Who is an expert?

October 23, 2019

     By Maria Faciolince     

In this meta-reflection for Power Shifts, Farida Bena urges us to rethink what expertise means within the development and aid sector, and to address the organizational and structural barriers that hinder the transformation of this concept into a more justice-oriented one. Farida is the Director of Policy and Advocacy at the International Rescue Committee in Geneva. She has worked on development and aid programming and policy, and climate change advocacy in over fifteen countries.

“It’s time to give a platform to the local staff, the policy advisors, and the Southern thinkers and doers that have expertise to share, but who often go ignored in global policy discussions.”

Having worked on global development issues for over two decades, I should know who is an expert in my sector by now. I have many lists of experts on file and can’t help noticing a recurring trend: it’s usually people from a Northern/Western background, with endless degrees and credentials, most of them English-speaking. All of which begs the question: are these traits supposed to be the qualifications of the ultimate expert in my field? What if there’s a whole world of ‘expertise’ that we simply don’t consider?

These reflections brought me to start a personal blog, ‘Kiliza – Listening to Southern Citizens’, four years ago. After reading Time to Listen by Mary Anderson, Dayna Brown and Isabella Jean, I was more committed to help share the views and voices of people directly affected by humanitarian crises, poverty and climate change in the global South. By focusing on featuring Southern voices on the blog, I have learned that power, language and lack of time play a major role in defining who is an expert.

Learning along the way

My initial approach was to dig out surveys and summarize research findings on what ‘affected populations’ thought of the aid they received. After a while, though, this started feeling a bit stale. As interesting as it was to read about perception studies, the researcher always had the last word on what people were saying. Apart from a few anecdotal quotes, these people’s views were considered valid only in large numbers. Obviously, a survey is by nature a collective effort that needs to follow a rigorous research methodology. But the standard approach to ‘tapping into’ unheard voices was still, by and large, top-down. The questions were still predetermined mostly by researchers and policy-makers from the global North.

Therefore, I began looking for individual stories of people affected by different crises. I wanted to learn not just from their personal experience, but also from the wisdom they had gained through direct exposure to crisis. And, in addition to learning, I wanted these unheard voices to gain the respect and validity they so deserve.

I have now moved away from surveys towards interviewing one person at a time, whether it is a refugee from Pakistan, a young entrepreneur from Uganda or a former colleague from Morocco. It’s time to give a platform to the local staff, the policy advisors, and the Southern thinkers and doers that have expertise to share, but who often go ignored in global policy discussions. Increasingly, I am questioning the interview format itself. I’d like to get to a point where my role is not to ask the questions or guide the conversation – a more just world is also one in which we can simply have a dialogue between peers.

Three challenges ahead

There are a few hurdles to overcome, though, before we get to that fuller concept of expertise. Here are the top three I have been able to identify:

1. We need to address the unequal power dynamics created by the dominance of the English language. We may acknowledge it, yet we never really challenge it, hoping Google Translate or simultaneous interpretation will compensate for the imbalance. ‘It feels intimidating to speak in a room full of Anglophone speakers’, said Sema Genel Karaosmanoğlu, despite her impressive experience as Executive Director of Turkish NGO Support to Life and Board Chair of the global network of local and national civil society organizations NEAR. If she is intimidated, imagine what the representative of a grassroots organization must feel like trying to participate in global discussions. At least once in my professional life, I would like to attend a global (not regional) policy discussion that is entirely held in a language other than English. Has anyone ever tried that in global policy hubs like Geneva, New York or even Paris?

2. We need to massively reduce the use of jargon. Jargon adds another layer of discrimination that we, as humanitarian and development community, often recognize but allow nonetheless to flourish in our daily conversations. I understand how jargon can be a convenient shortcut to express complex ideas, especially if you are short on time and want to address a familiar audience. But we also need to have a shared understanding of what we are talking about instead of assuming everybody knows, sometimes for years.

“Instead of helping, jargon ends up being a smokescreen for ambiguity and exclusion.”

Take, for example, the concept of the ‘humanitarian-development nexus’. We assume that everyone knows what it is but when you go deeper, you get all kinds of interpretations. Is the nexus supposed to be the transition from humanitarian aid to development? What if a natural disaster disrupts this transition? And what exactly is the ‘triple nexus’ once you add peace to the mix? Instead of helping, jargon ends up being a smokescreen for ambiguity and exclusion. Unless we make a conscious effort to express the complexity of aid or development policy discussions in everyday language, we come across as being out of touch with reality. At best, we are unable to communicate our messages effectively. At worst, we fuel the skepticism of the broader public, as shown by the widespread rise of the anti-expert sentiment in recent years.

3. Another important barrier we need to overcome is lack of time. Time to Listen rightly pointed out how often in the aid sector we skip the fundamental step of reaching out to the populations we support and hear their views on how we are doing. Too often, the standard reply is that we don’t have the time. Well, if time is money, what we really lack is budgeted time to listen. It is still next to impossible to find a donor that is willing to pay for us to just sit down with affected populations and listen and learn about how they are coping with a crisis and what solutions they have already identified which we can support. If you are a consultant, as I have been, it is even more challenging to convince your commissioning manager that yes, you do need more than two days to understand what people think of the aid they receive and why.

In fact, having the time to listen is only part of the equation. We also need time to think – whether it is through writing, studying or teaching – to make sense of what we have learned in our own specific context. It is one thing to read the findings from a perception study on education in South-East Asia; quite another to rethink your education program based on the article’s recommendations. A third step is having the time to explore, that is, testing alternative, bottom-up approaches alongside the traditional way of doing things in your organization. This means accepting that new approaches might fail several times before they start working.

Walking the talk

All these additional steps – having the time to listen, to think and to explore – require budgeting. Is there a donor out there, public or private, that is willing to fund these intangible, but ultimately more effective, efforts on a regular basis? If not, let’s discuss why. I am ready to bet that donors find it hard to ‘sell’ these intangible efforts to their constituents (e.g. taxpayers), which takes us back to the importance of communicating what we do more effectively.  

Four years from now, I hope there will be many more blogs amplifying voices from the Global South. The most important lesson I have learned so far is to walk the talk and start doing things differently, even if it just means writing one post at a time in plain English – and in other languages too.

Featured image: Science Week at UNIKIS, Kisangani – DRC, 2019. Axel Fassio/CIFOR, CC BY.