Practitioners of community-based international development should value people over projects, and at the same time value effectiveness over good intentions. We hold in tension a humanitarian ethic of service and a professional ethic of competence. Good community-based international development is competent service guided by good principles and done through good practices.
My hope is to catalyze dialogue for describing what good principles and practices should inform how individuals and organizations approach community development work, service learning, volunteerism, voluntourism and corporate social responsibility.
I reserve the right, of course, to occasionally wander off course and comment on other topics related to the broader theme of international development.
In 1997, my late wife Krista and I sold or gave away most of what few possessions we had, said good-bye to our families and friends and moved to rural Bolivia to serve a three-year term of volunteer service with the Mennonite Central Committee. I began making mistakes almost immediately. Of course there were the usual linguistic faux pas and cultural gaffes that contribute today to my repertoire of comical stories to tell at gatherings. But, there were other more serious mistakes as well. I arrived with an overblown sense of my own nobility and preparedness. I also deeply underestimated the cultural baggage I unwittingly carried everywhere with me. I arrived more naïvely under-equipped for the responsibilities given me than I like to remember.
I’ve since served as a development practitioner in about 30 countries with several different development organizations, both large and small. I’ve come to see that it’s not just individuals that learn lessons the hard way, but organizations too. Whether you’re a volunteer with a small development NGO like Trickle Up, a professional working for a BINGO like World Vision, an economist at an INGO like the World Bank, an associate at a private ID consulting firm like DAI, or a researcher at an academic institution like Harvard’s CID, you’ve probably learned hard lessons that have shaped your ideas about good principles and practices of international development, both for the individual and for the organization. This blog began as with the intention to explore and articulate some of these principles and practices.
origin of the name
In 2005, I published an article titled “Staying for Tea: Five Principles for the Community Service Volunteer” in a small journal I had founded a couple years earlier called The Global Citizen. I was just about to graduate from the MPA/ID program at the Harvard Kennedy School and with my mind filling up with macroeconomic growth models, OLS regression tables, and public policy analysis theory, I wanted to set down on paper the simple, people-centered principles that I had distilled from the lessons I learned after five years of grassroots-level development work in rural Bolivia. I felt that these principles must continue somehow to guide my work as an international development practitioner despite the layers of professionalism and sophistication I was putting on. Now days I embrace both the Staying for Tea principles that continue to guide my work and the professionalism and competence that doing my work well requires.