The Changing Nature of (my) ‘Field Trips’

January 24, 2023

     By Duncan Green     

Check out this 7m video of my recent trip to Papua New Guinea. It was commissioned by The Voice Inc, one of the partner organizations for the Building Community Engagement in Papua New Guinea (BCEP) programme I’m working with in PNG.

I have to say, I’ve never been the subject of anything so slick and well made, (my wife Cathy said she was so nauseated she had to stop watching 😉). But narcissism aside, it got me thinking about how my ‘field trips’ have evolved over the years.

I’m talking here about the visit to a developing country from someone from ‘head office’ in the North. Partly to support national staff, but also to educate the HQ person in the realities of politics and doing aid on the ground.

Even ten years ago, I used to insist on getting out of the bubble during a trip, ‘sitting under the tree’ and interacting with local communities etc. I used to ask my fellow aid wonks back in the UK (rather sanctimoniously) ‘when did you last talk to a poor person (excluding domestic workers and drivers)?’ and watch their faces fall.

Now, for personal, institutional and political reasons, I’ve pretty much stopped doing that. On a personal level, I seem to be always in a rush, and no longer have the stomach (or spine) for the 6 hour jolting ride out to visit a community. That tends to limit my conversations to the capital.

Institutionally, one of the changes in Oxfam is that I can’t just rock up and ask our country office to organize a trip for me. I have to be invited, and often those in charge understandably think there are better uses of their time and resources. Even if I do get invited, sending me off to sit under trees is not usually a high priority for them – they want me to interact with staff, academics, partners or government officials.

Finally, there’s the politics. I don’t think I’d thought very deeply about what was going on under those trees. Sure, I recognized there were power imbalances that skewed the conversation, but I believed the right combination of listening skills, curiosity, humour and self-deprecation could overcome them. I (white, privileged man, backed by aid $) could somehow have an open conversation with those farmers under the tree.

I no longer believe that – the power imbalances are just too deeply rooted. That search for authenticity now looks like a bit of a vanity project, to be honest. Probably better to ask local staff and researchers to interact with those communities and then ask them what they find out. They understand far more about what is going on, and are much more likely to establish a conversation based on trust than some random white bloke rocking up in a 4×4.

Early Oxfam field trip, Vietnam, 2005

Local ‘intermediaries’ can also act as a bridge, able to explain what is going on to me in ways that I can understand, and which go deeper than my ill-informed questions. They may well have personal experience of some of the issues we are working on – gender-based violence, abuses at the hands of the authorities etc.

So now my ‘field trip’ is usually an ‘office trip’. But still, I do miss those conversations, some of which provided key personal inspirational and lightbulb moments for How Change Happens (Tikamgarh, Chiquitania), while others just kept me motivated and inspired by the energy of grassroots struggles for change. There is no substitute for the impact of those first-hand conversations and I worry that without those big mindshift moments, I’ll just be stuck on repeat (I’m sure Cathy would agree…..).

I realize that I am speaking from the extreme end of the ‘fly in fly out’ v ‘long term resident’ spectrum here. Other internationals (whether from the North, or other countries in the South) live in-country for long periods, and acquire in-depth knowledge and relationships of trust. Apart from a couple of years in Latin America as a young man, I have always had to rely on short visits to a bewildering number of countries, seeking as good an immersion in each as I could manage.

Has this shift happened for other readers, or is it just me?

January 24, 2023
Duncan Green


  1. Dear Duncan, thanks for those observations. I find them comforting, because I do recognize quite a lot in them. I have been in ‘business’ for over 40 years now, and most of the time at least 3-4 years resident in one country. Since 2010, I live and work in Uganda in various places. But as a ‘long-term’ resident, I feel more and more the same as what you describe: let the interactions with the farmers in the field to my Ugandan colleagues and in my interaction with them, I try to get informed as best as possible. The barriers between a ‘mzungo’ (white man) and the farmers here are indeed too huge to make a conversation useful. I had a nice observation some months ago with a Ugandan colleague in the team who did not speak the local language in West Nile (Lugbara); as I saw him struggling with the same barriers to make some sense of the conversation he was having with the farmers. Here it was only about a language barrier (and not the many others a mzungo has), and already you saw the impact of it. Thanks.

  2. I recognize all of this. Maybe it is about the experience I have gathered, the higher fee rate as a consequence and my usefulness to those I visit (coaching office leadership and staff instead of “sitting under a tree”). But I miss the learning elements of the travel; learning from the engineers on the team, the geologists, the botanists, the local staff and the people living 6 hours drive from the nearest town. Great to read.

  3. A rather apt posting given that I’ve just had a go at the UK’s Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office (FCDO) over tiny St Helena in the South Atlantic. It must be the ultimate “Fly-in/Fly-out” destination although until its new airport opened, it used to be a much more leisurely [slow] cruise-in/out for the FCDO types who I am sorry to say have not followed your example of relying more on “local staff, intermediaries and researchers to interact with those communities and then ask them what they find out.”

    Apparently a team of three needed to visit from UK this past week to decide on next year’s financial allocation – only annual grants these days – gone are the days when we seemed to be moving to medium to long-term integrated revenue support and development budgets. The now much missed dearly departed DfID had even talked of such. Wishful thinking. Halcyon days.

    I agree some visits from “HQ” are helpful and if we are to encourage greater local ownership of Foreign Aid, that includes accountability not just for the money but the effectiveness of how it is spent. I would like to see random unannounced inspections to keep the local people in charge on their mettle. Plus of course those “HQ” people do need to pop out to keep abreast of realities, so as not to keep repeating “back in my days….” mantras. Memories fade and distort while things move on everywhere in the world, even in a lot of remote places. Do you know even our old Mango tree under the Sun has is being replaced by local halls with electricity and the cursed Powerpoint projector. It’s all in the name of progress, apparently.

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  4. Hi Duncan, great post. It touched a nerve (or a heartstring) with me – like others I have had a longish career in international development and have always done whatever I could to try to spend more time talking to ordinary people in aid recipient countries. I do still believe it is valuable. While I agree with your rationale that the white person rocking up in a 4×4 creates problems, and that there are power differences that are pretty much irresolvable, I think there is great value in the people sitting in capitals having some kind of understanding of the lived reality of the people they are trying to help. I have maybe taken this idea to extremes insofar as I took unpaid leave while living in Ethiopia and started work on a PhD which involved me learning Amharic and spending 2 years doing ethnographic research to understand the unintended consequences of a development project by a German NGO! (Incidentally I left the 4×4 in Addis and went around on foot/ local public transport…). I still greatly benefited from intermediaries – two brilliant research assistants – in that but I think being there yourself gives you an understanding of the context and an idea of which questions to ask which is hard to replicate based on the reports of others.

  5. We should not really pretend that online / office work is “field work”. It is funny, how throughout my carrier I always warned that we could do more online. Now, after the post-Covid discovery of connectivity, I am deeply worried about how detached we are becoming from reality of the terrain. This post does not help. Your caricature of what a field trip is does not help. There are many people doing better than just popping in a 4×4. We should not pretend that the time spent under the trees reveals the complexity of a context. But the time around that, the exposure, the solidarity of being together cannot just be replaced. And we cannot live on Chinese whispers and chains of intermediaries. Maybe we should learn to be better, not as a chain but as an ensemble.

  6. Thanks for sharing your reflections on “getting out to the field for a few days.” I agree that we can learn considerably more from sitting with local staff, although they too may now have biased perspectives, depending on their personal background (urban v. rural, college educated v. barely literate parents, etc.).

    At a more fundamental level, your observation reflects one of the critical dilemmas around the localization movement: does going local mean donors/NGOs simply getting out to the field and organizing sessions under the proverbial tree before making their funding allocations, or does it require relying on institutionalized local actors, even if they are representative of a particular segment of the population? And, how do we draw the line between relying on “democratically elected local leaders” v. making decisions based on who we think have been excluded from effective participation in the democratic process?

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      Thanks Larry, good thoughts – power imbalances exist at all levels of course. Must make sure we don’t romanticise local actors, ‘the community’ etc (which we often do)

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    From Ken Shadlen: I wonder how much these perspectives and experiences vary according to the type of research we’re doing (e.g. ethnographic, interviews, survey enumeration and other forms of “data” collection). In a lot of my research, for example, heavily interview-based, I don’t feel power asymmetries, or to the extent I do they’re the other way around. I’m the weak one — the people I’m interviewing (or trying to interview) have information that I don’t have, reasons to be unclear or obfuscate, and scarce time to meet with me (and as researcher trying to achieve “saturation” I need to talk to lots of people). I also wonder about how this all plays out in urban vs rural settings, and whether you participate in the local languages or not. Lots of issues, very thought-provoking way to start the day.

  8. A very thought provoking piece. I agree that popping in for a quick chat can be problematic. In long term project implementation (for instance, in rural Nepal) we struggled with this as official visitors always needed somewhere to visit that was relatively close to the road, which of course slanted the type of interactions (a la Robert Chamber’s reflections). But personally I still feel it is worthwhile. As mentioned earlier, we all have our own biases, including the local staff (who are usually outsiders from the community, and perhaps different caste or sex). It is also the case that not all the community members have the same opinions, just as in our home countries, so a few conversations won’t have us reaching the ‘truth’, but at least we are exposed to some of the issues (not the least, the difficulties of travel by road or foot!). While it is important to recognise our own position, I think it is still very valuable to talk to people at grassroots level, and not only get the opinion of government staff. I touched on these issues in my PhD a couple of years ago.

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