Thursday, April 3, 2008

The white people's guide to field work: #1

This post is written by guest blogger Victoria (I'm just posting it for her). A couple of notes on her behalf: Victoria has just come back from a long field assignment where she dealt with a lot of well-meaning North Americans and Europeans repeatedly making the same stupid field mistakes. In order to send them out better prepared, she has put together these bits of wisdom.

The term "white" has nothing to do with skin has more to do with the attitude of the person. Read on, and it'll come together...

Yeah, kinda like these folks! In case you can't see it, the sign says "JELLYFISH. Stings are painful. Stay out of the water." (source:

White folks, it's hard to not accidentally be a douchebag when you're trying to do good out there, isn't it? I mean, it's not exactly easy to go to an entirely alien place and figure out all the cultural minefield while doing your project... and who knew that impoverished places could have a code of honor that is so different from our own?

This is a guest post written tongue-in-cheek for all the newbie white liberals we meet while gaining field experience. You mean well, we see that. You're trying your best, even while you bring your Bibles to convert starving locals. And sometimes, it's just hard to bring this stuff up, because, well, it's not easy to lecture you if you're the one bringing in all the funding, the expertise and the media. Besides, we've got our own cultural rules to abide by, and one of them is to not put your character flaws in your face.

Still, since most of the global NGO aid and philanthropy is coming from pockets of white coastal North America, Australia, England, Scandinavia and Northern Europe... and since most of that "help" that has largely gone to Africa has more or less crippled its economy and done one harm after another and wasted billions of dollars...I think it's safe to say that for the sake of Latin America and Asia, where more than half of the poorest poor still reside, we've got to mention something. How do I put it kindly: White culture misses some really obvious things that, if heeded, would put them on the same wavelength as those they are trying to assist or solve problems for. Quit being a blockhead out, please, and thank you.

Here's a helpful behavior guide to field work and development. I know, I've got a heart of gold. No need to thank me, I do it for the children of Africa, Latin America, and Asia. Um, and, our sanity.

#1 Remember that old saying, "If you haven't got anything nice to say, don't say anything at all"? It probably holds a bit more true in the developing country than the one you come from, especially if you are received as a guest. As a rule of thumb, compliments will get you anywhere and a foul mouth will only gain you ill will from the locals.

I can't blame white people, every single thing you've ever learned in journalism class, science lab, or court rooms has been to exalt candor. You're supposed to question authority, drag out the dirty truth, find proof in shady dealings, and...what's that word again? "Transparency." This whole movement to question authority, to drag out the dirty truth. A lot of white people make it their civic duty to weasel out the problems, document the atrocities, photograph the horrors of poverty, pestilence and disease.

Still, remember two things: One, you are like a guest to someone's home. It is extremely rude to simply arrive to dig up dirt, be discreet! Two, every human being no matter how poor and how compromised has his/her pride to defend. National allegiance and their ego identity will force locals on the defensive. While places like Haiti may have more than its fair portion of violence, corruption and tragedies, its people will still be proud to be Haitian and resent the guest who doesn't know how to act gracious. Because even when nothing seems to be going right, they still wish to put the best foot forward to the public.

Practice tact and be very cautious not to always seek the sensationalist stuff to report, to photograph, to remember.That involves what you are most interested in: the homeless, the befallen, the environmental outrage, the disease-ridden, the sufferers. The same goes for gruesome deaths and private moments. Remember: they themselves are not proud of this. It is usually bad form for the foreign visitors to criticize; and even worse to base their entire assumption of the country on their dirty laundry.

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