A life without borders

by David Week on 14 August 2010


Snapshot of my life

I was born in Chile. At the age of three, I moved two New York for six years (with my parents, of course!). Then six months in Jakarta, just before the 1965 coup which saw between half a million and million people killed. Three and half years in New Zealand. Then back to Jakarta for five. I was part of the second ever graduating class of the Jakarta International School. Then five years at Berkeley.

In the sixth year, as part of my Master’s thesis, I want to Papua New Guinea, to start the Community Based Building Program with my colleague Ken Costigan. One thing led to another, and I lived seven years there in the Sepik Province: five years in the bush (among the most memorable in my life), and two years in the coastal capital Wewak, the big city lights with a population of 20,000.

After seven years, I missed bookshops, universities, cafés, and the other accoutrements of yuppie life. So I moved to Australia. Since that time, my CV lists my countries of work experience as follows:

Pacific: Australia, East Timor, New Caledonia, New Zealand, Papua New Guinea, Samoa, Solomon Islands, Tonga, Vanuatu; Asia: Cambodia, India, Indonesia, Lao PDR, Vietnam; Africa: Lesotho.

As I write, I’m sitting in a small hotel. It’s a conversion of old traditional timber Turkish house. I have a view of the Bosphorus, Internet, air conditioning (it’s 35° C. during the day here), and from the breakfast room on the top floor, a view of the Hagia Sophia. I’m here on the first leg of a vacation. My daughters join me from Europe tomorrow, and my partner Farida in five days.

I guess my childhood set me up for this kind of life. But I find that most of my colleagues and co-workers in this line of work are the same: even more so than I am. Whereas I have a home base in Melbourne, some of them have made homes in Manila, Bangkok, Bali and Jakarta. Real homes, from which they have no intention of “returning” to Australia.

Home is where the heart is. Home is where you make it.


I think that working in development makes you an internationalist. According to my dictionary, an internationalist is a person who:

advocates cooperation and understanding between nations.

But I mean more than that. I also mean that over time you lose (if you ever had) any sense of nationalism. Every country ends up having its own strengths, its own weaknesses, its own character. Earth becomes home.

When I say this, I wonder whether I’m being completely serious. I do live in Melbourne, for instance, and have no intentions of leaving. But this, for me, is a pragmatic question:

  • Inner city Melbourne has everything that I need for a full life: good food, cultural programs and facilities, two universities within walking distance, tip top health, more cafés than I can poke a stick at.
  • The official language is English.
  • Good broadband.
  • I’m an Australian citizen, and don’t have to worry about visas.
  • It’s a city of immigrants, and many times if you look the street you see more Asian faces then European. As an immigrant, I feel comfortable among immigrants. As a perpetual foreigner, I like being surrounded by others who are foreigners. I don’t know that I could live in Australian city in which everyone else was a “native”.
  • It’s the Australian hub for the international development industry, though Canberra and Adelaide can also make such claims.

But I don’t feel any emotional allegiance to Melbourne. It’s not “home” in the traditional sense. In fact, I’ve only lived here for two years.

If the development industry erodes nationalism and promotes internationalism in its workforce: I think that’s a good thing. In a globalising world, we need more global citizens, and less attachment to one particular patch of turf, or a particular tribe or custom. This is one of the unexamined effects of the aid industry that deserves more attention.

Follow-up post: Is there a “third culture” mindset? (And do we need it?)

  • Think you’ll love this TED talk by Ethan Zuckerman, founder of Global Voices. Calling all xenophiles!


    • David Week

      Thanks for the Zuckerman lead: it’s great!

      And for the word “xenophilia”. That’s the word that I needed.

      I was reminded too of Mark Twain, and the great things he said of travel, including this:

      “Travel is fatal to prejudice, bigotry, and narrow-mindedness, and many of our people need it sorely on these accounts. Broad, wholesome, charitable views of men and things cannot be acquired by vegetating in one little corner of the earth all one’s lifetime.”

  • Pingback: Is there a “third culture” mindset? (And do we need it?)()

  • David,

    I organised and invited you to speak your mind on patterns and everything Alexander-ian to a small workshop group outside of Melbourne in 2002, after hearing you speak on ABC’s ‘Comfort Zone’.  You met James Coplien amongst others.  I wonder how you reflect on what the patterns community was pursuing back then and how this has influenced your thinking on ‘development’.  — Paul Taylor. 

    • Hi Paul

      I remember that well. My daughters couldn’t quite believe it when I came home with my KoalaPLOP T-shirt. And I still correspond with Cope from time to time.

      Two things I remember well, both “patterns” in the sense that they were memorable phrases that brought to mind a situation and a course of action.

      The first was “refactoring”: the idea that as you kludge together a program, you end up with all kinds of make-do and ad-hoc solutions, and it pays sometimes to rebuild the whole program from scratch, in the light of the knowledge thus gained. The result would be cleaner, faster, more easily maintained.

      You can’t actually do this in development projects, because redesigning a project while it is afoot has been compared to rebuilding your engine while your driving 100km an hour down the freeway. But I think it does point to the necessity for team reflection between programs: something that the funders rarely pay for, by the way. The teams disperse, and all that knowledge gets lost, and the designers come to the next one knowing little more than they did when they designed the first one.

      The second is the memorable phrase “big ball of mud”, which reminds me of the military strategists’ “fog of war”—which is that when you get into the trenches, all your elegant planning starts to fall apart, new information arises, what was sure is no longer sure, plans don’t pan out. Whereas Brian Foote seems to think that this might be an “anti-pattern”, I think it’s just a fact of life.

      Life is not algorithmic.

      Finally, that conference led me to start looking at Agile and XP. And I wonder if there are ways to plan development which draw on those methodologies. I think the key is to be aware of the planning cycle. Nowadays, projects have a 6 month (reconstruction) or 12 month (development) planning cycle, where plans for that length are drawn up in light of some general long term objectives, and the situation at the time. So what becomes daily or weekly for programming, becomes 6- or 12-monthly in development.

      I see you’re working at Deloittes. I met Peter Williams recently at a conference: Gathering 11. He talked about the reconstruction of Flowerdale, a great case study. I wonder now whether he was influenced in his reconstruction thinking, by his professional background.

      Anyway: I think there are interesting parallels, and experiments to be tried in both directions.



Previous post:

Next post: