Tuesday, August 26, 2008

Tourist, Traveller or Trainer

As I sat in my favourite cafe in Kathmandu, sipping Masala tea and watching people circle the stupa, I started to wonder about my role here in Nepal. While I've come here to train people in nonviolence, I know just enough about development to be quite hesitant about what I can offer.

There an old saying that westerners who come to places like Nepal are either missionaries, mercinaries or misfits. Even today, there is some truth to that. Whether it's to Christianity, democracy or capitalism, there is always some level of conversion that takes place when westerners import their values to a developing country. The number of people wearing western clothes and yearning to visit Australia or USA is evidence of that.

The misfits have also played their part. Kathmandu is known for its hippy history. Many of the independant travellers of the 70's have influenced not only the style of clothing sold in Thamel, the tourist district of Kathmandu, but they also began the habit of giving to child beggers, which has made them quite vulnerable to child trafficking, and dependant on hand-outs.

The mercinaries are perhaps the career development workers, who started off with high ideals, but somewhere along the way start to feel that they deserve luxurious three bedroom houses complete with cooking and cleaning staff while their Nepalese counterparts live in cramped one-bedroom apartments together with their extended families. They are not ashamed to display their wealth, and then wonder why corruption and greed are a problem amongst local people.

So where do I fit in all this? I am here for just a short time, and find myself caught between the short term versions of the above categories. I am a foreigner staying in a single room in a hotel, displaying my wealth and visiting the sights alongside all the other tourists (does that make me a mercinary?) I am trying to catch local transport, and bargain for a good price, which I guess makes me a bit of a hippy traveller (misfit). And of course I'm supposed to be a trainer, sharing a particular knowledge that I have, which kindof makes me a missionary.

My challenge to myself is to have real and honest interactions with people wherever possible, to make as little negative impact on the country I visit as I can, and offer a conflict resolution process that has worked for me, without expectation of or control over how it will be used in this country in the future.

Friday, August 08, 2008

Money, money, money

When I recently re-joined the development sector, I was faced yet again with the issue of how much I should be paid. While eager to have some sense of self worth attached to my salary, a voice in my head reminded me that my friends in Kenya, Nepal or Rwanda would be grateful for half my wage.

I am not the only one faced with this dilemma. As a colleague once put it - why should those of us who attempt to right the world's wrongs be punished with crappy salaries, while ethically neutral work is rewarded with ludicrous financial benefits? While employees of development agencies are rightly demanding a fair wage for their services, wealthy donors are now expecting development agencies to spend as little as possible on "administrative" costs and to demonstrate levels of accountability that I am sure are not demanded of their favourite fashion labels or hair stylists.

Of course, I am not saying that we should not be accountable. In the old days when non-profit meant non-salary and development was really just hand-outs, people assumed that good intentions were enough, and as a result they sometimes got it horribly wrong. So it is good that the industry is changing. While committed people still exist, it's time to critically evaluate development work. We find ourselves thinking about "lessons learnt", "best practice" and "Codes of Conduct". We want a website that delivers a stronger donor base and we even write marketing plans.

But in the process of moving forward, let's not forget why we're here. At the end of the day, I want to know that I've made a difference, and I don't care (too much) what I earn. When I was reading a history of Quaker development work, I came across endless stories of truly committed people who had devoted their lives to alleviating poverty, addressing injustices and paving the way for peace. Most lived on the smell of an oily rag and achieved incredible outcomes. They did critically evaluate their work, and they did learn from their mistakes, but they kept true to their principles, and I think that's most important.