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January 10, 2014

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January 10, 2014

Is ‘The Field’ an outdated and reactionary concept?

January 10, 2014
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Advance warning – this blog is going dark for a couple of days to allow the cyberelves to give it a makeover. Back on Wednesday.

Ex Tales from the Hood blogger ‘J’ has an enjoyable tirade on the Why Dev blog against the use of the phrase ‘The Field’ in aidland – (as in ‘I’m going to

Exhibit A

Exhibit A

the Field’):

‘There are few fixtures of the aid industry which hold as much mystique and show as much staying power as the concept and romance of “the field.” No other grail is so fervently sought among the bright-eyed, hopeful students and newbies as the field. The field, they believe, is where the action is, where they’re actually doing it, whatever “it” is. The harder or more exotic the field location, the better. Cubicles and conferences room in, say DC, are a necessary evil to be put up with until such time as one can escape to the field. There is no aspect of a young aid professional’s experience so frequently inflated or over-stated on resumes or at happy hour as time in the field. “Nearly one year” is always better than ten and a half months, and so on.

By the same token, there is no other trump card played with more authority and self-assurance, whether to put upstart newbs in their places or to establish one’s own silverback status, as years in the field. Years in Kabul or Huambo or San Salvador make you a hardcore, front-line badass who makes things happen. Years in Brussels or Singapore or DC makes you a pansy cubicle-farmer who goes to a lot of meetings and writes papers that no one in the field will ever read.’

As you can probably guess, J doesn’t approve:

‘It’s time to recognize that this is just plain incorrect. Make fun, if you will, of what goes on in well-lit UN conference rooms in Geneva, or at the global HQs in Washington, DC, Oxford, New York or Singapore (I certainly have and sometimes still do). But it’s important to understand that those things are not just “support” or “fundraising.” They may not be particularly Facebook- or edgy memoir-worthy, but the workshops, meetings, strategy sessions in the humanitarian capitals are every bit as much aid work as are running cholera clinics in Port-au-Prince, getting a truckload of non-food items across the Acekele border crossing, or being the accountability officer in Goma.

More specifically, to see the field as the place where aid really happens, as compared to everywhere else, is to also miss a basic reality that the decisions which truly make the most difference are not made in this alleged place called the field.

helps to talk to some...Beyond the basic, structural realities of the aid industry, there is also a deeper, darker problem perpetuated by the field versus everywhere else thinking. Our continued fixation with the field crystalizes residual, essentially ethnocentric notions about those who need help, and about those who do the helping. No matter how much lip service and maybe even real effort we devote to valuing all things “local”, to local capacity building, or local empowerment, to trying to break down the divide(s) between expats and non-expats, we re-cement the divide between “us” and “them” every time we refer to the place where aid supposedly happens as the field.’

All good stuff, and I would even add that ‘The Field’ may contribute towards the aid business’ inability to think and work in urban settings, where most people now live.

But there are some powerful counterarguments against ditching the concept (no problem getting rid of the phrase, which I seldom hear around Oxfam, except in an ironic form):

Whether in developing or developed countries, it’s all too easy for people working in the aid business to inhabit a world of meetings, conferences, seminars and the rest. Sure lots of important stuff gets discussed and decided there, but the effect of never leaving the aidbiz bubble is, I think, significant and damaging. It affects the individual – I find if I go a few months without a ‘field trip’, I get stale, lose energy, start to recycle the same old messages. Visits to our programme to talk to staff, partners and communities invariably throw up new ideas, insights into power and politics, and inspiring people and initiatives. That’s why I (along with Robert Chambers) wish more aid organizations took immersion seriously.

But more importantly, it also affects the aid ‘project’. People in aidland may pay lip service to ‘the field’, but power all too often lies back in HQ. In the past, IMF and World Bank staff have been quite open with me that career progression requires them to be working back at HQ in Washington (has that changed at all? Hope so). I sometimes ask Oxfam colleagues ‘when was the last time you talked to a poor person who wasn’t serving you in some capacity?’ and get some pretty evasive responses. If the answer is years, rather than months, that must have some, probably negative, effect. Field trips are one small corrective, trying to ensure the thinking and priorities of those working in the aid business are guided by the lives and opinions of poor men and women – spending time with them definitely helps achieve that.

And tangentially related, here’s some good advice from Aid Leap on how to get a job in the aid sector (whether in a field, or somewhere more comfortable) [h/t Jamie Pett]


  1. Hey Duncan and fellow nerds
    Two questions that came to mind:

    1. Shouldn’t the real issue be that ‘the industry’ may need an immersion beyond ‘Aidland’? It would satisfy your concerns above AND draw much needed attention to the beyond aid agenda.

    2. I’m increasingly coming to the conclusion that some of the key qualifications needed in the sector aren’t things you can acquire in a workshop or through an immersion. Critical thinking and being observant of axioms -at home and abroad- need to be nurtured over a lifetime. Sadly, I don’t see that these are rewarded in education or career paths at the moment.

  2. The ‘field’ is an anthropological construct, i think.
    That said, I enjoyed reading this piece. Would thoroughly recommend development professionals to undertake ‘fieldwork’ in inner city estates in Washington, Paris and London, too, as well as Kabul and Timbaktu. Too often the ‘field’ out there is so much more alluring and ‘exotic’ but of course we’re all written into the narratives of power, poverty and prestige in one way or another, and the field is an ever-changing space.

    Helps to speak the language of places, I think, that way, you can be wondering outside of meetings and visits and strike up an unscripted conversation.

    When was the last time? A few days ago in London during Christmas leave. It’s harder to meet people of a different class in my professional role, but not difficult when I go back home in the hood!

    1. Couldn’t agree more, Halima. I still remember interviewing kids in East London Save the Children projects as prep for a book on children in Latin America. Maybe time I went back.

  3. I suppose one could be really difficult and ask whether the discipline that invented the concept of the ‘field’ is equally outdated.

  4. Having exchanged a desk in Oxfam House for a whole office in Switzerland (with its very own tropical plant), I can only concur with a critique of seeing ‘aid’ only happening in ‘the field’ (or increasingly ‘the slum’) otherwise how would I justify my own existence?

    But that aside, I do think that ‘immersion’ is an essential dimension of good decision making and is too little practiced, not least because aid people, as one Ethiopian villager put it to me once, are ‘always in a hurry’ (and too polite to add ‘always extractive’)! It needs to be a repeated part of one’s working pattern because even people apparently quite ‘close’ to communities distance themselves (consciously or unconsciously) by the mere fact of being an ‘aid worker’ and the arts of genuine listening and attention need to be taught.

  5. Hi Duncan,

    As incoming director of CONCORD, the European Development NGO confederation, I make a point of introducing myself as someone coming from an operational job (working on Syrian refugee issues) – ‘from the field’ in other words. The point being that NGOs’ operational work informs and adds credibility to our policy and lobby work. We need to reach outside the bubble and bring examples to back up our analysis and policy demands. My observation after a few weeks in this ‘policy’ job is that we also need to explain better to ‘operational’ colleagues, how our work makes a different. What did that change in policy we affected actually mean to Nicolas’ Ethiopian villager (see comment above)?

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