DIY follow-up, part 2 of 5: Questions of elitism. (Or: Just what is a “professional”?)

(This continues a 5-part series which responds to the responses that I received following my Foreign Policy post about Nicholas Kristof’s D.I.Y. aid concept. For more background, also see Part 1: How complicated can things really be?)

Part 2. Questions of elitism. Or: Just what is a “professional”?

A major component of my argument is that things are so complicated, you should hire a professional rather than “do-it-yourself.” But what does it mean to be a “professional”? A lot of people took issue with that term, and with the types of people and organizations it implies.

Here are a few of the critiques. Someone called “CHAS”, commenting on FP, writes:

I’m amazed at how naive the author is. Most of the sort of “professional” development workers which he aspires to become aren’t truly in the business of ‘helping communities’ . … Thankfully there are religious groups, NGOs and trained development people who actually get close enough to communities to be useful. This takes the right heart and more time than generally available to “professionals”.

On another note, Philanthropy Action tweeted:

I’m as skeptical of Algoso’s prescription (more aid workers w/grad degrees working for large aid orgs) as I am about Kristof’s.

And finally, Katie J, who works someplace where she feels nervous about expressing her opinions publicly, wrote me by email to say:

Your perspective is elitism defined. … damage is done when the bar is set too high and discourages those who have the desire, passion, and energy to invest in people. … Where it exists, the desire to help others should be encouraged, not squelched, channeled, not discouraged, and certainly not limited to the ‘professionals’ who at one time were novices like the rest. …   You don’t need a grad degree to change the world. All that is required is common sense and a heart that understands the importance and value of investing in people.

Two things have struck me about these and similar comments. First, we have different interpretations of various terms. Second, there are certain issues (like graduate degrees) that seem to have touched nerves.

If our disagreements spring from different understandings of terms or unintended inferences, rather than actual disagreements, that’s my failure as a writer. Allow me a few clarifications.

“Professional aid organizations”

Some people seemed to read this phrase and think of the World Bank, IMF, USAID (plus its contractors and the big NGOs), and their ilk. I didn’t mean it to be so limiting. I think of the development industry in much broader terms. You don’t have to be a massive organization to be “professional” — but you do need to be an organization. A small business is still a business; someone who occasionally sells stuff on eBay is not. Be the former, not the latter. That’s all I ask.

In the FP piece, I mentioned Paul Farmer and Muhammad Yunus as people who started new organizations from scratch. Every organization starts somewhere. So when should new organizations be encouraged, and when should they be dissuaded? I’ll come back to this in the next post.

Qualifications of a professional

Commitment. Just a one-word answer. Not heart, not “really wanting to help people”, and certainly not white SUVs. Just commitment. Over the long haul. Having heart will help you commit, but you can’t show up on game day “really wanting to win” and expect it to make a difference. You’ve got to commit to it in the same way you would to any profession. Learn the state-of-the-art, build your skills, research past efforts, become fluent in the industry’s language (yes, jargon like “stakeholders” and “ownership” — even jargon serves a purpose), understand the players, figure out who the innovators are and who the laggards are, think about how your skills/strengths match the needs, and choose carefully who you want to work for and what you want to do.

If you’re new to the work, that doesn’t necessarily mean you’re an amateur. The sector needs individuals with skills and ideas from other fields. Scott Gilmore referenced “amateurs who came with successful new ideas and a skeptical eye” — but maybe those people aren’t amateurs? If they approached the work with the skills they have, and the humility to learn from others, and of course the commitment to be part of this for the long haul — then maybe it’s better to think of them as “new professionals”.

Graduate degrees

Let me dispel the idea that I ever said a graduate degree is necessary. If the wording I used was stronger than I intended, please allow me retract: I agree with Katie J (and many other commenters) that a graduate degree is neither necessary nor sufficient to do this work.

However, on balance, a graduate degree sure helps. I heartily disagree with Katie J’s closing statement: “All that is required is common sense and a heart that understands the importance and value of investing in people.” There is also specific technical knowledge, understanding of the communities in question, and there are lessons to be learned from past efforts. This is complicated stuff. You can absolutely learn this outside school — by reading and talking to people with experience, and by working with people who know what they’re doing. Those are vital complements to any schooling anyway. Just please do not learn by muddling your way through a series of projects in an unfamiliar community.

Peace Corps

That previous sentence might have made you think of Peace Corps. It deserves special mention, because it’s how so many professionals (at least Americans) start their careers. Is a Peace Corps volunteer a professional or an amateur? I think it depends entirely on the volunteer. I know some PC volunteers who went with a seriousness of purpose characteristic of professionalism in any field. But there are others who just want to go and hang out someplace different for a couple years after undergrad while they figure their life out.

The PC experience tends to be loosely structured, so there’s no guarantee that a returned volunteer has learned particular skills. They definitely learn how to live in a community, and that’s valuable, but it doesn’t make you a development professional any more than knowing your way around Los Angeles makes you an actor. Also, it’s worth noting: the Peace Corps mission says nothing about development. PC volunteers can choose to make their service part of a career, and that makes them professionals. But that takes — you guessed it — commitment.

Elitism

Katie J’s opening salvo was to accuse me of elitism. Others have done the same. My original post on DIY quoted heavily from another blogger and professional aid worker. I’ll do so again, in case you’re having a lazy Saturday morning and don’t feel like clicking through. However, I do recommend you read his post on the topic. In brief, J. writes:

I mean, no one complains that neurosurgery is a terribly elitist field of practice. Or what about high-stakes contract law? Those fields are both dominated by a very small and, for lack of a better term, elite group of practitioners. And for very good reason, as I think most of us would agree. There are horrible consequences for even the smallest error while a patient is on the table. One misstep during the proceeding of a contract lawsuit can have far-reaching effects, beyond even the immediate issue of money.

It seems to me that the stakes are no lower in humanitarian aid work. In fact, I’d argue that the stakes are higher. What we do affects not just a single individual, but entire communities, regions, in some instances maybe even nations.

And yet, somehow we think that this is a field of practice where any random well-meaning person can be relevant to the conversation? You kidding?

I don’t have much more to add to that. Professionalization is an important trend in any field, from law to medicine to home repairs. Domestic nonprofits and international NGOs are both pushing in this same direction.

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Further reading: Check out the blogger who I quoted above: Tales from the Hood. He blogs anonymously, but he should be required reading for students of international development because a) he’s hilarious, b) he has great stories from several decades of work experience, and c) he has (in my opinion) a very good attitude about doing this work. Not necessarily a positive, cheery attitude — but a good one.

UPDATE: J. has written a Sunday morning double-feature on this topic. Check out “Professional?” and also “Professional!

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Check out the full series:

 

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