‘The field’ is where inequality persists–a reply to ‘Send them to the field!’

Alison Rabe wrote a thought-provoking piece on WhyDev.org last week about the virtues of exposing oneself to the rural realities of developing countries to better understand how aid works, in short: Send them to the field!.
J, the blogger formerly known as Tales from the Hood, posted a more practical reflection
on why he thinks 
‘the field’ is often overrated and he also reminded us what hands-on skills matter in the industry.

putting the last first to putting ourselves into the picture of aid work in the 21st century
Alison makes a compelling case and I do not disagree with her per se. But as a development anthropologist I feel a bit uneasy about the construction of ‘the field’ as the rural reality compared to ‘the rest’ of aid worker’s geography, attitudes and mindsets. Alison argues along the line of the, shall we say, Chambersian School of Development: Putting the rural last first, field trips by bike rather than Landcruiser and immersing yourself in the realities of ‘the poor’. This is still necessary and important, but it has also become part of the development canon, practically, linguistically and discursively.
In my understanding of 21st century aid work, development research and anthropology we need to re-caliber our understanding of ‘the field’ to understand and challenge inequalities, (hidden) power dynamics and structural issues of the aid industry outside the rural starting/end point of development.

We, not just
‘the other’, are ‘the field’
The field is not simply where
‘the other’ lives regardless of whether they are called partners, recipients, beneficiaries or customers-we are ‘the field’, too, blogging it, log-framing it, participatory workshopping it or R&Ring it. A multi-sited aid industry with complex aid chains does no longer follow the linear logic of ‘North’, ‘capital city’ and ‘field’. A lot of aid ‘takes place’ elsewhere and we need to be there as well rather than romanticizing a rural ideal.
The field is where it hurts to go, where poverty and inequality exist, where people struggle and where injustice strikes-whether it is with slow Internet, unpaid internships, lack of clean water or irresponsible people in power.
So ‘the field’ can start right outside the capital city Capoeira/yoga/salsa/tango class, outside the office in Brussels/Washington, D.C./Nairobi, outside the transit airport in a Gulf state or outside the university classroom.
In short, ‘the field’ is most likely slightly outside the comfort zone-and when you are there you know it. The Brussels-based internship blacklisting initiative, for example, takes place in one of those fields and it is not entirely risk-free to get involved, stand-up and speak-out.

t take off the field like a multi-pocketed safari vest
The focus on the rural field also has the danger that it fits all too well with our social enterprise, public-private, win-win mindset where everybody can be on the winning team and can actually turn out to be more colonial than we enlightened cosmopolitan citizens of Aidland would ever think it is. Successfully returning from a ‘field visit’ comes with a lot of entitlements from a ‘proper’ shower to Skype dinners with ‘home’ and the guilty pleasures of Nutella, cornflakes or a few days off. It can also take the pressure off to not see the expat club, expensive trip to headquarters or a conference or injustice in the office through the ‘field lens’ that requires critical reflection, speaking up or even planning an ‘intervention’ of sorts.

Just to be clear: This is not a plea to not go to rural areas and learn about development by listening to local people. But I do think that we should become more aware and critical of other ‘fields’ that surround our work- and lifestyles rather than creating a competition about the realest aid worker and the toughest visit to an isolated place.

Alison has started a great debate and I look forward to engaging further in this discussions!


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