How should development workers live?

Ravi Kanbur has written an interesting paper (pdf) about how he feels as someone who makes a good living from analysing and writing about poverty. Here is an extract, but it is worth reading the whole, thoughtful piece:

What is striking about the class of poverty professionals (of whom I am one) is that the good living (granted, not at the billionaire or millionaire level, but pretty good nevertheless) is made through the very process of analyzing, writing, recommending on poverty. To me, at least, this is discomforting and disconcerting. I feel slightly ashamed within myself when I turn up to a poverty conference (perhaps even one where I am the keynote speaker), having flown business class, staying in an expensive hotel and (sometimes) being paid handsomely for attending. I recall many years ago, when I was in my twenties, telling the anthropologist Mary Douglas about how I was starting to do consulting for the World Bank on poverty issues, and how important it was to do this work. “And it’s not too bad for one’s own poverty either, is it?” came her worldly, knowing, reply. The seeds of discomfort sown by that comment have germinated and taken root, and now won’t let go.

Ravi suggests that everyone working in development should reconnect with poverty through a poverty immersion:

each poverty professional should engage in an “exposure” to poverty (also known as “immersions”) every 12 to 18 months. I do not mean by this rural sector missions for aid agency officials, nor the running of training workshops by NGO staff. What I mean is well captured by Eyben (2004); these are exercises that “are designed for visitors to stay for a period of several days, living with their hosts as participants, as well as observers, in their daily lives. They are distinct from project monitoring or highly structured ‘red carpet’ trips when officials make brief visits to a village or an urban slum….”

A friend of mine from DFID did this recently and came back saying how valuable it was.  I am in favour of immersions, though I don’t think it gets close to addressing the problem that Ravi is grappling with.

This reminds me that in March 2008, the Conservative development spokesman (and, since yesterday, the UK Secretary of State for International Development) announced that all DFID staff would be required to undertake a week-long immersion living in a poorer community. Andrew Mitchell said:

These immersions will serve as a valuable ‘reality check’ from the usual round of meetings, paperwork and spreadsheets. It will help keep everyone at DfID focused on their core mission: serving and helping poor people to work their way, sustainably, out of poverty.

I hope that they will implement this proposal now that they are in Government, and I hope DFID’s new Ministers will consider doing an immersion themselves, perhaps during the summer recess.

(via Suvojit)

26 thoughts on “How should development workers live?”

  1. Great post as ever.

    I had a similar conversation with an aid worker just the other day – over steak and beer if I recall!

    There’s no easy answer and the idea of immersions strikes me as the thin end of the wedge on the way to disaster tourism. But I take comfort from Chris Blattman’s assertion last year the “the hot humanitarian workers fly coach”.

  2. As an anthropologist working in urban Burkina Faso I have often been unhappy seeing my acquaintances who worked for NGOs, Aid Agnecies etc on poverty related issues and thought they had it all figured out, as I felt they could not have a clue about it all from the air A/C villa, car, kids in expensive international school ( those school fees in some cases costing more than 20 times the amount of a yearly food budget of my host family consisting of 20 people). But simply roughing it for a year does not make this go away. I lived in a lower middle class Burkina compound for 18 months, have closely known some extremely poor families and individuals for over ten years, but understanding their view point is still hard. At the end of the day, when I had hepatitis and had to be repatriated, my insurance covered it and I was flown to safety and great medical care after a couple of phonecalls. Many people I met over the years died becuase of much less.
    A one week immersion is not enough for people to understand/experience these peoples lifeworlds.
    With the risk of sounding like I want to promote my own profession, I do believe poverty specialist and developement projects would benefit a lot from working with anthropologists who have the experience of immersion and close understanding of local circumstances. A more interdisciplinary approach would be better.
    Like a great orchestra, not everyone needs to play all the instruments, but each individual has to good, possibly the best, when it comes to playing their instrument.

  3. Peace Corps volunteers get two years of “poverty immersion” and though as a former volunteer I have a lot of issues with PeaceCorps, the experience of living with communities for a long period of time is invaluable (a week once a year is won’t cut it). All development workers should be required to do it.

  4. Great post. Even peace corps (who volunteer to spend up to two years “immersed”) often report that they and those who surround them remain acutely aware that their situation is completely different simply because it will end, and they will return to, in relative terms, a super-rich lifestyle. But “several days” is a good start, not least because the baseline is surely 0.

    THe moral dilemma of the wealth of development professionals, and the threat it poses to their ability to analyse poverty etc, is one set of issues. Another is the effect that wealth has on the countries in question – has anyone ever studied evidence on links between house prices and the size of the donor community in capital cities in the developing world? Rent prices? Food prices? Perhaps most importantly, wage rates in the private sector? Where do the top graduates from developing countries go to work (% in private vs. public sector), and how does this compare to developed countries? How do those working in the private sector in developing countries view the effects of donor communities on the job market?


  5. Agreed, a week’s immersion won’t cure the development practitioner community of their problems, but does have an indirect effect if done in scale.

    At the World Bank, we started a series of Village Immersion programs where, over the course of 18 month, we had staff from all levels spend a week living in villages across South Asia and each day representatives from civil society, local government, associations, would visit the village (and our trainee) and discuss development problems. You wouldn’t think it would amount to much, but the experience had an overwhelming effect on the participants (~80 after the first stage of the program). People started speaking first-hand about their experiences and were saying things like “that’s a good idea, but it wouldn’t have worked in the village I was in” and so on.

  6. Thanks to remind us of this dilemma. I experience it as a kind of schizophrenia. A double parallel life. When abroad and “relatively” near to the ground you have a sense of the reality poor people muddle through. Get a sense of how they try to get enough food for their family at the end of the week despite soaring cost of life. But when I come back to the developed world, I close that book and open up another one to talk about “real life” of my friends in Belgium and feel compassionate about traffic jams and soaring cost of life. Being to conscious about the other book makes me feel uncomfortable therefore, to protect my mind, I prefer to keep it as closed as possible but for the poorest in this world, in fact we shouldn’t.

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  8. I did two years in Peace Corps in one of the poorest countries in the world (Niger) and I feel like I gained invaluable perspective on life in the village and what it is to be poor. That said, at the time even my Peace Corps stipend meant I was paid like other government workers who were not considered to be poor. Moreover, my lack of money did not help any of the poor people around me. When I explained that I had given up a better paying job in comfortable circumstances to gain a new perspective in life, the Nigeriens generally thought I was crazy. They would have preferred someone who was richer and more generous.

  9. Certainly an interesting area for debate, Owen. You mention DFID and the suggestion of poverty immersions. My own view is that DFID (and other governments’ employees abroad) are civil servants first and ‘poverty professionals’ second. Their job is to spend money and guide programmes efficiently, yes, but then this could equally apply to those designing inner city welfare policy in DWP. Should they also go on immersion visits? It’s an open question, for me. More generally, and as some posters have already touched upon, if these are to become widespread we need some evidence, or at least plausible narratives, of how they might benefit aid design more than, say, funding an anthropological study of a particular group of people in a poor country. Otherwise there us the danger it will be (or appear to be) a way to seem knowledgeable and claim potentially spurious insight.

  10. I’m not sure I buy the argument.

    The immersions Kanbur mention should be an unwritten rule already because that’s how one does his or her job well. No one working to help a community or fight poverty is going to make huge strides without getting a good picture of the people they are working for. This means getting involved in the community, spending time on the ground, and understanding community dynamics and economic systems. So yes, aid workers, development economists, poverty consultants, etc. should all immerse themselves in impoverished communities from time to time because its part of the job.

    But there seems to be some idea that these immersions are the necessary treatment for the problem that the people fighting poverty can make a lot of money doing it? I’m not sure I agree.

    First, let’s be realistic about what immersion means. George made this point pretty clearly – at the end of any immersion, be it a week or a year, you’ll return to a wealthy lifestyle – meaning despite all the goals for a firsthand understanding of poverty, you can’t get a better grasp of the most important part: the knowledge of impoverished people that they may have no way out. So how immersed can you really be?

    Second, I’m apprehensive of the idea that there is anything wrong with people fighting poverty flying business class. They should only get paid well if they do good work…and they only do good work if they are helping a lot of people (which probably means they’ve done some immersion). A high salary seems at least as deserved here as it is in most well-paying jobs. After all, what’s wrong with aid being a high paid field? Higher incentives tend to mean it will attract more of the best and the brightest. We should be lucky that there are such rewards in place (as long as they reward those who are doing the best work).

    First-hand, on the ground, exposure to poverty is important – even essential – and it is nowhere near as present or common as it should be (particularly among higher-ups in aid/development fields). But pretending that you are in poverty, too, is unnecessary and self-defeatist. Let’s advocate for poverty exposure – more of it is necessary – but let’s do it for the right reasons: so that people can better do their jobs, and be paid what they deserve in return.

    Owen replies: I rather agree with all this.

  11. very thoughtful article by Kanbur. I can identify with his discomfort about being part of the international conference development elite (even from an economy ticket and NGO salary perspective). But the discomfort is far greater when living in a developing country capital – where in addition to being part of the elite, many people working for bilaterals/ multilaterals or International NGOs have vastly superior lifestyles than they would while working for the same agency in their home country.

    So while I agree with Rising Tides that people should get well paid for doing good work (although I don’t see why this requires business class travel), I think that many people living in developing countries are in fact overpaid. I don’t buy that it is necessary to provide people with huge subsidies for housing, transport, expensive school fees, phone bills etc etc meaning they can all but bank their salaries, just to lure good people to live in the “hardships” of developing countries. This is not about saying that people should live in poverty, but that, for doing the same/ similar job, they should not end up earning disproportionately more money than they would in the HQ country.

  12. I am currently working and living in Lesotho. From my experiences so far I would have to agree with Rising Tides that a ‘poverty immersion’ experience that tries to replicate the experience of living in poverty is not very productive. I think that a person is slightly delusional if they believe that they get a better understanding of poverty after a one week or a one year immersion. We are able to define our immersion experiences based on finite periods of time, which means that we will never truly understand what it means to live in poverty.

  13. If your study of poverty in whatever community helps you make a living, well then, you had better find a way to give back to the people who helped you–who lent you their time, who shared their life experiences with you. Giving back doesn’t necessarily mean giving people cash or other assets (although that may be one way). To me, this means actually sharing your life with theirs and receiving what they share with you.

    It may sound a little hippie-dippy, but I think it’s about dignity, and the way you dignify others is that you include them in your life somehow. Gifts, perhaps. Cooking meals and playing music, fantastic while you’re with them. Correspondence, more likely as time goes on. You know someone and then to keep knowing them. You want to hear about them and them about you. (Perhaps that just means you pay them in “social capital,” but for a second I’d rather go beyond the econspeak and talk about being human.)

    Eventually, you *will* be asked for resources or support. It’s your decision, you can say no. But you can also say yes–you’ll be suprised that that kind of exchange is often at the basis of long-lasting friendships. It’s not about exchange. It’s about gift. And therein is the difference between making a living off of other and making a living with others’ help…

  14. Many development workers began their careers, by spending a lot of time in programs that immerse them in a local context – Peace Corps, World Teach, etc. – and the organizations that hire them often hire them because of these experiences.
    Of course a week isn’t going to be a substitute for growing up somewhere or even being a long-term resident, but it might jog memories and remind them (us) of the issues brought up in the earlier experiences when they spent more time talking to people who weren’t already successful, and provide a chance to see how things have changed or notice local differences when working in new places.

  15. Well that’s a fairly unanimous response.

    Does the future hold an “immersion index” – donor-level data on % of time spent by average staff members immersed in the field, rankings etc?

    And what are the perverse incentives that might result?…

  16. Interesting that this post stimulated so many responses….Perhaps this means there are a lot of people out there in development suffering from the cognitive dissonance one gets while staying at luxury hotels to attend poverty conferences.

    I have to agree with Rising Tides. You can’t create artificial “immersion” programs. It is really just a common sensical step to require experts who are working on a problem to understand it from the ground up, including living with and working with the poor people one is trying to help.

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  18. I agree that aid workers should not be paid less just because they work on poverty issues BUT flying business class and staying in luxury hotels is avoidable and unacceptable. It sends the wrong message not only to the people we serve but also to supporters at home. I think this is linked to the wider issue of NGO effectiveness and accountability and how we all just need to take a bit of personal responsibility for our lifestyles in-country. Immersion might be beneifical if a longer term approach is taken, and how about foregoing some of the luxuries and living a little bit more like a local and getting involved in their community rather than the ex-pat one? The expereince could be more rewarding.

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  21. Owen,

    I know this is one of your older posts, but I recently linked to it in “Poverty Tourism: A Debate in Need of Typological Nuance.” I thought you might be interested in seeing the post. Since the recent NYT op-ed on Slumdog Tourism, there has been a spate of blog posts on the subject of poverty tourism. After carefully reading through as many as I could find, it became apparent that both bloggers and commenters were talking past each other and using wildly different definitions and terms related to poverty tourism. This makes it hard to have a coherent discussion. So, I proposed a taxonomy of terms related to Poverty Tourism along with examples of comments that frame the discussion for each type. (I linked to this blog post as one example.) I hope this helps us have more linguistic clarity around the fault lines and confluence in our ongoing discussion of poverty tourism. The following link is to the blog post at :

  22. I do feel that NGOs do a valuable job, but I wonder how much more they could do if they lived a more modest lifestyle. I’m not saying living in a village, but living in basic accomodation and driving a normal car instead of an SUV.
    I work as a teacher in Burma and find the NGOs here to be overpaid, which drives up the cost of foreign prices, especially accomodation. Thanks to the influx of workers sent here after cyclone Nargis accomodation (with electricity and water) has risen three-fold.
    The workers live in a little bubble and rarely connect with the local people, preferring instead to elevate themselves on the ego-driven foreign social ladder.
    I do understand that the pay of these jobs must be sufficient in order to lure people of high educational and intellectual standing; however, I don’t think the organizations would be short of qualified candidates if they decided to give more to the local community instead of the wealthy foreigner.

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