Student question: How to use this experience to come as a sort of self-reflective practice of auto-evaluation and awareness-raising?

A few days ago I received a message from a recent graduate from a well-known development studies programme who I should call 'Julian'. He is about to travel to DRC for his first experience in an African developing country. And he wonders about his potential engagement - especially with his recently acquired critical knowledge of 'reflective aid work' in the back of his mind. Because his questions seem to become more important for a growing number of students and graduates I will reply to his message publicly. I will try to be constructive in my reply, rather than taking a short-cut as in 'maybe this is all about you and your self-indulgent mission to "help" people', because I honestly don't believe that this is what Julian's message is about. So instead, I will focus on three themes: The power of the everyday, the power of saying 'No' and the power of small successes. Here's Julian's message that I have slightly edited to keep it as generic and anonymous as possible:

Hello Tobias:

My name is Julian, and I just finished my MA.

After [...] I had a look at your webpage 'aidnography' and read some articles (which I found really good, especially that on voluntourism.. by the way, thanks for sharing the tips on the free download of the 'deconstructing development discourse' book), I am here writing you to share with you and ask your perspective-advise on what I will be doing starting next month. I will go straight to the point, in order not to take much of your time, and with the risk of minimizing what has been a long-term personal idea. Before that however, I must say that I am a Mexican.

As I said, I just finished my MA, and in the next month I will be leaving for the Democratic Republic of Congo, hoping to be able to stay there for at least a couple of years, as this is something I have been wanting to do for a while (it was behind my idea of studying this MA) since I have been really interested on all the conflict and humanitarian situation of DRC.

In that sense, I will be staying the first few months with a friend that has been living there for more than 4 years, and is working for an NGO [...], and my idea is to get there and get involved and work with an organization in some way that, although I would like to say is meaningful (which would be having to much expectations of my background and formal ´education´), at least does the least harm possible.

The reason I decided to do this is, first, because I do not want to do this sort of ´voluntourism´ you talk about in your articles. I also think this kind of tourism is a way of feeding one own´s ego and the pocket of the indstry behind it. However, at the same time, I do not have the necessary work experience in the field in order to be selected in a formal international job application process, and I did wanted to go there and face the reality that DRC lives.

In that sense, and that is why I have decided to write you, during my MA I had the chance of having this lecture on ethnography of aid, which was very mind-opening and made me thing a lot of things, also by reading some ethnography as Mosse´s Cultivating Development and Crewe´s Whose Development.

I just say that because their ideas, and the whole critique of post-modernists and about aidland, is something I am really conscious and aware about, and which I will bring with me to DRC and is mostly present as an internal alarm against all pretention of believing I will go there ´to save the world´.

Therefore, Tobias, what I basically wanted to ask you with this long email, is how not to fall in the mistakes longly criticized by Mosse and Crewe (and many others), and how to use this experience to come as a sort of self-reflective practice of auto-evaluation and awareness-raising?

Thank you very much Tobias, I really look forward to hear about you soon. 

Kind regards,

The power of the everyday
As wrote in the introduction, Julian is already aware of some of the main complexities of the 'aid industry', but his study experience has also raised some expectations about how to put his knowledge and skills to good use.
In the Introduction to a very interesting book on 'Encountering the Everyday-An Introduction to the Sociologies of the Unnoticed' sociologist Michael Hviid Jacobsen writes about the 'macro illusion' of much sociological research to capture big-scale developments, groups and societal shifts. For him, reclaiming the importance of 'everyday life' in research and writing is a key factor for publishing the book. In similar ways, I have the feeling that many students have been trained for 'macro' encounters and will almost certainly be disappointed if they seem to fail in living and working to these expectations. One of my all-time favourite social anthropological articles is Jerzy Kociatkiewicz and Monika Kostera's 'The Anthropology of Empty Spaces'. Without going too much into detail it's a powerful reminder to look beyond 'the action' and 'the crowd' and think outside the box-even if that means engaging with an empty space in a building. It's a reminder that 'understanding the conflict in DRC' may be a frustrating, futile exercise. I remember from my own experiences how many conflict advisors ended up running after breaking news or small political moves and thereby getting lost in a 'macro experience' that rarely produced any lasting impressions or meaningful insights. A self-reflective approach should embrace one's own everyday experience-and that includes the non-places, the non-events and the days when 'nothing' seems to be happening. 'Being there', listening, asking questions can be a powerful entry point for other forms of engagement. However, there's also a risk that the balance tips from 'reflective practice' to 'self-absorbedness', as Morgan Brigg writes in the conclusion to his article:

But his reflective task is not without dangers for there is an assumption, heavily relied upon and promoted by the self-help industry, that self-reflection and self-awareness are unequivocally valuable practice.
The power of saying 'No'  
Ideally, engaging with the 'everyday' will bring you closer to a meaningful engagement with an organisation. The biggest risk is not that 'nobody wants you', but that real or imagined mounting pressure to find an affiliation leads to unsustainable engagments. My hope is that in the future potential employers, academic supervisors etc. will be less impressed by the 'gap year voluntourism' experience in your CV and more by your explanation why you did not spend time in an East Asian orphanage. This is also true for certain organisations, locations and missions. Reflective practice means knowing your limits, doing your research and keeping safe and sound. I would be more impressed if a young development professional told me that s/he was offered an engagement with a dodgy humanitarian NGO which s/he declined than any bragging about 14-hour days in war zones. Personal resourcefulness is as important as field experience-the two actually go together.

The power of small successes
Saying 'No' is also an important aspect when you realise that the country/organisation/project may not need you. Despite good intentions and preparations there is hopefully a moment where you realise that local professionals and organisations can do most of the work themselves-including their own mistakes (within 'do no harm' reason...). Maybe a local organisation will ask you to translate a document for a funding application even though you realise that this may not be the best donor. You can bring it up, but ultimately you are 'just' the translator...But I generally wouldn't underestimate small successes. Sending a reference on reflective practice to a colleague, listening to their stories and problems and showing empathy is all part of a reflective engagment in today's complex and often paradox realities of the aid industry.

These are some of my thoughts, but I'm also sure that some readers may have additional/different/contradicting experiences and as always, your comments are much appreciated!

In the end, I want to thank you Julian for coming forward and writing the message. I hope you will have a great time in DRC - even if it turns out to be less exciting (in a good way...), I think it will be a powerful and empowering experience for those around you-even if you are not 'needed' directly in ways you imagined in university.


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