White man’s burden? How the presence of foreigners can change behaviour

In my fieldwork in Sierra Leone I often find myself in an uncomfortable position where I receive “special treatment” because of my identity. This is an experience shared by researchers and expat aid workers who try, but fail, to “fit in”. The sad truth is that foreign development researchers and practitioners bring with them a whole set of perceptions and expectations. These expectations lead to different behaviour, which could be a hindrance to good research and good development practice. But how do people act differently? And why?

Our research team, Oeindrila Dube and Bilal Siddiqi and I, randomly varied the identity of a field researcher helping administer dictator games in Sierra Leone. The researchers were both male and of similar age and educational attainment. One was a white American and the other was a local Sierra Leonean. Neither spoke a word during the experiment. We found that participants acted more generously – an average increase in giving of 20% – in villages where the white researcher was present.

Why would participants act differently in the presence of a white man? To unpack potential mechanisms we look at how different people and communities respond differently to the presence of a white man. First, respondents from villages that are more exposed to aid are less responsive to the presence. This suggests that different levels of giving have something to do with expectations about aid. Participants from these villages possibly expect less from foreign visitors, since they have a better idea of how aid is allocated. Second, we find that respondents who hold a traditional position of power – chiefs and leaders of secret societies – actually gave less in the presence of a white man. Increased giving by those with less power could thus be due to deference to authority, based on perceptions of power of the white man.

These results have implications for research and development practice. First, your presence in the research significantly undermines the results. You should either be absent when games and surveys are conducted, or randomly vary your presence. The success of impact evaluations could thus be overstated, if respondents “give the right answers” to please the researcher.  Moreover, true behavioural change could be short-lived if it is determined by the presence of a “white man”, rather than the actual project. Second, development practice could be more difficult than initially thought. All development agencies emphasise “equal partnerships” with local organisations and “empowerment” of the recipients of aid. But this research suggests that this goal is very hard to realise, due to initial asymmetric power relations. If we are associated with power and money, isn’t our mere presence disempowering?

This entry was posted in Institutions and Growth, Policies to Protect the Poor and tagged , . Bookmark the permalink.

One Response to White man’s burden? How the presence of foreigners can change behaviour

  1. Irene says:

    Thank you for your post. While I agree that foreigners of Caucasian decent are treated differently, I would like to say that this issue is not solely about race. As a non-white development practitioner, I believe we must also take to task the issue of privilege, perhaps even white privilege. I cannot to relate to your experiences as I am not treated differently in the field, that is until it is made known what passport I hold. Even then I am identified by the origin of my family. While you may think this is positive, sometimes it is not as rosy as it sounds. I have been told “that I get it,” the struggle that is, or I when disappoint people when they expect to meet the porcelain skinned, blue-eyed skinny rich ex-pat female. Which brings me to another issue. Your post does not mention the role of the media, which has a profound affect on how the rest of the world sees foreigners. Perhaps even explains how people view my identity when in the field. Many foreigners have problems with the whole idea of White Mans Burden. I hear your point about research being skewed but I argue that that would also be true if an urban person or someone from a different ethnic group within the country were to conduct research. My point is that all research is skewed in one way or another. Also the idea of research itself is a very western concept and does not translate to a rural person of the global south. Do minorities in the U.S. act differently when you go to their neighborhoods? I think so. Privilege does that. I do not discount how hard it is for you in the field, because it is. I’m sure you have had your share of reverse racism. The only aspect of your post that I do not understand is what part of it is new information? Seems to me this is a recurring theme. Again, I thank you for your post and I’m open for dialogue.