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#193 Being Doers or Thinkers

December 17, 2012

Submitted by Stephanie Baric who tweets at @StephanieBaric

International development is really a modern phenomenon.  When you think about it, it’s only been since World War II that wealthy countries sought to improve the quality of life beyond their own political borders.  And back in the day, international aid was so much easier. You distributed some bags of flour and cooking oil or built some clinics, schools or roads, took some pictures to send to the donors, and you were set.

But people got a whole lot of bright ideas in the seventies. And suddenly there was a focus on poverty and the emergence of rural development and improving social services. Being “poor” was no longer defined by a lack of basic needs.

In come the 80’s and the ‘market-based principles’ on the one hand and empowerment, participation, and rights on the other. Poor people are no longer beneficiaries; they are participants in their own development. Now aid workers need to be fluent in participatory rural appraisals, gender analyses and social assessments.

The 90’s bring us the link between aid and democratic accountability. In addition, now EAWs are supposed to stop facipulating and start handing over the stick, they’re supposed to let people not just participate in their own development, but actually lead it. Now it’s not so much about poverty… now ‘development is freedom.’

Most importantly for our self-referential purposes, all these historical developments in international assistance brought us two kinds of EAWs: the “thinker” and the “doer.”

Doers are the ones who, equipped with a budget and work plan, will ensure optimal burn rates (right down to the last pain regardless of how inefficient an organisation’s financial system might be) and meet project deliverables on time.  Doers generally spend years in one country and speak dialects or languages few in the West have even heard of. Over a few beers and cigarettes, they will provide the most compelling country briefings that will put academics claiming expertise in those countries to shame.

Emergency response required due to a manmade or natural disaster? A doer is on it and can shift effortlessly from development to relief and implement top-notch emergency programmes. In fact, they’ve got the Sphere Standards memorised because you can be sure they started their careers in conflict zones setting up refugee camps. A doer knows you’re not supposed to construct a latrine less than 50 metres from a dwelling.

A doer never accepts a job at headquarters because that’s where the frivolous “never slept in a rat infested hut or had malaria” types sit who actually have the audacity to visit “field” offices and try to deliver “technical” support. They see workshops and conferences as a waste of plastic and paper.  Even though they rarely admit this in public, doers generally tend to view exercises in developing complex programmatic frameworks involving spider diagrams as a waste of time since they could be sitting with a village chief having tea and talking about the next health project.

As they hop into their Land Cruisers in a single bound, waving at familiar community members passing by, you can be sure of one thing – a doer is a practitioner with a capital ‘P’ and delivers with a capital ‘D’.

A “thinker” is committed to promoting participatory cycles of development by actively engaging communities in designing, implementing and critically reflecting on good practices and lessons learnt. Thinkers spend a lot of time building communities of practice and publishing papers about development work in major academic journals. Most thinkers have graduate degrees and have attended some of the most prestigious universities in the world. What distinguishes them from grad school friends who went on to have highly paid careers in the private sector? Rights based approaches and the opportunity to wear exquisite shawls and have hand tufted rugs of the highest quality in their homes from far-flung places.

Do not make the mistake of assuming the thinker does not have real field experience.  After all, they often facilitate discussions with women of reproductive age sitting under trees using questionnaires they’ve designed to help them understand the impact of gender norms and attitudes on the prevalence of contraceptive use. For the thinker, development is not linear and every single activity, project, or program should have a theory of change (TOC).  Any good TOC will have underlying assumptions that are supposed to be tested and measured, that’s assuming you have a doctorate in social studies.

They do not turn down positions at HQ since it presents a chance to provide technical leadership to the field offices and a global perspective; not to mention having access to an infinite supply of post-it flip charts, coloured markers and all kinds of objects that can used as ice-breakers during workshops they will inevitably facilitate.

As they spend their evenings typing up a 40 page strategy document full of diagrams and arrows or travelling to present at conferences, you can be sure of one thing – a thinker is thoughtful with a capital ‘T’ and measuring impact with a capital ‘I.’

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One Comment leave one →
  1. Poacher permalink
    December 17, 2012 8:24 am

    Irony and humour .. fine, we need it; but let’s get the history right please …

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