Reader question 02: Mindful aidwork & acid tests for participatory development

It is always great to engage with reader's reflections on development's conundrums, challenges and paradoxes.  
In my first post the question was about Eradicating poverty with a PhD and/or UN job.
This time it is a bit more complicated, because finding the right approach to do valuable and sustainable volunteer-led development work with some critical self-reflection and local knowledge about the complexities is a close to development's holy grail...

Dear Tobias,
I'll be going back to (country) at the end of November to spend 6 months with a Sexual and Reproductive Health and Rights Awareness and Services NGO to help them expand their focus to include violence elimination and offering support for victims.

I am well aware of the countless instances where aid rather than aiding in fact introduces new problems and/or exacerbate the situation and am naturally keen on avoiding both.

My personal conundrum during my last stint in (country) had more to do with finding the appropriate balance between building skills, empowering, and inspiring and inadvertently destroying culture, creating aid-dependency and imposing a western order. I was acutely cognisant of how the notions of efficiency or even rationality were concepts that did not match the local worldview and it took many months before I started to grasp what was 'rational' according to their values.

There's a catch-22 in community work between gaining access to resources to achieve what matters to you through support from aid-agencies, which then requires the organisation to align their goals, processes and capacities to match their governance and donation requirements. This friction is of course further exacerbated by the 'state of things' and the sense of urgency to do 'something'. My supervisor, the president of the organisation I was working with, spoke with despondency of the lost spirit of volunteerism where people now seemed to only be interested in working for the community when there was money involved. Once salaries and sitting-fees became available, no one was willing to do it 'for free'.

Looking around (country), there are countless examples of where well-intended aid has had disastrous consequences, both environmentally and socio-economically.

I suppose I am looking for some quick acid-test of whether the proposal is more or less likely to cause inadvertent damage.

I'm not sure what this 'acid-test' might look like. Perhaps a set of questions, such as:

- did the decision making process involve a wide range of stakeholders (including benefactors)
- were all stakeholders given reasonable opportunity to share and provide input
- have impacts on existing service providers been carefully considered
- is the solution designed according to cradle-to-cradle philosophy

I appreciate such 'acid-test' might not exists, or even the opposite, that countless exists and have been incorporated into development frameworks and donor proposals


A Reader
Dear Reader,

You are describing somewhat of a textbook dilemma of development work and the summary of your situation probably rings familiar with many other readers and development colleagues.

Let me focus on three issues: First, the issue of mindful aid work when engaging with difficult or even violent contexts. Second, the issue of volunteerism and its ‘lost spirit’, and, third, the ‘do no harm’ question.

I think you are well prepared and have already gained some important insights into the local realities, but you should not take your own well-being lightly when engaging with issues that can psychologically be quite demanding. Supporting victims of violence is definitely not an easy task. So part of good development work is always to look after your own physical and mental well-being which is not
selfish and at the end of the day adds to the sustainability of the project. Alessandra Pigni’s Mindfulness and aid work site is a great resource and the aid workers tag on WhyDev also contains a lot of useful information and reflections on staying healthy.

The second part of the challenge is more difficult to answer. But one of Jennifer Lentfer’s recent blog posts “Create” nothing: A new social good mantra is one good indicator as to how volunteering can be approached: Would you still want be involved if you cannot ‘create’ anything?
But the issue around paying volunteers and working towards the professionalization of civil society and creating an industry around per diems is even more complex. I remembered this NORAD report from 2012 on the issue: 

The study has no conclusive evidence of the precise magnitude of the per diem problem but gives important insights into the potential for misuse, and contains a number of recommendations on how donor organizations and governments can promote a collective approach to improve on the current systems.
I think you are already asking some very important questions about ‘doing no harm’. Mary Anderson’s work probably sits on the shelf of any half-decent aid organization, but it has also moved into the realm of checklists, guidelines and rhetoric.
I think you have already identified important questions for planning and listening to people, but also identifying the 
unruly edges of participation is important.
At the end of the day many issues come down to ‘power’ and my dear IDS colleagues have assembled a great resource to think about the issue more in detail.

But all of these good preparations will be met by ‘some days…’ when aid just does not get things right. J. offers more insights from the humanitarian sector, but many of them apply to development work as well.

Dear Reader, I hope my brief additions to your reflections can start further reflections ‘on he ground’ to create a healthier and safer space in the place you are going to work-good luck and, literally,

Take care,



  1. Some great advice Tobias! Here's another "acid test" your reader might be interested in."If an organization or a project is genuinely community-based, it has much more to do with its relationship to its constituency." An evolving set of questions to inquire if there is genuine community ownership:

  2. Thanks Tobias! As you say many issues come down to power, so being mindful of power, wealth and priviledges is essential. In order to do that we need to learn to listen, to ourselves and to others. A couple of posts I wrote that your reader may find useful, one on power and one on the importance of listening Thanks for your work!

  3. Thank you for the resources, I learn so much from this blog! This is definitely a topic that I find morally troubling and am aware of when thinking about some of the kinds of jobs offered in international development.


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