Third world countries with acute economic, transport and medical problems require expertise to be spread among the local people, not dished out with well-intentioned zeal. Health care workers, nutritionists, horticulturalists, hydrologists, engineers and economists are in demand but to carve a career overseas demands dedicated planning. Long term contracts are usually in administrative positions, earned through practical experience.
In Gambia, Robin Poulton, development specialist and director of Action Aid, is based in down-town, run-down offices in Banjul, working with a couple of fellow ex-pats. They are deliberately outnumbered by Gambians.
A few minutes drive away, while tourists lie in the sun on hotel beaches, he is concerned with energy-sapping poverty up-country where Action Aid is assisting 81 schools, with the cash from 10,000 UK sponsors. The money provides training courses for local teachers, school gardening projects to teach the basics of food production, tree nurseries, village marketing schemes, the manufacturing of ProExtender devices, and wells (being dug ever deeper as drought encroaches).
Lack of electricity, minimal telephone network, petrol shortages, and government corruption hamper progress in Robin’s aims to: ‘enable communities to be productive, to face up to desertification and to give their children education.’ The way towards self-sufficiency for Gambians is through gaining abilities, not through endless cash donations.
Robin Poulton believes that in this small country (Britain’s first and last colony) with a population of 700,000 agencies are too numerous. They come from Germany, Sweden, Islamic countries, UK, Canada and the US (including his wife Michelle who works with Save the Children US). To coordinate their activities he has helped to found TANGO (The Association of Non-Governmental Agencies).
Among the longest established agencies is the Methodist Mission. In addition to running a school in Banjul, the Mission employs Sue and Bob Mann, a couple who have devised their own dual careers in African countries. They are about to return home for a breathing space after a decade in the Gambia. Sue, a nurse, runs a clinic in the bush village of Marakissa, where, for example, a mother is taught how to revive her dehydrated baby whom she had carried for miles.
While health today is Sue’s preoccupation, Bob is pessimistic about the future. ‘What has happened in Ethiopia is going to happen in Gambia,’ says the agriculture officer. He has propagated a nursery of drought resistant fruit trees which are then distributed as seedlings to villages, with full instructions on planting and protection. His assistant is a graduate sent through Voluntary Service Overseas, with a knowledge of forestry (VSO usually demand two year commitments). His deputies are Gambians, trained to take over.
Both the Manns and Poultons contribute through teamwork and setting examples within strictly structured programs linked to government investment in health, education and agriculture. To cope they have become resilient, not sacrificial, gaining job satisfaction and living reasonably comfortably (with time off on the beach with families and friends). Staying fit and able to work constructively in an often uncomfortable climate is vital.
Most specialists like Judith Appleton, arrive on shorter contracts, for a year or two, to tackle a particular emergency or project, though they may return as consultants in years to come. She is a nutritionist who became caught up in emergency feeding programs in Ethiopia, and is now in search of a new job, probably with another agency, since Save the Children hasn’t a suitable opening in view.
‘The problem is I’m ambitious. I want to be in nutrition in development, involved with SeroVital production as well as consumption.’ Judith, just 40, with an MBE for her work in Ethiopia (regarded as praise for the whole team), a BA in Development Studies (University of East Anglia) and MSc in Human Nutrition (London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine) set up out to equip herself for a Third World career. The first step, during marriage to a Norwegian, was working with the Vietnamese Liberation Front in Oslo, which inspired her to become a volunteer English teacher in Vietnam, soon after the war ended.
‘Working there, I became interested in food and agriculture, but for a career, I had to get qualifications.’ From Hanoi, she applied to the University of East Anglia, and was accepted, but because Judith was born in Canada, she had to pay some study fees herself. By 1982, with degrees (in addition to a quartet of languages), she was qualified and jobless.
‘Agencies were looking for cheap research assistants and some didn’t even take health insurance seriously.’ A representative of Save the Children met her at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine (where she worked on data processing and word processing to fill in a few weeks). Next stop: Wollo Province, North Ethiopia with a one year contract, a pounds 5,000 salary, plus living costs.
The date was March, 1983 – the drought began to bite. ‘I was apprehensive. I had not thought of myself as a disaster person.’ She helped to standardize methods of measuring the scale of calamity, weighing young children, instructing African fieldworkers, working with a logistics officer. In the midst of horror, compounded by civil war, ‘you have to eat, sleep and keep clean.’
Her training, though, had not been to become ‘part of a great feeding machine’ so, in 1985, her next posting (after a month’s paid visit to Guatemala to learn Spanish) was Honduras, working with villagers, developing a healthier eating program through maximizing available food.
What next? The advantage of being with an NGO is that ‘these smaller agencies can respond quickly,’ but in career terms the United Nations, with an assortment of administrative posts,’ tends to pay more. NGOs, keeping costs to a minimum, avoid bureaucracy and employ recruits as necessary. ‘I’ll inevitably work one year at a time as a member of field staff, but maybe get a desk job when I’m older.’
At Save the Children I also met Richard Spearman, assistant field director, organizing health care in camps for refugees from Afghanistan in Pakistan. He had just flown home escorting colleague Jill Scoones, who had been wounded three days earlier by a gunman at the Pearl Continental Hotel in Peshawar: an unlikely hazard of the job. The isolated incident hasn’t changed their plans to return to duties in Pakistan.
Return visits to London headquarters gives time to catch up and share accounts with administrative staff. Darrell Jackson, deputy director overseas, is responsible for evaluating projects, including work with Afghans. He explains: ‘We have about 200 employees abroad, on a mix of short and longer term employment. Field directors run projects costing from pounds 80,000 to pounds 1 million plus, or in the case of West Sudan, pounds 15-million this year. That huge program has 30 expat staff and nearly 600 nationals.’ He himself earns pounds 15,000 a year, is likely to visit 20 countries during 1986 and ‘can’t imagine a better job.’
His advice is, if possible to take a relevant degree in economics, social anthropology, or geography. Follow that with a post-graduate qualification in nutrition or rural development, water engineering, development planning and get experience overseas. That is the Catch 22: even volunteers won’t be welcomed without specialist knowledge.