Working in Someone Else’s Country

In the United States, May is graduation season, and with that season comes an influx of both young and seasoned professionals entering and/or re-entering the workforce through full-time positions and short-term consultancies. May also marks the beginning of summer, where hundreds of students head “into the field” to complete research or internships in international settings. For those in international development, I have just one recommendation before you make the transition: Read this book.


Photo courtesy of Amazon

How to Work in Someone Else’s Country by Ruth Stark (reviewed here by Jennifer Lentfer at How Matters) provides practical advice to mitigate against some of international development’s greatest failures as propagated by poorly prepared (and poorly behaved!) international workers. Think you know all there is to know about “getting development right” and working in partnership with local communities? Think again! Even the seasoned aid worker will pull out some hidden gems to act on, all while nodding in agreement at some of the cringe worthy anecdotes of consultants gone wrong. Especially important for evaluators and M&E specialists, as most of our work tends to be shorter-term and—let’s face it—is particularly susceptible to negative perceptions at the community or local level.

Some key takeaways from my favorite chapters:

  • Relationship is everything…and everyone is related (the author struck gold with this first chapter title!) Time constraints can make the process of developing relationships take second stage, but early investment here doesn’t just pay off in the long run: it’s the right thing to do. And everyone that you encounter matters, especially when you are a guest. Besides, you never know who is related to whom. And don’t gossip about local colleagues to other local colleagues. It’s not just bad form; loose lips sink ships!
  • Figure out your job and who you’re working for. The official job description or ToR is only one piece of the puzzle (and sometimes the most puzzling part!) Take time to figure out your antecedents (the who, what, when, where, why) and what it means for your work. Be especially on the lookout for political history that will guide you in what to do and what not to do. Because you’ll have many stakeholders with competing demands, it’s key to find out who the most important client is and prioritize their priorities. But most importantly, never forget the client who is not at the table to begin with.
  • What to do if you get there and nobody wants you. It’s not just about taking up scarce time, space, and resources. The truth of the matter is that your presence might be a perceived and/or real threat on the ground. Understand and even embrace that reality. Meeting resistance with resistance (or, worse, imposition!) never ends well. Prepare upfront by finding out the background context about how your job came to being, but also be prepared to just shut up and listen!
  • How to make them glad that you are there. Let who you are, not your credentials, define you. This can be especially hard for recent graduates. My favorite piece of advice from the whole book: Don’t give the answer until you know the question. This advice makes a great mantra for an international development professional. I would also add that your answer, when given, is never THE answer. The quickest way to lose support is by pushing your own agenda, rather than understanding and supporting someone else’s.
  • Working with your local counterparts. The most important relationship of all. Sustainability, as a buzzword, has lost all meaning. But it’s all about ensuring that work can continue over the long-term, and this means building up and investing in the careers and professional development of local counterparts. All too often international consultants are too busy “building up” their own careers to recognize this tragic flaw. Ironically, an inability to do this could certainly lead to your own demise or, at the very least, to a steep decline in your reputation as someone others want to work with. Local counterparts should always, always, always participate in planning and decision-making, accompany (and direct) visits with key leaders and officials, take leadership in presentation design and delivery, receive recognition in reports and publications, etc. There is never such a thing as giving too much credit, unless it’s to yourself!
  • Working with governments. Stop criticizing and start collaborating, respect official channels and processes, and don’t argue with senior government officials. Give respect where respect is due. As the author reminds us, “never forget that you are a guest of the host country and work there only at the government’s pleasure.” I’d like to personally recommend this chapter to Madonna (she’s not exactly friends with the government in Malawi—and they’ve got good reason to be irritated).
  • Making a difference. Never stop asking yourself if your presence is making a difference for better or for worse. It’s not just about the project goals and metrics. These are meant to serve people. And people respond best to other people—caring and adaptive humans with soft skills, not unresponsive robots armed with pre-programmed tools and commands.

And, since the illustrative anecdotes about “bad behavior in the field” were one of my favorite parts of the book, I’m asking readers to contribute their own examples of “international consultants/employees gone wrong” in the comments section. There’s nothing better than learning (or unlearning) by example!



  1. mediafreakgodicon

    While I enjoyed and agreed with the overall theme of this post I have to take issues with one small part. In the chapter related to working with governments you seem to simply ignore the real problems relate to corruption that many of us face everyday. Living and working in what at least one world justice report has labeled the most corrupt country in the world, I can personally relate to developmental frustrations with governments everyday. Sometimes you have to simply call a spade a spade and learn to work within the confines of governmental corruption but categorical denial is never going to be the best answer.
    And as for the example of Madonna and Malawi; perhaps a little more research on the subject would be of interest to you. You’d need a lot more space than this to examine fully Madonna’s dealings with Malawi, the African country where she adopted her children, David and Mercy. It was also where she intended to build an academy for girls, which never happened (though Madonna still helped build classrooms), all against a backdrop of missing millions, for which Madonna’s side blamed the sacked prospective academy headmistress (also the Malawian president’s sister), while there has been an ongoing investigation into the role of the Kabbalah Centre in New York … and (phew) see what I mean? It is not ever simply as black and white as we would like to make it.

    • Molly Hamm

      You’re right–real, entrenched corruption is a problem and in many cases simple collaboration does not result in the accomplishment of development goals, especially if those goals have to do with governance, human rights, or other issues that are intentionally blocked. The overall point of the chapter–and my commentary–is that it does not serve anyone well to jump in and unabashedly criticize governments of which they may know little about. The author cites several examples of consultants being thrown out of countries where they were assigned to work, for example. The criticism gets at short-term consultants who arrive with a pre-determined deficit perspective of the government’s capabilities and agendas, who might threaten their work in the country by not adeptly managing the conflicts that will inevitably arise. As you say, you have to learn to work within the confines of governmental corruption. And indeed it exists–and quite severely, in many cases. Would be interested to hear more about your experiences. And thanks for providing the readers a bit more context on the Madonna/Malawi case–I’m well aware of the issues you mentioned but, as you rightly note, that’s another blog post in itself!

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    • Molly Hamm

      I remember reading that post–thanks for sharing again! It’s amazing how many “plans” can be deterred in one or two short days. The most important thing is how you handle those setbacks. I fear that far too many people let their anger or frustration show immediately, which only damages relationships and limits potential collaboration. It sounds like you handled every change in plan with grace, which is likely why the projects were successful in the long run!

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