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.
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?