by Anne-Meike Fechter) was by far my favorite and Chapter 8 a close second. In 7, the author explains the concept of “Aidland” as a metaphor for the particular traits and characteristics of the development sector… “a complex, almost self-contained web of institutions, people , and activities, with sets of attitudes, discourses, and practices of its own”. She then pulls in a cross-section of ‘types’ of aid workers, discusses what makes them “inhabitants of Aidland” and emphasizes the complexity and variety of people who identify as “aid workers”. The point is made then that in order to identify trends in aid and development, it is useful to talk to and study actual aid workers, and that activity at the margins of “Aidland” can give rise to interesting speculations on where the field is headed. 

Chapter 8 (Dealing with Danger by Silke Roth) is an analysis of the security risks that different aid workers face and their individual justifications for taking on difficult and dangerous aid work. I see many of my friends and acquaintances reflected in the profiles of this chapter, so it resonated.

Chapter 9 (by Heather Hindman) goes into the trend of subcontracting and the “Hollowing out of Aidland;'” starting off with current corporate sector buzzwords like outsourcing, off shoring, subcontracting, neoliberalism, streamlining, best practices, and efficiency and their impact on how aid is done and ‘delivered,’ and how these changes alienate the aid worker and produce a rift between those who do the work of development and the product of their labors. The chapter comes from a human resources angle, and looks at aid workers as primarily ‘workers’. It also provides a fascinating look at how subcontracting is changing not only development, but also families, relationships and the ‘expatriate way of life’.

So it was worth getting through to the end.

Check J’s review for some excellent points and insights on the book. Though I’m guessing maybe he’d had enough by Chapter 4 and called it quits. 🙂

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About Shotgun Shack

INGO worker hailing from the crossroads of America, and so far from home in so many ways. I blog about life and the depths and ironies of INGO work. View all posts by Shotgun Shack

One response to “Inside the Everyday Lives of Development Workers

  • Jon

    Wow, years ago I had the idea that if I ever did a Master’s I would do some kind of anthropology degree focusing on aid workers. Then I went and did International Development like everyone else. Looks like I really missed the boat!

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