Above: A 4×4 navigates a difficult patch of muddy road. The quality of roads, and challenges of transportation, can be explained to distant staff in a meeting or report; but that explanation might mean relatively little compared to actually navigating or being stuck on those roads. 📸: Doug Nagie
When I first arrived in Guinea, I discovered that I had flown about 18 hours, and then drove for two days, to wind up over 6,000 miles from home—and start a desk job.
Our project was designed to support cashew farmers, and the entire cashew value chain they were a part of, in northern Guinea: the suppliers they bought inputs from, the “producer organizations” they were in, the wholesalers they sold to. I, then, had joined the project meant to work with these farmers, and it seemed intuitive to send me to where they were—but surely, presumably, to do work that had to be done there. That meant visiting fields, talking to farmers, working with local businesses—working with my Guinean colleagues down the hall, not D.C. staff thousands of miles away.
Instead, when I arrived, I worked from 8 to 5:30 on my laptop. I started on a report about our annual survey; I learned how our database was set up and how it fed our reporting; I worked with Microsoft Office, our database, and the internet. I tried to be humble, and yet I thought, “We have Microsoft Office at home.” I wanted to understand how the Real Work was done On the Ground, but I had come across an ocean and felt I still wasn’t On the Ground.
A twist for you: I still feel that I was right, to an extent. I think I, and the project, would have been better off if I was doing more of that sort of On the Ground work; I think that had been the original plan, but development work, even more than other work, doesn’t always go as planned. Maybe ideas changed between the staff running my fellowship, the staff at my host org’s HQ, and the Guinean office. Maybe COVID, which struck just when the project was beginning, had simply limited how much locally-based work was getting done (or, a co-worker or two whispered, it had provided a convenient excuse). Don’t get me wrong: by the end of my year in Guinea, the project was doing more, better work with the farmers we wanted to work with, and even my own work grew closer to my original idea of Real Work On the Ground.
Even when I was still doing desk work, though, a curious thing happened. I noticed that my D.C.-based colleagues, who had access to the same internet and Office suites that (I whined to myself) were all that was needed to do my job, sometimes just didn’t “get it.” Misunderstandings cropped up at unexpected places: HQ staff might describe activities we were doing in ways that were technically correct, but seemed to miss the mark; they might misunderstand the relationships between different project actors. These HQ staff were, and remain, very competent, thoughtful people that it’s been my pleasure to work with—so why these misunderstandings?
“Localization” is extremely important for reasons bigger, and more important, than this blog: justice and equity, the transfer of power from “ex”-colonizer to “ex”-colonized, financial reparations (albeit a tiny fraction of what’s necessary) in the form of wages for global south development workers, and of course the sheer indispensability of people who can literally speak to and work with the people our projects ostensibly work for. But I stumbled on one aspect of localization I hadn’t thought of before: living and working where a project is based can convey answers to questions we don’t know exist. HQ staff sometimes lacked knowledge that it had never occurred to me I had.
They sometimes had a clearer awareness of this gap than I did. When I briefly visited D.C., they wanted to ask the exact sort of questions that might be more easily asked or answered with gesticulations and buzzwords than the written word: what’s the vibe? How’s the place? Most fundamentally… like, what’s the deal?
It’s the sort of knowledge that can be so abstract, and yet so obvious—you stare at it at your desk, in your commute and eating your lunch—that it can be tough to realize or quantify when you have one perspective and others, far away, have another. (And my alleged grasp of this knowledge, we’re keeping in mind, was because I lived in a project’s zone of influence for about a year—how much bigger, then, is the actual gap between local and remote expertise?) Seeing a shop in person can give a meaningful impression of what sorts of data it might be able to provide about its operations. Visiting fields can give an impression of local farmers’ resources. Traveling to a project area can convey the challenge farmers will face getting their product to a market. True, we shouldn’t let “vibes” and first impressions overly influence or even prejudice us. True, a lot of information can be conveyed by writing or photos. But to convey such information, someone first has to explicitly realize that it doesn’t go without saying, and then successfully convey it without a loss of nuance or context.
Although plenty of work, including the entire concept of Monitoring and Evaluation, is meant to help capture “what is going on,” we can’t exclusively rely on emails, indicators, or written reports—even lots of them—because they can miss the sorts of questions that we don’t know we need to ask; they can miss the vibe. Although this information can be hard to identify or quantify, it is essential to implementing projects effectively. It’s how project staff know where the project is, so they know where it can go.
Most NGOs based in the global north still aren’t planning on relocating their HQs to global south countries where the work is based, but until they do, they should actively think about what information may seem obvious to local workers, or be difficult to capture or convey with indicators and reports, and seek out ways to help local workers’ nuanced grasp of this information filter to HQ workers. When the gap between local and HQ workers just can’t be satisfactorily closed, HQs should explicitly empower local staff to lead, trusting and empowered by the knowledge that may never extend beyond the local area. Both are practices that individual workers can also do, as I hope to. And in the end, these practices can hopefully capitalize on just one small reason, among many important ones, that localization is so important.