What job can a white person do in the development sector? – Personal thoughts on my own career prospects

With advancement in my studies, I am being asked more and more frequently what I want “to be” in the future. Earlier, before I started studying, that question would have been easy to answer – I wanted to become a field worker, create policies to improve people’s lives, do community development, I wanted to do advocacy at the United Nations, and also be a human rights activist who writes legal papers and brings countries to court.

I believe that I am not in a position to do any of that. Given that I do not really want to work within Germany, or Western Europe, at all, there will always be a need to justify myself. If I chose to continue focussing on South Asia, I will always need to justify exactly why I am in a position to make conclusions about cultures and people I have little prior knowledge about. Even though I still don’t know what exact job I want to do in life, I made a list of things I should not do, especially if I really want to work in another country like India:

  1. I cannot possibly lead a team. I am white, I am a foreigner – if I lead a team or a project, I will perpetuate a post-colonial image.
  2. I cannot impose any policy. I am not in a position to tell other people what is best for them.
  3. I cannot just stay for a short time. Any project I do will have to be long-term – I would need to choose an area, or even a city, and a problem, that I can really understand in depth.

Using these points, I am slowly approaching what I can actually do in this world:

  1. I can be a voice for people who are not heard. I am a white, privileged woman, and I can collect stories of people who are being marginalized.
  2. I can only do this for people who actually want me. I cannot possibly impose myself and demand them to tell me what they need.
  3. For this, I need to learn how to properly listen, and need to learn to understand.
  4. The main thing I can really do is find out what people actually need, and then share this with those who are too ignorant or busy to do proper inquiries.

So, basically, what I can do is become a researcher, or a journalist. However, some problems arise from this:

  1. Most research is conducted by think tanks, or organizations, who have time horizons and are constrained by deadlines and the need to have measurable goals. Work with non-academic research will never give me the freedom to actually find the truth. Qualitative research is often dreaded, as it is inconcrete at first. The “world out there” favours quantitative research, with graphs and charts and statistics, and results that are reached within a few months.
  2. Research in academia might sound like a good idea, and certainly, a PhD gives me enough time to dig deep and fully understand my area of study. Many people in sociology and anthropology take over ten years to do a PhD, which almost guarantees that they are good quality! However, as my professors have told me, it becomes difficult to then continue doing such extensive research. As an academic, you need to be affiliated with a university, and teach for nine months a year. You are packed with work, and barely have time for your own research. There are some institutes, scattered across the world, where you are employed and do academic research full-time, but these are for the academic elite and are difficult to access.

The moral dilemma I find myself in is that I am not in a position to design policies about the area I am interested in – South Asia. I love South Asia, and really believe that I can manage and learn to understand the area. If I had a dream job, it would be the following: Being consulted on policy/law drafts, and then interviewing people whose lifestyle I already know a lot about, so that I can find out whether the policy/law will actually have the desired effects, and whether these people really need it. However, all of this comes with hurdles of bureaucracy, and I really fear that I will betray my own ambitions to not impose anything on anyone, simply because the system demands that I make compromises.

P.S. Sometimes I feel like backpacking is some form of research itself. While hitchhiking, I talk to so many diverse people, and because I am at their mercy – after all, I rely on their hospitality and them driving me around – I have to listen to them without imposing my opinion. I have learnt so much from sitting in the General Compartment in Indian trains. I keep thinking that some vloggers who backpack for years and years (especially if they backpack in the same region of the world) probably have very good qualitative research skills, and can really manage to empathize with people and understand their needs.

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