Monday, June 23, 2014

Most development work is office work

This post originally appeared on the STAND website here

I have just moved back to Ireland after spending the past two and a half years in Africa. Before my return I lived and worked in Chad for 11 months for an international humanitarian agency. Being back in Ireland has given me the chance to reflect on my time overseas, and in doing so, I've been trying to capture what I have learned.

Lesson 1) Most development work is office work
The majority of my work was with organisations that focused on humanitarian and relief efforts but the premise still holds, most aid work is office work.  I was not distributing food at a refugee camp, nor helping to dig boreholes or interview beneficiaries. I wrote reports. I drafted funding proposals for donors. I sent email updates to our organisation’s Headquarters. I reviewed large excel spreadsheets of project budgets, checking for formula miscalculations.I did all of this in an office which did not look dissimilar to one you would find in any other city in the world. I worked on a laptop, drank copious amounts of tea, chatted with colleagues, occasionally found myself spending too much time on Skype or Facebook. The only differences sometimes seemed to be the outside air temperatures and the numbers of insects and lizards who also shared my office space.Related to this, there were times when it became easy to forget the end goal of the work I was doing. When there’s a tight deadline on a funding proposal to be met, it is easy for the focus to be placed on finishing a document, rather than on the impact the project you are seeking funding for, might have. Numbers of beneficiaries sometimes became abstract, rather than real human beings, and I fought to remember the greater purpose of the work, and where I fit into it.

Lesson 2) The best skills you can offer might be ones you take for granted
The longer I work in this particular field, the more I release that the greatest skill that I have to offer is the ability to write. I can write funding proposals, reports, briefing notes, case studies clearly and concisely in English. I am able to take information that given to me by colleagues from other departments, often dense technical language on nutrition, health, water and sanitation issues, and turn it into an article for our website, or a briefing note for the Country Director, quicker than most. This is because I am not a medical doctor, I’m not a water and sanitation engineer, I am not a Women’s Empowerment Specialist.Upon completing most undergraduate degrees (though a warning here, a Masters degree is almost a prerequisite for any job in the aid industry) you will be able to analyse, critique and present information in a clear and structured way.  If you can do this, you can probably do my job.

Lesson 3) Living in Chad was hard, in ways I didn’t expect
In Chad, the organisation I worked for took a number of security precautions. As an international staff member I lived in the organisation’s ‘guesthouse’ and I was only allowed to travel around the city with a car and driver provided by my organisation. This may sound like an incredible luxury, and it was, in many respects. But some of my most frustrating moments in Chad were those waiting around for a driver to become available to pick me up to take me to dinner, or to a friend’s house (as long as they were within the specified ‘green zones’ of the city of course!). Not being able to move of my own accord and being essentially housebound without access to transport was really challenging. One of the things I am enjoying most about being home is being able to take buses, taxis and even drive my own car, when and to where I like. One of the toughest things about life in Chad, for me, was not the heat, the language barriers, the insecurity; it was the claustrophobia.But even though it’s mostly office work, I couldn’t see myself doing anything else. While I’m now based in Ireland, one step further removed from the ultimate beneficiaries of the projects I write proposals and reports  on, I still love what I do.  I enjoy my job, I believe in the work of the organisation that employs me because I know that some people are helped as a result of the projects that we help to implement. ‘Bad aid’, impractical and ill-suited development programmes get a lot of coverage, but good aid – aid that is properly planned and well executed  – does exist and it is making a difference. And it’s that thought that gets me through another day of spreadsheet reviews.


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