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Bursting the Bubble

July 24, 2011

By Fiorenzo Conte

In a previous post on Do No Harm, Rida discussed what is problematic with the term “in the field.” Supposedly used to convey a sense of adversity, this term tends to misrepresent one’s experience living and working in a developing country. Since living in a capital is not comparable to life in rural area in a developing country, the buzzword “in the field” will inevitably “standardize a variety of experiences that are actually worlds apart”. I agree with all the criticism raised against the use of the phrase and as a rule of thumb I would say that “living in a developing country” would do a much better job at conveying the different experiences one can have in that specific country (be that in the capital city, in a rural area, on the consumer side or the producer side). What one of the comments got me thinking is how the term “in the field” is used by international aid workers to symbolize their escape to “real” development. Expats working with UN agencies or international NGOs live mostly in a “bubble” made of office based jobs and swimming pool parties in expat-only neighborhoods. They have limited interaction with local people and minimal exposure to what local people think about the problems of the country. And this happens not by their fault but because of the way the development industry is set up. What I want to address here are 3 reasons why one should burst this bubble and interact more with local people (and by this I don’t mean try to look like a local by dressing like a local because you would just end up looking funny).

1. You can increase your security. If one lives in a highly protected area, the risk of being perceived as a foreigner occupant rather than civilian trying to help the country is greater. This is what happened in Afghanistan where Taliban targeted a supermarket used by foreigners, who are in Kabul for post-reconstruction effort. Those killed and injured also included aid workers, who were not considered to be civilian because they live “in a secured area with commercial stores for foreign occupiers.” If one lives in a bubble, it is more difficult to sell the story “I am here to help reconstruct your country.”

2. You can find out what local people think. Take the example of AIDS. In Western Kenya the acronym is being appropriated and readapted to mean “punishment came to the world because of you” (in Kiswahili Adhabu Imeingi Duniani Shauri yako). This reveals how HIV is perceived to be a moral fault and not simply as a disease. And this has great policy implications that you would be ignorant to if you were in your bubble.

3. You can have fun. During a peer education sessions about HIV, I learnt what the origin of AIDS is thought to be. “The white men said that AIDS was brought by the monkey in Africa” they said. This association with monkeys was perceived to be as a new disguised form of racism. The response was really creative: “I’ll tell you something: if it was monkeys that spread the virus in Africa then it was musungu (the white man) who had sex with and infected the monkey in the first place!!!”

Having said that, my house in Western Kenya is adjacent to a Sugar Factory and one has to go through the main gate of the factory to access my house: so not exactly outside the bubble. What is funny about living in this bubble is that I have been nicknamed Sugar Daddy by a friend so now you have a Sugar Daddy working on HIV prevention: no further comment needed.

One Comment leave one →
  1. Sam deb permalink
    July 24, 2011 5:58 pm

    Excellent article and I couldn’t agree more about bursting the bubble. So many mistakes and wrong decisions are made because the development community think they know best. By talking and interacting with local people will prevent these mistakes being made that cause such animosity and are a waste of time and money. Thanks for the article!

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