Inside the Everyday Lives of Development Workers: A Book Review

24 Jul

Inside the Everyday Lives of Development Workers: The Challenges and Futures of Aidland is an edited volume of scholarly, basically social science essays on – you guessed it –  the everyday lives of “development workers.” I’ll give Kumarian Press kudos for getting this out. It’s the first publication of this nature that I’ve seen. As you all know, the vast majority of what’s out there being written by aid workers about aid work is either a) marginal fiction; b) over-the-top shock schlock; c) self-aggrandizing travelogue; d) blogs.

In terms of broad principle it’s nice to see some actual research being done on… us. After all these decades of poking our noses into the business of “the poor” all over the world, there is something both disconcerting and oddly cathartic about becoming “the exotic other.” It’s long overdue, frankly, and so on this basis at least, Inside the Everyday Lives of Development Workers has the raw material for something the New York Times might call “an important work..”

But from there it’s sort of downhill. For one thing it’s all very social science-y (and I’m writing as someone whose graduate education is in anthropology), which is to say dry, over-written, and too case-specific to really be interesting or all widely applicable. For example, the scintillatingly entitled “Maintaining Independence: The Moral Ambiguities of Personal Relations Among Ghanian Development Workers” (Chapter 3), sadly, leaves the reader with no real insights that can be applied to, say, supervising Argentinean development workers in, say, Mongolia.

The less case-specific chapters have the look and feel of well-researched, scholarly critique, but on closer inspection give us very little that hasn’t been covered ad nauseum elsewhere. Aid work bears some very uncomfortable resemblances to the colonialism of yesteryear. Some development workers are ethnocentric, and some are even racist. Priorities within the humanitarian sector are sometimes muddled. The non-profit world and the for-profit world have some fundamental differences. All in all, nothing very earth-shattering.

The notion of “Aidland” as a (conceptual) place, inhabited by the “tribe” of development workers is somewhat interesting. We are in many ways like a tribe (tattoos, clan endogamy, and all…). Fair enough. And the anthropologist in me enjoys the mental imagery that goes along with this.

But perhaps the very best part of this book is, ironically, a nagging feeling, from the very first word through to the very last, that the authors don’t really “get” us (or at least me). And for once we (or at least I) get a small taste of what it is like to be studied and analyzed and written about by a bunch of outsiders who don’t really get where we’re coming from. Sobering.

* * * * *

Inside the Everyday Lives of Development Workers is edited by Anne-Meike Fechter and Heather Hindman. It is published by Kumarian Press.

11 Responses to “Inside the Everyday Lives of Development Workers: A Book Review”

  1. David W 25 July, 2011 at 12:17 am #

    Recently was given and read this paper: “Mercenaries Missionaries or Misfits: Representation of Development Personnel.” R. L. Sirrat, Critique of Anthropology 2008 28: 406. A good read, and provided me with some good self-insights. I recommend it.

    It argues that the stereotypes are closer to each other than people think, and that Mercenaries and Missionaries, in particular, share a common trait: they are attempting to transform “the Other” into some version of themselves. When they find that this is not possible, they may end up as “Misfits”, forever traveling the earth, not fitting into their industry, but neither able to fit back into their own culture.

    In a way, these three stereotypes represent three pitfalls, which we are always veering between, and away from. As to what we actually “are”: that question is left open.

    I like to call development “an industry”, because I think beneath all the gloss, and the “mask of care” (as John McKnight called it), we’re workers in an industry. It’s an odd industry, no doubt. And I like it. But no different in kind than any other.

  2. Olumide Abimbola 25 July, 2011 at 6:35 am #

    You may also want to read The Paternalism of Aid, by Maria Erikkson Baaz. It was originally a PhD dissertation, and it has the ‘postcolonial’ language so it might not be the smoothest read. She however treats the subject matter carefully so it is worth the read.

  3. Scott Gilmore 25 July, 2011 at 12:17 pm #

    Funnily enough, 12 months ago I had some agents interested in a book called “Aidland” which was intended to be a satirical travel guide to the screwed up world of the aid industry and its strange denizens. While the approach was to be consciously anthropological, it was intended to be two parts Bill Bryson, one part Bill Easterly. Oh well, this looks far more constructive anyway and this frees me up to write a torrid romance novel starring Dr. Alden Kurtz and a idealistic young USAID officer named Emma.

    (Actually, I’ll just be fictionalizing this blog, which does a better job capturing “Aidland”, than anyone else

    • Stephen Jones 26 July, 2011 at 7:58 am #

      Perhaps more oddly, there’s already a book called Adventures in Aidland (‘The Anthropology of Professionals in International Development’) [] edited by David Mosse from SOAS in London, which sounds like a similar collection to the one J reviews here.

  4. Robin 25 July, 2011 at 12:23 pm #

    I’m not sure about the book, but I love the review (and the comments) – thanks.

  5. angelica 25 July, 2011 at 3:29 pm #

    agree with Robin, I love the review, and definitely think the whole tribe thing is true…

  6. Marianne 28 July, 2011 at 2:55 pm #

    I think it is incredibly useful, if uncomfortable, to find myself the subject of the academic gaze of another and feel, at best, somewhat misunderstood. I haven’t read this book but I have had a similar experience reading articles on the topic. Sobering indeed.

    PS: I can’t help wondering whether you’ll want to lump my book in with the ‘over-the-top shock schlock’ or the ‘self-aggrandizing travelogue’😉

  7. Timo Luege 30 July, 2011 at 10:27 am #

    I think the question is also “who was the book written for?” Granted, if it is meant to enable aidworkers to improve their performance, then all the ad nauseam covered details are a waste of paper. But my guess is that it was written with people in mind who don’t work in the industry and many of them might hear these things for the first time.

  8. transitionland 3 September, 2011 at 11:35 am #


    Interesting that you thought Emergency Sex was shock schlock. I thought the same when I first read it (I was in college and I loved every gritty, scandalous page of that book, even the chapters that made me want to punch the authors). After having been in the biz for a few years now, doing the conflict zone thing, I think back on the adventures of Heidi, Andrew and Ken and think, wow, they were actually pretty ordinary people in this field. When I re-read Emergency Sex after my first year in Afghanistan, I saw the experiences of my friends and colleagues in the authors’ tales of affairs, culturally inappropriate partying, transient friendships, breakdowns and attempts to make sense of it all.


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  2. Inside the Everyday Lives of Development Workers « Shotgun Shack - 15 August, 2011

    […] J. posted his review so, not to be outdone or shown up as the half-assed member of the SEAWL partnership, I decided I […]

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