Chris Blattman

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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!

15 Responses

  1. I wholeheartedly agree with everything you have posted – particularly your post on “development tourism”. I have been
    arguing the pointlessness (well, except for the westerner paying for it I guess) of “development tourism” in all its many forms since 1994 (to be precise ;) However, I would caution newbies not to confuse “development tourism” as defined in this case, with “tourism as a form of economic development” – often called “development and tourism” or “tourism and development” for short.

    See, e.g. here –

    These are older publications although ODI has recently done some more work on this. In some regions, tourism, or the possibility of it, is the only viable income stream. For example, in parts of India, tourism is often also the prime (sometimes the only) income for economic migrants from areas such as Kashmir or (long-term Indian residents) such as Tibetan refugees, as well of course as some local residents.

  2. Point taken about the scruffy aid-worker look and the need to blend in. My only word of caution would be to not try too hard to blend in. It obviously depends on where and when you are, but I think people can go a little too far sometimes and look contrived, pretentious and culturally presumptious as a result. I’m thinking here about a young American guy in Yemen who used to dress in full thawb, or Arabic robe, and finish it off with the local ceremonial dagger, or jambiya, attached to his belt. As well meaning as he may have been, he wasn’t fooling anyone but himself.

  3. I seriously agree with not getting sucked into expat community. I have lived in developing countries, India and Nepal but never worked there. In Nepal, I notice the expats hanging out together many times, and I doubt if some of them even know any local people except for those they work with.

    From a local perspective it does not look good. In most countries, the host people are very friendly and it is a great opportunity to really know the country and the problems that affect people in their daily lives which might not be covered in broad policy frameworks of the development agencies. If you really want to help, need to listen to the pulse of the people.

    The one about foreign researchers looking like flood victims is hilarious.


  4. This is a great post. There are other, lamer, more practical things I'd add that are probably well beyond ingrained common sense to most people looking to work full time, but . . .

    1. If you're wondering why all the kids on the street are selling individual packets of Kleenex, think about it for one more minute.

    2. Chris is right about street-side barbecue; but when it comes to fruit, only eat what you can peel. Don't eat the lettuce.

    3. Be judicious about safety. It's easy to blow off warnings about the safety of taxis after dark or hitchhiking as whitey paranoia, but you're no good to anyone if you're on the side of a road in the middle of nowhere with no wallet. The sliding scale of advice (from overly paranoid to not paranoid enough) usually goes US Embassy –> UN –> Peace Corps –> Aid worker.

  5. Great points all around, Chris.

    Although I agree with your wife about roadside food…Be super cautious.

    One piece of advice I’d add from traveling around Senegal and Uganda is, when you can, take public transport. It’s not only far cheaper and more environmentally friendly than a “special hire,” but you also interact with many more people and get more of a flavor of “local life.” You will need to ask locals for advice and be comfortable enough with a locale b/c of the inevitably of getting lost once in a while, though.

    Another thing is, if it’s culturally acceptable and your own beliefs are amenable to it, go to religious services.

    Local NGOs can be remarkably helpful to researchers, especially if you’re in particularly rural areas. But make sure you give back to them in return for their assistance, either in the form of monetary assistance or in spreading the word about their work when you return home.

    In countries where hitching rides on the back of motorbikes is common (i.e., the bodas in Uganda), be cautious. I’ve been in an accident, and it wasn’t fun. I’m not sure when I’ll get back on another one.

  6. hk,

    For basic information on a country, the CIA World Factbook isn’t a bad place to start, and it is free.

  7. Hi Chris,
    Do you have suggestions for other websites to read about the country other than EIU? Their subscriptions are expensive.

    thanks and love the blog

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