Ian, who is British, was a Progressio development worker with the Omaheke San Trust in Namibia from 2002 to 2005.

What was the partner organisation that you worked with?

The partner organisation was called the Omaheke San Trust. It is a community based organisation owned and managed by San (Bushman) people in the Omaheke region of Namibia. In the Kalahari bordering Botswana, Omaheke is a huge area, about twice the size of Holland. Its (then) population was about 50,000 people, so it was very empty. It had one tarmac road – the Trans-Kalahari Highway – which ran through the middle of the region and linked the coastal ports with Botswana. It was very dry; it rained occasionally during about four months each year in the summer (between November and February).

The OST was there to help local San people with a wide range of issues, such as advice and support on human rights, welfare rights and other legal matters; community development and livelihoods projects in settlements; helping to get San children into schools and to keep them there; dealing with violations of San people’s rights by other tribal groups – mainly Herero cattle farmers. We also ended up having to support the government’s food aid programme by delivering food aid to remote communities in the bush.

What was your role as a Progressio development worker?

My role was as technical advisor – providing organisational capacity building. Most of the San in Omahake had either never been to school or may have completed primary school. Only a handful could read and write; one had a driving licence; one had used a computer – Adeline, my counterpart at OST. She was also the only San person in Omaheke who had been employed as anything other than a farm labourer, domestic staff, etc.

There was a lot of work to do. The San also had a very different concept of how to deal with resources and money. Typically having neither, when they did get some, it was usually used up immediately to meet pressing needs such as food, clothing – or often, alcohol. The OST had a Board made up entirely of local San elders – a very inclusive, but unsustainable idea. Only one person on the Board could read (and only in Afrikaans). This caused huge governance and organisational challenges, particularly over how to manage and use resources and funding.

When I was interviewed by Progressio in London for the role, the OST had 10 staff running a large UNICEF-funded education programme. Three months later, when I arrived in Namibia, an audit two weeks previously had uncovered missing funds (not much, a few thousand US dollars) and UNICEF had pulled all funding. All the staff, apart from one person (Adeline), had been sacked and the OST now had no funding, no reserves and no programmes operating. It was a big shock arriving into this. The next year was a struggle – at times we had to scrape money together just to pay the electricity bill for the office. Progressio helped us with an emergency small grant which helped to see us through a month or two. Eventually we managed to get things moving again and slowly build up the organisation.

What inspired you to become a development worker?

I’ve always worked in the community sector in some way. I’ve also always had a sense of adventure and wanting to do something different. When I was younger I was far less aware of global issues and development, but as I started to learn more about the problems faced by communities around the world it started to resonate with me. I also felt very restless – I had never stayed in any job for more than two years, I’d moved around the country a bit.

I spent a year or so trying to think what it was that I was really after in life and I had some kind of light bulb moment and realised this was it. So I set about researching how I could get a career in development. I applied for a lot of jobs and got a lot of rejections. One of the things I learned through all of this was that I needed to focus on my skills and not my previous areas of work, which was mostly in social housing. People would tell me that they didn’t need housing specialists. Then I realised that my skills were not in housing, they were in supporting people who lived in social housing – I knew no more about houses than the next person, but I had really good community and organisational and leadership skills.

Once I realised how to focus my efforts, I had more positive feedback, although still no success. Then, as these things seem to go, three came along at once; I got an interview with DFID (for which they flew me to Brazil), I got an offer of a post in Mali and I got the interview and offer of this post with the OST.

What struck you most about Progressio’s development worker model/approach?

What impressed me the most was the straightforward way Progressio dealt with recruitment. The placement was advertised, with an open application process, and you applied and were interviewed like for any other job (with additional interviews). It was very different to, for example, VSO, where you have to go through assessments to get accepted into a pool and then get offered posts. I applied for this job and got assessed for this job.

I also felt that Progressio were not afraid to recruit people who got things done. Of course, the approach to capacity building matters, but succeeding in moving the organisation forward matters too. I thought Progressio struck the right balance between providing support when needed, but not sitting on my shoulder the whole time. I really felt like I worked for the OST, which is how it should be.

What did you enjoy most about your experience as a development worker?

Every day was different. One day I would be helping the parents of school child fight a legal battle against a teacher who had abused her; the next I would be helping to drill a borehole in a village; the next I would be helping colleagues prepare for a UN conference in New York City; and the next I would rushing someone to hospital or driving a corpse back to town.

I lived in three rooms at the back of the office in a small compound shared with the San people who worked and visited the OST, so I got pretty involved (whether I wanted to or not) in what was going on. I would love to say that I enjoyed all the success we had, but there was very little of that. It was hard slog. Success in development with the San needs to be measured over generations, not years.

That said, we enjoyed small step successes along the way. Helping a San colleague to get a driving licence, getting kids into school for the first time (and keeping them in), getting an order for the ostrich eggshell jewellery we produced.

Mostly, it was the variety and the freedom to innovate and do things differently. Omaheke is a real frontier region – it can be pretty lawless and dangerous, but it was magnificent, huge, big skies, empty landscape where you would see more antelopes by the roadside than people.

For one three month period I got so claustrophobic living in the office – 24/7 on call for the San – that I bought a tent, a mountain bike and a cooking pot and spent three months living in a tent in the bush about 10km out of town, cycling to and from town each day, eating food cooked on a camp fire every night under the most amazing skies – the milky way to light my night. It was bloody cold though!

What were some of your main achievements while working as a development worker?

As I said before, achievements with the San can only be measured over decades/ generations. We had small step successes. These included:

  • Setting up a craft business with the San – they make the most amazing jewellery from ostrich eggshell and we got a French fashion designer to work with them on improving its quality and appeal to fashion stores. We had good sales and even built our own craft shop in the grounds of the OST compound to catch passing tourist and local trade.
  • My work with my counterpart Adeline. We had our tense moments, but I like to think we helped each other a lot. She has gone on to be an administrator for the Deputy Prime Minister and I’d like to think I helped her a little bit along the way.
  • Helping some of the people we supported with civil and human rights abuses – too many to mention and some too horrible to detail, but we did what we could and got some sort of justice for some of them.
  • Helping to get the OST back on its feet in the first two years, after losing all its funding and funders.
  • Helping to professionalise the OST a little bit – but this is very qualified because it remained very fragile.
  • Helping to roll out the work I helped with in the OST to other San communities in Namibia.

And what were some of the key challenges and lessons learnt?

  • Whatever you think you know before you get there – you need to start from scratch.
  • Everything will take you at least twice as long and cost twice as much as you thought.
  • Decide what you mean when you use the term “sustainable”. It means different things to different communities and projects. With the San, if something lasted for a year after our intervention, it was pretty sustainable!
  • I learned that the way you get to your end point matters as much as getting there.
  • I learned that spending an entire day with one San colleague helping him/her to learn how to use an office phone, is time well spent – it was real capacity building. I led the building and opening of a whole craft shop business in less time than it took to get my colleagues to use a spreadsheet for stock control, but that was more valuable to the OST than the craft shop.
  • I learned that cultural and community ties, pressure and loyalties can undermine years of organisational development work. At the end of the day no one had real loyalty to the OST, over their own community. Community ownership of the OST, to some people, meant they felt entitled to plunder its resources, assets, vehicles, cash, staff (including me!) for their own use.

What advice would you give to someone who is thinking of becoming a development worker?

Make sure you know what you want to do and why. Also, don’t beat yourself up about having some selfish reasons for wanting to do this. It’s great that you are helping other people and contributing but everyone also needs to get something themselves. Understand the skills you have – focus on these rather than the jobs you have done. Work out your transferable skills. Think about your personal circumstances and whether these will impact on your ability to commit to working somewhere challenging. It can also be very lonely and isolating.

Be willing to do whatever you need to – stick at it and deal with the knock-backs you will get. Also, however close you get to a community you are working in, ultimately, they know and you know, that you are leaving at some point. You need to appreciate and understand the dynamics and limitations on the relationships you build – don’t ever make yourself indispensable and don’t create dependency on you.

Read more about what Ian learned from the experience of being a development worker, and how it helped shape his future career