Watch Your Step
August 4, 2007

There is an email address that allows employees of my particular international agency in Afghanistan to send an email to all other staff in Afghanistan at the agency. Most email sent to it is by people sending their farewell messages. There are a few emails introducing new staff. And sometimes, a really dumb thread will start - like the time a department head at my own initiative replied to a message about banking, asking for his pin number for his new ATM card; he sent the request to the entire staff, and the organization's finance office sent the reply - including the pin number - to the entire staff as well. And then they got into an argument about whose fault it was - all sent to the entire staff.

This particular agency just had elections for staff representatives. I didn't vote. I didn't know anyone running, and, quite honestly, I didn't really care. But apparently some employees did care, very much. And one of them, someone not from Afghanistan, wrote to the election board, via an email sent to the entire staff, about how upset she was at how the election was conducted. I won't get into her criticisms, but they seemed legitimate. The reply was swift, from the head of elections: his very first comment was that she had no right to complain. It's the response that I find more insulting than any other to a criticism. OFCOURSE she had every right to complain!

Sadly, the responder zeroed in on one of her comments about culture. I think she was talking about culture in terms of employee culture / corporate culture, not Afghan culture. But it didn't matter. The head of elections laid into her for insulting Afghanistan culture, and within minutes, people began piling on. She tried to apologize, unequivocally - they refused her apology and kept right on piling. Senior management watched it all and said nothing. Now that she's a pariah, she'll probably have to leave soon.

Her criticisms - legitimate criticisms -- will now never be addressed. And other international staff will feel ever-more reluctant to speak critically, for fear of being publicly humiliated and branded a racist. And worse, it makes internationals view national staff as reactionary and overly emotional, as people with whom one must be guarded at all times, and people to avoid. The last thing we need here are more divisions among staff!

I think cultural sensitivity training is really important for international staff, but I think there needs to be a version for national staff as well, about how the type of behavior I'm witnessing now is not contributing to understanding but, instead, is divisive and just as insulting as what the person is being accused of.

Let this be a warning to those of you who want to work in development. Pick your battles carefully, and your words even more carefully - particularly in writing. Ask yourself: is this *really* that important to say or write? Even the most benign comments can turn into a firestorm.

Ofcourse, if you do decide something is, indeed, important, even critical, to say or write, and you have thought about and planned for the fallout, then, by all means, do it. I believe in being cautious, but not to the point of compromising my values.


If you have read this blawg, PLEASE let me know.
Comments are welcomed, and motivate me o keep writing --
without comments, I start o think I'm talking o cyberair.

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