18 July 2009 ~ 0 Comments

Do you need to be a “professional” to change the world?

This is a very similar blog to my previous post – actually it is the first draft of what I wrote there (and by “draft” I mean – the first things that came out of my head after I read this blog – un-edited and very conversational, as my writing tends to be). Here is the blog I am commenting on.

What does a “professional” mean to you? Your degree in Cultural Anthropology, does that make you a “professional”? In what fields? Development overall? Agricultural projects? Does one need a PhD to be put in charge of the lives of others? Does someone with an accounting degree who has never left the US but is volunteering with an NGO to improve accounting practices count as a “professional”? What if they are teaching math?

You said “Relief and development work frequently defies generalization.” I would argue that PhD’s and people outside of the projects can generalize all they like, just like you and I do on our blogs, about things we only have a small hand in, but at the end of the day it ALL defies the type of generalization that uses words like “volunteers should/shouldn’t” and “it must be done by ‘professionals.'”

Let me get this straight: You are against “volunteers” who come help out on a building project – even though these people are clearly not put in any “decision making” position (the decision makers being those who justifiably or not invited those volunteers in the first place, be they foreign or local), but you are for English teachers coming from aboard to volunteer to teach in local schools? Even if they are coming for two weeks or a month (or less in many cases)! Why does this juxtaposition confuse me: The ones teaching English are the ones touching lives and making decisions – they are interacting with kids (or adults) and THEY are the ones who in my opinion should be professional.

I agree with you on so much – I’m sure if we sat down for a beer somewhere we would agree on the majority of these issues. But the generalizations here and the disregard for the fact that YOU came from this position you are arguing against – that good does not come from “professionals” or “non-professionals” – paid or unpaid people – but from people who are committed to LEARNING, to ASKING, to ADMITTING mistakes, to trying harder, to letting those whose land/lives/homes/cultures lead the way and let us follow….. THOSE people are changing lives. And from what I have seen, a lot of the people who wear “professional” hats are getting it wrong, very wrong, too.

Do you think the world would be a better place if you took your own advice? If you had kicked yourself out when you were doing volunteer work and were not yet professional? Would all those things you have learned and taught others be outweighed by mistakes you made along the way? Can anyone really do ANYTHING without making mistakes?

Professionals worked for the UN and had wells dug in Cambodia which poisoned people with arsenic. Professionals run the organization that came to the commune we work in and “gave” filters away (at under market rates) and completely destroyed the movement towards clean water as people are now waiting for their free filters. Professionals run library programs in Cambodia with multi-million dollar budgets yet don’t take the time to create material which is applicable for local areas nor create training which gives teachers tools for how to use the books, only how to put them nicely on a shelf in alphabetical order.

Non-professionals do all these things too, but my point is, if this blog was intended to get away from the generalizations, I don’t feel that it has. I agree with all you say in theory. But theory is not reality. IS there someone more qualified to do things locally sometimes? Of course there is! WILL they? Not always. Does being more “qualified” (more degrees, more years of experience in NGOs doing harmful work) make you do the job better? Or do you, no matter who YOU are, need to say “I am going to read, and learn, and ask, and defer to those who are doing it better when I find them, and monitor, and work with those people I trust” and I’m going to make the right choices for THIS reality here, wherever here is, “as I go”. Why? Because that is the ONLY way to do it. Because here is NOT there. What worked in Guatemala wont work in rural Siem Reap – no matter how “professional” you are and how many books you read. YOU WILL make mistakes. Rather than being afraid of making mistakes we need to admit to alllllll of ourselves that mistakes will happen – each of us have and each of us will continue to make mistakes – PhD or not. And if we can’t ADMIT that, we have a big problem.

People who set out to make a new brand of toothpaste know this – they will have people try it, it will taste bad or not work well, and they will improve and they will end up with something that works well….. and then a few years later they will have something that works better. Why is it not going to be the same in education? health? the environment? It IS! My mom is a 1st grade teacher and nearly every summer some Columbia university professor gets sent over to do a summer course on the “new way to teach math”. I studied math in the 80’s – shoot! Those non-professional teachers I had probably got it all wrong! But guess what…. I can do math pretty well. And they did the best they could with the tools they had and all of their love and their heart and their hard work… and they were able to do that because they had a community around them that didn’t make the perfect the enemy of the good, or even the great.

When it comes to short term volunteering – I’d take those people coming to Cambodia any day over the people who come for 6 months or a year and don’t put effort in and don’t care that they are effecting lives. Peace Corps volunteers for example – just like any program of that size – has AMAZING people in. People who excelled in their math classes in school and were top of their class. People who were the captains of their soccer teams. People who work hard, are willing to admit mistakes when they make them, who ask others for help and who learn. And Peace Corps sure has a heck of a lot of duds too, people who sit around in the “village” they are meant to “help” and play cards and are annoyed that “no one is helping them to do their job” and don’t try. Those people would probably fail in any setting and be poor team players no matter where you put them.


Those are lessons to live by I think, much more so than “get out if you are not professional.” “Professionals” know what they are doing all the time? “Professionals” don’t make mistakes? These are not true statements, we both know that, so let’s steer the conversation in way that can help those people who ARE trying to learn be able to do that. We will all be better for it.

Oh, and my last thought. You wrote ‘It sends completely the wrong messages to all parties. It tells those “volunteers”, “See? In just two weeks you can fix a problem in another country.”” I agree! We tell people who travel with us “You will NOT fix any problems while you are here. These problems existed before you got here and will be here once you leave, but the people who are working to make changes to those problems will be too. Your funding will help them do their work, and your knowledge about what they are doing and support for their work will hopefully translate into YOU doing things differently in the world. And that is how you will change it…” Not all people who work to improve your average package-tour vacation are selling people the idea that they can change the world in a few days. We certainly aren’t trying to sell that…. but we ARE trying to sell them the idea that they can change THEIR world in a few days, and by doing so they will be able to do the same for others.