Today is International Youth Day, a good time to pause and reflect on the state of the world’s youth and how the high level of global youth unemployment has become a critical development issue. And also, on how we are capable of working together – governments, civil society and the private sector – to help youth gain the skills and assets they need to gain access to changing labour markets and to make informed work and life choices.
People in my personal circle have been after me forever to write a memoir. I’m now a long-time aid worker. A veteran, some would say. They send me links to the memoirs and autobiographies of other aid workers and say, “see?! If they can do it, so can you.” And I suppose I could, but somehow it feels odd or perhaps plain unnecessary to simply recount the journal of my professional life–a bare chronological series of anecdotes of the places I’ve been and the things I’ve witnessed. Aid worker lives rarely follow what anyone would recognize as a story line, and so they invariably (as far as I know, based on the ones I’ve read) leave you at the end with a sense of having been left hanging.
Others, many of whom followed my old blog, Tales From the Hood, have been after me to write a non-fiction book of some kind. “You’ve got something to say,” they say, “to the current state of the aid debate.” And sure, I could probably churn out a tome on some detail of humanitarian practice or theory, but that also feels odd. It feels as if that space is largely occupied already. Many write about how to do aid work and how to think about the big picture questions. I’m not sure that I have much that’s particularly unique or ground-breaking to add.
Then I pulled together my new book, Letters Left Unsent, and on looking over the nearly final drafts, it suddenly seemed to respond to both. It’s a memoir, of sorts. There are stories and anecdotes from my life thus far as an aid worker. And it is also my attempt to speak to what I see as a crucial and thus far rarely written or spoken about issue: How to be an aid worker? How do we do the work and find balance in our real lives at the same time?
I’m not saying I have all the answers, but I’ll share my thinking about what the key issues are.
Letters Left Unsent is a compilation of articles and blog posts that have appeared previously in other places, now edited, revised, and published in book form. Here’s an excerpt:
Here I Go Again
I know it’s super cheesy. But there was a time in my aid career when a personal ritual, every time the plane I was on would taxi for takeoff, was to crank up Whitesnake’s “Here I Go Again” on my personal CD player (before iPods were invented).
* * *
I write this from Amman, Jordan, where I am having a total déjà vu moment. After a several-year hiatus from grant-writing, I find myself once again starting the one-week sprint towards a deadline by which time I am supposed to have a grant proposal written and ready to be submitted to a very large and influential donor. This grant, if won, will fund activities that make life more a bit more bearable for a few thousand Iraqi refugees here. The project that my colleagues and I are scrambling to put together is a good one. It is one that responds to an actual need. It is one that will make a difference. And in my personal opinion it is one that we have something of a moral obligation to undertake.
In my experience, this kind of real-world clarity about what, how, and even why a project should be done, that this core team has is a rare bonus. Usually by this stage we would be second-guessing and trying to psycho-analyze the donor. But in this case we have a very clear and direct picture of what the donor wants. Usually there are some residual nagging questions—questions for which there are frequently no obvious right answers. Questions that very often come down to contrasts and comparisons: Why here, but not there? Why these people, but not those? Why this activity, but not that one? But in this instance, more than in many others, we have an unexpectedly unobstructed view of where we need to take this project.
And yet, despite this great advantage, I confess that it is tough going.
Winning this grant is immensely important to my employer. Beyond the Humanitarian Imperative to help those in need when we can, our success in pursuing this grant will directly influence the future viability of our branch office in Amman, and by extension, our programs (plural) in the region. The organizational stakes are a bit high on this one.
While we all agree more or less on the big picture issues of project design, the details of how to do it all are not necessarily agreed. These kinds of differences give way to a growing sense of pressure and urgency as the deadline draws near but we still do not have a complete proposal document.
As in most relationships, money becomes a key variable in determining the tone. And in this case money is tight. The amount available from this donor sounds significant. The number of dollars supposedly available is a number that ends with several zeros. But in both the context of Jordan, and also in the context of what we need to accomplish with it, there is not nearly enough to go around. We’re in the seemingly impossible position of having a first draft budget that is nearly double what we can reasonably expect to get in grant funding, and we still have not included some core costs. There is no obvious fat to be cut. We find ourselves bogged down in heated discussions about whether all twelve community facilitators need cell phones, or if two can share one phone between them; we go around and around about the legal and financial implications of calling a local organization with whom we intend to collaborate on parts of this project a “partner” rather than a “contractor.”
There are also the usual country office versus headquarters debates. Who should give what? Who should capitulate on what points? Who has the biggest stake? Whose needs get serviced first? Whose interests take precedence?
I get and agree that those conversations are all important in their own ways and must be had in order to move forward. But still it seems unfair and also a bit sad that the future of a large number of refugees in part comes down to our internal debates about staffing structures and budget categories. In the wee hours, with a deadline looming, it is easy for the work to become primarily about a document and about getting the money—and at least temporarily less so much about helping refugees.
Finally, for all of the talented people working on this thing on both sides of the globe, there are still some pieces that we do not yet have, important elements over which we have no control. That adds stress as well. It is disconcerting to think that with so much effort already invested and with so much at stake, the whole thing could fall apart at the last minute. Aid work can be very fickle—completely straightforward one minute, intensely cerebral the next.
* * *
I can’t help but find myself missing a time when I was a little closer to the front lines on a regular basis. I miss the supposed simplicity of my job for the day being to somehow get five truckloads of something from point A to point B. I miss the days when fully half of my job was just the ability to deal with local food and sub-standard accommodation.
But the world has changed and in many ways become more complex, and aid work has had to morph and adapt along with it. Over and above these contextual changes, the roles I find myself filling in the aid world are increasingly about moving big pieces, more than on-the-ground ops. I get that.
A decade ago I was in a position where it was my job to go out to a country office with a laptop computer, prepared to do whatever it took, just to get the proposal written and submitted on time. On second thought, maybe the work hasn’t changed so much after all.
I think back to when I used to pop in a pirated Whitesnake CD every time the jet engines revved, and I’d listen one more time to that overplayed but also brilliant piece of poetry set to heavy metal—a song that by itself, in my opinion, qualifies David Coverdale as one of the great bards of our time.
“Here I go again…”
Buy J’s new book, Letters Left Unsent, on Amazon.com