What I learned from… working in Palestine.

A guest post by Ben Francis, @anarchasm.

Every single person comes to Palestine for the same reason. Or at least they tell me they do. Every single volunteer, employee and intern that worked for or with me over the course of the nearly three years I spent in Palestine would give some variation of the same motivation when asked why they had traveled across continents, sometimes at their own expense, to live a basic life in an Occupied Territory.

“Because I want to help”. Sometimes it would be expressed in different words or to different extents but the sentiment remained largely the same. And it was true of almost everyone. In the development world we can all get hard edged, spikey and cynical – some would argue such traits are essential in certain contexts – but underneath it the thing that unites the majority of us is that amongst our career motivations is a genuine recognition of some kind of injustice or inequality that we would like to be a part of rectifying. It doesn’t mean to say that we’re always successful but the desire is there.

The key question is how. If any of us had a full and complete answer the world would be a much better place and there would be no need for most of the projects we work on. Nobody does have a magical answer but we do have a few clues – a few universally applicable guidelines that give us the best shot of being in any way effective. The first one of these that learned was taught to me in Palestine; work hard.

BenIt was my boss, the founder of the NGO I would later take over, that spelled it out for me. “Everyone wants to make a difference” he told me “Do you know how you make a difference? You work hard. You wake up, you work as hard as you can until it’s time to sleep. Then you sleep, wake up again the next day and start over”. And he was absolutely right. Too often in development a naive picture of what aid should be, or the creeping influence of “voluntourism” lead to an inadequate work ethic and though hard work alone isn’t enough to guarantee success, it is one of the best tools we have to give ourselves, our projects and the communities we work with the best chance of a positive outcome.

I took the advice on and it served me well. I worked as hard as I could for the remainder of my time in Palestine, sometimes pulling 100+ hour working weeks and often sacrificing evenings and weekends to tasks that needed completing. While consistently putting in those kind of hours can actually be counter-productive when you factor in the very real threat of burn-out (especially if you’re based in conflict zones) the idea remains intact. There’s no reason for any of us in development to feel like we should be working with any less intensity than anyone else, and every reason to feel like we should be working with more.

I learned a lot of lessons in Palestine and am proud of some of the successes we achieved there. But when I look back at things I could have done differently or mistakes that I made I am comforted, at least, by the reassurance that I worked as hard as I could to give myself the best chance of success.


BenThumbnailBen is currently completing his Masters degree in Global Development at the University of Leeds. He has previously worked in a variety of countries including Palestine for Teach For Palestine and the British Council in Libya. You can contact Ben through Twitter @anarchasm.

To contribute to the “What I learned from…” PIN Blog Series, just send 3-500 words to us at practicalinitiatives@gmail.com, include a photograph of yourself, or if you’d prefer to remain anonymous, send us a topical photo you’ve taken. Include any useful links and we’ll get back to you. You can read more about the series here: Call for Contributions!


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