Priority number one upon arriving in a new country, city, or international job placement – aside from determining whether or not you can drink the water – is to get in with the local expat community. These Brits, Aussies, Canadians, Dutch, and Americans are your hook up to the best bars, taxi drivers, and market vendors who won’t charge you mzungu prices. Those who came before us have all the knowledge, and therefore all the power. Get in with them, and you are set for the rest of your placement. Fail to do so, and it’s social suicide. You may as well join the Mathletes.
I reference Mean Girls for a reason. A strange phenomenon occurs when you take people who are used to being in the majority and place them in situations where they are the clear minority – it becomes high school all over again. Cliques form, gossip spreads, and “underclassmen” become the target of seniors intent on maintaining their vaulted position in the social hierarchy. This recently happened to a friend of mine who is working in a different part of Malawi. She arrived in country bright-eyed and bushy-tailed, eager to join the community, only to be shot down and shut out by the expat-equivalent of Regina George. Every time this girl saw “Regina” and her crew out-and-about, she got icy stares, cold shoulders, and the silent treatment. When my friend joined them for lunch one time, “Regina”, in a moment of catty, juvenile inspiration, took an impromptu poll of the lunch table to find out who among them had Ph.Ds (“Regina” & Co.) and who didn’t (my friend).
What is it that makes a grown adult devolve into a teenage girl? At one point or another, we’ve all been the new kid in school – nervous, insecure, just trying to find their place in a new environment. Why is our initial impulse to ostracize rather than embrace? It’s a troubling phenomenon that is all too often paralleled in the world of international development. As Jonathan Glennie writes on The Guardian’s Poverty Matters Blog:
The constant competition between NGOs for a limited pot of resources is most easily seen in applications for grant money from the major donors. Explicitly competitive tenders attract bids from dozens of NGOs, only one or two of which will get anything. Those that win the money will employ more people; those that don’t might have to lay off employees. (http://www.guardian.co.uk/global-development/poverty-matters/2012/mar/13/ngos-need-third-way-collaboration)
The quest for resources and recognition can lead organizations to engage in some extremely cliquey and territorial behavior worthy of any Sharks vs. Jets rumble. And unfortunately, it’s the innocent bystanders who, more often than not, suffer the most. We’ve seen the effects of this behavior in Haiti, where the efforts of anywhere between 300 and 20,000 non-governmental organizations have managed to leave the country arguably worse off than it was 20 years ago. I’ve seen it firsthand working in Ethiopia, where OVC-support organizations literally divvy up neighborhoods – and the children who live in them – for their own operations.
Why, in both the personal and the organizational arena, do we prioritize competition over collaboration? Are we becoming just like the organizations we work for, or vice versa? As kids around the world head back to school this month, we’d do well to think about how the international development community can finally graduate from it’s cliquey, territorial high school behavior.