While relief workers rushing to Asia to help deal with the aftermath of the tsunamis will have little time to interact with locals, aid workers who spend more time abroad require special intercultural skills.
Bringing about lasting improvements is the goal
Niger, Laos, Belize -- they're not classic tourist destinations, though they do attract those in search of adventure. And development workers, who've prepared to work in places where nothing is like it is at home.
"You need a great deal of courage to go and live in a developing country," said Rosemarie Füglein of the Center for International Migration (CIM), a human resources provider with a development policy mission in Frankfurt. But it seems that many people have the required amount of courage. For CIM alone, around 700 professionals are working on assignments in more than 80 countries.
Development cooperation is a field that has changed greatly over the last few years. Today, it's not just nurses and technicians who are sought after, but also political scientists and lawyers. Projects go beyond the building of wells to the shaping of social structures. The long-term goal is to make lasting improvements to the quality of life in developing countries.
More than just technical expertise
Workers of German relief organization "ASB" load humanitarian aid for Iraq in Hamburg
For this, people are needed who can bring more than just specialized knowledge to the job. "Know-how plus" is what's needed, explained Füglein, meaning that in addition to technical expertise, applicants should also have managerial and leadership experience, prior experience of working abroad, and the necessary social and intercultural competencies.
Intercultural competency is something like the magic formula of development cooperation. Development workers have to be open to the idiosyncrasies of the culture they're working in. Development agencies for the most part work together with local partners, government ministries and non-governmental organizations. Someone who's only prepared to live and work according to German norms will quickly find themselves running up against barriers.
Preparation is key
To keep cross-cultural misunderstandings to a minimum, development workers receive special training before they leave home. While still in their German surroundings, they're taught how to negotiate in Asia, or what to do in a dangerous situation in Colombia. The future development workers are taught to change their perspective, to see their own behavior from the perspective of the culture they'll be working in. The courses are taught by two trainers -- one from Germany, and one from the country in which the workers are going to.
An Afghan baby is looked after by a French nurse from the International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) during a free medical clinic about 40 kilometers (25 miles) north of Kabul, Afghanistan
"The ability to reflect on oneself is very important," said Holger Vagt of the German Agency for Technical Cooperation (GTZ). Important too, is the ability to think clearly and act in difficult situations. Stressful situations are frequent occurrences in developing nations.
In many third world countries, violence is part of everyday life. Infrastructure is often lacking, and there's not much in the way of cultural offerings. Development workers have to adjust to such conditions. That's why it's important to send "stable personalities" abroad, said Vagt. "People who have difficulties handling their lives in Germany are ill-suited for work in the field of development cooperation," he said.