In the 16 plus years that I have been working in the development field, an approach that has informed my work has been the need to be constantly close to field realities. I have seen a number of development workers and activists lose touch with the grassroots and consequently become irrelevant in their pronouncements and positions. Most of them would be basing their stand on what they had seen years (and in some case decades) ago and were blind to the fact that society and its issues had moved on. I had sworn to myself that it would never happen to me. Field work was a way of life.
However, over the last few months the words of this Gazhal by Wasim Barelvi (rendered by the fabulous Jagjit Singh) have been haunting me even more.
मीली हवाओमे उड्नेकी वोह सज़ा यारो
के मैन ज़मीन के रिश्तोसे कट गया यारो.
(loosely translated as “Friends – I have been punished for flying in the air – I am now cut off from the ground”)
In the last two years, the time I spend on field work has reduced drastically. I still travel a lot and am out of the home – but that time is spent in meetings, workshops, discussions, conferences and other talk-shops. I can literally count the days I have spent directly in communities that I am supposed be working with. Something that I could not have done, at least not easily, just a few years ago. I am told that it is a natural progression in the life of a development professional. As one gets more experienced, time for field work shrinks. At the same time, ones ability to impact and influence at a wider level rises. That is no doubt true. However, a small voice of doubt rears its head – “Is the lure of influencing at wider levels, taking me away from that which gives me inspiration?”
Very recently I had occasion to spend 2 days in a small Dinka village in South Sudan. Hundreds of people had fled from their homes, fled from conflicts and settled around this village. We were working with the displaced families. I stayed in the village in a small make-shift tent. Little water, no power, local food, battling the heat and a million mosquitoes. Just like (almost) the residents of the village. Had fantastic discussions with the community and the team working in the village. The deprivation and powerlessness I saw brought to the fore the need to work on those issues. Felt completely recharged. I could re-motivate myself, remind myself WHY I do WHAT I do.
Then I felt a bit perturbed. I tried to cast my mind to the time I went to the field last – then realised that this field visit had come 3 months after the last one in Azerbaijan which itself had come 3 months after the one in Sri Lanka. Surely, I thought to myself, this is not adequate? As a senior development professional, I should be spending a bit more time in the field.
As a first step I have decided to consciously seek out opportunities that will put me directly in touch with communities more often. After all, reading and listening to experiences of field workers is NO substitute for first hand interaction. This knowledge will also make my work (advisory as it is) more realistic. Just like in sports where no amount of training can substitute for match practice. Not as easy to manage I know. There will be workshops and seminars and office work. I can make an attempt though. If I indeed do so, you can hope to hear more about my experience and impressions.
As I pen down, am wondering
- Is this a question that begs to be answered in other professions?
- What about your chosen field of work? Are you in a profession that faces the same conundrum?
- How do you address it?
Would love to hear from you on this.