Looking back now, it was mostly because I felt insecure.
I got a public health adviser job at an international NGO in Myanmar and had just moved from Australia to Yangon to start work. But I knew virtually nothing about the country - its history, its culture, its language, its politics or all the nuances that affected health issues.
And even if I dedicated ten years to understanding these things I would still only be scratching the surface compared to the Myanmar health staff in the organization.
So on one hand I seemingly had very little to offer. Yet on the other hand, it was costing the organisation a fair amount of money to have me there.
So what did I do? I turned quickly to the few things that I did know about and made them sound really important. I had a Masters in Public Health from a Western university and a little experience in health systems in other countries. So I focused on how the organization needed to professionalise along the lines of an international best practice that I understood.
That was not necessarily a bad thing. But what I didn’t admit to myself was that I really wanted to feel and look as though I was adding value to the program – and that that was driving a lot of the way I approached the job.
Looking back now, I suspect that maybe I am not the only foreigner who experiences this.
An international peace adviser might know a lot about theory of peace building, and perhaps a little of what has happened in other countries. Yet, like all of us foreigners, they are completely at sea in the complexity of the Myanmar context. So what do they emphasise? Theory of peace processes and whatever country they do know about.
An international program manager might know a lot about how to write flashy log frames and proposals and reports, but only a little about the place where the program will be run. So what do they emphasize? The quality of the log frame and reports.
There are any number of ways it might work out, and of course the things we focus on might have some value.
But I feel as though a common factor is a desire by foreigners - however long we have been working on Myanmar - to emphasize the importance of the things that we know about. And de-emphasize everything else.
My little daughter is just learning to swim.
And the frightening thing about learning to swim is that the more you are out of your depth the faster you learn.
She could spend all the time she wants in the shallow end and never get any better. But go in the deep end - and while she struggles and needs lots of help – she learns far better.
I don’t know what the answer to this foreigner insecurity complex is.
But I would much rather see all of us admitting how little we know - as though we are dog paddling around in the deep end and calling for help.
Whether it is public health theory or the peace process, clinging on down the shallow end to the little we do know may not really help us or our programs.
by Tamas Wells