Unsolicited Advice for New Aid Workers

Submitted by Matthew Bolton on February 19, 2003 - 1:00am.

"Remember, many people, some of the best civil servants in the world, have failed trying to solve Bosnia's recent problems, so don't be disappointed if you can't fix everything."

As I prepared for my assignment to Counterpart International's Bosnia and Herzegovina's field office this somewhat sarcastic piece of advice from one of my colleagues was perhaps the most insightful.

Working in a profession that loves to hype about its work in 'donor-talk' it is vitally important to keep humble expectations and a keen sense of the nuances and ambiguities of our impact on the countries in which we work.

Unfortunately, other than those words, I found little advice or literature for NGO workers in today's post-conflict Bosnia. Much has changed since the war drew to a close and the situation is now less a "humanitarian emergency" than a "post-conflict transition period."

Strangely, many NGOs have not really picked up on this important shift. Many still continue in the 'relief' mode, acting as an extra social security system rather than moving to help develop the capacity and potential of the country's private and civil society sectors.

To fill this gap in basic advice about discovering the context in Bosnia, I have compiled the following 'To Do List' of things I believe are absolutely essential for new NGO personnel.

1) Meet 'Key Informants'

When you first arrive, and regularly throughout your stay, meet with representatives of the different stakeholders in the context. At the international community's level, meet with NGOs, representatives of the Office of the High Representative (OHR), the Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE), NATO's Stabilization Force (SFOR) Civil Affairs teams and the various government agencies like USAID, CIDA, SIDA, and GTZ.

At the local level, visit government officials, local NGOs and representatives of the many community organizations (a legacy of the Tito era). Also make sure to chat with 'ordinary people' -- they often know more about what is going on than the top dogs.

2) Try to learn the local language

This is very difficult for native English speakers as Bosnian/Serbian/Croatian (called 'local language' to avoid offending anyone) is pretty unrelated to English. However, even a conversational ability makes life so much easier. I got lessons for free from a woman working at another NGO, in return for volunteering to help with their youth work projects.

3) Read voraciously

Too many people are horribly uninformed about the historical situation in the country. If nothing else, make sure you read Laura Silber and Allan Little's monumental work The Death of Yugoslavia and Sumantra Bose's excellent Bosnia After Dayton: Nationalist Partition and International Intervention. Also helpful are the UNDP national human development reports (www.undp.ba) and the Balkan Times (www.balkantimes.com)

4) Review your scope with locals

When you first arrive in the field office, talk with other people in the office and find out the holes that need plugging and see how they match with your skills. Speak especially with local staff who will understand the situation better. One thing I found important is reviewing my job title. My original title, full of development buzzwords, turned out to be utterly untranslatable, so I changed it to make sense in local language.

5) Go to a Mine Awareness briefing

This is vitally important. There are over 1 million landmines still in the ground in Bosnia and only 60% of those are in known locations (BHMAC). Go to a Mine Awareness Briefing at your local Mine Action Center (MAC) or attend a presentation done by a local NGO. It is difficult to overstate the debilitating effects of mines on the country's economic, especially agricultural, development.

Matthew Bolton is an NGO Development Advisor for Counterpart International in Brcko, Bosnia and Herzegovina. He specializes in participatory methods of development and improving NGO public relations. He has worked in the USA, Kenya, Nicaragua and the Philippines. 

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