In 2014, a sociologist from Elon University and a professional humanitarian teamed up to study the aid industry. Through a census-style online survey that was among the first of its kind, over 1,000 aid and development professionals shared their views and opinions on a wide range of topics related to their experiences as the core of the aid industry’s workforce. The research was published under the title, Aid Worker Voices. As the title suggests, this represents the voices of humanitarian aid and development workers around the globe – a diverse array of individuals with deep, intense and equally diverse feelings on what it means to be part of today’s humanitarian workforce. It is essential reading for anyone who wants to understand the global aid and development industry better. All net proceeds from this book will support the Periclean Scholars at Elon University and the Periclean Foundation.
What I learned from putting together Aid Worker Voices
I am an academic that studies and teaches about aid and development and directs a program with a global development focus. This puts me decidedly only on the fringes of the humanitarian aid and development industry. I deepened my knowledge of the sector by working with veteran aid worker and long time blogger know as “J” while constructing our survey. What I know now after writing dozens of posts about the data and, finally, putting together Aid Worker Voices is that though I have a lot to learn, my overall experience and my sociology background have provided tools for meaningful comment.
Among others, Thomas Kuhn argues that sometimes the most insightful observations are made by outsiders. Though I am sober enough to know I have not arrived at any profound conclusions about the sector, I do hope that my book adds some useful insights.
“I found very good support for a sober anti-neoliberal stance regarding how complicit we (‘Westerners’) are in terms of supporting the conditions that make aid and development work necessary”.
I wrote in the preface that collectively workers in the aid and development sector are the conscience of our global community and as such deserve our support and also merit a deeper and more intense study by both insiders and outsiders. Insofar as there is a global community, aid workers are its most empathetic representation. In scouring the academic literature about this topic I found some good resources, such as Silke Roth’s The Paradoxes of Aid Work and the Fechter and Hindman edited book Inside the Everyday Lives of Development Workers. Though these were helpful, I haven’t yet come across something that provides the large scale, coordinated and focussed emphasis that I think this topic demands.
I was very surprised and pleased at the amount of time, thought and passion many respondents put into completing the survey. This shows me at least two things. First, aid workers cared enough to take the time to share their thoughts and emotions, and secondly the survey provided a cathartic moment for many. It was an opportunity to step outside of their normal routine and be elevated to 35,000 feet for a moment and reflect on the big picture of their life in the sector and broadly related issues.
Many views on the future of aid and development were thoughtful and critical – especially regarding the overall global structure of aid. Selective perception it may be, but I found very good support for a sober anti-neoliberal stance regarding how complicit we (‘Westerners’) are in terms of supporting the conditions that make aid and development work necessary. Climate change related disasters will increase, all caused by a blind and consumerist ‘developed’ world; wars continue in large part as a reaction to Western imperialism; and global poverty is due in no small measure to rampant neoliberalism.
This respondent sums up the thought of many others:
“I think humanitarian aid work operates within a system that is built on inequality – we won’t see large scale change happen in the lives of people, in terms of long term development, until we start to challenge the structures and systems that result in this inequity in the first place. And the heart of those institutions is within North America and Europe – until we recognise how dependent we are on the oppression and marginalisation of others for our own betterment and benefit (i.e. access to cheap disposable goods, foreign foods and fresh imports, temporary foreign workers to fill low-income job vacancies, etc…), humanitarian aid work is just another cog in this bullshit machinery.”
Many aid workers, though very critical of small start-up ’boutique’ NGO’s, saw the need for more flexible responses allowed for by smaller aid and development entities. Their comments on this topic and several others – corruption, getting fired in the sector, the future of aid and development – presented ample evidence that this industry (like many others) suffers from the inherent and inexorable impact of bureaucratisation. Though efforts like those yielding the Core Humanitarian Standards indicate that there can be productive sector-wide coordination, cooperation, and communication, responses to several survey questions underlined a high level of frustration among aid workers.
My main take away from the results is that the voices of aid workers are passionate, funny, snarky, and for the most part on point. They have useful thoughts about the way forward for the sector and need to be listened to by those in the position to impact policy.
Tom Arcaro is a sociologist at Elon University and is the founding director of the Periclean Scholars program. His passion for development work began in 1990 with the first of what would be many visits to the Comprehensive Rural Health Project in Jamkhed, India. The seeds for what would eventually become the Periclean Scholars program were planted during that first visit. He lives with his wife and children in Burlington, North Carolina.
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