Inside the Everyday Lives of Development Workers: The Challenges and Futures of Aidland is an edited volume of scholarly, basically social science essays on – you guessed it – the everyday lives of “development workers.” I’ll give Kumarian Press kudos for getting this out. It’s the first publication of this nature that I’ve seen. As you all know, the vast majority of what’s out there being written by aid workers about aid work is either a) marginal fiction; b) over-the-top shock schlock; c) self-aggrandizing travelogue; d) blogs.
In terms of broad principle it’s nice to see some actual research being done on… us. After all these decades of poking our noses into the business of “the poor” all over the world, there is something both disconcerting and oddly cathartic about becoming “the exotic other.” It’s long overdue, frankly, and so on this basis at least, Inside the Everyday Lives of Development Workers has the raw material for something the New York Times might call “an important work..”
But from there it’s sort of downhill. For one thing it’s all very social science-y (and I’m writing as someone whose graduate education is in anthropology), which is to say dry, over-written, and too case-specific to really be interesting or all widely applicable. For example, the scintillatingly entitled “Maintaining Independence: The Moral Ambiguities of Personal Relations Among Ghanian Development Workers” (Chapter 3), sadly, leaves the reader with no real insights that can be applied to, say, supervising Argentinean development workers in, say, Mongolia.
The less case-specific chapters have the look and feel of well-researched, scholarly critique, but on closer inspection give us very little that hasn’t been covered ad nauseum elsewhere. Aid work bears some very uncomfortable resemblances to the colonialism of yesteryear. Some development workers are ethnocentric, and some are even racist. Priorities within the humanitarian sector are sometimes muddled. The non-profit world and the for-profit world have some fundamental differences. All in all, nothing very earth-shattering.
The notion of “Aidland” as a (conceptual) place, inhabited by the “tribe” of development workers is somewhat interesting. We are in many ways like a tribe (tattoos, clan endogamy, and all…). Fair enough. And the anthropologist in me enjoys the mental imagery that goes along with this.
But perhaps the very best part of this book is, ironically, a nagging feeling, from the very first word through to the very last, that the authors don’t really “get” us (or at least me). And for once we (or at least I) get a small taste of what it is like to be studied and analyzed and written about by a bunch of outsiders who don’t really get where we’re coming from. Sobering.
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