EDITOR’S NOTE: Please check out our four contributions to In the News, following on the controversy surrounding Kony 2012. They include practical suggestions for Westerners involved in aid work to move forward, and continue to explore the nuances of the “white savior” complex that we believe needs to be overcome.
Part 2: “Fumble and Bumble: A review of Ruth Stark’s book, How to Work in Someone Else’s Country”
by Jennifer Lentfer, March 14, 2012
Do you have a colleague that just won’t shut up about the fight he’s having with his sibling over the family vacation home? Or an intern who dressed way too provocatively when you were on a field visit last week? What about the person who constantly blames everything that doesn’t go their way on the incapacity or corruption of “the locals”?
We have all worked with these people. If we’re honest, we perhaps have even been these people at certain times. We didn’t know any better…until we did.
Ruth Stark writes a book, though, to help make the learning process a bit easier. How to Work in Someone Else’s Country is a quick, engaging read. Whether you are about to embark on your first volunteer stint abroad (see Chapters 4 and 5 on packing and travel tips or Chapter 8 on making them glad you’re there), or are a seasoned aid worker with a couple of decades in the field (see or Chapter 13 on working with governments, Chapter 14 on visiting “the field”, or Chapter 18 or briefings), open it up. I’m telling you after buying it myself—there’s advice in it you probably need to hear.
In all of the ongoing discussions of aid effectiveness, this has always been the most glaring absence—the conduct of aid workers. While Stark does little to explore or explain the roots of the aid system and the inequities at its core, she does aptly describe the situations that they produce, and what she has personally found as the best ways to navigate them. To fumble is an inevitable part of working cross-culturally. To be humble is not, thus the need for this book.
While the journal entries can at times seem contrived and the advice can be consultant centric, the genuineness of Stark’s advice shines through. Stark, an international health expert, writes for her daughter, also now an aid professional. She writes to articulate the values she wants her daughter and all aid workers and international do-gooders to embody. How you behave, how you treat people—it matters.
We spend so much time on the hard skills, making sure everyone has the right technical knowledge and training. The so-called “soft skills”—relationship building, emotional intelligence, listening, facilitation, leadership, etc.—are assumed to already be in place. It’s a fatal mistake that we in the aid industry continue to make. I don’t presume to know the solution. What I do know is that bad behavior can be a much more serious impediment to progress than lack of a functional logframe.
Stark described the book as one she had been “threatening to write for 20 years.” I, for one, am glad she did it. It may even make a great “gift” for that colleague with some learning to do. –> Continue to Part 3
Jennifer Lentfer is the founder of how-matters.org, a blogsite aimed at raising the level of human dignity within international aid. She has worked with over 300 grassroots organizations in east and southern Africa over the past decade. Having served with various international organizations in Zimbabwe, Malawi, Namibia, and the U.S., today she works to advance the efforts of aid workers, grantmakers, and social entrepreneurs that make international aid more locally responsive.
This article first appeared on how-matters.org.