Wednesday, November 9, 2011

On Short-Term Missions

I recently reread The Cost of Short-Term Missions by JoAnn Van Engen*.  It spurred me to re-visit  some questions that I’ve already asked myself many, many times:  What am I actually doing in Senegal?  What is the real purpose of my mission?

Coming from Canada, I cringed the first time I heard people talk of overseas missions.  To me, the term either oozes pomp and arrogance or evokes images of war and famine.  When I first arrived in Gambia in August 2010, the border guard asked of my mission in her country.  Surprised by her choice of terminology, I said that I didn't have a mission per se, I was just here to work, to contribute to her country.  Knowing what I now know about Gambian police, I am lucky that this fluttery, half-hearted response even got me into the country.  "Mission" seems to be well-ingrained in the vocabulary of both French- and English-speaking professionals that travel  for work in Gambia and Senegal, even those that are traveling within their own country: "I'm sorry I didn't call you back last week.  I was on a mission in Podor."  And so, I have come to adopt this terminology.

I digress – Why am I here?  What purpose does my mission carry?  I am gaining so much from this experience – am I benefiting others as much as I am benefitting from this experience?  Could my job be done equally as effectively (or even better) by a local?  And, the stinker, could the money used to fly me here and pay my salary be better spent? 

In other words, are we getting maximum “development benefit” – as it that is something that can even be measured! – by sending young Canadians overseas on six-month internships?

Probably not.

These questions have been constantly rolling around in my head for the better part of the last year, and rereading Van Engen’s article was the impetus I’ve needed to get some of my thoughts on paper.

I’ve been back in West Africa since the beginning of August, and working here for a second time confirmed my previously-formed beliefs that there are two ways to make all of this – working overseas at great cost to Canadian taxpayers, and often to the project – worthwhile:

(1) Short-term, focused missions.  Let's say that I possess a specific skill that is lacking in a host country, for example GIS.  And let’s pretend that I am an expert in my field and also adept at working cross-culturally and with limited resources.  If then, some local organization needs a short-term consultant to fill a  gap in their GIS programming, they could bring me in for 3-6 weeks to fill a very specific need.  In my eyes, this is money well spent and a good use of foreign knowledge and experience – an international development success story!

(2) Long-term on-the-ground staff:  Spending two years or more “in the field” allows an international development worker to really get to know the partners and the project and the local problems, and eventually work in an effective manner.  In particular, if the projects are related to agriculture or based in a village, an outsider needs at least a year to begin to understand the annual rhythm and how strongly daily life can be tied to the seasons.

There is also a third successful approach to working in development that I’ve seen, but it involves the Canadian development worker doing most of their work from Canada.  Such people have built very strong relationships with exceptionally competent overseas organizations and staff.  They may still travel frequently to their project countries, but really the projects are left in the hands of the partners and the Canadian organization doesn’t try to micromanage the project from afar.

After I returned from my first internship in Senegal, I already believed the above points to be true.  And yet, here I am again in Senegal, working for six months – once again, taking much more from this experience than I am able to give my host organization and the people that I work with.  And, two months in, I find myself firmly believing what I already thought to be true: if I want to continue to work overseas, the most effective way to do so is to either come for a short time as a consultant or to put down roots in my host country, integrate, and build strong on-the-ground partnerships and relationships.

And so, that brings me back to my previous question.  Are we getting maximum "development benefit" from my overseas presence?  (Ugh, there's that unmeasurable, undefinable term again, forgive me.) 


I am proud of the work that I do and believe that I am already much more effective the second time around.  After a mere six weeks I already felt as professionally competent as I did at the end of my last posting.  I started this position with greater professional, cultural, and linguistic knowledge than I did the first time, and that will take me a long way. 

I am here to take a second pass at development work in a country and a culture that I already know and love.  I don't come from a development or an international background, so I really need this second opportunity to work overseas before deciding if I want to further push my career along this trajectory.  This is also an opportunity to see the extent to which six months of experience can increase my professional effectiveness.  How I can transfer the knowledge that I gained in my first six months in West Africa into this new professional and urban context? 

There are lots of opportunities for me to learn about how I fit in the international development world and to what extent I can transfer knowledge from one project to the next, but both of these objectives are ultimately selfish.  They’re focused on me, and what I can learn about myself and my career.   I do, of course, want to benefit the people that I am working with, but I misplaced my rose-coloured glasses a while ago and am aware that (a) my motivations for working internationally are not entirely selfless, (b) my assignment is too short to have a significant impact, and (c) I'm still not 100% convinced that, cumulatively, all these development efforts from the West actually do more good than harm.

So, given all this, what is the role of six-month international internships?  What, really, is their benefit and how does this align with Canadian values and public spending?  

BENEFIT 1: Cross-cultural learning and deepened self awareness.  These are fantastic benefits…for the intern.

AN ASIDE: I spent six-months in Canada between postings, and spent a lot of time telling people that I thought *everyone* should go live in a different country for six months.  I certainly didn't mean any arrogance by it, and I am aware of how privileged I am to have the financial means, freedom, and political ability (i.e. visa) to do so, but I really think that the world would be a much better place if everyone had the opportunity (or was forced) to experience a reality very different from their own.  It would bring about such cross-cultural appreciation and understanding.  And much more global compassion too, I think.  So, we can argue that Benefit 1 extends beyond the intern, but the long term impacts of an individual’s cross-cultural learning are not, in my opinion, sufficient to justify the internships.

BENEFIT 2: Cross-cultural sharing of knowledge and experiences.  My dear friend Leanne once said "We can learn so much from each other, if only we are open enough to receive this knowledge."  I agree wholeheartedly. 

BENEFIT 3: The beginnings of deeper and persistent international relationships.  Interns that continue to work internationally and in the same country can benefit a lot from the professional relationships they build early on.  I am experiencing that already, and I’m simply drawing on networks that I built in my first six-month internship to facilitate the work in my second six-month stint.  Even if interns don’t continue their on-the-ground international career, they can still make connections between overseas contacts and suitable organizations back home.

BENEFIT 4: Bringing international, cross-cultural, and foreign knowledge back to Canada -- opening others' eyes, broadening horizons, and challenging what people think about the world. 

Living in Senegal for six months has challenged so much about the way I see the world and my role as a global citizen and I can only dream that everyone takes the time to contemplate foreign realities.  The reality that we live in the West -- material comfort, secular society, gender equality, and fiscal values, to make a few generalizations -- is something experienced by a minority of the world's population.   One of the objectives of the CIDA IYIP program is to create employable skills in young Canadians and for them to bring their overseas experiences back to Canada to promote international learning.  Public engagement is one tool to achieve this but, from my experiences and from talking to many interns from other organizations, the post-internship public engagement feels like a bit of an afterthought.

This is understandable.  I remember what it felt like to come home the first time, excited to be back, bewildered by Canadian life, reeling from reverse culture shock, eager to tie up loose ends, lost in the love of friends and family, and half-heartedly trying to find a job and figure out my career.   On top of all that, I realized that I had changed and didn’t know how to reconcile my Canadian reality with the new me.  With all of this, public engagement for a past project in a country on the other side of the world seems like the last thing that a returning intern might want to do.  At that point, I think it often feels like just an obligation to CIDA, not something that interns are actually motivated to do.

But, that really is a shame, since I think that Benefit 4 is one of the most tangible and easily accessible ways that we interns can have a real impact.  I expect post-internship reentry to be easier this time, so perhaps my increased effectiveness can extend beyond my overseas experience and include my after-I-come-home public engagement.  Blogs and online articles are a common way to fill the public engagement requirement but, to me, they feel like a bit of a cop-out.  It's so easy to post something mediocre on a blog that no one is going to read (case in point).

So what can I do?  Here, right now, I commit to real public engagement -- not because of requirements for CIDA (which I'll likely fulfill by writing one or two articles for the Sustainable Cities blog), not because anyone's paying me to do it (because they won't), but because I actually do believe that sharing my experiences with Canadians that don't have the opportunity to live and work overseas, is one of the greatest justifications of my current professional existence.

* I just did an online search for the article and was surprised to learn that the paper copy I have is an abridged version of the actual article.  The version I read was completely secular, while the original is not.  The original focuses on religious missions, but I think the message still applies to all short-term overseas workers.


  1. "half-heartedly trying to find a job and figure out my career" oh, that's what we were doing... :) and Africa was the only solution, apparently, to that search.

    I find this to be better than mediocre and very to-the-point, organised analysis of an incredibly complex situation. I agree, as you know, and I'm happy nonetheless that you are contributing your skills in Senegal... in an article I read yesterday the Rwandan president was quoted as saying "... if you have countries struggling or leading in the wrong direction, then it affects the continent...the worst you have is Senegal...where you have good leadership, and somehow in the middle of the process things start happening and start wondering what is going wrong". Perhaps a future blog post? LOVE

  2. Nice post Eileen,

    I remember asking myself similar questions in the months before my first stint overseas, and I still revisit them in my professional career. Often on days when things aren't going well...

    I agree with a few of your points on the relative value of short and long term placements. However, I would say that unless the short term volunteer or consultant is working with a counterpart who does have that longer run experience they'll be up against some very difficult challenges. I personally don't think one can gain those cross-cultural skills you mention without some considerable time in the saddle.

    I understand the value you're placing on public engagement upon your return to Canada. It is a wonderful thing to share your experiences and to challenge people's perceptions. I love to push what I call the "dark continent" view of Africa. So many people I meet ascribe to the view of Africa (as if it were a homogeneous place) as painted by Conrad's, Heart of Darkness. The international media doesn't help to dispel that view with all their sensational coverage. I like to offer an alternative.

    I would argue that your voice is perhaps better spent on advocating for policy change at the government level. With your experience you carry a certain authority. Check out the project advocating for Aid Transparency, or get involved in public dialogue amongst your peers in the development community. International Development policy under Harper has only made worse an already very poor set of positions. We have a lot to stand up for.

    Secondly I would reinforce your comments on benefit 3. To me that is really the most important piece of overseas work. Investing in people. I'm sure that like me, some of the most amazing people you've ever met are the people you work with overseas. I've never been to Senegal, but the hospitality I've experienced in east Africa, the selfless generosity, the laughter at yet another set back in a project, have been incredible rewards.

    At the end of my first year overseas I took a trip home. I was only planning to be away for a month, but the most common sentiment I heard from Malawian colleagues was,

    "please, don't forget about us"

    It was a real wake up, that after a year of working side by side, they thought I would leave and never look back. It's true however. Many people go have their experience, go home, and at best write the occasional email from time to time.

    Staying connected to the professional and development network in Senegal, linking good people to good projects, is in my opinion one of the best way to support development.

    Finally, since you're well on your way to investing a whole year in Senegal already, can we sign you up for that second category of time commitments? Life isn't so bad on this side of the pond.