When I was working in Orissa, India, I was based in Mohuda, a village 10 km from a small town, Berhampur. The head office of the NGO I was working with was located in Mohuda. For any one visiting from even the state capital, Bhubaneswar, let alone New Delhi or from outside India, Mohuda was ‘field’ enough. But for those of us living in Mohuda, our field was a few hundred meters outside the campus – in the village where we had worked with the community to build toilets and houses; women who were part of the village savings groups, and the little biomass-based power plant we had installed. There was of course more of the ‘field’ further away – spread all over the state where we worked, requiring uncomfortable overnight bus journeys…
Naturally, I secretly smirked at everyone who arrived in Mohuda and proclaimed to have stepped foot on the ‘field’. I am also sure my colleagues in project offices in various parts of the state smirked every time I arrived at their offices and announced my presence in the ‘field’. So in sum, I think this game does even out from time to time. Your ‘field’ is different from mine.
In development, the ‘field’ is where the action is. Everything done from far is to support the implementation machine(s) in the ‘field’. The ‘field’ need not refer to a place that is scrappy and tough, although it could, if appropriate. How many of us really do ‘field work’? Does living in a developing country qualify as ‘field work’? Is working out of a satellite office of one’s own organisation that’s outside of the headquarters ‘field work’? Does working/visiting a partner’s office in a developing country constitute ‘field work’? Within a developing country, is visiting a project office outside of the headquarter ‘field work’? Or is it only ‘field work’ when you go meet the ultimate beneficiaries of your work – the community? How about when you go down to a different country to work with government officials?
What I find strange is the tendency to either complain or romanticise the food/culture/ transport/clothes/homes in a manner that establishes one’s outsider-ness. Many of these narratives (tweets, photographs, blogs…umm…instagram?) are evidently for the ‘non-field’ audience who can then either sympathise or appreciate our experience in the ‘field’. These stories that seek to shout out – “look at me, I am in the ‘field'” seem a bit flawed, at some level – not just because they smack of ‘developmentourism’, but also because of the not-so-subtle attempt to claim the moral high ground. Even if you are learning a lot, and all you want to do is to tell people that you are…could we find better ways to do so? I make no claims to having never done this myself.
450+ words later, I also think to ask: does this matter? Let me know!