Aid Worker Voices

Wasta وَاسِطة

Its not what you know its who you know

Overview
The use of social networking as a tool to navigate both personal and professional life is a time honored cultural universal. Indeed, historically nearly every facet of social life was deeply influenced by (perhaps even determined) one’s family, clan, and tribal connections.  The traditionally accepted norm of using connections to move forward in life both personally and professionally is now simultaneously clashing with and merging into our more modern and bureaucratized world.

“Spreading the hummous of satire over the flatbread of news”, indeed.

Begun in 2002, LinkedIn matured the commodification of this social phenomena, and its corporate reach has grown rapidly. Versions of this platform have been launched in India, China, and Russia, just to name a few.  Two years ago the Middle East version was launched, and now all totaled there are nearly 500 millions users around the world able to connect in 24 different languages.

This post explores the use of wasta. Loosely translated wasta means as ‘connections’ and is roughly analogous to the concept of social networking. I explore questions about wasta as it relates to the lives and activities of humanitarian aid and development workers in the Middle East.

Complicated lives
As I continue researching the aid and development sector, I am constantly reminded that the lives of all humanitarian aid workers are complicated in ways that many outside of the sector likely will never understand. Meeting both material and psychosocial needs -their own, those of their colleagues, and those of the people they ‘serve’- can be hella tricky.

On a typical day professional humanitarians can be confronted with many situations where nuanced cultural understanding is not only helpful but, critically, may mean the difference between life and death -theirs or that of those in the affected communities with which they work.

On top of that onerous charge, they are tasked with functioning within and between large and inherently complex bureaucracies.  Oftentimes they are also involved with brokering communication and coordination between the social/bureaucratic world of their employer and the sociocultural world of the targeted affected communities.

This last task is made all of the more complicated because the affected communities with which they work -lets use the current example of Syrian refugees in Jordan- have a matrix of both formal and informal social structures and, as a further complication, much of this social fabric has been frayed, modified by war, loss, and relocation. A person who may have been a leader in his village back in Syria is now surrounded by many who are not aware of his important social connections, and only see him as an equal, just another refugee.  Further, in the eyes of the NGOs, individuals are seen as, well individual and less so part of a larger social network.  In a previous post I touch on the frustrations that come with this reality.

Vitamin W in Jordan?
For the aid worker, understanding and navigating culturally nuanced social networks and the related networking norms raises many questions, one of which is to what degree does the social capital and wasta that one had accumulated before fleeing Syria carry over to this new life as a refugee?  For my research, there are a series of additional questions that arise, namely

  • To what degree do humanitarian workers have to work both with and around informal networks such as wasta as they go about their jobs?
  • Do Jordanian humanitarian aid workers use their own wasta to get things done?  If so, how is this reconciled with bureaucratic protocols and the, to some extent, the broad anti-corruption policies of their organization?
  • To what degree do demographic variables such as gender, age, and current position impact the use of wasta both within the affected community and between those in the affected community and the people representing the aid sector?
  • How do humanitarian workers differentiate both personally and as agents of their organizations between legitimate and non-legitimate uses of social connections, of wasta?
  • Are there other units of analysis as we probe into wasta?  Can organizational membership bestow wasta?  To what degree are some NGOs more potent in terms of their connections and influence than others, and how does this play into inter and intra organizational interactions?  How do these differing degrees of influence impact the effectiveness of the organizations and the aid workers acting as the faces of the organizations?

Some background on wasta
There is a considerable body of literature on wasta. Here are just a few book-length analyses.

Wasta: The Hidden Force in Middle Eastern Society (1993) by Robert B. Cunningham and Yasin K. Sarayrah was published decades ago but seems as relevant now as ever.  The authors stress how the use of

wasta permeates the Middle Eastern culture but may hamper development since it inherently circumvents the processes and protocols of international organizations and businesses.  They suggest the wasta must be understood and adapted to by outsiders rather than ignored.

In Palestinian Refugees and Identities:  Nationalism, Politics and the Everyday  (2015) Luigi Achilli details issues surrounding wasta and the fine distinction between wasta and fasad.  His book focuses a small group of young men as they navigate their lives as refugees in and out of refugee camps.

In The Political Economy of Wasta: The Use and Abuse of Social Capital Networking (2016) edited byMohamed Ramady takes a global approach to wasta, noting that using one’s social capital to maximize outcome in both personal and professional spheres is a cultural universal, with LinkedIn a modified web version of this phenomena.

The clash playing out in real time
As I noted above, there is an inherent clash between traditional cultural norms and modern bureaucratic protocols and functioning.  To the point, while it may be culturally acceptable and expected behavior to hire one’s nephew for a job, national or international anticorruption laws may prohibit such an action. In some previous research I reported on and offered comment about mostly expat Aid Worker Voices on corruption.  See here for the original post.

Wasta-like power and influence, used for the right reasons and with positive socially accepted values as the driving logic, can be good and efficient under the right circumstances. Abuse of power, though, is as old as our species, and arguably, pre-dates it.  An Iraqi refugee noted to me that,

“You have touched on a very sensitive issue that is hindering development in regions like the Middle East. Wasta always was and is still keeping skilled people from doing their part in developing their countries.”

Indeed there are both positive and very negative impacts of wasta. One thing is certain, though, and that is we can only gain by understanding more clearly this and related cultural realities, and that means addressing the research questions I raise above.

In my next post I’ll present the views on the use and abuse of wasta among local Jordanian aid workers.  Stay tuned.  In the meantime, if you would like to contact me, click here.

Post script
I know that it must be hard to enforce anti-wasta type laws, especially related to nepotism, when the President of the United States has appointed immediate family members into official positions of significant influence.  This irony is not lost on many and the impact is far reaching.

 

Tom Arcaro

Tom Arcaro

Tom Arcaro is a professor of sociology at Elon University and founder of the Elon's Periclean Scholars program. He has been researching and studying aid and development issues for nearly two decades and most recently published 'Aid Worker Voices' (2016) and is currently working on a second book tentatively titled 'Local Aid Worker Voices.' Currently he is working on implementing a vetting system for community based learning (both domestic and international) that will ensure the highest ethical pedagogical practices.

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The tension between the humanitarian bureaucracy and the humanitarian mission

“In terms of dealing with the tension between the humanitarian bureaucracy and the humanitarian mission, I think working on this project is the only thing that could have kept me in this field.”

-Lillie Anne, speaking from Amman about her work on the The Mahali Lab

 

Serendipity
Social media certainly has its downsides, but one major positive function of the Facebook platform is that groups can be formed, bringing together people that otherwise would remain proverbial ‘ships passing in the night.’  Many months ago I joined the closed Facebook group Fifty Shades of Aid, and scrolling through the posts has allowed me to deepen my understanding of aid workers around the world.

Researching and writing about humanitarian aid workers is part of my job as a professor of sociology, but a bigger part is teaching and mentoring undergraduates. This fall I am teaching our department’s required ‘classical sociological theory’ course and, as luck would have it, as I was covering the German sociologist Max Weber I happened up this poem in Fifty Shades:

 

Reading this poem I was struck by how clearly Lillie had captured a concept I had just discussed with my students, namely Weber’s  ‘iron cage of rationality.’  Her use of phrases to paint a picture of frustration, of being caught between the ‘humanitarian bureaucracy and the humanitarian mission’ are masterful, and I immediately knew that this was something that I wanted to share with my students to amplify their understanding of Weber’s ‘iron cage.’

‘Our M&E tools grate against compassion’
I began a conversation with Lillie and found that she is working in Jordan with Syrian refugees.  That my current research is on Jordanian aid workers and issues related to work in that sector made our chance meeting all the more fortuitous. 

Over Skype I asked her about her life as an aid worker, her thoughts on my research on local aid workers in Jordan, and the poem that brought us into contact.  I wanted to know more about how she both experiences and understands the clash between the urge to maintain dignity for all and the need to ‘get the job done efficiently according to protocol.’

A Jersey girl working in Jordan
Getting to know each other at the beginning of the interview, I learned that Lillie is from New Jersey, which in her words is “well-known for its culture and international focus.”  Lillie allowed me to talk about my research -giving me very useful feedback on a draft of the survey intended for local aid workers in Jordan- and we talked about many topics before I finally asked her to explain the background behind the writing of her poem.

She explained,

“… I had just transitioned to the position I’m in now a few weeks before, and I had been before that in a cash and livelihoods program.  We had just revamped our coping strategies index and our vulnerability assessment that we were using to determine if people were eligible or not for cash assistance.

Screenshot of our Skype conversation.

You do have the sense when you’re looking at the questions -and there’s a standard one used for that in Jordan- that this is degrading.  This survey is dehumanizing, asking people specifically about the food groups that they’re
eating, and how many people are disabled?  How many people can’t work?  It’s rudimentary.  It’s a process-oriented thing when you’re conducting this survey, and you can be doing hundreds of them in a day.

            I had just gone from that work to this community-driven innovation lab, which involved very long, unstructured conversations with humans, just to build connections, build trust, and get to know people, and it was that juxtaposition that gave birth to that poem.”

I asked Lillie to explain what the poem was about just as she would if she were talking to my students.  Her explanation adds a new and powerful dimension to what I had given my students, and is a spot-on capturing of what I think Weber, a man who understood power, would say.  She noted that,

“I think really at the heart it’s about power and reflecting on the power that we have when we’re in this position, deciding if someone can meet their basic needs or not, if they have a livelihood or they don’t, or they have this opportunity or not, and that I don’t think we reflect enough on how enormous that power is in this humanitarian sector, and how people feel interacting with us, interacting with our services.  How do we make them feel?  It’s that bureaucratic influence, that people are a means to an end to implement your program or achieve certain outcomes or certain indicators.  We just rarely reflect on human experience for the person who’s interacting with us.”

When explaining Weber’s iron cage I steal some phrasing from Blaise Pascal (“And thus, not being able to make what is just, strong, one made what is strong, just.”). I point out that, increasingly in an age of inexorable, unavoidable and pervasive bureaucratization, with increasing frequency not being able make that which is real measurable, we tend to make that which is measurable real.  It is rational to move forward with a necessary process that allows for an accountable and efficient allocation of scare resources, but that act of rationality crushes out the humanity of the social interaction.

“Pluck this pain from midair and brutalize it with an algorithm/Your identity databased and replaced with heart-scraping simplicity”, indeed. The words of an artist.

A universally felt frustration
As evidenced by the scores of reactions and comments to her poem on Facebook, it is obvious that the clash between the humanitarian bureaucracy and the humanitarian mission Lillie speaks of is a universally felt frustration within the sector.

What I heard Lillie say, in so many words, was that at some points her job made her a participant in an almost inherently dehumanizing process where she was undercutting dignity by going straight to some very personal questions, or what could appear to be personal questions.  She agreed and said,

“Absolutely, and this is the thing that just kept coming back from these community consultations that we’ve just done is that people do feel like they’re completely compromising their dignity when they’re interacting with humanitarian services, and it came back from everyone we talked to in every city, male, female, youth, older people, so many different stories that people told us just to try to show us, this is what we experience and feel when we come to you for help.”

In his book That the World May Know:  Bearing Witness to Atrocity (2007) James Dawes puts it this way, “This contradiction between our impulse to heed trauma’s cry for representation and our instinct to protect it from representation -from invasive staring, simplification, dissection- is a split at the heart of human rights advocacy.”  (emphasis in original)

That the word ‘dignity’ is used in the very first sentence of the preamble to the Universal Declaration of Human Rights is significant and lies at the heart of the work Lillie and others are currently doing in the Mahali Lab.  This work, an effort to soften the bars of the ‘iron cage’, is important and, I hope, will continue to inspire more poems that bear witness to our human struggles.


My deepest thanks to LillieAnne for taking the time to help me with my research and explaining in such powerful detail the story behind her poem.  More of Lillie’s poetry can be found on her blog Torn to Canvas: Writings from a restless mind.

I have written a good bit in other posts about the bureaucracy in the humanitarian sector and about the sector as a whole.  You can find my book-length compilation of aid worker voices and comment about the sector here. As always, you can reach me here if you have comment, critique, or commentary.

Tom Arcaro

Tom Arcaro

Tom Arcaro is a professor of sociology at Elon University and founder of the Elon's Periclean Scholars program. He has been researching and studying aid and development issues for nearly two decades and most recently published 'Aid Worker Voices' (2016) and is currently working on a second book tentatively titled 'Local Aid Worker Voices.' Currently he is working on implementing a vetting system for community based learning (both domestic and international) that will ensure the highest ethical pedagogical practices.

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Exceptionalisms

Using ‘exceptional’ nations as examples of positive deviants

A look around the globe with an eye toward ‘exceptions’ can yield some interesting observations and lead -perhaps- to some useful questions.

Not long ago I spent 5 months in Costa Rica teaching a class which compared the American culture with that of Costa Rica.  What I found doing my background research (see Bowman’s New Scholarship on Costa Rican Exceptionalism) is that these two nations have something in common:  both believe themselves to be exceptional.  American exceptionalism has been an oft used -and maligned- trope for many scores of years, the idea being first offered by the French historian and ethnographer Alexis de Tocqueville back in 1931.  That many nation-states (and before that, empires) see themselves as exceptional is just another manifestation of ethnocentrism or, by its other name, nationalism.

Are there other ‘exceptional’ nations?

Ghana and Namibia have been cited as examples of “African democratic exceptionalism”, with Ghana arguably being an exception in its geographic neighborhood, especially compared to the some bordering nations.  Further east and south of Ghana is Zambia, far more stable than its bordering nations to the north, south, and east,  DR Congo, Zimbabwe, Angola, respectively.

In southeast Asia there is Singapore, a city-state island in a sea of turmoil is hard not to notice as exceptional on many levels.

Though it may be now waning, Chilean exceptionalism was recognized by some for years.

Jordan as a ‘positive devant’?
I have turned my attention in the last six months toward the Middle East and more specifically to the humanitarian response to the Syrian refugee crisis.  Why is the organizational hub for this response in Jordan?  At first the answers seem obvious, with all of the surrounding nations ruled out by their current crises and/or lack of apparent neutrality.

But why Jordan?  Is it in some way ‘exceptional’, or restated, a ‘positive deviant’?  The humanitarian aid industry has employed the concept of positive deviance for decades, at least since 1998 when it was used for household livelihoods assessments in Cambodia. This concept has staying power and appears in sector discussions most recently in the context of data driven development.

I am not alone in thinking Jordan exceptional.  The sociologist Dr. Mansoor Moaddel provides some very useful insight in 2002 in his book Jordanian Exceptionalismcarefully outlining the history of the state-religion relationship in this nation.

Applying this concept to a nation as a unit of analysis is, to say the least, problematic.  Accepting that assessment, there are yet some questions that are worth asking not only about Jordan but also of the other ‘exceptional/deviant’ nations around the world.

  • What about their history, politics, leadership profiles, ethnic/tribal/religious makeup and overall cultural configuration have contributed to their successes?
  • Why is it that some nations wax and wane being and being seen as exceptional?
  • What external geopolitical and economic factors play into the depth and longevity of these exceptionalities?
  • Do those in the region depend on these deviants for their guidance or show a need for the stability which they represent?
  • Can their deviance best be seen as a zero-sum or, alternately, a non-zero-sum situation?

In the case of Jordan all of these questions may be relevant, but perhaps one key factor is their leadership profile, with the monarchy being in some way the ‘secret sauce’ that makes this nation so stable.

Below is what one Jordanian had to say.

Hala and I on Skype talking about the history and politics of Jordan as it relates to aid work.

“The Levant has been a mixing bowl of ethnicities from all the region (Lebanon, Jordan, Syria, Palestine, Iraq and Turkey). It stared as early as the 1890s when the first waves of Circassians and Chechens started pouring in from Russia. These communities are well established now and well integrated into what is now known as Lebanon, Palestine, Jordan and Syria. Fast forward a few hundred years to the invasion of Palestinian land by the Zionist movement in the 1940s, thousands of Palestinians fled to neighbouring Lebanon, Jordan, Syria and even Kuwait. Many of which ended up in Jordan, adding to the already existing population of Bedouin and Caucasian origin. This was not unique to Jordan alone, but to the region in general. These waves of migration continue after the first gulf war and the Sudanese war of the late 1980s, the Iraq invasion in the early 2000s and the Syrian civil war of 2011. Jordan now host people of Palestinian, Syrian, Yemeni, Iraqi, Armenian, Circassian, Chechen, and Sudanese decent. Jordan is a Suni-Muslim majority country, with a Christian minority population living in peace with one another following more or less the same culture.

In broader context Jordan looks stable compared to its neighbours, but there remains some unrest within its borders, from Bedouin tribe clashes to peaceful sit-ins in response to heightened by the economic stagnation, high inflation and unemployment rates.

Some might argue that Jordan owes its relative stability due to its peace treaty with Israel, and its good relations with the United States, in which they need a “stable” ally in the region. Hence, after witnessing the mass displacement of their Arab counterparts, Jordanians are well aware of the volatility of the region and that it could have easily been them. Many stand behind the leadership of the HRH Kind Abdullah II and credit his efforts for the stability that Jordan is enjoying”.

Asked for a summary of the current situation Hala responded,

“Well I guess it is unique and it isn’t at the same time. I think it’s relatively “stable” because of the unique-ish regional political climate, in which it is playing a small part in what is becoming a clearer picture of what some leaders of countries want [read:  the United States]. I think that Jordan in able to keep the cork in place for the time being, but it might not be that easy down the road…  I think It’s unique that there isn’t any obvious mass killings and bombing, but there are real issues under the surface.”

That Jordan is stable and an ‘exception’ in the region may be true, but the why that is so is a very complex mix of history, geopolitical machinations and, yes, personalities.

Nomothetic versus ideographic
Perhaps the sociologist Max Weber was right, and we can and should avoid the tendency to explain our world by reference to general laws and focus on treating real life examples each as unique and qualitatively different from other social realities.  Jordan is neither Ghana nor Costa Rica nor the United States.  The story of the Levant is important to understand alone, without compromising details and interpretations just so they can fit into a larger global sociopolitical pattern.  History stumbles forward and our best efforts can only yield a tentative understanding of why things are they way they are in the present.

One aid worker colleague put it this way, “I think the “uniqueness” factor is that these countries (with the sum of their history, leaders, complexities, demography, etc.) actually found the balance between a relative quality of life for an increasing number of people, relative political and social stability
because every country-mix is different, there is no one-size-fits-all recipe for this, hence the feeling of having cracked the code of the masses.”  When asked, who is driving the search of for this balance? and, can the balance mechanisms in one be applied to another?  she replied simply that “…impossible to take a recipe and apply it elsewhere.”

Indeed.

Extrapolating current trends and directions is our wont as humans, our egotistical and anthropocentric hubris leading us to the conclusion that we can know the past, understand the present, and control the future.

Have we learned anything useful?
Can we learn from positive deviants and make use of their examples as a guide for how to ‘fix’ the present and proactively guide our future?  I am not sure.  Perhaps we should ask the aid workers who used this conceptual tool for household livelihoods assessments in Cambodia back in 1998.

All for now on this excursus.  Back to our regular programming soon.  If you do have comments or questions contact me.

 

 

Tom Arcaro

Tom Arcaro

Tom Arcaro is a professor of sociology at Elon University and founder of the Elon's Periclean Scholars program. He has been researching and studying aid and development issues for nearly two decades and most recently published 'Aid Worker Voices' (2016) and is currently working on a second book tentatively titled 'Local Aid Worker Voices.' Currently he is working on implementing a vetting system for community based learning (both domestic and international) that will ensure the highest ethical pedagogical practices.

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What can we do?

And the student asked, “What can we do?”

Bringing aid worker voices to students at my university
I can’t take my class on a field trip to the Middle East or to the Jordanian headquarters of some INGO that is part of the Syrian refugee response, but via Skype I can bring meaningful voices into our classroom space.

Last spring I invited an Evil Genius to my class.  Then deployed in Jordan, our class had a chance to learn from J, a 25 year veteran of the sector.  Here is the post about that visit.

At exactly the same point in my Intro to Sociology course this fall -covering a chapter on global poverty and wealth- I again invited a humanitarian to class, this time a young, bright local aid worker named Hala, a Jordanian of Palestinian decent, that I met when I traveled to Amman last August for my research. As I expected, my class listened to our 35 minute chat intently and several were bold enough to ask Hala questions near the end of our session.

I must point out that in this class of 28 students only a small handful indicated they felt confident finding Jordan on a map, and most had no clear idea the scope of the refugee crisis in the region.  I spent class time before our Skype session giving a broad history and overview and then, after we signed off, lectured about (among other topics) the critical role that remittances and cash transfers play in the lives of the refugees.  My intent here being to clarify and expand on the complicated and complimentary support responses being made by the Syrian diaspora and the aid sector.

Hala offering insights to my class.

Our conversation
Given that the audience was, in general, not well informed Hala kept her comments both general and largely positive. We talked about life in the camps and how the traditional cultural norms were maintained as much as possible.  Our conversation touched on the reality that going ‘home’ to Syria was not an option for most families, and that though most refugees (80%) have been integrated into the Jordanian economy in some fashion, those that live in the camps like Azraq and Zaatari have a difficult life, especially when looking into the future.

Hala told me after the session that,

“I didn’t want to paint a negative picture of people who live in traditional/strong cultures as bad or backwards. These cultures exist all around us, even in the U.S, and it is not about pointing fingers, agreeing or disagreeing, it is about recognising them and choosing to respect them, as well as involving them in the conversation. How would these people like to be fed, what is considered the cultural norm and what isn’t?”

“What can we do?”
The prompt I gave my students was fairly simple.  I asked, “What did you learn from Hala and how did your experience in this class learning the sociological perspective help you understand what was being talked about?”

One theme of their responses was captured by this student who wrote, “Hala’s advice to us to help with the Refugee Crisis was to be aware of what is going on and be educated. By saying this, she is telling us to avoid ethnocentrism. We cannot only pay attention to what is going on in our country. We must be global citizens and worry about what is happening to the world around us.”

A view of Azraq, an arid, rocky, and isolated location.

Indeed, on the opening page of my syllabus is this quotation, meant to convey my teaching philosophy and an intellectual charge:

“In contrast to those who suggest that we act as soon as the whistle blows, I suggest that, even before the whistle blows, we ceaselessly try to know the world in which we live — and act. Even if we must act on imperfect knowledge, we must never act as if knowing is no longer relevant.”
– Mahmood Mamdani, Saviors and Survivors (p. 6)

This next student shows a deep understanding and provides affirmation that this investment in class time is very positive.

“Hala taught me that bad things happen in the world that are depressing, and as privileged people, we do what we can to help those who have much less and are less fortunate than us. To help me understand privilege from another angle, she explained that Syrian refugees and other families that end up in refugee camps in Jordan have done nothing wrong that caused their current situation. Simply “working harder” or persevering would not allow these people to have a different outcome. In the same way, most students at Elon didn’t do anything better than refugees to grant us access to an upper-level education. She helped me to understand that bad things happen to good people, and we must do our best to educate ourselves on injustices in the world and take action in whatever way we can, from voting for a politician who favors support to refugees to donating money to the cause.

Learning the functionalist perspective in this class helped me understand different elements of Hala’s talk with us over skype; for example, the functionalist explains how all elements of society are interconnected. Hala talked a lot about the interaction with the refugee crisis in the Middle East with the economy. As a sociologist, I can begin to understand how adding thousands of new families to an area with limited jobs and resources can add pressure to the economy as well as competition for jobs and substinence to support a family. Adding more cash flow through remittances and donations stimulates growth in the economy since people have more to spend, which will allow businesses to thrive. 

While Hala wants to have hope for the refugee situation in Jordan and other host countries, she illustrated her struggle in seeing an improved world for these people. One quote that we’ve discussed in class was, “What is the line that separates those who are merely moved and those who are moved to act?” Hala’s talk has moved me and my fellow students, but I wonder who will be moved to act.  Anyone can use their privilege to benefit those who are much less fortunate, and our talk with Hala has solidified my desire to do so.”

Most of the student responses were equally insightful.  I’ll end with this one which ends with a very mature statement.

” One thing that stuck out to me was at the very end of speaking with Hala, a classmate asked, “Is there anything we can do to help.” At first Hala said that really there is not much we can do. She seemed stumped by this question. But then she went on to talk about how we must educate ourselves, and educate others on the situation and to always be aware. I took from this that in order to prevent situations like these from happening, we are fortunate to have it not directly affect us, but we must be aware and ready to help and spread awareness.  Hala knows the situation in Jordan is not good, but her positive outlook on life is something I won’t forget. As she spoke to us she never seemed angry or upset, she seemed just as if she is constantly looking ahead. She explained that [INGO’s] help by sending them food and water, but even so, they are in the middle of the desert, receiving minimal treatment. The sociological perspective makes me thankful for the life that we have here, but also makes me want to learn more about those who have completely different backgrounds than I, have a different life than I, but do not deserve less than I.” (emphasis added)

One more thoughtful student response.

Several times in class I have mentioned the Universal Declaration of Human Rights as a high-water mark in terms of our global commitment to a more just world for all, and this student appears to have taken this seriously.

 

A needle moved?
So, what was accomplished by having this local aid worker from Jordan talk to a bunch of young undergraduates from the Global North? Social change is sometimes generated by focused and dramatic historical moments, but more often than not change is caused by the accumulated impact of countless seeds cast onto the vast landscape of our world.  Some of these seeds will germinate immediately, some only after much time has passed. Hala’s words and infectious smile are now part of these student’s memories, and my hope is that in time their actions will, collectively, indeed move the needle forward.

Thank you Hala for your visit!

Feedback, comments, suggestions?  Contact me here.

 

 

Tom Arcaro

Tom Arcaro

Tom Arcaro is a professor of sociology at Elon University and founder of the Elon's Periclean Scholars program. He has been researching and studying aid and development issues for nearly two decades and most recently published 'Aid Worker Voices' (2016) and is currently working on a second book tentatively titled 'Local Aid Worker Voices.' Currently he is working on implementing a vetting system for community based learning (both domestic and international) that will ensure the highest ethical pedagogical practices.

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My fellow Americans in Puerto Rico

A humanitarian crisis
As I write this the American citizens on the U.S. territory of Puerto Rico are suffering from a major humanitarian crisis.  Hurricane Maria struck the island nearly ten days ago and as of today the vast majority of the population is not only without power many, especially in more rural areas, are critically low on drinking water and food.  Puerto Rico’s power and transportation infrastructures, already seriously compromised by previous storms this season and by a chronic lack of both human and financial resources, are broken.

Mayor Carmen Yulin Cruz of Puerto Rico’s capital city has appeared on national media begging that bureaucratic ‘red tape’ be cut so that aid can get to not only her city but to the entire nation.  One massive logjam is tied to The Jones Act, a century old regulatory law for Puerto Rico requiring that goods shipped between U.S. ports be carried by U.S.-built vessels crewed by U.S. citizens.  Nearly 10,000 shipping containers filled with essential aid have been languishing in port.  As of today (28 September) our president has eased this restriction finally allowing this critical aid to flow more easily.

According to Mayor Cruz there are many examples of how layers of protocol and bureaucratic ‘red tape’ are hindering what have become life and death for Puerto Rico’s 3.7 million residents.

I am following this event closely not only because I am a fellow American but also because as a sociologist studying and researching the humanitarian aid industry I am seeing in real time some of the dynamics that have appeared in the responses to other ‘natural’ disasters around the world.

‘Natural disasters’?
The oversimplified dichotomy ‘natural disaster’ and ‘human-made disaster’ must be questioned on several levels.  That this hurricane season is historic is a matter of fact, and that the magnitude and frequency of these storms appears to be linked to human action induced climate change -specifically warmer waters that provide more energy for these storms- is doubted by only a few.  Maria is ‘natural’, yes, but her strength is ‘unnatural’ and caused by what humans have done (or, in many cases failed to do). How aid is being delivered -or not delivered- since Maria moved north is adding to the disaster.  Delivery of aid in many forms is hindered due to an array of logistically challenging circumstances, to be sure, but human avarice, incompetence, and yes even racism must be considered as factors.

Paul Farmer has referred to the 2010 earthquake in Haiti as “acute on chronic” meaning that the quake itself was like a blow to the head to an already health-compromised cancer patient.  In the case of Maria, this storm was the acute event but must be seen in the context of an already weakened island territory.

Square peg in a round hole
How do the local actors -be they government officials like Mayor Cruz, community leaders, staff of local NGO’s, local staff of INGO’s etc.- deal with the complicated and sometimes convoluted world of log frames, assessment tools, accounting protocols, chains of communication demanded by the organizational structures who control the resources that are intended to help their affected communities?  How do the immediate and life-or-death needs of the affected community get addressed in a timely fashion when there are laws to follow and forms to fill out?

Sometimes rules need to be broken in order to save lives and restore dignity, but given the asymmetrical power dynamics that are very apparent in this situation, the default is to kowtow to the external actors -in this case the US government and large INGO’s who are responding- and follow laws and protocols.

From the particular to the general
I have been reading, researching and writing about ‘localization’ of aid and about local aid workers.  I know that many local aid workers -local actors- are frustrated by the situation described above.  As a sociologist looking in on the dynamic, what I see is a chronic and perhaps unavoidable clash between the local organizations that seek immediate concrete actions and external organizations (governments or INGO’s) that are burdened by accountability structures that make them inherently slow and frustrating to deal with.  As Wall and Hedlund put it “….the humanitarian system is in theory already committed to locally-led responses, but this rarely translates into practice. (p. 7)”

More soon.  You can reach me here.

 

 

 

 

Tom Arcaro

Tom Arcaro

Tom Arcaro is a professor of sociology at Elon University and founder of the Elon's Periclean Scholars program. He has been researching and studying aid and development issues for nearly two decades and most recently published 'Aid Worker Voices' (2016) and is currently working on a second book tentatively titled 'Local Aid Worker Voices.' Currently he is working on implementing a vetting system for community based learning (both domestic and international) that will ensure the highest ethical pedagogical practices.

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A sense of humor from a local aid worker in Amman, Jordan

Local aid workers in Amman, Jordan

My recent too-short research trip to Jordan yielded many interviews with local aid workers in Amman and at the refugee camp at Azraq.  The hospitality and openness of all the aid workers I talked with was deeply gratifying and our talks were all extraordinarily productive.

These aid workers and I are now working on a survey instrument that we hope can be widely circulated among local aid workers in and around Amman and perhaps even beyond.

More to come on the content of these interviews, but for now I want to recount an after-hours conversation related to Azraq and refugee camps in general.

Over a couple beers a small group of us traded insights about a range of topics including Trump’s response to the protests and counter protests Charlottesville, the living situation in the various Syrian refugee camps, and the gap between donor interests and real needs ‘on the ground.’  It was agreed that this gap is a constant and pervasive source of frustration in the sector, indeed.

Green space inside kindergarten compound in Azraq.

We talked about the range of ways that one can describe life in a refugee camp.  Many who only do short, controlled visits tend to come away with a
‘glass half full’ image concluding that ‘it really isn’t all that bad’ after seeing cheerful kindergarteners, murals on walls, and football pitches.

A veteran aid worker countered that kind of characterization with the polar opposite, calling Azraq a ‘concentration camp in the middle of a desert’ that serves as a human zoo for voyeuristic donor organization representatives.

The description that you use is matter of perspective and as well your intended audience to be sure. We talked about how to get donors to have a more realistic view of life in the camps, perhaps more along the ‘concentration camp’ lines than the upbeat picture some might paint.

The only way for the donors to really know what life is like living on the ground in a T-shelter with no running water and or proper sanitation, it was offered, would be to have them actually live in the camp for at least 48 hours.

“But what would they do all of that time?” was asked.  “And what about security?”

Hala

In response to the security question a young Jordanian female aid worker at the table quipped,

“Well, at least they [the donors] wouldn’t have to worry about anyone coming after them with tiki torches.”

Mic drop.

>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>

More local aid worker voices coming soon as I sort through my notes and continue work on the survey.

Reach me here or on Twitter @tarcaro.

 

Tom Arcaro

Tom Arcaro

Tom Arcaro is a professor of sociology at Elon University and founder of the Elon's Periclean Scholars program. He has been researching and studying aid and development issues for nearly two decades and most recently published 'Aid Worker Voices' (2016) and is currently working on a second book tentatively titled 'Local Aid Worker Voices.' Currently he is working on implementing a vetting system for community based learning (both domestic and international) that will ensure the highest ethical pedagogical practices.

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Off the radar: World Humanitarian Day

Our bandwidth is flooded
As I write this World Humanitarian Day -19 August- is just three days away, but in the minds of most in the US it might as well be, distressingly, never.

The events of the past weekend and reactions thereto in #Charlottesville, Virginia are dominating all social and network media.  And for good reason.  We have a president (lower case appropriate in this case) who, though quite capable of calling out and condemning countless targets, many trivial, has provided at the very least tacit support for neo-Nazis and all manner of white supremacists.

Though the memes have been entertaining, I find all of these events profoundly disturbing and I admit getting caught up in the emotions and feel a need to do something.

As a faculty member at a mid-sized liberal arts university privileged to teach sociology I commit myself to educating young minds about the power of analytical thought using empirical evidence -facts- as a basis from which to understand the world in general and events like #Charlottesville specifically.

I will do so, though, making sure they appreciate the connections between their world and the larger global ‘community.’  The massive, pervasive and utterly cancerous phenomena of ‘othering‘ must be addressed in detail and with historical context, and we will examine and attempt to understand all of the relevant social forces -economic, historical, political, technological and so on- that move our collective lives forward.

Connecting the local to the global
The end goal in my classes always has been to have my students make connections for themselves. At the top of my syllabi are these words:

“In contrast to those who suggest that we act as soon as the whistle blows, I suggest that, even before the whistle blows, we ceaselessly try to know the world in which we live — and act. Even if we must act on imperfect knowledge, we must never act as if knowing is no longer relevant.”
– Mahmood Mamdani, Saviors and Survivors (p. 6)

So, yes, for most in the US World Humanitarian Day will be a non-event, but at least for my students there will be discussions putting our current local US events into a broader context.

Here’s specifically how
By coincidence I start travel to Amman, Jordan 19 August -World Humanitarian Day- to further my research on local aid worker voices, this time in Jordan.  I will use this experience to open the eyes of my students by telling small stories and having them read, research, and then write about the humanitarian crisis in Syria and Iraq and press themselves to make analytical and critical connects between the ‘othering’  there and that in the US.

My action here is a small and perhaps purely academic act, to be sure, but it allows me to believe that I am doing something.  I will press them as I press myself to do more, but always keeping in mind Mandami’s words.

Tom Arcaro

Tom Arcaro

Tom Arcaro is a professor of sociology at Elon University and founder of the Elon's Periclean Scholars program. He has been researching and studying aid and development issues for nearly two decades and most recently published 'Aid Worker Voices' (2016) and is currently working on a second book tentatively titled 'Local Aid Worker Voices.' Currently he is working on implementing a vetting system for community based learning (both domestic and international) that will ensure the highest ethical pedagogical practices.

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The future of aid is the end of it

The future of aid is the end of it: the bigger picture of aid localisation

Insights by Arbie Baguios

The World Humanitarian Summit in May 2016 called for aid localisation. Although by how this phrase is often used one would think aid is yet to be ‘localised,’ when in fact, according to ALNAP’s State of the Humanitarian System report in 2015, 80% of the 4,278 registered NGOs worldwide are national organisations, and 87% of the 249,000 aid workers are local or national staff.

What the summit actually called for was to increase the share that local humanitarian actors receive out of the global aid budget. Despite local actors being the fastest and most effective aid providers, the Global Humanitarian Assistance report found that in 2016 they directly received a meagre 0.3% out of the USD 27.3bn global spend on aid.

Aid is already ‘localised’ – power within the aid sector is not.

Over the past few months, my colleague and I surveyed local aid workers from the Philippines to get their views on a range of issues including localisation. Responses on this particular question were evenly split: 33% thought aid work in the Philippines was quickly becoming localised, while 30% did not. One comment read: “While staff composition is becoming localized, key power holders are still expats and decision making is still with global HQs.”

Most other comments on that question rightly pointed out the issue about funding (e.g., “[B]ecause of the funding mechanism and availability, international organizations would still dominate…”). But true localisation of aid – that is, the localisation of power within the aid industry – is more than just about who gets the money (although it is a significant part of it). Sometimes it’s also about who gets the job.

All aid workers lives’ matter?
There are a number of issues on and around ‘aid workers’ – not least of which are the ‘local staff vs expat staff’ and ‘Global South aid worker vs Global North aid worker’ debacles.

These have been exhaustively debated in many places, especially online and including on our blog. When these get brought up on the Internet, I notice a predictable reaction: people get defensive. The next time this gets talked about on Facebook or Twitter, play bingo: spot that one guy who always use the most extreme example like Afghanistan or South Sudan; or the aid worker equivalent of, “My best friend is from the Global South!”; and even the outright dismissal of the problem as an insignificant cliché or a non-existent myth.

In our work, when a community member registers a complaint against our programmes, we are compelled to resolve the issue – regardless if it’s real or perceived. If someone said they feel a form of injustice because they were not included in the beneficiary list, a capable BenComms officer would handle this by explaining the beneficiary selection process and then telling them how the programme is helping their neighbourhood, too. We cannot say the injustice they feel is simply not true; instead, we listen, acknowledge, and address.

In the same way, until the ‘local vs expat’/’North vs South’ problem is systemically addressed within the aid sector, there will always be tweets and blogs and Fifty Shades of Aid posts that highlight and criticize the inequalities and injustices (real or perceived) between the two.

It’s time the aid sector acknowledges and addresses the elephant in the expat lounge. We can begin by asking questions and getting the facts.

Perhaps NGOs could publish the statistics on their staff: how many are locals vs expats? Of the expats, how many are from the Global North and how many are from the Global South? If one group is disproportionately (under)represented, why? Between locals and expats, what is the average pay difference and how is their pay calculated? What is the system or criteria used when a role is advertised as expat or local? What development opportunities do they provide to local staff who wish to move on to expat roles?

Maybe we could ask international NGOs headquartered in London or Washington or Brussels: what are they doing about the fact that they are an international NGO but are unable to get visas for international staff, particularly from the Global South? Have they tried to collectively negotiate with the home affairs ministries of their governments? We opine how it is increasingly difficult for expats to get visas in countries like South Sudan or Kenya (and in fact we form government advocacy groups to address this), but accept by default that, outside of the UN, it is virtually impossible to employ non-nationals in the UK, US or EU.

Until we have these data and facts which will enable us as a sector to come to an informed analysis on the issue – in short, until we finally systematically address it – I’m afraid most discussions will only be inundated by anecdotal evidence about how one time in Maiduguri this guesthouse was full of Kenyan expats.

But I’d like to believe the aid localisation agenda means something so much more than this. Beyond being about funding or staff, aid localisation is ultimately about the future of our societies.

A world vision?
In the aftermath of the Grenfell Fire tragedy in London, I volunteered at the designated assistance centre. The programme to support those affected by the tragedy is similar to many international humanitarian operations: the government has taken the lead and coordinates with civil society organisations to provide cash, food and NFIs, and medical and psychosocial support.

In the Global North, most small- to medium-scale emergency responses resemble international humanitarian work (such as cash transfers for fire victims in Canada or NFI distributions after floods in England) sans INGOs flying in and expats getting deployed. And ‘development’ issues like poverty, employment, education or infrastructure are sorted out by their national government, never UN agencies.

At a talk at the LSE, Dr Jim Yong Kim, President of the World Bank Group, introduced the concept of ‘global convergence of aspiration.’ Through technologies like the Internet, someone from somewhere poor can learn to want the same things from somewhere rich. Think of a rural teenager wanting to enjoy the same nightlife he sees on Facebook from his cousin from the city; or a girl from Southeast Asia desiring to go to that same prestigious university in London her favourite YouTube star went to.

This ‘convergence of aspiration’ can be experienced not just on an individual level but on a societal level, too. Just ask any Filipino standing in line for hours for the train what kind of public transportation system they’d want to see in their country. I bet their answer would be somewhere along the lines of, “Just like America’s!” or “Just like Singapore’s!”

As a Filipino aid worker based in an HQ in London, I feel this way about my country’s humanitarian and development sector. I’m sure I speak on behalf of many Filipino aid workers when I say that my vision is for my own country to be able to address its development issues on its own and respond to its emergencies without requiring international assistance.

Respondents of our survey are under no illusion about the current capacity of Philippine society: “The aid sector proliferates [here] because our own government consistently fails to address the many problems that beset our country,” reads one comment. But they look on to a singular horizon: “The Philippines should also begin to take on most of the leadership roles in development as a middle income country,” states another.

Beyond how INGOs trickle down the funding to their local partners, or whether the expats they employ are from the Global South, I’d like to think that, ultimately, this is what’s at the heart of aid localisation: a reasonable aspiration for countries to have the capacity and resources to solve most of their own problems.

The end of aid?
This concept isn’t new. Not so long ago the phrase du jour for aid workers was to “work our way out of a job.” But this idealistic vision for the future has somehow faded in favour of trying to fix a ‘broken system.’ By its nature, however, a ‘system’ is adaptive (a favourite aid jargon!) and aims to preserve itself.

A report called “The Future of Aid: INGOs in 2030” published in July 2017 by the Inter-Agency Regional Analysts Network (IARAN) states that international organisations are at risk of irrelevancy due to, among other things, the rise of local and national aid actors. The Guardian, referencing the report, wrote that aid charities must “change or die.”

I wonder, though: shouldn’t we just, well, let it die?

The report says: “With the growth of national NGOs and the creation of South-South alliances, national NGOs will grow in scale and importance and occupy more of the humanitarian space. The power balance between NGOs and INGOs will shift.” If this is so, why swim against the tide? Shouldn’t the call to action, then, be to ensure that current global attempts to ‘reshape aid’ truly disrupt the status quo and head towards the South’s greater independence from international assistance?

Final thoughts
To be clear: I believe in aid. I believe that as long as poverty or crises ‘somewhere else’ are broadcast to the world, there will always be a need for an international system that can effectively manage the inevitable outpour of public philanthropy. I believe that humanitarian assistance will remain necessary in particular contexts, such as in conflicts or overwhelming large-scale sudden onset disasters.

This transfer of resource is always welcome. But I hope we continue to see the transfer of power, too. I hope to see an aid sector where the most affected people, and the institutions within their own society, are the ones who get to decide and implement the solutions to their own problems. (And, perhaps most importantly, I hope that these solutions lead to such a point where future problems are minimised and more locally manageable.)

The aid localisation agenda is, as we often fondly say in this sector, complex. Nations’ and communities’ self-sufficiency is inextricably bound to wider social, economic and political realities far outside the remit of our sector. Although if we are to drive localisation’s momentum forward, the self-preserving aid system must be shaken up; and the business-as-usual way of working between donors, INGOs, Global South actors, and local communities needs to be rethought.

As we carry on with our industrial churn of budgets, logframes, gantt charts, and other minutiae of the business of aid, we should try to remember once in a while, and no matter how hazy, the bigger picture of aid localisation: one where all nations and communities – local people – are able to solve their own problems.

 

Tom Arcaro

Tom Arcaro

Tom Arcaro is a professor of sociology at Elon University and founder of the Elon's Periclean Scholars program. He has been researching and studying aid and development issues for nearly two decades and most recently published 'Aid Worker Voices' (2016) and is currently working on a second book tentatively titled 'Local Aid Worker Voices.' Currently he is working on implementing a vetting system for community based learning (both domestic and international) that will ensure the highest ethical pedagogical practices.

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Non-local local?

Non-local local?

This is a follow-up to my last post and also a prelude to my next where I’ll examine the qualitative data from the last two questions on our survey of Filipino aid and development workers.  Arbie and I are almost done with the series and are beginning the process of summarizing.

Non-local local
Looked at from afar most phenomena may appear monolithic, but the closer one gets the more diverse and nuanced the object of your observation becomes.

So it is with ‘local’ aid and development workers.

Though I want to think I knew this already, the following comment from a young male Filipino aid worker employed by an INGO made me realize more explicitly something that is now embarrassingly obvious, namely that all ‘local’ aid workers are not, well, local.

“As an aid worker, you can be stationed away from your family and thus you feel lonely and homesick. Your co-workers will become your second family. It will be great if there are more team-building activities, group sessions to stregthen the bond and camaraderie of aid workers. Sometimes, you drown yourself with selfless hardwork and with utmost dedication that you lose yourself unknowingly.”

What he says about co-workers becoming surrogate families, the need for team-building, and working so hard that you “lose yourself unknowingly” are familiar sentiments to most aid and development workers around the world, local or expat. But what I did not see more clearly until I took a closer look was that not all ‘local’ aid workers are indeed local.  To my knowledge there are no country-wide data on what percentage of Filipino ‘local’ aid workers live at (or very close to) home versus those that are many hours (or even days) travel away from their homes.  I have made a note to myself that on all future surveys of local aid and development workers this question will be asked in some form.

In the same way that most HQ-based aid workers in London or New York aren’t necessarily originally from London or New York, the same is so for aid workers in the Global South. Those who work in the capitals may not necessarily be from that city, and those aid workers assigned to remote project areas may be from somewhere else, too.

Arbie has an example from his experience: while visiting a project site in a small, remote rural town in the Philippines, he noticed how a significant number of the staff based there were from elsewhere (and they also couldn’t speak the local language). He also noticed how some staff who were actually from that area were initially skeptical when new colleagues from Manila were deployed to their town.

My collaborator -Arbie- and I offer the guesstimate that as many as 30-40% of Filipino aid and development workers are ‘non-local local’, this figure varying widely depending upon many factors including time frame, industry sector, and the nature of response activities.  Scoping out a bit, I wonder how this compares in other locations around the world.

Image from http://www.wonderroot.org/

Speaking of binaries
On the theme of looking more closely, I’ll offer two additional ‘binary busting’ thoughts.  First, the fact that ‘local’ aid and development workers are at the same time beneficiaries (either directly or indirectly) complicates and makes even more interesting research questions about a range of topics. As for the ‘aid vs. development’ binary, the same can be said.  Here’s one comment from a veteran female development worker employed by an INGO that illustrates this blurring.

“Development work has been of great interests to many Filipino workers since PH have been affected by several large-scale disaster in the last 7 years.”

Aid work becomes development work and the two burr together over the years, especially in the lives and minds of those ‘locals’ working in the sector.

All for now. Contact me with questions or comments.

Tom Arcaro

Tom Arcaro

Tom Arcaro is a professor of sociology at Elon University and founder of the Elon's Periclean Scholars program. He has been researching and studying aid and development issues for nearly two decades and most recently published 'Aid Worker Voices' (2016) and is currently working on a second book tentatively titled 'Local Aid Worker Voices.' Currently he is working on implementing a vetting system for community based learning (both domestic and international) that will ensure the highest ethical pedagogical practices.

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Addressing the binary illusion of ‘expat vs local’ aid workers

“…today’s expat aid worker can be from anywhere and go to anywhere.”

-J (Evil Genius)

Addressing the binary illusion of ‘expat vs local’ aid workers

False binary
Very simple message here.

Bluntly put, the ‘expat versus local’ narrative perpetuates a sloppy false binary. In order to articulate our understanding of the world we all tend to shorthand toward generalizations that make sense in terms of our lived experience, most of the time unconsciously so.  We see and understand the world around us through the lens of our most recent experiences which most times are in a somewhat fixed in location.  Even the most learned among us default to overreachingly broad comments to make a point.

Color me guilty as well.

Badass sociologist C. Wright Mills

One antidote for this tendency was described in the mid-20th century by C. Wright Mills, an American sociologist who coined the phrase “the sociological imagination.”  Using this tool, one habitually takes the broadest appropriate view of issues both temporally and geographically. But the danger here is literally TMI, ‘too much information’ and thus tends to handcuff the thinker with ‘the paralysis of analysis.’

As discussions about the status of all aid and development workers moves forward we can do well to clarify our talking points, definitions, and points of view.  This, and ask some hard questions.

‘Tales of hunting’
That the narrative driving much (most?) discourse in the sector -including the ‘expat v local’ is dominated by
a global north, largely white and relatively privledged population seems apparent.

That said, this is being written by a global north, relatively privileged white male, so it could be argued that my perspective is inherently biased as well. Neither Mills nor I can defend that barb except to say that as much as sociology is a science and scientific knowledge is transcendent then, yes, with effort, objectivity, and clarity our observations can be viewed as useful.  But I digress.

As an aside, if someone responds that “all [aid worker] lives matter” are they are saying, in effect, “all lives matter”, and do we really want to go there?

Clarifying observations?
Of the hundreds of thousands around the globe right now doing what can be called aid and development work (and yes, I know I am driving some readers crazy inferring the two are conflated), there are many who defy easy categorization.  J (Evil Genius), points out that,

“Much of the local (and international) angst about expats seems to be grounded in some outdated (and often also ethnocentric) assumptions about who the expats are and where they’re from. When @TMSruge (low-hanging fruit example) rants on about expats in Africa, he’s not talking about the gazillion Chinese, nor is he talking about all the Filipinos, nor is he talking about all the Kenyans in Uganda, or all the Ugandans in South Africa, or all the South Africans in Mali. He’s talking about the white dudes (and to a lesser extent, white women because they seem to do more selfies)….”

What percentages of all aid and development workers from the global north fall onto one of the following three buckets:

  • Those exclusively doing work in their home country.
  • Those who work mostly outside of their home country.
  • Those who work exclusively outside of their home country.

Same question, but what percentages of those from the global south fall into each of those buckets?

Here is a simple 2×2 table illustrating my views on the perception versus reality regarding aid workers.

As J (quoted above) goes on to point out, any discussion of ‘expats versus locals’  “needs to be nuanced around the fact that today’s expat aid worker can be from anywhere and go to anywhere.” He goes on to say “… it needs to be further nuanced around the motivations and expectations of the various categories and sub-categories within the very broad “expat.” I suspect (this would be an amazing question to study… 😉 😉 ) that the reasons white Western people go into international aid work is different from the reasons all the Kenyans, Congolese, Zimbabweans, and Ugandans do. Which are probably different still from the reasons why Japanese, Singaporeans, and Sri Lankans so…”

I hear that J is working on a non-fiction book tentatively titled “Expat” and I look forward to learning from his well thought out insights that, I suspect, would make C.Wright Mills proud.  As someone who has ‘been there, done that’ more than most, I know he has a wide angle perspective worth a read.

Another false binary
That the convenient ‘global north/global south’ distinction is also a false binary complicates our analysis further.  Certainly the ‘gazillion Chinese’ mentioned above stress this distinction. One consideration is that most nations are not ‘one nation’ in many senses.  Though from the outside China might be painted as a monolithic whole, the differences between the perceptions, actions, and agency of the elites in Shanghai or Beijing and the rural poor in the Xinjiang region are stark and significant.

To even further deepen the discussion one aid worker pointed out that “…in my experience, those that are ‘local aid workers’ don’t necessarily know that they’re working in aid.”  She makes a good point and raises the question as to how all aid workers see themselves in terms of the ‘expat/local’ and ‘North/South’ taxonomy.  My guess is that a massive number would reject such simplistic and narrow pigeon holes.  Perhaps we -yours truly included- should as well.

Semantics
Above I have addressed both the ‘expat vs. local’ and the ‘Global North vs. Global South’ issues in a way that I hope will raise even more questions and offer a small ray of light.  Clarifying what we are talking about -and then talking about the same thing with each other- is productive, and perhaps some of the above moves us in that direction.  For my part I will continue researching and reporting aid worker voices in general and more specifically on the whole topic of ‘ localization’, whatever that means.

Have a link you recommend that I look at, a reading suggestion, or comments in general?  Contact me.

Tom Arcaro

Tom Arcaro

Tom Arcaro is a professor of sociology at Elon University and founder of the Elon's Periclean Scholars program. He has been researching and studying aid and development issues for nearly two decades and most recently published 'Aid Worker Voices' (2016) and is currently working on a second book tentatively titled 'Local Aid Worker Voices.' Currently he is working on implementing a vetting system for community based learning (both domestic and international) that will ensure the highest ethical pedagogical practices.

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2014