Your money does not make you special

As long as I’m ranting, I’ll tell you about the other kind of expat that bugs me. People who think their money makes them special. An American living in Turkmenistan once told me that she loved living there because it was like being a rock star. You know, I understand enjoying the ability to hire someone to clean your house and iron your clothes. (I haven’t bought a single piece of all-cotton clothing since I moved back to the US; that’s how much I hate ironing.) It’s very nice to be able to afford to live a comfortable life.

To actually revel in the inequality, though, makes me ill. Having more money than an Egyptian doesn’t make you smarter, more skilled, or more knowledgeable than he is. It makes you born in the developed world; you won a geographic lottery. That’s it. Feeling superior on that account is just pathetic.

Photo Credit: Tracy O

Suffering does not make you special

Some people – disaster response personnel and Peace Corps volunteers in particular – come home to the US and can’t re-adjust. Fat, sedentary Americans and their trivial concerns strike them as ridiculous. Those people bug me. They bug me a lot. They stand around airports looking superior and worldly and they can’t buy a damn sandwich without talking about the decadence of choosing between so many kinds of meat.

I understand how you can get that way. The contrast in lifestyle between the US and the developing world is heartbreaking and stunning. No thinking person can live through that contrast and emerge unscathed. It leaves a mark on you, and it should.

The thing is, though – pudgy happy Americans, drunken Brits, and overfed Germans are living the life that everyone on this planet wants. Those Darfurian refugees who shattered your heart would give both arms for the chance at a place to live, a gas-hogging car, and as much McDonalds as they can eat. The actual purpose of development work is to help the whole world reach a point where they can live in blissful ignorance of poverty.

There is nothing noble about suffering. People don’t do it on purpose, and a difficult life does not automatically make you stronger, wiser, or morally superior. Mostly, it makes you hungry and miserable. And having met and cared about people who do suffer does not require you to despise those who don’t.

Photo Credit: Amapolas

Things I don’t believe in #6 – All powerful expatriate leadership

This is the first thing – expats don’t stay forever. In two or three or four years, the expat will leave. If your whole program depends on her, or the staff believes that it does, things will go to pieces when she leaves. This is the second thing – it’s disempowering. You don’t want your staff, or your stakeholders, to believe change only comes from outsiders. You want people to find their own power and their own capacity to influence their lives and communities. You don’t want them to sit around waiting and starving for the Dutch to come back and rebuild the irrigation canals.

This is the third thing. You want your staff invested in the process. You want everyone involved to know your select your pilot schools because they meet the qualifications for your program. You don’t want them thinking the schools were selected because Mr. Thomas feels really bad for the villages, or worse yet, because he thought the teachers were pretty. You want people to know you’ve got a system and your apply it fairly.

This is the fourth thing. Country Directors who allow themselves to be seen as having and exerting that kind of power end up isolated. Staff members won’t be comfortable being part of a collaborative decision-making process. They won’t offer opinions on how to make things better, and they won’t go to the CD if they identify a problem.

Good programs come from good teams, not from little gods and their adoring worshippers.

Sunday night blog round-up

The Thirsty Palmetto is pondering why she chose the life she did. A very candid look at what motivates aid workers – beyond idealism.

There is a whole bunch of fascinating new content up at Tworque. I particularly liked the post on TechShop.

Kevin has a bitter point about what’s happening to the developing world’s money.

And Chris Blattman is thinking about Peace Corps. (Aside: note the many lame and self-aggrandizing comments on the blog post.)

Answering my first reader question

I’ve got my first question to answer (and it’s not what I would have expected):

Q: I am moving to [redacted] in about a month, to work as a coordinator for a large NGO on a refugee project. It’s a one-year contract. This is my first field posting, and I really have no idea what to pack. I have no shipping allowance, just what I can carry in my checked luggage. I know what to do about clothing and toiletries and whatever. My question is – what about books? How many books should I pack? I don’t want run out of stuff to read but I do need some space for clothes.

A: Bring about a week’s worth of books, whatever that is for you. Chose things you can re-read, but you won’t mind giving away. You’re going to a major city. You’ll be able to get internet access, and probably satellite TV. You won’t die of boredom if you run out of books, and sharing and discussing English language books is a great way to make friends with other expats. (And if you want to stay sane in a new culture, you’ll need a couple expat friends.)

The Thirsty Palmetto

A moving blog entry about life for returning refugees in South Sudan. The Thirsty Palmetto is a new blog, but the entries which have been written really pack a punch. It’s a perfect slice-of-life, of an aid worker in South Sudan. If you’ve ever wondered what the work is like, or how it feels, follow this blog.