One of my goals for the summer is to determine the role of the expatriate in a foreign country. So far, my time here has given me some insights into the answer, but I realize now that the answer is more complicated than I'd imagined. Some context first:
Since arriving, I've learned a lot about the structure of USAID-funded international development. USAID has broad goals for developing countries and specific initiatives in each country to accomplish those goals. They determine the projects and then companies and organizations bid on on them with proposals. The project I am working on is a five-year program focused on strengthening the civil society sector in three ways. A simple definition of the civil society sector is anything that isn't strictly private commercial activity and isn't the government. It includes any noncommercial organization. There are varying definitions here and some organizations are difficult to classify, but, as a whole, the sector is supposed to fill the gap between government and business. The three ways we are strengthening civil society organizations (CSOs) are (1) drafting and submitting to parliament laws that protect and encourage CSO activity; (2) educating college students and practitioners in nonprofit management (some courses are very similar to those you'd find in a business major); and (3) evaluating CSOs individually and as a group to determine strategic changes they could make to become more effective and self-sustaining. So far, as I've mentioned in previous posts, I've been working on the second objective. The conference was part of the course development for college students. We also had a "Professional Development Workshop" to develop classes that will become part of the curriculum. Starting this week I will be working with the team responsible for drafting the laws we will submit to parliament.
Back to the role of the expat. I've asked myself frequently, "What can I contribute to this project or situation?" and there are times when I have a hard time coming up with anything. Sometimes my role is clear. I am editing a translated document, or I'm offering advice on a strategy for marketing a website. The problem is when I am working with the three teams on their specific projects. I lack the background knowledge and expertise to draft any legal language for the draft law, especially in this country and in Russian. I do not know enough about nonprofit management or management of any kind to be able to develop curriculum at the level of a professor or a dean. I have no idea how to evaluate whether a CSO will be viable in five years. It's frustrating at times, because Mark, my boss, would like me to be a leader in the office and make substantial contributions, and I feel inadequate in that role.
Mark is an excellent leader. He controls the office well and knows what is happening on each team, but he does not micromanage and the staff members clearly trust him. I've learned a lot just by observing his interactions with others. I spoke to him about his view on the role of the expat, and he offered helpful advice: Expats are not supposed to be better than every team member at accomplishing the tasks the project requires. Expats are mentors and leaders. We enable the "nationals" (local workers) to thrive by providing guidance and boosting confidence. Here, in Bishkek, the civil society sector is very weak and has a bad reputation. People who work in development struggle to develop the skills to succeed because their work is not respected or valued. Expats need not tell each person how to do his or her job. We only need to create an environment in which the nationals can learn and grow as professionals, because they know their country far better than we ever will, and because the difference they can make is substantially greater than any USAID project's impact.
Expats are, in many ways, required to be the best kind of leader. We must know enough to evaluate work products, but our real contribution is strong leadership that brings others alongside us. We must be mentors to as many staff members as possible. We must demonstrate our confidence in the nationals' ability to succeed in changing the world around them. We don't come to provide expertise in a certain area, but to allow the local talent to flourish.
That said, I've only observed and spoken at length to one member of the expat community. It is entirely possible that another person will provide a different definition of the role expats play. I anticipate a lawyer working on legal work may have a different perspective, because he or she actually does have expertise. Mark's role is to lead a team for the duration of a project. Another expat might come in and address a specific need for a short time and then move on. As I hear more from different sources, I'll share their insights. I will be working with two lawyers, each on different projects, in the coming week or so.
Next post will likely be about my work on the team drafting the law on CSOs, but maybe I'll throw in a bonus cultural perspectives post before then. Here's a picture of a mountain I hiked up (Ala Archa is the park it is in) last week just to show I do not spend all of my time contemplating the deeper meaning of my role here and in life.