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How to Work in Someone Else’s Country (A Book Review)

Do you have a colleague that just won’t shut up about the fight he’s having with his sibling over their family’s vacation home? Or one who dressed way too provocatively when you were on that field visit last week? What about the person who constantly blames everything that doesn’t go their way on the incapacity or corruption of “the locals”?

We have all worked with these people. Perhaps we have even been these people at times. We didn’t know any better…until we did.

Can this book help make aid more effective?

Ruth Stark writes a book to help make the learning process a bit easier. How to Work in Someone Else’s Country is a quick, engaging read. Whether you are about to embark on your first volunteer stint abroad (see Chapters 4 and 5 on packing and travel tips or Chapter 8 on making them glad you’re there), or are a seasoned aid worker with a couple of decades in the field (see or Chapter 13 on working with governments, Chapter 14 on visiting “the field”, or Chapter 18 or briefings), open it up. I’m telling you after buying it myself—there’s advice in it you probably need to hear.

In all of the ongoing discussions of aid effectiveness, this has always been the most glaring absence—the conduct of aid workers. While Stark does little to explore or explain the roots of the aid system and the inequities at its core, she does aptly describe the situations that they produce, and what she has personally found as the best ways to navigate them. To fumble is an inevitable part of working cross-culturally. To be humble is not, thus the need for a book such as this.

While the journal entries can at times seem contrived and the advice can be consultant centric, the genuineness of Stark’s advice shines through. Stark, an international health expert, writes for her daughter, also now an aid professional. She writes to articulate the values she wants her child and all aid workers and international do-gooders to embody. How you behave, how you treat people—it matters.

We spend so much time on the hard skills, making sure everyone has the right technical knowledge and training. The so-called “soft skills”—relationship building, emotional intelligence, listening, facilitation, leadership, etc.—are assumed to already be in place. It’s a fatal mistake that we in the aid industry continue to make. I don’t presume to know the solution. What I do know is that bad behavior can be a much more serious impediment to progress than lack of a functional logframe.

Stark described the book as one she had been “threatening to write for 20 years.” I, for one, am glad she did it. It may even make a great “gift” for that colleague with some learning to do.

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To read one of the chapters from Stark’s book, “Chapter 8: How to Make Them Glad That You Are There”, click here.

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Related Posts

If I had only known…

The elephant hasn’t left the room: Racism, power & international aid

The Joy of Aid Work

Got ‘Em: An Evaluation Story

Confessions of a Recovering Neocolonialist

Aid Worker: First, Know Thyself


6 Comments Add Yours ↓

  1. 1

    Thanks for this review Jennifer, I totally agree that we need training on so called soft-skills, rather than more workshops on log-frames!

    It may be a simplistic take, but it seems to me that at times the lack of understanding of another culture amounts to a lack of good manners, and a lack of sensitivity. There is no need to be a cross-cultural anthropologist to have those in place. We all need to read Ruth’s book and take its message on board, in order to get beyond the widespread attitude: “we are here to teach you how to be developed”, which understandably can fuel resentment in our hosts.

    Knowledge and self-awareness help, especially self-awareness of our own biases and personal motivations for “doing good”.

  2. 2

    I’m unlikely to read the book, but having left my country of birth in 1982, I couldn’t agree more with the importance of ‘soft’ skills. In fact the ‘hard skills’ can be positively dangerous in the hands of aid workers who lack the range of social skills required to read the environment in which they plan to intervene.

  3. Marcella Reis #
    3

    Simple is always a good frame work from which to start any thing in life and in particular when entering anyone elses world be it overseas, out of your native home or right at home. Culture shock doesn’t seem to be a phrase used much these days but that is part of what anyone, and I mean anyone experiences when leaving their home circle. It is knowing how to assess our response to change and the unknown that needs to be planned for – and taught – those soft skills Alessandra referred to in her comment, good manners and sensitivity. The challenge with this is those who do well cross culturally live less cerebrally and allow themselves to feel the discomfort of not being the ‘big man of the village’ the one in the know. And as the author says – to be humble, even once we make our new place ‘home’. Thanks for the review and thoughts.

  4. Marcus Catsam #
    4

    I’m so happy someone is addressing this issue. The so-called “soft skills” are what most of use on a daily basis. How many “technical” practitioners are there these days? A monkey could learn to apply many of the “technical” principles in much of our field. Given the high capacity of local staff, most of us expats are basically paperweights- there so donors can feel comfortable giving money (…a whole other topic). Most of what we do every day is (should be) based on building and sustaining relationships. And frankly, most of us do a downright lousy job at it. As part of my performance appraisal at one of the big US NGOs my boss once told me that I “thanked local staff too much,” an apparently errant behavior that would lead to staff not knowing their place. Within months she was promoted to a Vice Presidential position in the organization. Although anecdotal, the example speaks volumes…

  5. Oscar Marleyn #
    5

    “Development” is a two way process. We are being developed too. At least if we are open to it. And for that some essential skills are needed to create room for: feelings, listening, equality, appreciation, encouragement beyond competition, diversity and incisive questions from all those involved. Methodologies and tools are necessary but they need to be used with care and insight as tools to visualise the thinking around us.

  6. 6

    This is very interesting issue and though may seems not serious thing for some of us but it is when it comes to success of our work.

    Setting of our own expectations from others and what we are sure we can give others we work with. One should also be ready to meet the opposite expectations while working with others and especially while working with anyone from a different country since policies, laws, and culture may differ and thus makes everything very challenging.

    I may not read the book but am happy that this is addressed I will try and get the book may be around September/October.


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