Meditation on a Bed Net

My last night in Ethiopia.  I woke several times to hear the rat scurrying around under my bed, but I no longer reacted.  If it was going to attack me, it would have done so by now, so I just let him/her scurry.

I gazed up through the bed net, at the window and door which were silhouetted by flood lights.

This trip had made me realize that I (probably) did not want to live and work in a developing country.  I say “probably” because I don’t believe in saying no, full stop.

I had lived and worked or studied in Mexico and Kenya and Jordan/Israel/Palestine for periods of up to two months.  I have applied for and interviewed for many international development jobs. I always thought—if I could just work in a place like Iraq or South Sudan for six months—I could get other jobs anywhere.  I was the finalist for a job in Ingushetia. I know, I had never heard of it either.  Due to security considerations I withdrew before they could make a formal offer.  I was offered a job in rural Rwanda.  I turned it down because I am a city person and I thought I would go crazy with boredom.

I accepted, and had my flight booked, to take a two-year volunteer job with CUSO-VSO, the Canadian version of the Peace Corps.  They were going to send me to Kolkata, India to work with disabled slum women.  Their philosophy (and budget) dictated that I would have the same living standard as the people we worked with, so I would have lived in a cement room with no air con.  I remember telling this to a guy I met who was from Calcutta.  He looked at me like I was insane.  “Do you know what 40 feels like?” That’s 104 Fahrenheit.

I think I could have done these jobs, but that doesn’t mean I should have taken them.  My fear was that I would not be able to hack the heat, the rats, the noise, the boredom, or the overwhelming needs and hopelessness.  I’ve always had a drive to reduce suffering and contribute to making the world a better place.  I also have a desire for air conditioning and rat-free accommodations.

My colleagues and I in the US and UK have been talking a lot about the trend among NGOs to move their offices to the global south and employ people from the country of operations rather than importing people from the US, UK, Australia, and other western countries.

It’s been a trend for 10 years, but Oxfam and other organizations are really stepping up their efforts toward this shift.  The donors, like the US Agency for International Development, are also prioritizing local organizations for funding over international ones based in the US and Europe.  Soon, gone will be the days when an Italian or Dutch logistician or finance person will be hired to work in Bangkok or Amman and get perks like a house and driver and “hardship” allowance, while his or her local counterpart gets a regular salary and benefits.

At the same time, universities in the US and Europe have developed new degree programs like Global Studies and graduate degrees in International Development. I wish I could have earned one these degrees years ago when I was starting out, because I’ve pretty much had to learn everything on the job and I often didn’t know what I didn’t know.  Now these programs are churning out thousands of idealistic, ambitious young people who want to work “abroad,” just as NGO hiring preferences are shifting away from them.

Morning.  I hugged my colleagues good-bye and hopped in a Landcruiser for the ride back to Addis and my flight to London.  The airport would be the scariest part of my trip.

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