Talking Gender


A blog about gender, culture and organizational change

This new book talks about reflexive practice in international aid

By Gender at Work Media / August 8, 2014 / Loading Disqus...

How can international aid professionals manage to deal with the daily dilemmas of working for the wellbeing of people in countries other than their own? This is the question scholar and activist Rosalind Eyben takes on in her new book titled International Aid and the Making of a Better World (Routledge). A lifelong development practitioner, Eyben has looked at her experiences with aid-recipient countries, head office and global policy spaces, to critically examine her own behaviour, and in so doing, encourages us all to do the same. Packed with vignettes, stories and dialogue, this book urges anyone working in development to adopt the habit of reflexivity when helping to make a better world.

We chatted with Eyben about the book and her writing process:

Tell us about the writing process. What triggered the idea of the book? How long did it take to write? Was some of it already written earlier, in different forms perhaps?

The book had a long gestation! The idea first came to me when working for the UK Government’s aid programme in Bolivia and Peru from 2000 to 2002. I got no further than a page of jottings and a possible title. When I moved to the Institute of Development Studies, I wrote a couple of papers on the gift and power theme. One of them jointly written with Rosario León, a Bolivian development professional, is a narrative in two voices. We separately reflect on our experience in a shared enterprise and this approach to a chapter in an academic book encouraged me to continue experimenting. Though it is academically grounded, I hope that the stories, conversations and photographs in this book make it an easy read. As a colleague, Rosario helped me recognize how power works in relationships. It was not just a matter of being self-aware of my own power as a senior official. There is also invisible power exercised through the internalisation of norms and beliefs about how the world should be, which limits the possibilities of relationships.

In 2006, for a paper at a conference on ‘Development People: Professional Identities and Social Lives’, I decided to use my own life as a case study. I turned to Andrea Cornwall for advice. She helped me think about ‘stepping stones’ or nodal moments when I became aware of some significant change in my understanding of myself and the society in which I found myself. These helped make sense of my life as I recovered memories and spun them into a narrative.

I am passionately interested in how each of us is shaped by the historical moment into which we are born and how we contribute to shaping the history that the next generation is born into. I asked four women friends of similar age and professional experience--‘fellow travellers’—to reflect with me on their life experience. All five of us—and many others of our age working in development—were shaped by and contributed to two great emancipatory moments—the end of colonialism and the second wave of feminism. Otherwise privileged by class and race collective, our relative marginalisation as women professionals helped us recognize there was more than one way to seeing the world. By 2009 I was ready to invite critical feedback on my first draft from friends and colleagues who asked ‘who is the book for?’ And ‘what is its purpose?’ I wrote a note to myself:

I aim for my book to be good read, it should attend to the “nodal moments” of my life in relation to international aid and aid practice and thereby enable the reader insight or understanding both into myself as aid practitioner and make the link between biography and history that Mills described as the sociological imagination. The book should reveal a lively and critical self-awareness; it should tell a recognizable story and portray character development in the face of serious issues within a complex setting and should offer a new perspective on trying to make a better world. On this basis, in 2010, I made a new outline and started afresh.

What were some of the emotional processes and challenges you faced while writing the book? Were there memories that surfaced, experiences you relived again?

Much of the impetus for the book derives from an emotional need to come to grips with what I saw as my parents’ betrayal of the truth when in pursuit of social justice. Their state of denial about this resonated strongly with respect to my own international aid practice. Not owning up to what I know—and therefore failing to ask myself what I should do with that knowledge—has blocked my efforts to help make a better world. My fellow travellers gave me back some of the funnier memories. Catherine reminded me of absurd dinner parties in Khartoum where there was little choice of food and ‘we had to wipe the sand off our nice china plates’. I also had to confront some things I hadn’t forgotten but didn’t want to remember.

In 1972, three months before submitting my doctoral thesis based on fieldwork in a community in Burundi, I learnt that many of the people I had got to know there had been murdered by the government as part of a nation-wide repressive response to an attempted coup. My thesis felt pointless. I did not know how to process this horror and like an undigested meal it has remained a hard lump within me. I found it impossible to write about it in the first draft of the book so two years ago I asked my daughter Karin to accompany me on a visit to Burundi as an Action Aid trustee. (Karin has worked for twenty years in Northern Ireland helping local communities work across sectarian divides). In Burundi we met an amazing woman, Maggy Barankitse. In her work to sustain the fragile peace the country has recently achieved, Maggy insists that the terrible memories everyone in the country carries with them should be openly discussed and confronted. Having killed each other, she says, we the living, have a duty to stop such terror happening again in the future. Maggy taught me that reflexive practice for a better future means being responsible for talking with each other about the pain and difficulties of the past we would rather sweep under the carpet. Remembering and forgetting are inter-linked processes.

In Chapter Three, I describe how I took advantage of my whiteness to barge my way to the head of a queue in a Kinshasa hospital to give my child’s life priority over the lives of other women’s children. It seemed then a perfectly normal thing to do. Almost, but not quite normal, otherwise I would not have remembered it. It was however difficult to write about it.

Also painful to remember are professional dilemmas. Chapter Eight includes an account of how I failed a young woman in northern Ghana when she asked me to help her escape from a forced marriage. Did I make the wrong decision? I use this and other incidences to encourage my readers to remember and then debate with themselves or with their friends the difficult dilemmas they also have experienced.

This is a book that calls for reflexivity and self-criticality. How much of that do you think is currently practiced? How hard will it be for people to pick up the book and put these concepts into practice—will it take a considerable degree of personal transformation on their parts?

Coming late to reflexive practice, I have written this book because I wish something like it could have been available when I first became involved in development. I understand reflexivity as a practice that both identifies the tacit assumptions I make about the world and then turns the lens back upon myself, enquiring into what is it about me—the interplay of history and my life story—that has generated such assumptions and what is it I am hiding from myself. This book is the story of how I learned, to the degree that I did. Reflexive practice is always work in progress. I have particularly benefited from the mutual learning with the reflexive practitioners whose research I had the privilege of supervising during their studies for a Master’s degree on participation, power and social change. The book includes some of their reflections.

One student wrote about how tiring the process of self-scrutiny was. She felt ’naked’. But she gradually realised the positive effect it was having on her professional work and relationships. She also found that sharing her stories of change deepened her reflexive enquiry. And sharing may encourage others in learning to navigate a path through the contradictions of making a better world.

Rosalind Eyben has recently retired as Professorial Fellow in the Participation, Power at the Institute of Development Studies (IDS) where her interest focused on power and relations in the international aid system; where she convened the global policy programme of the Pathways of Women’s Empowerment Consortium 2011; and afterwards developed a new area of work on why and how unpaid care remains invisible in the world of development policy. She was founder and co-convenor of the Big Push Forward, an international initiative that unpacks the international aid system’s politics of results and evidence. She previously worked as a development practitioner in Africa and Asia. Among her other books is Feminists in Development Organizations (2013) co- edited with Laura Turquet, and Relationships for Aid (2006).

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