Archive for the Development Category

Development and Aid: Amateurs, Volunteers, and Do-It-Yourself in Burma and Beyond

Posted in Development on August 8, 2011 by burmaperspective

I will pick up the Reflections on a Journey series soon, but I wanted to comment in response to a series of blog posts and articles that I’ve read recently.  They have a common theme, a rather old one, where aid workers basically tell people to leave aid and development to the professionals.  One of my favorite blogs, Good Intentions Are Not Enough, gave a rundown of articles relating to the debate between aid professionals and amateurs late last year.

Let me start by saying that I truly enjoy reading aid blogs.  I appreciate a healthy dose of snark, and many blogs by aid workers are filled with it.  I also respect the general view that “doing something” is a patently ridiculous notion.  As a lawyer, if someone who was unqualified told me they were giving legal advice to the poor because they wanted to do “something” to help, I’d be appalled.  I don’t see why it should be any different for aid or development work.  But somewhere between those who started in the Peace Corps and have spent their entire lives in the developing world and those who decide on working at an orphanage because Cancun is “so last year,” there is another group whose potential contributions often go unutilized.

There is “Expertise” and there is “Expertise”

In my experience, aid and development workers are so defensive and protective of their roles and have such disdain for “amateurs” that they deem insufficiently experienced, that they leave no room for dedicated and committed amateurs to become better educated.  I have come to believe that because many aid workers make such low salaries, they pay themselves in ego and arrogance.

This post made me literally laugh out loud.  Seriously?  In order to help a community to improve their lives,

[y]ou need to know (fluently) standards like Sphere, HAP, or those related to your area of technical expertise/interest”?

You need to understand R2P (don’t know what that is? Better Google it…) and why it matters.

You need to know industry best-practices related to humanitarian protection. You need to know the difference between OCHA and UNOPS and UNHCR.

That’s like saying that in order run a lemonade stand I need to have the same comprehension of my market as the people that run Coca-Cola.   While the person who knows nothing about supply and demand or marketing will see his lemonade stand fail pretty quickly, a little bit of training and study will allow him to be productive on a small scale.

I graduated from an Ivy League university and a top 5 law school.  I spent 6 years as a corporate lawyer, surround by similarly educated people doing what most would consider to be highly sophisticated legal work.  Yet, if you gave me an interested, smart, and dedicated person, I could have taught them to be a valuable member of my team in a month.  Could they be in charge of a deal or lead strategy sessions with our client?  Of course not.  But, if they were willing to work for free, I would see a return on my training investment pretty darn quickly while giving that person a good education in my work.   But that same person volunteering in development work?  Too complicated for mere amateurs.

No room for informed and committed “amateurs”

The poverty tourist who wants to take 2 weeks to work at an orphanage so they can circulate pictures of the poor kids they helped at their next cocktail party is pretty much a lost cause.  But for those people who are genuinely interested and are willing to put forth the time and effort?  What exactly are their options?  I volunteered as an English teacher because that was the only opportunity I could find to put my skills to use in Burma.  While doing that work, I met people across a range of qualifications, from Masters in Asian Studies to scientists and everything in between.  All of us English teachers because no one else could see any value in our skills.  The irony of it, of course, is that many of us were not particularly qualified to be English teachers.  Though I believe I brought value to my students in a variety of ways, I gladly would have swapped places with a qualified English teacher if I could have found a more appropriate use of my skills.  The shame of it is that many of the committed and skilled volunteers I met are now back at home working in offices because they couldn’t find a way to be useful and they became disillusioned with the entire notion of doing development work.  I wish those people had started doing it themselves.

Recruiting good people is hard work.  Trust me, I know.  Its what I do for a living now.  I love reading posts like this one, talking about how hard it is to find successful volunteers.  Well, of course it is.  Think about how difficult it is to find good people when you pay them.  Why would anyone think it would be easier when they work for free.   Especially since in this case, the organization in question seemed to just be taking in random people who emailed, rather than separating out the committed, informed, and dedicated ones from the rest.  The committed volunteers of today are the professional staff or donors or fundraisers of tomorrow.  Finding them is worth the effort.  And believe it or not, people with real world experience in other fields can actually be more valuable than college interns.

One reason why you get DIYers is because established organizations won’t give “amateurs” the chance to learn the ropes, even on a volunteer basis.  They put their skills to work in the best way they know how.  They become entrepreneurial – a trait, by the way which is celebrated in all areas of the economy except in aid and development.  Why don’t they just write a check?  Everyone has their own reasons, you only have to look at the Three Cups of Tea situation or any number of mismanagement stories that have come out of established charities to guess what some of those reasons are.   Moreover, during my own travels in and around Burma, local civil society organizations and activists were decidedly mixed on their view of iNGOs.  While by no means dispositive, hearing this did not make me run to grab my checkbook.

I guess my ultimate point is this – if aid/development workers want to knock someone for showing up and doing “aid” work without knowing anything at all just so they can feel good about themselves, go for it.  I’ll be right there with you. But, while they’re at it, they should ask themselves what they have


Update From Yangon

Posted in Civil Society, Development on February 23, 2011 by burmaperspective

It is remarkable to me how much has changed in the year-and-a-half since I first visited Burma. As I mentioned in the previous post, the introduction of visa on arrival started an influx of tourism that was further compounded by the elections and the release of Aung San Suu Kyi. The result has been a sea of foreign faces in places where I have never seen them before.

Small things are more expensive but big things are getting cheaper.* The exchange rate has taken a nose dive, dropping 15% since I started coming to Burma. Hotel prices are increasing. The price of a single air-conditioned room in my hotel has risen 60%. Cheaper rooms have had an even more dramatic increase. The price of a glass of beer, always a good judge of an economy, has risen about 20%. On the other hand, the price of a permanent cell phone number has dropped from $1000+ to $500 and is continuing to fall. Car prices are also dropping, though still are not in the realm of affordability for the ordinary Burmese. A used Toyota was around $30,000 on my first visit and I am told the price is now closer to $15,000. Locals expect the price to fall in half again in the coming year. Continue reading

Wikileaks Rangoon Cables Part I – Retribution vs. Development

Posted in Development, Human Rights, Sanctions on December 24, 2010 by burmaperspective

A few cables relating to Burma have been released in the newest batch of Wikileaks*   One, in particular, was particularly interesting.  It was written in 2008 by Shari Villarosa, the outgoing chargé d’affaires of the US Embassy in Rangoon and is a summary of her thoughts on a range of issues.  I am going to address several of the points she raises in the next few posts.

In the cable, Ms. Villarosa suggests that the United States may want to provide security guarantees to senior ruling generals in return for them stepping down.  This concept dovetails with some of my argument regarding a Commission of Inquiry in this post.  A blanket security guarantee would go further, eliminating, rather than delaying the possibility of retribution for the large numbers of people who have been unjustly imprisoned, forcibly relocated, or killed by the regime. The notion of what to do with leaders who have committed gross human rights abuses has been widely debated and discussed by scholars and human rights practitioners.  The International Center for Transitional Justice (which disagrees with my position on a Commission of Inquiry) is one organization that exists solely to deal with this problem.  An interesting discussion on the issue can be found here.   In my mind, the ultimate question of whether retribution should be traded off in order to accomplish goals of democracy and development should be left to the Burmese people.  Of course, how we determine the views of the “Burmese people” is a more difficult question that I will deal with in a later post. Continue reading

Off My High Horse

Posted in Development, Education on December 11, 2010 by burmaperspective

Like many people, I have been outraged by stories of child labor in the world.  The first time I visited Asia, I was shocked by all the children working in the middle of the school day.  In Burma, my room was cleaned by 10 year-olds and the kids that served as waiters in the teashops weren’t much older.  At home, I often joined the chorus of outrage at stories about children working in factories and the all-around low pay for employees that made so many of the goods we use every day.     Similarly, I looked on in disgust at the middle aged and older white guys patronizing the sex industry all over Asia.  The solution seemed so obvious:  shut down those terrible factories and get rid of the brothels and sex bars.  Put pressure on businesses not to use children as employees. Continue reading