What am I even talking about???

15 Jan

I recently spent two-ish weeks in my hometown in California. This by itself probably could provide me with plenty to reflect on, but the “Small Town Girl Moves to Big City and Then Returns to Small Town and Has Some Thoughts” genre of writing is a little too dramatic for my taste. So I’ll happily abstain. But since I did go home, and since I did think about some things, I will allow this blog to fall under a slightly more nuanced sub-genre: “Student of International Development Tries to Explain What It Is They Study to Family and Friends Back Home”.

There are some phrases and concepts that people who live in Washington D.C. seem to generally understand, even if very superficially. These include phrases like “government contractor”, “networking”, “Ovetchkin”, “Escalefter”, as well as “international development” and “aid”. (By the way: phrases and concepts ill-understood in D.C. seem to include “Mexican food”, “farm”, and “coffee shop”). What this means is that when someone asks you what you do or what you study, you can say “international development” and people will nod and the conversation continues on.

The reaction back home, however, is different. When I tell people I’m studying international development, often the response is, “What’s that?” And then I stumble over my words and say something like, “Oh mmm… addressing poverty in developing countries. I’m focusing on humanitarian assistance and post-conflict development. I mean… haha! Saving babies and stuff. Well! Anyways. How are YOU?”

By now my friend is thoroughly convinced that I really have no clue what I’m studying and am probably just wasting a ton of time in D.C.  Meanwhile I am left feeling like I’ve not only done a disservice to my field, but have also insulted the intelligence of whomever I’m speaking with by boiling down what I study to a few pithy catchphrases. This is something I’d like to work on: being better at explaining what I’ve studied and what I’d like to do with what I’ve learned.

But I’m not the only one with this problem. I recently took a very formal and scientific poll of several classmates, and they agreed that they generally sum up what they do by saying things like “Poverty reduction”, “Foreign aid”, “Have you heard of World Vision? Stuff like that!”

It’s probably fair to also mention that explaining international development work becomes a little easier once you have a full time job in the field. I asked a friend of mine, who works for an organization that improves health services around the world, how she explains her job. She summed it up by saying, “I work on strengthening supply chains for public health commodities like condoms and bed nets. Everything has a supply chain- most things we buy someone had to know we wanted it before we bought it. It’s the same for health commodities, but you’re working in situations where maybe people can’t pay, or the product is donated so it gets a little more complicated. The bottom line is that we procure and distribute these products for the US government to foreign governments.” Huh. Pretty good!

This helps because it is something specific. But this is also one of the dilemmas of defining international development: the term can be used to describe something very specific, like providing certain goods or services, or something more general like increasing access to markets, or something really smooshy like building democracy or improving governance. In fact, this is a good start to a list of things that fall under the umbrella of international development:

– Providing goods: often donated, but also includes increasing people’s market access to goods.

– Providing services: education, healthcare, etc.

– Improving infrastructure: building roads, wells, sanitation systems, clean water, etc.

– Improving governance: decentralizing authority, increasing accountability, improving the rule of law, addressing corruption, building institutions.

– Empowerment: Advocating for the rights of minorities, women, and children, training people on their rights, improving marginalized people’s access to goods, services, government representation, etc.

– Building economies: large-scale private investment, micro-credit, decreasing barriers to free enterprise, improving access to markets (for both consumers and sellers), increasing employment opportunities, creating more equitable economic systems.

– Food security: increasing agricultural productivity, improving terms of trade for exported goods, improved farming techniques, emergency food supplies, etc.

– Peacebuilding: this is not always considered to be “development”, but in places where civil conflict is rife, disarmament, peace talks and negotiations, peace keeping, displacement camps, and reconciliation processes are often considered to be important elements of development.

– Democracy-building: ensuring free and fair elections, securing freedom of press and speech, promoting representational government, etc.

I could really go on. A distinction is also made within the field between relief and development. Relief (also referred to as humanitarian assistance) is the organized response to a natural or human disaster, such as the earthquake in Haiti. Immediate life-saving goods and services, generally supplied by foreign governments and international organizations, are considered relief. Relief, ideally, is provided only as long as it takes for the dust to settle. Organizations that are generally in the field of relief, but not development, include the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC), Doctors Without Borders, and various UN agencies. Extended humanitarian disasters however, such as the situation in the Eastern Democratic Republic of Congo or the HIV/AIDs epidemic, often blurr the line between relief and development. But this is a topic for a later blog post.

The relief-development distinction I think is also important when describing what it is that development professionals actually do. I think often the image of an aid worker is one of a swash-buckling doctor, barking orders in a makeshift operating room as he/she prepares to do an emergency c-section in the middle of a war zone. Or perhaps, the more tender image of a sun-leathered woman running an orphanage in Africa. The reality is that most (most) people I know who work “in development” work in offices. Whether in D.C., where they write proposals, review invoices, create programs, haggle with donors, fundraise, research, sit in meetings, attend summits, create monitoring and evaluation mechanisms, and skype with field offices; or whether they are abroad, also sitting in offices, meeting with government officials, reviewing numbers, keeping budgets, signing contracts, doing assessments, asking for more funding, etc, etc – development work is often much less glamorous than the images it can conjure (when it conjures an image at all). There are certainly aid workers who fit the stereotype, and who put themselves at incredible risk by being willing to work in some of the toughest places in the world. But development workers can also be logisticians, lawyers, doctors, public health experts, business people, scientists, IT technicians, and on and on and on. This why I hate myself for telling people (although with tongue-in-cheek) that development is “saving babies”- it’s just really, really not true that most development workers are out there saving babies.

I did not save this baby.


The point here though, is that succinctly summing up “international development” is very difficult. For many, the term has come to mean everything and nothing, and numerous academics have sought to replace it with something else. But regardless of the particular language used, I would argue that international development is a field, both of study and of practice. It is also an industry, and like any other industry people profit and people fail. The fact that it is all these things, however, does not make it any easier for me to answer the questions posed by people outside this line of work.

I should also recognize that this can be the case in many other fields. My brother is a Chemical Engineer for a private contractor and works around the country designing control systems for different companies… I think. He was somehow involved in designing the SunChips solar plant in Modesto, CA, and designing the controls for a bottled water production plant that was switching to bottling tea… I think. Really, what he does is too nuanced and complicated for me to understand as an industry outsider. What I know is that he travels a lot and has to make sure things don’t blow up. And really, I think most of us who are not engineers working in his field are content with not fully understanding what goes into designing a production control system.

The field of international development is similar to this, in that it is often difficult to explain what development professionals do. On the other hand, it is dissimilar to this for two reasons. First of all, development very directly affects people, and therefore implies more immediate ethical and moral judgment. Secondly, there is very, very little agreement on what the end product should look like.

There’s plenty to say about this, but the purpose of this post is to attempt to explain what it is that I mean when I say I study international development. For me, specifically, it means I take classes on management, on writing proposals, on disaster response, on what we might want to think about doing in the case of civil wars, and on and on. It means I will (fingers crossed) get a job where I work in an office, both for the sake of having a job and with the goal of somehow, in some way, making life a little better for poor people, even if not very glamorously. There is a lot of debate within the field on how to actually do this, and you can meet two people who both work in “international development”, but who would also argue tooth and nail that what the other person is doing more harm than good. And both of these people will probably have strong logical and ethical arguments for why their methods and goals are better. And this too, is part of the international development industry.

Are you more confused than ever now? That’s ok. After two years working in a developing country and two years studying development, I’m still a little confused too.

Aid Worker's space.



2 Responses to “What am I even talking about???”

  1. Em Frei January 16, 2011 at 6:23 pm #

    I still don’t get it.

    JK. good post bets.

  2. Susie February 8, 2011 at 7:25 pm #

    If I read this a few more times, I’ll probably get it…but don’t quiz me on it
    (thanks, Bets!)

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