Stuff expat aid workers like: Looking down on academics

Unfortunately, 'Stuff Expat Aid Workers Like' editorial policy states that only 'actual aidworkers' can submit contributions and this excludes me from publishing my contribution on their blog, but I still think that the relationship between aidworkers and academics is a very suitable topic.  
Among the many unique features of expat aidworkers is that they know everything about the country they are working in. 'Everything' often meaning all the nitty-gritty political gossips that emerge every day about, say, the new minister of health, the president’s daughter or that really big aid project by that really important donor agency. Throw in some local gossip told by the driver and most expat aid workers could well be journalists, country experts – or academics. 
Although most aid workers have a range of qualifications from a range of universities, they like to nurture the idea of out-of-touch academics sitting in their cosy ivory towers. Many still hold a grudge against the academics because they discovered shortly after their critical, theoretical and intellectual social science degrees that the development industry often offers pretty normal project management jobs in exotic locations, including backstabbing colleagues and/or annoying bosses. Why didn't 'the professor' tell them about this at university? But whenever an academic is visiting the expat aidworker’s country or one encounters them at conferences there is time and space to remind yourself of the importance of their real job by pointing out the futility of the academic endeavour. Academics have always to be out of touch with the situation, because they do not attend all the dinner parties they do. Who cares about the 'bigger picture', long-term developments or a specific geographic location or even non-development research interests (how can 'theory' ever help to overcome poverty?!) when the next life-, future- and project-changing election will be held in a few weeks time? Who cares about research ethics, careful planning of field visits or speaking to that fool from the aid agency everybody hates anyway? Just use your gut feeling, your connections to the minster’s secretary and gather a few women for a focus group. It’s not rocket science, it’s called ‘welcome to the real world’! And then this whole business about publishing your results: The expat aidworker managed to write the interim evaluation report on the laptop in that really dodgy hotel without wireless Internet and neither her boss nor the guys in headquarters had anything negative to say about it. Peer-reviewed articles, validating numbers and stories or going through five draft versions of a paper is just one of those luxuries aid workers simply cannot afford. And don’t get them started on ‘theory’! What do you think the boss or the women’s savings group would say if you name-drop some French sociologist? Academics like to talk about 'complexity' and 'reflexivity', but it’s just not the right place for this. One problem with academics is that every elaborated theoretical hypothesis can be challenged with a nice story that happened in the aid worker's office yesterday...'Oh, wait, did I tell you the story when I tried to order an ink-jet instead of a laser printer for the regional office? You should have seen the people in procurement...talking about bureaucracy and organisations'.
In short, academics are mostly in your way and cannot contribute much relevant insights to your work, but in two years time when the aid worker is back at university for another expensive Masters degree, there will be a facebook status that says 'It’s so weird being back at uni...forgot how much fun a morning in the library can be...LOL'.


  1. Hi Tobias
    I think you're definitely making some good points here but it does come across as a little bit sour. Academics do have to take responsibility for the inaccesibility of much academic writing, which is often at odds with how lucid they are in person. Aid workers are also conscious that many (of course, not all) academics on development topics have little practical experience of running programmes and suchlike. This contributes to the divide. And finally, academic journals are expensive!! Some people can speak to both worlds - Peter Uvin at Tufts, for example - but there are few. So yes, I agree with you, but think you need to balance it out a little

  2. Thanks for your comment, adam. I agree with you that this post does not take the nuances and complexities of the subject into consideration; the main reason is that it is supposed to be an unofficial contribution to the 'stuff expat aid workers like' project which takes on issues around living and working as an expat in international development with a more humorous or even slightly cynical twist. So it is not meant to be an 'objective' account, but more of a tongue-in-cheek account to stimulate the debate. But thanks for reading and commenting!


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