Exploring the professional journeys of exemplary expatriate field leaders in the international aid sector : a collective case study
Breslin, Randal Scott
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The international aid sector is a multi-billion dollar industry that has continued to grow in size, influence and complexity since the 1970s. The stakeholders are globalised and diverse, from elite UN politicians in New York and Geneva to malnourished infants in Somalia. This study attempts to focus on the professional development of one category of player in this multifaceted sector, that is the expatriate field leader employed international non-government organisations (INGO) and responsible for the implementation of projects in a cross-cultural environment. The study found that relationships, results, and grit were three foundational traits of exemplary expatriate filed leaders in the international aid sector. This collective case study takes a grounded theory approach to explore the professional journeys of 12 exemplary expatriate field practitioners in the international aid sector who work in Central Asia, Middle East, and North Africa with ten different INGOs and have an average of 12.5 years of field experience. The participants were nominated for the study by their supervisors or peers as being exemplary field leaders. The study purposes to gain insight into the professional journey of exemplary field leaders by examining their work-life experience from age 18 until present. Biographic narrative interviews were conducted and supplemented with professional development timelines to create the initial data set. The study provides insight into the processes of professional identity formation of expatriate aid workers and identifies seven events that shape their professional self-identity. These experiences consist of a variety of reflected appraisals and intrinsic rewards that validated or changed how the research participants saw themselves. Participants credited good relationships and seeing the results of their work as what keeps them going in spite of difficulties. On the other hand, the most difficult work experiences of the aid workers were not carjacking, riots, dust, heat, bugs, strange food, or low funding but relational conflicts and the grief associated with relational disappointments. Interpersonal relationships were core to both the best experiences and the most difficult experiences of the research participants. Gritty appears to be a better construct to describe exemplary field leaders than resilient. Grit is a trait defined as perseverance and passion for long-term goals. The research participants demonstrated grit in many situations, not least of which was in their commitment to learn the local language in-situ of crisis-affected people. The research participants believed that learning local languages was a key to establish and maintain meaningful relationships and cooperation with local people. The study also includes a discussion of an apparent incongruity in the international aid sector. On one hand the sector promotes the necessity of humanitarian professionals to establish and maintain collaborative relationships with crisis-affected people, but survey evidence suggests most workers in the humanitarian sector put a low priority on learning the languages of crisis-affected people while others do not have sufficient opportunity to learn the local languages because of the well-entrenched tradition of short-term employment contracts of 1-12 months and the practice of churning (rotating experienced staff from project to project). It appears that the current system of doing business in the humanitarian sector may actually obstruct professional competence and contribute to failed outcomes.