What fish balls taught me about development aid

Thanks to fish balls I had a revelation here in Ethiopia. We have a lovely woman helping us with our daily chores, such as cooking, doing laundry and buying groceries.

I had left her a note in which I requested fish balls for lunch. This is a typical dish in Finland and the recipe is very straightforward; you mix cooked fish with bread crumbs, spices, oil and eggs in a blender and then form balls and bake them in the oven for about 25 minutes. Serve with potatoes and veggies and enjoy. I had written this recipe for our helper and even attached a photo of fish balls.

When I came home for lunch, there they were, fish balls, but far from the image I had in mind. It was a plate of potatoes, veggies and fish filets baked in the oven, with some bread crumbs, eggs and spices sprinkled on top of the whole thing. The act of forming fish balls was a tiny folding of the filets from the outside in. The whole thing looked nothing like fish balls.

At first I got frustrated. How could she not get my idea? I made the recipe perfectly clear!

After five minutes I started to laugh about it. Mistakes are wonderful. So many great things to learn from them, like in this case, I realized after a few of my own:

  1. I assumed everyone in the world knows what a fish ball is. This isn’t the case.
  2. I assumed everyone in the world knows what a fish ball looks like. This isn’t the case. Our helper probably looked at the photo and thought they were potatoes.
  3. I assumed my instructions were perfectly clear. They weren’t. They were clear only to me.

Knowledge and experience derive from exposure. If you haven’t been exposed to say, fish balls, in your life, how could you know what the heck they are?

It sounds funny but this fish ball incident taught me a lot about development aid. In this field we are experts in jargon and professional words and assume everyone else is too.

We take our expertise to the field where we are talking to a group of farmers:

Hey, everyone! We have this great thing called value chain project/ capacity building/ gender empowerment/ younameit. We want you to start producing more efficiently so that value chains can be developed! We are here to build your capacity! You should all empower females and strive towards gender equality!

Will this language make sense to those we want to help?

While I do believe that there are a lot of great communicators out there in the field of development aid, I suspect the majority would still need a Communication 101 class, including me.

Our language is our strongest tool. If we don’t learn how to communicate so that a person who has never seen a Powerpoint presentation or a fish ball in their entire life will still understand us, we shouldn’t be operating in this business.

We should learn how to assume less. We should rely less on assumptions.

A good memory rule: Assuming makes an ass of u and me.

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