Boundary riding, dual worlds and critical friends: reflections from the field

Ayesha from Papua New Guinea and Lilis from Indonesia*

I sat down with Ayesha and Lilis (two rising stars from Abt-managed Australian Government funded aid projects in Indonesia and PNG) and said “tell me something interesting”. I was not disappointed.

I was stuck by Ayesha’s idea of ‘boundary riding’.

Ayehsa – herself an Australian-Papua New Guinean – is a self-proclaimed ‘boundary rider’. “Someone who lives in dual worlds. They understand the cultural, historic, political and social worlds that both the donor and their local counterparts inhabit”. According to Ayesha, boundary riders are the people we turn to when we want to:

  • find out what both sides really think (the story that doesn’t come out overtly in formal meetings but is displayed in nuances);
  • know who really has power in the donor hierarchy or in the national government. What they care about, and what they want from the aid project;
  • translate an idea into something that has meaning for both parties, and;
  • give voice to host governments or local actors to set their own agenda (or if this were presented to the donor – enable “locally driven developmAyeshaent”).

According to Ayesha, ‘boundary riding’ is exhibited in various forms and is underscored by a healthy degree of trust. Some illustrative examples of boundary riding include:  

  • the recognition of the complexity of being a citizen of one country and advancing the foreign policy interests of another country;
  • the critical but oft overlooked role that dual nationals play in aid and development, and;
  • specific advisers who boundary ride between the donor and the managing contractor or implementers with a degree of trust between the highest levels of these various parties to almost act as bridge.

Do we value this as a skill in development? Probably not. Or at least not enough.

We recruit for technical skills (people who how to design education policies or set up a log frame) or operational and project types (people who can manage finances and grants, recruit staff) – but rarely do we recruit for people who have the capabilities, acceptance and knowledge to work adeptly within donor and national worlds.

And when we do recruit people with these skills, we often measure their performance by ability to deliver on operational or technical requirements anyway. Do we need a change of mindset? Should we be recruiting and valuing ‘boundary riders’?

Ayesha also reminded us of the duty of care we have to nationals that work in foreign aid and development projects. These staff live in dual worlds.

They “log in at 830am to be a development worker for a foreign Government, then clock off at 4pm but all the while never relinquish their role or responsibilities as a  Papua New Guinean, a parent, or to their kin – they are significant advocates for the principles of gender, inclusion and transparency within their own spheres of influence, that only they can traverse in a truly meaningful way. An international aid and development project’s commitment to making change must include to its own staff, as well as the people their projects seek to help. We must remember that Papua New Guinean’s who deliver aid and development projects are citizens of their country and by virtue also beneficiaries. Therefore, while donors strive for gender equality in programming we cannot consider those efforts as exclusive to the same conditions and efforts that should be extended to the very personnel who deliver them.”

Lilis, Community Engagement and Social Accountability Manager for KOMPAK, followed with her thoughts on Civil Society Organisations (CSOs) in Indonesia. Much of what she does involves trying to shift the view of CSOs as adversarial with Government; to that of a ‘critical friend’. “Organsiations capable of treading the fine line between holding Government accountable for their performance, but also working with Government to improve the systems and processes that influence whether they perform or not”.lilis

Importantly, this involves a shift in how Government officials view CSOs – from pesky or risky groups snapping at the heels of local officials – to partners who will not shy away from the truth, but will also work with government to help them do their jobs better.

In Lilis’ work, she and her team do this through facilitation. Indonesian project managers providing a physical and politically acceptable place for CSOs and government to come together, build trust, identify problems that villages are facing and try to come up with ways of solving them. A recent win includes one local government’s decision to invest its own funds to help CSOs scale up their social accountability tools to new villages and districts.

But as Lilis reminds us, these relationships are not always smooth sailing. CSOs don’t always say what the Government wants to hear, and Government doesn’t always do what CSOs want. Thus it is also important that both sides find ways to weather this tension, and continue to see value in the relationship in the long term.

Thanks Lilis and Ayesha. More to come…

*Blog compiled by Lavinia Tyrrel

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