Farida Bena

Who is an expert?

In this meta-reflection for Power Shifts, Farida Bena urges us to rethink what expertise means within the development and aid sector, and to address the organizational and structural barriers that hinder the transformation of this concept into a more justice-oriented one. Farida is the Director of Policy and Advocacy at the International Rescue Committee in Geneva. She has worked on development and aid programming and policy, and climate change advocacy in over fifteen countries.


“It’s time to give a platform to the local staff, the policy advisors, and the Southern thinkers and doers that have expertise to share, but who often go ignored in global policy discussions.”

Having worked on global development issues for over two decades, I should know who is an expert in my sector by now. I have many lists of experts on file and can’t help noticing a recurring trend: it’s usually people from a Northern/Western background, with endless degrees and credentials, most of them English-speaking. All of which begs the question: are these traits supposed to be the qualifications of the ultimate expert in my field? What if there’s a whole world of ‘expertise’ that we simply don’t consider?

These reflections brought me to start a personal blog, ‘Kiliza – Listening to Southern Citizens’, four years ago. After reading Time to Listen by Mary Anderson, Dayna Brown and Isabella Jean, I was more committed to help share the views and voices of people directly affected by humanitarian crises, poverty and climate change in the global South. By focusing on featuring Southern voices on the blog, I have learned that power, language and lack of time play a major role in defining who is an expert.

Learning along the way

My initial approach was to dig out surveys and summarize research findings on what ‘affected populations’ thought of the aid they received. After a while, though, this started feeling a bit stale. As interesting as it was to read about perception studies, the researcher always had the last word on what people were saying. Apart from a few anecdotal quotes, these people’s views were considered valid only in large numbers. Obviously, a survey is by nature a collective effort that needs to follow a rigorous research methodology. But the standard approach to ‘tapping into’ unheard voices was still, by and large, top-down. The questions were still predetermined mostly by researchers and policy-makers from the global North.

Therefore, I began looking for individual stories of people affected by different crises. I wanted to learn not just from their personal experience, but also from the wisdom they had gained through direct exposure to crisis. And, in addition to learning, I wanted these unheard voices to gain the respect and validity they so deserve.

I have now moved away from surveys towards interviewing one person at a time, whether it is a refugee from Pakistan, a young entrepreneur from Uganda or a former colleague from Morocco. It’s time to give a platform to the local staff, the policy advisors, and the Southern thinkers and doers that have expertise to share, but who often go ignored in global policy discussions. Increasingly, I am questioning the interview format itself. I’d like to get to a point where my role is not to ask the questions or guide the conversation – a more just world is also one in which we can simply have a dialogue between peers.

“Power, language and lack of time play a major role in defining who is an expert.”
Photo: Aris Sanjaya/CIFOR, CC BY

Three challenges ahead

There are a few hurdles to overcome, though, before we get to that fuller concept of expertise. Here are the top three I have been able to identify:

1. We need to address the unequal power dynamics created by the dominance of the English language. We may acknowledge it, yet we never really challenge it, hoping Google Translate or simultaneous interpretation will compensate for the imbalance. ‘It feels intimidating to speak in a room full of Anglophone speakers’, said Sema Genel Karaosmanoğlu, despite her impressive experience as Executive Director of Turkish NGO Support to Life and Board Chair of the global network of local and national civil society organizations NEAR. If she is intimidated, imagine what the representative of a grassroots organization must feel like trying to participate in global discussions. At least once in my professional life, I would like to attend a global (not regional) policy discussion that is entirely held in a language other than English. Has anyone ever tried that in global policy hubs like Geneva, New York or even Paris?

2. We need to massively reduce the use of jargon. Jargon adds another layer of discrimination that we, as humanitarian and development community, often recognize but allow nonetheless to flourish in our daily conversations. I understand how jargon can be a convenient shortcut to express complex ideas, especially if you are short on time and want to address a familiar audience. But we also need to have a shared understanding of what we are talking about instead of assuming everybody knows, sometimes for years.


“Instead of helping, jargon ends up being a smokescreen for ambiguity and exclusion.”

Take, for example, the concept of the ‘humanitarian-development nexus’. We assume that everyone knows what it is but when you go deeper, you get all kinds of interpretations. Is the nexus supposed to be the transition from humanitarian aid to development? What if a natural disaster disrupts this transition? And what exactly is the ‘triple nexus’ once you add peace to the mix? Instead of helping, jargon ends up being a smokescreen for ambiguity and exclusion. Unless we make a conscious effort to express the complexity of aid or development policy discussions in everyday language, we come across as being out of touch with reality. At best, we are unable to communicate our messages effectively. At worst, we fuel the skepticism of the broader public, as shown by the widespread rise of the anti-expert sentiment in recent years.

3. Another important barrier we need to overcome is lack of time. Time to Listen rightly pointed out how often in the aid sector we skip the fundamental step of reaching out to the populations we support and hear their views on how we are doing. Too often, the standard reply is that we don’t have the time. Well, if time is money, what we really lack is budgeted time to listen. It is still next to impossible to find a donor that is willing to pay for us to just sit down with affected populations and listen and learn about how they are coping with a crisis and what solutions they have already identified which we can support. If you are a consultant, as I have been, it is even more challenging to convince your commissioning manager that yes, you do need more than two days to understand what people think of the aid they receive and why.

In fact, having the time to listen is only part of the equation. We also need time to think – whether it is through writing, studying or teaching – to make sense of what we have learned in our own specific context. It is one thing to read the findings from a perception study on education in South-East Asia; quite another to rethink your education program based on the article’s recommendations. A third step is having the time to explore, that is, testing alternative, bottom-up approaches alongside the traditional way of doing things in your organization. This means accepting that new approaches might fail several times before they start working.

Walking the talk

All these additional steps – having the time to listen, to think and to explore – require budgeting. Is there a donor out there, public or private, that is willing to fund these intangible, but ultimately more effective, efforts on a regular basis? If not, let’s discuss why. I am ready to bet that donors find it hard to ‘sell’ these intangible efforts to their constituents (e.g. taxpayers), which takes us back to the importance of communicating what we do more effectively.  

Four years from now, I hope there will be many more blogs amplifying voices from the Global South. The most important lesson I have learned so far is to walk the talk and start doing things differently, even if it just means writing one post at a time in plain English – and in other languages too.


Featured image: Science Week at UNIKIS, Kisangani – DRC, 2019. Axel Fassio/CIFOR, CC BY.

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Comments

32 Responses to “Who is an expert?”
  1. Excellent piece, Farida. Having worked in development cooperation for many years, I think we shouldn’t take for granted the opportunity to be part of the development pathways of different countries. Practically this means that we need to move from tyranny of experts to genuine collaborators. Seeking durable development solutions by just sending experts to help others in the “South” is no longer a workable option. As Saleemul Huq, the climate change and sustainable development expert argues, “when it comes to climate adaptation, [developing countries] have the greatest expertise and other countries may benefit from learning from what they have done.” Here’s a remarkable example that shows a clear leap from rhetoric to action. Through more than 40 years of collaboration with Switzerland, Nepalese engineers have become world experts in trail bridge construction. Since 2008, Nepalese engineers have been collaborating with their counterparts in Burundi, Ethiopia, Mozambique, Laos, Vietnam and elsewhere. Here is a short piece that I wrote on this topic in July 2019: https://www.helvetas.org/en/switzerland/how-you-can-help/follow-us/blog/inclusive-systems/Compelling-Reasons-Why

  2. Stefanie Conrad

    The most important qualities of a development or humanitarian “expert” are not so much the technical knowledge that s/he brings to programmes and projects; they are the simple ability to truly respect people, listen to them, show empathy and build nurturing and trusting relationships (sounds a bit cheesy, I know). They also require also an extremely well developed ability to understand context and constantly adapt and respond to it which is a skill hard to recruit for. Of course, there are also technical skills and knowledge needed to ensure programmes meet technical standards and are of no harm, but these are often the smaller part of making valuable “expert” contributions to programmes. The advise I would give to recruiters hiring technical expertise is to look out for those who use the least buzz words, explain things in simple terms and come with service attitude.

  3. Silva

    Great blog. the real experts of a situation are the people living it, we must engage in conversations with them and reveal their knowledge. As an evaluation consultant, I keep on stressing that “I am not the expert, I am the facilitator… the interpreter… the consolidator”. I ban all jargon and spend time asking them “what do you exactly mean by this word”. Because jargon is just an empty box that we should fill in with meaning. I now blog my evaluations – with the consent of people – and add their voice as videos when possible (see, for example https://smcethiopiaeval.wordpress.com/). The idea is that people commissioning the evaluation can derive findings, ideas directly by listening to people on the ground. It is not the end of the game, but it matters in showing “which voice counts”. I would really wish to move from an interview format (even if it is an open one) to a more balanced dialogue. Having said so, my experience is when people are listened, and their opinion solicited, they are not at all intimidated, and their strengths and insights often surprise people. The challenge? Getting spaces for these formats. The emphasis continues to be on traditional evaluation, and it takes brave organizations to shift. Even if the cost is the same! (I did not charge higher, even if the work is MUCH more demanding, in terms of time and skills). It is really really hard to promote different approaches, there is no incentive to it. Tons more should also be said about the reporting format. A report format is the graveyard of communication. There are so many other possibilities worth trying (shorter briefs, use of visuals, participatory engagements… just to mention a few). It is about recognizing that evaluations and similar commitments are not “a report”. They are a process. But it is hard to do so in a development world where bureaucracy prevails.

    • I admire your determination to try alternative approaches despite the challenges you describe. It would be interesting to hear your views about what could represent an incentive to doing evaluations differently. Perhaps your suggestions could inspire others to test new evaluation formats, particularly if they don’t necessarily generate additional costs, as you say.

  4. Many thanks Farida for this blog post. Having worked in the humanitarian and development cooperation sector for nearly two decades, I recognize many of the things you highlighted. Indeed, we need to question how we resource ‘experts’ in development projects where context understanding is almost everything yet structural barriers (e.g. contracting of experts from the global south in addition to limited budgeted time for learning, listening and reflection) continues to inhibit many of the projects that I’m involved as an evaluator. Southern partners’ learning (from northern partners) dominates most of the theory-of-change discussions. I think we should also make it an explicit project outcome on what northern partners and their ‘experts’ can learn from the south, so as to provide better support. Interestingly in Sweden, some development actors have increasingly used diaspora experts in their development projects where they become brokers of the two worlds for their contextual knowledge, local language and networks. The results have been very positive. The north and south divide when it comes to experts is not a clear cut and diaspora community offers some good opportunities.

  5. Priyanthi Fernando

    So excited about this piece, because we have been saying this for a long time, and nobody was listening, and perhaps now, because it is on FP2P we might get some traction for this idea of who really is an expert. That in itself somewhat demonstrates that the sites of knowledge legitimisation have not shifted – yet. I just want to share a story which might not be as funny in translation, but it’s one of the many that shaped my career in development and led me to eschew the term ‘expert’ to apply to me (privileged, English-speaking woman from the global south) or to any of the others that Farida refers to.
    IT was my first job as a development worker and I was working with women coir rope producers in the South coast of Sri Lanka, as part of a USAID funded Small Enterprise Development Project for Rural Women (this was the mid 80s after all). My engagement with the women in these village communities was quite intense. I spent several weeks at a stretch with them learning about the coir rope manufacturing industry, and trying to explore avenues that would enable them to get a better return for their labour. At one point a group of these women were having a conversation with a government official and I heard them talk about me, and let me paraphrase: “she is from the city” they said. ” but she knows everything about our coir industry – where we get the raw materials, the prices we pay, the actions of the middlemen. She can even quality control the final product” (by this time the young me was preening) “but” they added ” she is truly such an expert (and they used the local term that implies specialist learning) that if you ask her to practically spin the rope, she cannot, she just botches it up worse than the kids”
    I think the trick is to recognise that there are different kinds of ‘expertise’ and that it is perhaps by putting these different expertise together is how we can resolve some of the problems we face in development.

  6. Timely, thoughtful, passionate and purposeful ,If I may- an issue that is so fundamental in the development interventions and so dear to my heart. Thanks to Farida and other commentators below.

    Firstly, the impact of the English Language colonial impact and the consequent sense of inadequacy that we feel. Indeed this is very much true in many places I have lived and worked including India more recently. For me writers like Rushdie helped me to liberate from this strangle hold. Indeed since I came to live in UK in my interactions at Oxfam hq and other places I attended or spoke-I often quipped -that I am adding masala(Spice) to a bland language.
    Secondly, listening -patiently and thoughtfully .There is no substitute to it. Unassociated with any project my stay in India during the last 6 years luckily provided me with that space.i cannot say how delighted I felt and how enriched I found my self after each encounter and conversations on many issues that particular person and or community is facing.
    Indeed my walks I have always endeavoured to do just that -capture stories of people impacted by Markets and climate and communicate them to bring the people and issue alive- this has been very effective in building solidarity ;popular communication; training and enabling woman to tell stories and so on.
    Please see my walk blog-if you have a minute.. http://www.gopushgo.co.uk
    – I undertake to tell the story as I walk , I gather the stories and Talk. Happy to do that more in case you need me.

  7. Thank you, Farida, for sharing your thoughts and for your true commitment to the people of the South, which is clearly shown at your Kiliza website (http://kiliza.altervista.org/ ).
    I have had the honor of sharing with you one of those conversations that you carry out to capture the voices of the South, being myself a worker/local expert of sustainable development in Argentina, currently focused on Sustainable Tourism (https:/turismosostenible.com.ar ). Argentina, as surely all readers here know, is a Spanish-speaking country in Latin America, and therefore where we know well what the dominance of English means at global participatory processes.
    My affection and gratitude to you, Farida, and best wishes to you all!

  8. I also cannot agree enough with @faridabena about the plague of “not enough time” in our sector. In fact, urgency is a tool of control, of maintaining the status quo, and is included as a characteristic of white supremacy culture within organizations: http://www.cwsworkshop.org/PARC_site_B/dr-culture.html There is a price paid when we are rushed, but it is not a price exacted from those with secure salaries and those taking relatively tiny political risks. For those who no longer want to be complicit with the silencing of popular knowledges and experiences by Eurocentrism, we need to understand how commodified time, created by consumer-driven, scarcity mindsets, inhibits our ability to learn and respond to a changing world. Urgency is something which our organizations, our teams, and our selves must resist in our work. What can we learn from Indigenous circular, cyclical, liminal, and relational concepts of time? http://www.how-matters.org/2019/06/25/its-about-time/

  9. Thank you for this wonderful piece. Ears before eyes. The dominance of language. Building listening and thinking time into research and evaluations. So true. Such a paradigm shift requires a shift in funding as well to enable South voices to be able to do the kind of work North experts often dominate. In addition, we need to provide space for more horizontal learning, community speaking to community, young women to young women, communities to local government etc, time for joint dialogue and reflection which they rarely have time for through more participatory action research.

  10. I always get a bit anxious when this conversation starts because it more often than not, it sounds like we’re saying the roles should be inverted . In other words: Stop listening to ‘northerners’ and start listening to ‘southerners’. What is necessary to advance ‘development’ is a move away from individual knowledge and expertise to reinforcing a process of finding and testing solutions that centred on debate and the contestation of ideas. What this ‘listen to southern voices’ narrative sounds like to me, and how it usually plays out in practice is quite paternalistic. On many occasions I have seen bad ideas from a ‘southern voice’ going unchallenged or debated. The manifestation of Western/Northern guilt means that ‘northern’ practitioners are compelled to nod sagely, smile and say ‘wow’ and make awe-filled positive comments about the value indigenous knowledge, instead of having the courage and respect to challenge and engage ‘southerners’ as equals and through that advancing each other understanding and knowledge.

    • Thanks for raising these important points, Allan, they would justify a whole new blog post. I have worked with civil society organisations from the global South and indeed seen a few of them replicate the same top-down approaches they are ready to blame in their Northern counterparts. Ideological opposition to the ‘Northeners’ may also play a big role, regardless of what is being discussed. In my experience, these cases remain the minority and either exacerbate or antagonize an old-fashioned approach that we need to overcome together. In fact, what I say in the article is that we should move towards a dialogue between peers on topics where both parties have knowledge to share based on their experience – which is what you also recommend.

  11. Just saw this. Great topic and treatment. Two short comments.
    1. I worked for years in MSF. No shortage of unearmarked funding. And yet no time for listening. In other words, donors and budgets might not be the only issue.
    2. Should this be a question of ethics rather than of expertise? So what if the Western expert knows more, people still have the right to control the aid programs that affect their lives. Doesn’t respect for dignity go beyond recognizing their expertise (and I agree with the fact of their expertise)? Doesn’t it mean recognizing their right to get it wrong?

    • Spot-on comments, Marc. Do we prioritise people or knowledge? I agree there’s an ethical issue there that should be further explored. By the way, I’m an avid reader of your blog, Humanicontrarian. Hope we can continue this conversation.

  12. Isabella Jean

    Farida, thank you for this excellent post. It rings true in so many ways, both personal and professional. It is a topic close to my heart given my personal journey as an aid recipient and as a local staff member of externally funded civil society efforts. The 1988 earthquake, the war in the 90s and the crippling blockade, resulted in the formation of many local voluntary organizations in my country that assumed the responsibility for setting up orphanages, temporary shelters, delivering medical supplies and food. These were the first such non-governmental groups in Soviet Armenia – a remarkable phenomenon, considering that it was still 3 years prior to the disintegration of USSR. But with the arrival of international aid (also unprecedented during the Cold War), Armenia was suddenly exposed to large number of foreign NGOs and “experts.” Some of these external “civil society experts” brought with them very specific and narrow notions of what civil society should look like and how it should function. I’ve reflected on some of this in a blog a while back: https://www.cdacollaborative.org/blog/thinking-dfid-effective-civil-society-personal-reflection/

    We all have seen how well-intentioned outsiders displace local mechanisms, capacities and expertise by privileging other, more familiar, professional, jargon-filled and elite perspectives. During the Listening Project, across the 20 country listening visits, we heard repeated calls for respect – such as this one in Cambodia: “There is a responsibility for foreigners to quiet their voice. Calm down and visit and get to know the people. Don’t run in with your own agenda” and in Sri Lanka: “Why don’t you value local knowledge and capacity? We have engineers and experts, too.”

    As we sat down to write Time to Listen book, to share the cumulative voice and analysis of people who have experienced years of international assistance, we were struck by the description of the aid system that emerged from thousands of pages of field notes: “In the eyes of people in countries that receive aid, international assistance is a multilayered and sometimes overbearing delivery system for resources and expertise from wealthier people and countries to poorer people and countries. With years of experience and learning, it has developed into the complex enterprise of multilateral organizations, bilateral development aid agencies, international and local NGOs, community-based organizations, foundations, diplomats, banks, consultants, contractors, companies, academics, development “experts,” and more.” We also recognized that this system is not easy to change, and many will resist this change precisely where their particular expertise may be challenged and their status as an expert potentially diminished.

    People are starting to question and challenge the power, the language and the alleged time deficit that hampers authentic and meaningful listening, dialogue and collaboration. As an independent consultant, I choose to integrate these questions and to search for joint solutions across all aspects of collaboration, not just as ‘nice to have’. I also support my clients to practice narrative humility and not to overclaim – a tough task, in an environment dominated by donor reporting, jargon, hype and competition of visibility! I am also privileged to teach in a graduate program that attracts many experienced practitioners from the Global South who bring a wealth of knowledge, challenge dominant narratives, question the assumptions and theories of change in use, and help to enrich classroom discussions and team projects. A collaborative aid system is truly possible – we have all experienced at micro level – but we all still have a lot of work left to do to make it possible at the macro level.

    • Thanks so much for sharing your personal and professional experience, Isabella! You have been making an amazing contribution to meaningful collaboration in the aid system. It would be interesting to hear how you see change possible at the macro level, as you say. What do you think we need to move from ad hoc to more systemic improvements in the way we deliver aid?

      • Isabella Jean

        Thank you Farida. I think there are many ways to influence the system, and your work to elevate Southern voices on the Kiliza blog is part of it. I recently spent time in discussions with a seasoned reflective practitioner who urges all outsiders who cross borders offering aid, advice, and resources “to show up differently.” We talked about what it would mean for donors to “show up differently.” Alas, most of the changes are well familiar to many of us: 1) build relationships, not dependencies; 2) make long-term investments of time and resources, don’t “projectize”; 3) know when to let go, to step back, to support from behind; 4) listen, respect, collaborate, and share the risks. People who’ve observed the evolution of the aid system have discussed, written and advocated for these changes at length… for years. It appears the incentives for ‘business as usual’ remain strong. I look for examples of how change is happening at many levels, and particularly at local level in places where local actors are rejecting pre-determined and rigidly structured external support and are leading humanitarian, peacebuilding and development action and mobilizing others to do so (e.g. in Haiti, Nepal and other countries). I look forward to reading profiles of these bold local leaders on your blog!

  13. Shilpa Iyer

    Thank you, Farida, for your excellent post. As I read through, I found myself completely agreeing and wondering why this issue isn’t brought up enough. As a novice to international development (just starting my first year in a master’s program in international development in the U.S. with a prior background in environmental science), I am finding that most of my professors, along with leaders in the field, are from Northern/Western backgrounds. I often wonder to myself what gives them the authority to speak about India, Sub-Saharan Africa, or Latin America, more than people from these areas themselves. Sure, people who are considered “experts” may have gone to a well-regarded college, published many papers, engaged in eminent research and the like, but there are cultural and experiential nuances that I think make all the difference in the field of development. In fact, there are many examples of failed development interventions simply because the people that were directly affected by a program weren’t even consulted. It seems self-explanatory, but the people who a program is trying to support should ultimately have the most power in the program, and they should be listened to. This is important not just for the effectiveness of a program, but to build trust and respect. Also, if development is ultimately intended to help groups without monetary or other forms of power, these people should not be excluded from development. Use of the English language and jargon sets up barriers and enforces a structural hierarchy between development workers and the people they are trying to support. Thank you again!

    • Thanks for your reflections, Shilpa. The challenge is to turn our growing awareness of the invisible barriers you mention into concrete action. I hope you will have a chance to discuss where we go from here during your master’s program. Good luck.

  14. MJ

    I think your point about the preeminence of English, in particular is spot on. (I am lucky to be a native English speaker, unlucky to be pretty rubbish in other languages.) I think that links to another key epistemological element: the ability to think logically and communicate clearly. Those of us who are blessed with some measure of that ability are too easily convinced that others who appear to be just blathering away in an ill-defined circular argument can be largely dismissed. This temptation is strongest during engagement not with beneficiary communities (where one hope’s one’s listening hat is on – why else are you there?), but in dealing with professional colleagues from the global South. It’s really hard not to fall into that trap, and I hate it when I find myself doing so, and fear that I do far more often than I realise.

    That said, there is also a danger of slipping into an all-pervading relativism in which all contributions are equally valid. We need to put more effort into encouraging colleagues who have not benefited from the same kind of elite education we were fortunate enough to receive, and to put more time into working through suggestions, and yet at the same time honest enough to be clear when an idea fails basic tests of plausibility when relating proposed inputs and activities to desired outcomes. Failing to do that is patronising: it suggests we do not hold them to the same standards we hold ourselves.

    And at the end of the day, time is money, and it is not unreasonable for donors to demand cost-effectiveness and value-for-money, so it will probably be a never-ending battle to keep justifying that time investment. As ever, it will be easiest for those organisations lucky enough to be well regarded by donors, who have the luxury of that time. In contrast scrappy newcomers or those working in unfashionable areas may have little choice to short-cut the process or die. Alas habits formed then can easily last a lifetime when a scrappy newcomer turns into the latest donor darling.

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