Advice for working in a developing country

Tyler Cowen offers excellent advice to students visiting a developing country for the first time. I especially endorse #8 (eat the street food) and #5 (get out to some small farms).

What can I add to the list? Tyler’s advice is hard to beat, and good for a visit to every new place (developing or not). He was talking, in this case, to a student heading to South Africa. But what if you’re headed to somewhere tropical or extremely poor (especially for a research project)? Some extra thoughts occur.

1. Eating the street food still applies, albeit with caveats. I’m a big fan of the guys with goat kebabs on the highway up from Kampala to Sudan, but my wife thinks this pushes the limits of sanity. (The birthplace of humanity is also the birthplace of human parasites, she reminds me.) Yet the street food is sometimes the cleanest and freshest around. (I only got typhoid once—from a meal at a five-star hotel.) So be cautious, but allow yourself a certain abandon.

2. Get your shots and be careful, but don’t get too worked up over the disease environment. To read a travel guide, you’d think death lurks with every mosquito. To be safe, however, carry a malaria ‘quick test’ kit, a couple doses of a dual malaria-treatment drug like Coartem, and a couple of treatments of Cipro–all together about $3 at an in-country pharmacy (versus $300 here). And bring them home with you, in case it sets in late.

3. Read about the country. The Economist Intelligence Unit is a good place to start, but get a history book and local novels. Look for locally published books when you are there.

4. Recognize that you could be taking more than you’re giving, even if you’re doing policy research or helping out a local charity. I have a handful of posts on the worst forms of development tourism. The key: try to go for longer rather than shorter trips, be modest about what you can accomplish, and try to find a way to give back. Researchers: send your final report to interested agencies, write a policy brief on the side, or provide some technical advice.

5. When you’re working with the poorest and most vulnerable, or in a war zone, there are a few extra considerations.

6. Ask people about the best local restaurants. In many places, the most authentic restaurant meal is lunch, mainly for workers. People will eat at home for dinner, where the best food is always found. If someone invites you home for dinner, go!

7. Look up your intellectual counterparts in country—a government or statistics agency, or academics at the University.

8. Hire a research assistant who knows the local language and people. Value people that will openly disagree with you–a trait that in some cultures may be impolite (and thus uncommon). I also look for problem solvers.

9. Be wary of getting sucked into the expat community. Enjoy it–there are many extraordinary people–but see if you can’t manage a local life alongside.

10. Dress to blend in, even if you still hopelessly stick out. If locals wear long pants/skirts, tuck in their shirts, and spurn sneakers, then think about doing the same (especially if you’re working). The humanitarian aid uniform is unfortunately pajama bottoms, a t-shirt, flip-flops and a four-day old beard. Foreign researchers often resemble flood victims. This is the subject of endless humor and wonderment among my African friends.

11. Even if you’re not working, bring at least one “nice” outfit in case you get invited to a wedding, reception, or meeting.

12. Ask everyone about their job. The middleman in the market? Ask him to explain his business. The guy bringing milk to market? See if you can tag along. One of my best months was spent in rural India, waking up every morning, picking a different industry or activity, from paddy farming to vote registration, and setting out to figure it all out by the end of the day.

My wife Jeannie gets credit for all the best advice above.

Related: advice for aspiring humanitarian aid workers. Readers: please add to these lists!