Is ‘The Field’ an outdated and reactionary concept?

January 10, 2014

     By Duncan Green     

Advance warning – this blog is going dark for a couple of days to allow the cyberelves to give it a makeover. Back on Wednesday.

Ex Tales from the Hood blogger ‘J’ has an enjoyable tirade on the Why Dev blog against the use of the phrase ‘The Field’ in aidland – (as in ‘I’m going to

Exhibit A

Exhibit A

the Field’):

‘There are few fixtures of the aid industry which hold as much mystique and show as much staying power as the concept and romance of “the field.” No other grail is so fervently sought among the bright-eyed, hopeful students and newbies as the field. The field, they believe, is where the action is, where they’re actually doing it, whatever “it” is. The harder or more exotic the field location, the better. Cubicles and conferences room in, say DC, are a necessary evil to be put up with until such time as one can escape to the field. There is no aspect of a young aid professional’s experience so frequently inflated or over-stated on resumes or at happy hour as time in the field. “Nearly one year” is always better than ten and a half months, and so on.

By the same token, there is no other trump card played with more authority and self-assurance, whether to put upstart newbs in their places or to establish one’s own silverback status, as years in the field. Years in Kabul or Huambo or San Salvador make you a hardcore, front-line badass who makes things happen. Years in Brussels or Singapore or DC makes you a pansy cubicle-farmer who goes to a lot of meetings and writes papers that no one in the field will ever read.’

As you can probably guess, J doesn’t approve:

‘It’s time to recognize that this is just plain incorrect. Make fun, if you will, of what goes on in well-lit UN conference rooms in Geneva, or at the global HQs in Washington, DC, Oxford, New York or Singapore (I certainly have and sometimes still do). But it’s important to understand that those things are not just “support” or “fundraising.” They may not be particularly Facebook- or edgy memoir-worthy, but the workshops, meetings, strategy sessions in the humanitarian capitals are every bit as much aid work as are running cholera clinics in Port-au-Prince, getting a truckload of non-food items across the Acekele border crossing, or being the accountability officer in Goma.

More specifically, to see the field as the place where aid really happens, as compared to everywhere else, is to also miss a basic reality that the decisions which truly make the most difference are not made in this alleged place called the field.

helps to talk to some...Beyond the basic, structural realities of the aid industry, there is also a deeper, darker problem perpetuated by the field versus everywhere else thinking. Our continued fixation with the field crystalizes residual, essentially ethnocentric notions about those who need help, and about those who do the helping. No matter how much lip service and maybe even real effort we devote to valuing all things “local”, to local capacity building, or local empowerment, to trying to break down the divide(s) between expats and non-expats, we re-cement the divide between “us” and “them” every time we refer to the place where aid supposedly happens as the field.’

All good stuff, and I would even add that ‘The Field’ may contribute towards the aid business’ inability to think and work in urban settings, where most people now live.

But there are some powerful counterarguments against ditching the concept (no problem getting rid of the phrase, which I seldom hear around Oxfam, except in an ironic form):

Whether in developing or developed countries, it’s all too easy for people working in the aid business to inhabit a world of meetings, conferences, seminars and the rest. Sure lots of important stuff gets discussed and decided there, but the effect of never leaving the aidbiz bubble is, I think, significant and damaging. It affects the individual – I find if I go a few months without a ‘field trip’, I get stale, lose energy, start to recycle the same old messages. Visits to our programme to talk to staff, partners and communities invariably throw up new ideas, insights into power and politics, and inspiring people and initiatives. That’s why I (along with Robert Chambers) wish more aid organizations took immersion seriously.

But more importantly, it also affects the aid ‘project’. People in aidland may pay lip service to ‘the field’, but power all too often lies back in HQ. In the past, IMF and World Bank staff have been quite open with me that career progression requires them to be working back at HQ in Washington (has that changed at all? Hope so). I sometimes ask Oxfam colleagues ‘when was the last time you talked to a poor person who wasn’t serving you in some capacity?’ and get some pretty evasive responses. If the answer is years, rather than months, that must have some, probably negative, effect. Field trips are one small corrective, trying to ensure the thinking and priorities of those working in the aid business are guided by the lives and opinions of poor men and women – spending time with them definitely helps achieve that.

And tangentially related, here’s some good advice from Aid Leap on how to get a job in the aid sector (whether in a field, or somewhere more comfortable) [h/t Jamie Pett]

January 10, 2014
Duncan Green