Cognitive dissonance in aid: A job like any other
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Cognitive dissonance in aid: A job like any other

Cognitive dissonance in aid: A job like any other

This is the final post in a series of responses to Jonathan Favini’s piece on cognitive dissonance in the aid industry. Check out the other responses here and here, and share your own in the comments.

A few bullet-points, first, then narrative.

  • The opening scene of the barbershop in Jonathan’s article resonates: I had approximately the same experience in a small town in southern Michigan in about 1991.
  • Jonathan describes well the cognitive dissonance of being an aid/development worker, but struggles to convey the gaps between what we actually do, what everyone thinks we do and who we are. Hell, I struggle to convey them after more than a decade of writing specifically dedicated to that end. It’s mostly the point of my recent book, Letters Left Unsent (see especially the chapter entitled “Noble Savages”).
  • In this way, I think aid workers and the aid industry are actually analogous to porn actors and the adult film industry. Powerful, common perceptions about who we are and what we do seldom reflect reality… But since everyone thinks they know, no one bothers actually asking. Which leads to massive misperceptions by those entering or attempting to enter the sector. Which leads to people like Jonathan having cognitive dissonance straight out of the gate, before he’s got much more than entry-level experience under his belt.

How have you integrated recognition of the industry’s flaws into your professional identity?

In pretty much the same way a physician integrates recognition of the healthcare industry’s flaws. Which is to say that I acknowledge them openly, and then assertively use my own (current) influence to correct them or start to correct them where I can.

I recognize the faults and challenges, and take on as a part of my personal responsibility and ethics to do what I can to make it better. In this area, though, I don’t really see that aid and development is any different from most any other industry–the automotive industry, perhaps, or the food industry. I think there’s always a disconnect between, for lack of a better term, the business-end or “industrial” side of any industry and the thing the industry is meant to provide.

For example, the automotive industry is beset with drama and intrigue around what gets decided, how, where and by whom. Then consumers–people like you and me–certainly have opinions about what cars we like, would like to have (whether real and current or imaginary), all to come around to the realities of what we can actually afford.

And so, I suppose, in my professional life, like an engineer or a factory worker at Toyota, I have no problem acknowledging the limitations of what my chosen industry has to offer.

I may even be candid and open about my employer’s comparative and competitive advantages and disadvantages vis-a-vis other providers. I think we can safely assume that in 20 years’ time, the cars we drive will look and work and be quite different from those we have now.

And in the same way, with the aid industry, whether we’re talking about the technical specifications of the actual products we deliver or the industry’s nature and structure, the acquisitions, the shifts in power at the “top” of the industry itself (far from the factory floor, if you will), I think we can freely acknowledge flaws without ever abandoning belief in the value of the product itself or in our own individual and collective roles in making that product happen.

How have you learned to recognize development’s problems, while continuing to do work in the field or advocating for its expansion?

I think there’s a tendency to make this issue seem more black and white than it is, in fact. It’s partially to do with basic human nature–we gravitate toward explanations that feel simple. It’s partially to do, I think, with the way the discussion about aid has evolved, particularly on social media, in the past few years. And I think it also has to do with the fact that the major (which is to say, widely-read) critiques almost all come from industry outsiders who have a vested interest in articulating extreme critique. And here I’m talking specifically about William Easterly, Dambisa Moyo and Linda Polman (among others). “Dead aid” grabs attention, whereas “Aid with a serious, but ultimately curable illness” lacks punch.

Too much of the conversation, in my opinion, is polarized between “aid is dead,” and “OMG, we’re making poverty history!” The truth is that the vast majority is somewhere in the middle.

I think there’s perhaps a generational thing at play, too. Myself at 25, a year or two into my own aid career, I had all the answers. I could give the entire litany of everything wrong with the sector, every decision my boss and my bosses’ boss made was wrong, and so on. Now, 20+ years later, I’m not so sure.

Jonathan asks some tough questions, but lately I’m not so sure they’re the most relevant ones. The question, “Did I ‘make a lasting difference’ during my time as a PCV in Senegal?” is a very, very different question from, “Does aid work or not? And if not, how do we fix it?” And those of us who stick around come to understand that the things that make aid work or not, the problems in real need of redress, have nothing at all to do with whether the white guys and women in rural West Africa are “learning the language and finding a place in Senegalese society.” I think many of us had our equivalent of a barbershop crisis early on. Stay on for a while, though, and see how things actually work, and you begin to understand that the issues are different.

I stay on because I see the potential for good. I’ve seen the good actually happen myself. I stay on because I see the real possibility of changing the industry for the better and at the level at which it truly needs to change. I stay on because I still believe.

How do you motivate yourself on tough days when you doubt the impact of your efforts?

Let me start somewhere else, because I don’t really think this is the best question to ask here. I think it is absolutely critical to understand that this aid or development thing is a job, like any other (even if Peace Corps marketing says otherwise). Maybe you work some long hours. Maybe, in the course of this “ordinary job,” you go to some cool places and have some wild moments. But at the end of the day, it is a job. You go to work, you collect your salary or stipend, you pay your bills, and eventually you retire.

It is critical to understand that liking your job, that feeling as if what you do for work contributes to some greater good–“job satisfaction”–is a luxury and a privilege that many (perhaps most?) people simply do not have. I think too many people enter the aid sector because they anticipate a constant rush of, “I JUST SAVED A LIFE!!”

I see these people day in and day out in my real job: they’re the ones who very easily get bored or disillusioned and leave, or perhaps run off to start their own NGO, before they’ve really understood the reality. I think the sooner we understand that, like with any other job in any other industry, some days are going to be awesome and some days are going to suck, the sooner we’ll get past the stage of existential barbershop crises.

I don’t mean we should become apathetic. Rather, I mean we must understand that this job, this career, carries with it both positive and negative. And further, that just because we have a tough day at the office or in the village, doesn’t mean aid is broken.

And there, I’ve gone on preaching.

Featured image from Voice of America.

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One thought on “Cognitive dissonance in aid: A job like any other

  1. Gordon

    >>For example, the automotive industry is beset with drama and intrigue around what gets decided, how, where and by whom. Then consumers–people like you and me–certainly have opinions about what cars we like, would like to have (whether real and current or imaginary), _all to come around to the realities of what we can actually afford_.<<

    Well, no. It comes around to what the automotive industry tries with varying degrees of success to convinces us we want/need and to what they make available in our price range (which doesn't necessarily have any relationship to what we really need).

    How many of us really need a car with bluetooth and seat warmers?

    If aid/development workers aren't aware that what is offered is a product of a whole range of factors, processes, vested interests, etc. and as a result frequently has very little to do with what is really needed, then there isn't the space in a comment to enlighten them

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