Need to Know Basis

May 27, 2009

To follow up from my comment in yesterday’s blog….

I’ve traveled in Asia for over 10 years and have found that I’m only told details of a particular situation only when the situation become dire or imminent. As a reseach scientist, I like to know things as soon as they might be a problem so that I can figure out possible solutions. However, the most frustrating aspect of working in Asia is this “need to know basis”.

I’ll give three examples from this most recent trip.

1) After driving down a very unimproved dirt road for 6 hours, our driver turns around and says. We can not drive through this upcoming village; you will be arrested; foreigners can not go there. There are no other roads joining this one road. Do you think you could have said something 6 hours ago?  Where the heck are we supposed to go now?  Solution: backtrack 6 hours to other road. This situation could have been avoided if I was told 6 hours ago. Time lost 12 hours.

2) India recently had elections and we were in the field during the voting day for the district we were in. Driving down the road, the driver says, “All vehicles must not drive today”  What??? Do you think you could have said something before we packed up camp and started working? Solution: call our host to convince the driver that in most places vehicles are traveling and that his truck will not get stoned. Time lost 2 hours.

3) Ok this example is from a trip to Nepal but it hits home the crux of the “need to know basis” issue that I have. I was backpacking with a field team in western Nepal. This was back in 2001 during the ramping up of the Maoist revolution. I knew I was hiking into known Maoist territory but my sources said that it was safe to travel. Three days into the trip, the cook says that it is not safe anymore and that we had been traveling through dangerous territory. Do you think you could have said something a little earlier? 3 days is pretty deep into their territory. Solution: convince the cook that we are safe enough even though I have no idea if we are or aren’t and continue with the field work. Maoists with guns were encountered. I gave them the “I’m just a student line” because I was just a student. I continued field work and they continued doing whatever it was that they did.

The point to this post is that it drives me frickin’ bonkers to only be told something right when the situation is the most dire. I can usually find a solution if given a little bit of notice. I try to convey to my hosts and whoever is traveling with me that I would like to know in advance of any developing situation. Somehow that doesn’t translate well. My grasp on their language and their grasp on my language never allows me to convey that I would like them to notify me before a situation develops. This “Need to Know Basis” is just one of the accommodations that I make to work in Asia. It drives me crazy but I know it is going to happen so I try not to get so worked up about it.

OK, off to be productive yet again before the next situation develops.


  1. That would drive me crazy.

  2. If it’s anything like Ghana, their reluctance to tell you has something to do with their desire to please and make you happy. If they tell you of a problem they are afraid you’ll get angry or they’ll lose their job – no matter how many times you tell them that won’t happen.

    Very frustrating.

  3. Amber – I know that they want to please and no amount of talking is going to help. I just wish they would see it from my point of view..lost time, lost effort. Your right, very frustrating.

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