Tina Fey: international development is like. . . improv

“When you create something out of nothing, the first rule is to agree.” – Tina Fey

I’m not sure Tina Fey would attribute her words about improv as wisdom for international development, but there is a truth to the statement that can’t be ignored. Tina Fey might just be the best international development expert there is today and we all might need a little more improv training.

When we engage in development projects we are often creating something out of nothing. That is not to say that there is nothingness all around that needs to be “developed,” but many times development projects are creating new systems, organizations, norms, and terms of engagement. Before we can move into agreeing with our actual development project, we need to first take a step back and agree with the fact that we are outsiders, visiting unknown places, and often with no understanding of the history or culture of the people we are creating something with.

My Professor in my Capstone course in international development shared an excellent framing of how outsiders can engage in development work. I’m not sure if this concept can be attributed to her, but I have shared it many times since that course.

As development practitioners, aid workers, and humanitarians we can act in three unique roles, we can be:

Mirror – We can reflect back to a community what we see as an outsider. This can be beneficial  in letting others know how they are perceived and can lead to growth in areas that may have been overlooked by individuals who live with situations every day.

Echo – We can be a voice for a community that may be unheard or unknown. We can echo their concerns in our own communities and within the institutions that we work. We can extend their efforts further than they might be able, due to social or economic constraints.

Bridge – We can build connections between communities. We can assist development projects in landing grants and resources from outside institutions or organizations. We can create networks of support where they can be most beneficial for the community that we are working for.

At the very heart of development work, whether it is in a developing country or inner city, we must first remember to meet people where they are at. We cannot impose our understandings of reality on another if we hope to be successful. We must first take the time to learn the reality, culture, and everyday life of the community. Before we can start working to make something out of nothing, we must then follow the first rule of improv: to agree.

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