There is an interesting conversation going on about the concept of “the field” in development work, and whether it might be outdated. “The field” is a concept the development community shares to a certain extent both with militaries and with the social sciences.
The monoliteral J., at WhyDev, argues that at large intergovernmental organizations and non-governmental organizations (I/NGOs) grand-strategic and top-level strategic decisions are usually made by headquarter and regional staffs; country-level staffs tend to make lesser strategic and tactical decisions about aid projects. By this light, an emphasis on “fieldwork” risks doing two things. It can divide the development community counterproductively, giving tactical decisionmakers a priority that their sorts of decisions don’t merit, and it can promote an unhealthy conceptual divide between us (“fieldworkers”) and them (“beneficiaries”).
Duncan Green, at Oxfam’s From Poverty To Power, largely agrees, though he argues that HQ decisions can risk becoming too untethered from situations beyond boardrooms and conferences, and says immersive trips to the place often called the field can help alleviate this to an extent.
Many of the questions raised by the term “field” are particular to large I/NGOs, but the issue does resonate, to a certain extent, even here at Dimagi, where our headquarters is in Boston, and we have a large group we call our “field team”. We use the term “field manager” for people on this team. For example, I am an “FM” in our West Africa office. So what does “the field” mean in Dimagi?
Perhaps unsurprisingly, since we work in the space often called “ICT4D,” creating last-mile data solutions, for us the field is the ultimate source of information, which, if well handled, can improve tactical, strategic, and grand-strategic decisions in development projects. We create tools that enable our partners to collect information from the “last mile” of such projects, store that information, and output it in ways that enable them to be more effective, both within that last mile (for example, providing decision support for Community Health Workers faced with a patient exhibiting certain symptoms) and at other levels of the project (by providing a web dashboard for project administrators, and the capacity to export certain data). The idea is that information properly gathered in this last mile can, properly used, make whole projects—and whole programs—more responsive.
At the same time, we try to work against the idea of a hard and fast field/HQ divide, both internally and externally. Internally, members of our HQ team get frequent opportunities for field immersion, and several are also active in managing field projects; we also have members of the dev team who are permanently based away from our Boston office. We have an array of systems for field reports, “brown bag” presentations, and formal and informal chats, all of which help break down any barriers that could come up between different parts of our internal structure.
Externally, when working on large projects, we engage with the whole partner organization, from its HQ staff to its front line workers, knowing that each part has an essential role to play in making the project work. We also don’t shy away from working with smaller partners, where the HQ and the field office are one and the same.
And finally, we try not to let the idea of a “field”—where tactical decisions are made and information gathered—make us view the people who live there as fundamentally different from ourselves. Part of this springs from our decision to organize as a “benefit corporation,” a type of enterprise that focuses on impact more than on the bottom line. Our staff is paid sufficiently, but not at all extravagantly, enabling us to deliver more impact for the same price; partly as a result of this (and partly because of the caliber of people we hire), Dimagi Field Managers tend not to live in vast mansions, but rather among peers. The people from the countries where we work are our neighbors, our friends, and our families—they are also our colleagues and ourselves.
The field is where it all starts for us, and we’re eager to see where it goes.