[How Do We “Know” the World Series] Part IX: About International “Experts” – Critical Thinking and an Inferiority Complex

by Janita Bartell

The following are reflections on my 3.5 years of working as a Research and Learning Manager for a local Cambodian NGO. I do not wish to reveal names of people, organizations or sectors in this essay as I believe these details might distract from the underlying pattern across most people, organizations and sectors.

The inferiority complex

On a Friday evening some time in August 2015, I debriefed with a colleague. We were both tired after five days of an international conference convened by a large “philanthropic” foundation. The who is who of our sector brought forward the latest evidence and discussed the most effective strategies to addressing the development issue at hand. I asked my Cambodian colleague about his most important takeaway from the conference. He replied: “I was most surprised that they [the people from the foundation] did not know how to solve the development problem.” That blew my mind but opened my eyes. Of course, they don’t know. How are they supposed to know?

I suppose this is what Aimé Césaire referred to in his Discourse on Colonialism as “millions of men (…) who have been taught to have an inferiority complex, to tremble, kneel, despair, and behave like flunkeys.”

The international “experts”

In International Development it is common practice to contract international consultants from the Global North for discreet pieces of social research, including programme evaluations and formative research. Locals are usually hired as interpreters, note takers, transcribers and for arranging the logistics. Analysis, interpretation and conclusions are left to the international “expert”, who usually then comes up with a suggested way forward based on a “consultation with the local population”. Based on these recommendations, “interventions” are designed, for which national staff are again hired to implement activities.

The irony is that most content this international “expert” produces, writes up in her/his report and then sells as his/her unique insight comes directly from the very mouths of the people in local communities. The evidence lay bare in front of me that this system unfortunately was more or less fully bought into by my colleague.

How did we get this far? Wise women and men before me have attempted that question. I would like to look ahead. What can I in my position do to change this, very practically? But also, what is realistic to achieve in my position?

In an ideal world, all development would be locally initiated and led. This includes locally funded. The organization I was working for was funded by donors from the US and from the UK. This means all proposals and reports we produce are measured against a standard of knowledge production in the Global North. Every line written explains the world of rural Cambodia to someone located in the Global North trained to think in terms of statistics and causal mechanisms, but not in terms of Cambodian lenses that may include ancestral spirits and kinship loyalty.

I had the choice to either attempt to change the underlying parameters of this discourse or to try to create a bridge between these two worlds by supporting the staff I supervised to have their word heard in this discourse with its existing rules – in the hope that this participation would in turn give them the chance to change the rules of this discourse. Does taking the second approach make me complacent with a hegemonic system of knowledge production? Maybe. Taking the first approach would have certainly made me fall into the trap of trying to cast out the evil with the same logic that has created it in the first place. In other words, the underlying parameters of the discourse around how we know the world were set by people from the Global North trained to think in a certain logic. This includes myself; and hence it disqualifies me from attempting to change these parameters. If the aim is to make these parameters more inclusive, the process to define new parameters needs to be inclusive.

The critical thinking

Instead of hiring international consultants to conduct research and evaluation, I hired three young Cambodian researchers who were going to lead the organization’s research. Together we embarked on a learning journey. I learnt about the social reality of rural Cambodia and the very narrow limits of my own mind to grasp this reality. I have not and will probably never fully understand, neither cognitively nor emotionally, the constraints and opportunities within which people in rural Cambodia navigate their life. The analytical skills I have developed work well in a Western context. They were, in some respects, hopeless in Cambodia.

On the other hand, along this journey my colleagues slowly built up a critical consciousness as well as systematic questioning of the underlying mechanisms that appear to be governing the social dynamics in their communities. This meant hundreds of hours of conversation and open-ended questions, uncovering and challenging of assumptions. In this context, traditional skills of social research were less important than developing a mind that scrutinizes one’s own understanding.

Am I not contradicting myself? My own analytical tools were in some respects worthless, but yet I am in a position to support the development of exactly these analytical skills with the local researchers? It was not so much the qualitative coding or statistical software, the sampling methodology or questionnaire design that made a difference. The most important part of this learning journey was the critical thinking – or in other words the ability to take one step back, look at the situation and design different options for interpretation and action. It is this skill that my former colleagues, now friends, tell me they now value the most.

In Cambodia, I worked within an approach of knowledge production that was dominated by the Global North, some may call it neo-colonial. I did not radically challenge this system. I tried my best to help Cambodians to participate in this discourse. Did I contribute to moving in a direction that will allow my Cambodian colleague to one day be confident that nobody else than him and his peers is in a better position to solve their own challenges? Or did I contribute to maintaining a system that continues to create “societies drained of their essence, cultures trampled underfoot”?

As a trained sociologist, Janita has worked in international development (local NGOs, UN, research institutions) over the past 10 years to support them to better understand and relate to the people they serve. She has a keen interest in understanding the opportunities, contraints and social dynamics that drive people’s behavior.

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