There has been an interesting debate lately in the development sphere about professionalism v. amateurism and the pros and cons of each.  For a breakdown see the always reliable Good Intents.  There has been some great writing and thinking on this topic.  I would encourage reading through Saundra’s list (above citation) as there are some very worthwhile entries.  I have two small things to say, but have little to no argument with the trend the meme is going (which has been summarized very well by Saundra – again – and I’ve cited below).

[![Dangling Professional via kenyee @ flickr][3]][3]

Relationalists v. Substantialists

As I’ve written before, I tend to think with a different lens than many of my peers from America who live here in Africa.  I’m a relationalist caught in a substantialist world.

It seems indicative that those who are arguing that there is a space for both seem to be approaching their argument from a relationalist point of view.  My favorite post so far in this vein is [Penelope’s][3].  Another crew seem to be saying that there is little room for “amateurs” whatsoever, and they structure their argument from a substantialist point of view.  My favorite post so far in this vein is [J from Tales][4] (who wrote a series, but this post is my favorite).  A third crew is somehow in the middle and it essentially argues that it is all about the effects rather than the background.  My favorite post in the “can’t we all get along” vein is [Saundra’s][5].

The skills on J’s list, for instance, are completely substantialist.  They don’t require much in the way of relational capacity.  That may be fine for humanitarian workers who come in an go out rather frequently.  The success of their work, I would argue, depends less on their ability to have successful trust-based relationships than it does on their analytical and problem-solving skills.

Humanitarian work – by which I’m defining as those lifesaving response mechanisms which are attempting to provide a baseline to human existence – can and should be the type of work that is dominated by scientific, analytical people.  I’m not saying that WFP P-4 disaster response team leaders (I have no idea what they are called, but I bet it isn’t too far from this) can’t, shouldn’t, or won’t get to know people where they are going next, but I would argue that their job description likely doesn’t absolutely require it.

Thad Allen gave a [nice talk][6] to HBR recently which I heard on their Ideacast podcast.  He spoke about leadership through a major disaster and the measures that he took.  I was struck that there was little to no time spent on relationship building outside his core team, but he spent some significant percentage of his time talking about relationships within the team and PR (which I do not think has anything to do with relationships other then on the extreme definition of that word).  I have no quibble with this, and generally I would agree that disaster relief work does not depend so much on building relationships, other than at a very low baseline.

That said, other types of work require other skill sets, particularly an ability to build trust-based relationships. In my former work with a legal reform NGO to be successful at my job required absolutely none of the skills which Tales points to.  We wrote many successful grants as a team and never once did we do the slightest bit of regression analysis.

I needed to understand who the power-brokers were in Parliament. I needed to understand how to convey the notions of process, political bargaining, policies, and the legal mechanisms which can be used to address imbalances in each of the above.  Being successful at that did not require me to understand statistics in the slightest, it required me to understand humanity and legality.  Now when the time came to discuss specific policy choices which the parliamentarians were considering, at that time, my statistics background (gleaned from engineering undergrad classes and bolstered by self-learning and ensuring that remain current on development economic trends) although marginal, did serve me well.

But the basic point is that to achieve my ends required understanding the relationships around me, developing trust from a group who is heartily skeptical about outsiders because so many have just come for a temporary time and tried to lecture my old clients on how to run their country.

[![Notes from The Cult of the Amateur via inju @ flickr][8]][8]

What Does “Development” Mean?

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Another ancillary issue which struck me (and is somewhat related to the above) when I was reading the comments below Saundra’s list is that there really is a lack of a precise definitional consensus as to “development sector.”  For instance, I see little to no correlation between what a legal reform NGO does and what an emergency relief NGO/UNOrgan do.  And yet, somehow they are both in the same sector.  I can see from an ultra-macro perspective how they would somewhat be aligned in the same way that wordpress and intel are both in the computer sector.  But the skill sets, backgrounds, knowledge base, and all the rest which are required to work at wordpress and to work at intel are so incredibly divergent.  This is one of the reasons why the existential question which the meme is struggling with strikes me as odd to begin with – it is hard to define what makes a successful project manager in one instance because of the cultural basis into which they are operating.

Like the anthropologists who go into villages and then continually navel gaze about observer interaction and whether than changes the situation (there is some term here I’m sure but am too lazy to google it), this conversation – while interesting – does not strike me as especially relevant without first putting some qualifications on what we’re talking about.  Is this about building village wells and schools?  Is this about delivering huge amounts of food to an area of low food security?  Is this about trying to build capacity of an anti-corruption committee?

Without first providing some definitional clarity the meat of the argument seems to go past one another as each assumes that everyone else requires the same things that they do in order to succeed.  Just because we all are Westerners working for NGO’s in Africa doesn’t mean that we are necessarily one “profession.”  We are many professions which are loosely grouped together and continuing to compare our relative apples and oranges.

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