Standing by

Those of you who follow me on Twitter know that I was deeply upset by the injury and death of Xiao Yueyue, a two-year-old in Guangzhou, China. She was hit by a truck, which drove away, and lay in the street bleeding for seven minutes. Nineteen people walked by her without stopping for help until a street sweeper moved her out of the road and alerted her panicked mother.

I was stunned and horrified that anyone could walk right by a bleeding toddler lying in the road. A tiny child, in pain, alone and still in danger, and no one helps her. How does this happen? I understood the callousness that develops toward adults, but to a dying child? It leaves me speechless and teary.

My attempt to understand how this happens included reading about Chinese law, Chinese culture, and the bystander effect. There’s not much I can do about other people, but I can try to prevent myself from becoming the kind of person who walks past a bleeding toddler.

I finally made a Twitter plea for help on how to avoid becoming a bystander, and it led to a wise response from a friend of mine. She pointed out that we walk past other people’s pain every day as expats and as people living in a brutal world. There is more human suffering out there than acute bodily trauma and we make a daily decision to ignore it.

I am already the kind of person who can ignore a toddler in pain, as long as she’s not in my line of sight.

We’re all bystanders. The bystander effect is the story of our age, from climate change to famine in the Horn of Africa. We let terrible things happen because everyone else lets them happen too, and because we feel helpless to stop them. I don’t like it. I don’t know how to stop it. I don’t know what to do.



Stuff Translators Hate

I’ve spent the last two weeks as part of a multinational health sector assessment effort, and we’ve worked through interpreters the whole time. I’ve obviously worked with translators before, but never every day all day for two weeks.  It’s really crystallized my own ground rules for how to work effectively with interpreters. This is what I’ve got:

  1. Jokes almost never succeed when translated. They’re just too cultural and based on language and tone nuance. It’s easiest to avoid them.
  2. If you want to connect with people personally across language, and you can’t use humor, talk about common human experiences. Kids are great if you all have them. I’ve got pictures of kids on my phone and they’re a great icebreaker. I’ve seen other people successfully transcend language and culture barriers by talking about a dislike of mushrooms, fear of snakes and bugs, mocking people who are drunk, alluding to sex, and comparing government officials to babies. I wouldn’t myself be brave enough for an off-color reference, but it worked from the woman who made it.
  3. Take the colloquialism out of your language and use short phrases. It feels awkward at first, but if you can code-switch between talking to your mom, talking to your friends, and talking to your boss’s boss, you can develop an easy way of speaking through a translator. So, break up your thoughts into Twitter-size pieces and be a little more formal.

Some colloquialisms to avoid (that I have heard lately from people who should know better):

  • Big ticket
  • Hard vs Soft (in terms of estimates or rules)
  • Peanuts (to mean small amounts)
  • Small time
  • Take a swing at
  • Out of left field
  • Take a shot at
  • Take a whack at
  • Shot in the dark
  • Rolling in money
  • Drop, fall (to mean decrease)
  • Go off the reservation (also don’t say that because it’s racist)
  • On track


(photo credit: dweekly)

The Field

man in a corn field

Recently, the IPA blog and the Ghana Diary blog brought up an interesting discussion about the term “in the field.” They questioned its appropriateness. The core of the argument was that the phrase creates a sense of otherness. Specifically, if you’re a local partner in a development project, how do you feel when your own home is referred to as “the field”? What does that say about the true nature of your partnership?

I think I agree with Noompa at Ghana Diary. It’s hard to disagree with the scenario that he lays out: it is alienating in the word’s truest sense to hear your own territory referred to as the intimidating unknown.

It has always seemed silly to me when people refer to my own “field experience.” I’ve spent eight out of the last ten years of my life living in Central Asian capitals. I’ve spent more of my adult life in Tashkent than any other city. And let me stress that I have been living in capitals. I’ve been in houses and apartments, often nicer than anything I lived in as a grad student. I’ve had heat, hot water, and even air conditioning on a mostly-regular basis. DC felt a whole lot more like roughing it than Central Asia ever has.

Calling time in the developing world “field time” implies two things to me: that it is temporary, and that it is difficult. Both of those are often false.

But  is “the field” a problematic term that serves a useful purpose? Are there other, better ways to convey the idea? I think there are. I suspect it’s one of those catch-all terms that serves less purpose than we think.

I mentioned a while ago that I no longer use the word “beneficiaries” unless I am contractually obligated to do it. It has been a hard transition, as a writer. There’s no real synonym for beneficiaries.  Instead, every time I am writing, I have to stop and think about who the person or group I am referring to really is. Someone who has benefited from an intervention? Partner NGO? A physician we trained? It takes time, but I think the thought and effort has made me better at what I do.

Dumping the term “field” might work the same way. Julian Jamison’s field research in North Gulu has nothing to do with my cushy life in Dushanbe or Ashagabat. Lumping the two things together is intellectually lazy. Doing the work to think of better vocabulary wouldn’t hurt.

So, for me, it comes down to this question: is there a non-lazy use for the term “in the field”? If so, what is it?


(photo credit: Diva Eva)

Chosen because it’s a field, and it’s in upstate New York, where I grew up.

A story about donated shoes

brown high heel boots
There is a woman who works for a friend of mine. I’ll call her Gulia since half the women in this country go by Gulia, so it’s safely anonymous. Every winter, all winter long, Gulia wears the same pair of battered brown ankle boots. They are too small for her, and they have no insulation. We know this because Gulia complains about her boots every day, all winter long. Her feet get cold, and her toes hurt.

My friend is a good person and a caring employer. She pays Gulia well enough that she could buy herself a pair of boots, but Gulia never does. She also gives Gulia boots.

She has given Gulia knee-high black boots to go with a dress. She has given her insulated fuzzy boots to fight the cold. She has given her cheery yellow rain boots to splash through the puddles that cover the roads here. Gulia does not wear these boots. When my friend asks about these boots, Gulia thanks her warmly for her generosity and insists that she wears the boots all the time, just not to work. We are quite sure that Gulia is lying about this.

Now, Gulia likes me. She is supporting her parents on her salary, and she likes that I am doing the same for my parents. She is ethnically Uzbek, and I speak Uzbek, so we can chat in her mother tongue. We get along. My friend asked me to try and find out what exactly was going on with the boots.

So, the other day I asked. And Gulia actually told me what was going on with the boots.

The answer? She’s short, and she’s a mom. Because she’s a mom, when she has cash she can spare, she doesn’t spend it on boots for herself. She spends it on her kids. Because she’s short, she only wears shoes with heels. And since my friend has been trying to give her practical, durable boots, she’s been buying flats. The ankle boots may hurt, but they have heels. Gulia can’t face life without the extra two inches. She’d rather have pinched toes and cold feet.

My friend’s gift boots are sitting at home in Gulia’s closet, waiting for Gulia to get so old she can’t wear heels any more, except for the fuzzy pair, which her mother now wears in cold weather.

The moral? There are several, I think. 1) Gulia wants other things, like school supplies for her kids, more than she wants new boots, so maybe we should stop giving her boots. 2) People want what they want, whether or not it makes sense to me. 3) And donated shoes need to actually meet people’s needs, as people themselves see them.

(This story is mostly true. I have changed some elements to make it totally anonymous.)

(photo credit: KayVee.Inc)
Chosen because I suspect those are Gulia’s dream boots.

Not everyone is a sociologist (July 2008)

Teddy Roosevelt in a pith helmet

Note: August is looking like a crazy and stressful month for me, with no time to blog here. To make sure no one gets bored and abandons me, I am going to re-run some of my favorite posts from the past.

You can’t just choose any random person to be your cultural guide. It makes me completely crazy when people say “My Luisitanian colleague says our poster and brochures are fine” and then assume their messages are acceptable in Luisitania. One person cannot vouch for everyone in the country.

Most countries are multicultural, including different ethnic and linguistic groups. Not to mention differences between rich and poor, and city and country. It’s not easy to know the tastes and opinions of an entire nation. There’s also a training issue. Your average engineer or doctor from the capital city isn’t in the habit of thinking about the attitudes and mores of everyone around him. An accountant is not an anthropologist.

Most of us can only speak for a limited number of people like ourselves; coming from a developing country doesn’t give you any magic ability to speak for everyone who holds the same passport.

ETA: One great example. The Indian Vogue fashion spread discussed here was designed and shot by Indians.

Photo credit: sakraft1
Chosen because to me, pith helmets reflect everything that is culturally clueless. For all I know, teddy Roosevelt was a very culturally sensitive man…

What we can learn from missionaries

missionary kids

I’m going to start with #9, because a lot of you asked about it. And I don’t want people thinking I was suggesting we convert people to, well, anything. No pith helmets, bibles, Korans, or books of Mormon here. Development has nothing – nothing – to do with salvation.

But missionaries do have a model we can learn from, at least the ones that I have met. They come into a country with a long-term commitment. They don’t just want immediate results; they want souls. Missionaries bring their families and children with them, and those children go to local schools. They live in houses that are nice by local standards, but not in the expat palaces your average foreigner inhabits. They bring their stuff with them in suitcases, not container ships.

Missionaries don’t try to do any soul-saving at first, spending a minimum of six months learning local language and culture. Mormons are renowned for their language skills. And once they have learned it, they stick around, spending years or even decades in country. They devote themselves to work in one particular place.

Compare that to your average expatriate working in development, for a donor or implementing a project. The expat lives in a little bubble of fake-home, cushioned by consumable shipments, huge shipping allowances, and hardship pay. With air conditioning and heating to ensure they’re even in a different climate. And they stay in one place for approximately 35 seconds.

Good people don’t have time to get great, and average people don’t even have time to get good. Complicated programs suffer as a result, and funding is biased toward things that are easy to implement and understand. No one has time to learn local context.

Donor governments rarely have people in place for longer than five years. In some cases, it’s not even allowed. Implementers are the same way. Three to five years, on average. The incentives are to keep moving from place to place. If you get a job in, say, Hanoi, while you’re already living in Hanoi, do you get housing and shipping and expat allowances? No. You get brought on as a local hire, and whatever salary they think you’ll settle for. If you want the big package, you apply for a job somewhere else.

And the ambitious, hard-working people who are good at running programs are usually chasing that big package. Think of the one guy you know who’s been in country for ten years, taking jobs with different projects as he can find them. Is he full of useful his skills and local knowledge? No, mostly he’s just a loser. Usually he doesn’t even have language skills to show for his decade of residence. If you set things up so that the ambitious people need to hop, then they will hop. The only ones who stay in place will be the people without the ability to move on. That doesn’t support good program management.

It’s even more painful with the donor types. At least program staff are bound by the specific terms of their grant or contract. An incompetent or philosophically opposed country director can only do so much damage. Every two or three years, someone brand new comes in, with the authority to radically alter all current programs. There’s a six month learning curve while they sort out their job and get some clue about the country. Then a nice two years, at best, of reasonably competent donor oversight, and then they’re emotionally checked out and focused on the next posting.

I’ve seen USAID country directors come in and kill programs that they thought weren’t working. And they were, but they were also hard to understand. Too hard to figure out in a couple weeks of reading reports.

Host country donor staff make a major difference in institutional competence, but it’s a rare donor who lets national staff run their programs. The fear is corruption, mostly, but there is also a capacity problem. The people with the education and skills to really run a donor program aren’t working for USAID, World Bank, or CIDA salaries.

Two years of reasonably competent donor oversight is a depressing best case scenario. When you have a really good donor representative, they are like an extra brain for your efforts. They can help you dodge problems, adapt quickly to challenges, and negotiate different government relationships. It’s a synergy that can make all the difference.

And it pretty much never happens. More often than not, your funder’s representative doesn’t speak the local language and doesn’t even know the nation’s major cities before they land. No matter how smart or committed you are, you don’t have time in a few years to get up to speed enough to be really useful. One of the very few things we know about what works in development is that your interventions need to be precisely targeted to the local context. We can’t do that if nobody knows enough about the local context to make that happen. And how do you take a long view on development when no one stays for enough time to think that way?

So that’s what we can learn from missionaries. Stick around until you know what you’re doing. Project managers, and donor representatives, should have regional knowledge and language skills. They should be deeply steeped in local culture. We need incentives to get good people to stay in one place and become experts at it. Well, first we need it to be permitted. Then we need incentives.

If we’re uncomfortable keeping country directors around for the long haul because of corruption concerns, then we could keep other people in country instead. Technical people, for example. You could have some just-rotated-in manager making the final decisions, guided by a team who’s been working in this context long enough to know what works. You also need host country nationals in as many positions of authority as possible. Get past those corruption fears with good financial controls, ethics training, and employee mentoring. (Yes, it’s an incomplete solution, but so is rotating people constantly to keep them from getting attached.)

Photo credit: bp6316
Chosen because they look exactly like the missionary kids I see in Tajikistan.

Making Mistakes

overturned SUV
overturned SUV

(photo credit: Kim Scarborough)


1. In Tajikistan, where I currently live, and in Central Asia in general, married women wear scarves on their heads. So do unmarried women older than about 25. It’s not a religious thing at all. It’s just what women do. Visitors often come to Tajikistan for a week and leave thinking that it’s a deeply religious country because of all the women wearing hijab. If you either a) asked someone or b) knew enough about Islam to know what a hijab has to cover, you wouldn’t make that mistake. But people don’t know, and they don’t ask. They walk around, they make assumptions, they go home and share their misinformation.

2. In order to graduate from my alma mater, Georgetown’s School of Foreign Service, you have to be proficient in a foreign language. My roommate and I both chose French. In the weeks leading up to our proficiency exams, we spoke French to each other at all times to practice. Once, I heard someone comment as we walked by, “That’s why I love Georgetown – the constant exposure to other cultures.”

That’s my convoluted way of saying we get things wrong all the time. Sometimes our science is bad, sometimes we haven’t bridged the culture gap as securely as we’d like, sometimes we’ve made so many compromises that we ended up somewhere we don’t belong. Some of that we can prevent. Both of my examples above could be prevented through spending more time and doing more research.

We can’t prevent all of it. As long as our programs are designed and run by human beings rather than infallible robots, mistakes will happen.

We do, however, need a resilient system to catch our mistakes and a corporate culture that lets us make changes when we realize we’ve screwed up. We can catch our mistakes through monitoring and evaluation. That means not just collecting data, but looking at it, thinking about what it means, and using that meaning to guide program decisions. And we can keep our errors to a minimum by cultivating an atmosphere where people are encouraged to admit their mistakes. If you maternal and child health director realizes that the patient education classes aren’t doing anything, she needs to be free to re-design the curriculum or cancel the activity and spend the money on childbirth kits.