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Hey aid worker! It’s not about you

Hey aid worker! It’s not about you

You’re either going to love this post or hate it. You’re either going to see it as nothing more than an extended rant, or you’ll think it makes a valid point or two. Either way, I hope it makes you think. Although I do mention Gen Y a few times, let’s kick things off on the right foot by stating that I do not in any way think I speak for an entire generation.

As someone who just sneaks into Gen Y, I’ve come to realise that we’ve had things better than pretty much every other generation before. Most of us haven’t experienced major wars. Life expectancy is getting longer, our general health is improving, and we have information literally at our fingertips. The very fact that we have ever-evolving “First World Problems” memes, Twitter hashtags and websites tells us that although we’ve got the good humour to laugh at it, our lives just ain’t that bad.

We are also one of the first generations where our parents repetitively said to us: “You can be amazing. You can be a world-beater. If you put your mind to it, you can be anything you want.” I can’t help but think that while it’s nice to be told that, with a bit of dedication and hard work, I can legitimately cycle faster than the peloton at Tour de France, it also has some downsides.

Think about it. If I grow up with someone telling me that I’m unique and interesting, chances are when I’m get older, I’m actually going to think that I am unique and interesting. But what if, as my former high school friends enjoy repetitively telling me, I’m not? Just as importantly, what if it is helpful to actively deny this?

As Gen Y increasingly fills the workforce of aid and development, there’s a growing trend amongst us about how we talk about the work we do. One could easily get the impression that, looking from the outside in, doing work in this space revolves around us. A quick scan of the internet seems to reinforce this.

You have the aid worker who, on a field trip, was put up in an expensive hotel. She posted selfies, clad in a bathrobe, standing in front of an enormous spa bath in her ensuite. Underneath was a caption, commenting on the ostentatiousness of her surroundings that she had just been posted to. On a work trip. Paid for by donors.

You have the development worker who blogs like she is a travel writer. Today I visited people in poor villages. The most amazing thing happened. A girl who could have been no older than 7 years old came up to me, and told me that she wanted to be my best friend. She placed a band around my wrist signifying our friendship, and told me that I had beautiful hair. You get the idea.

You have those unoriginally ironic “my life is tough” photos, posted from the poolside, with a cocktail and a laptop placed side-by-side on a table. Bonus points if there’s a sunset in the background. Usually, such a photo will be accompanied by a caption saying something along the lines of “my office for the afternoon” or “all in a day’s work.”

If you can't find an exotic hotel pool, just make do, okay?
If you can’t find an exotic hotel pool, just make do, okay?

Think about it for a second. Do we really want to portray aid and development as revolving around the glamorous life of the aid worker?

Sure, these examples are extreme and they don’t prove anything in themselves. After all, working in aid and development can be exciting. You get to go to exotic places, and mix with people from different backgrounds. You will stand out (or, if you’re like me, constantly asked why your Khmer, Chinese or Malay is so terrible). Surely there’s nothing wrong with sharing this excitement with the world?

I believe working in aid and development should involve forgetting about your sense of self as much as is humanly possible. Those people who have real and complex problems, that’s what should be keeping you awake at night, not manicuring every picture on your Facebook profile to present the most attractive you.

In fact, the more you deny the very existence of your own self, surely the better job you will do.

There’s another, more extreme, possibility if we don’t constantly remind ourselves that doing this job is not about us. Stuff like this happens.

Who is the focus of the voluntourists mission? Photos like this speak volumes.

The above photo comes from an organisation* that provides “ethical tourism” opportunities for people to change the lives of those living in poor counties. In the picture, you will you see an unfortunate byproduct of the self-centredness I described earlier. The volunteer is digging a well, while entranced “locals” stand around and watch. The message here is clear. The white volunteer is noble. She is doing something special (clearly, no one else in the picture is capable of wielding a shovel with such aplomb). She is making a difference.

The crucial word in that last sentence should be highlighted. She.

This is not an attack on voluntourism per se, but rather how it is portrayed. Who is this all about? The volunteer, or the other people in the photo?

It is true that these forms of narcissism have been around for centuries, and it’s nothing new to think that you’re the centre of the universe. Facebook, social media, and the internet more broadly have perhaps not changed this one bit. But they have changed the avenues through which we express this narcissism. It has made it easier to share, to brag (even if it is humblebragging), to broadcast. And most importantly, all of this is done so easily, with just the flick of a finger.

It is also true that those responsible are just displaying enthusiasm for their own lives. True, it is up to us to ignore them if we find them irritating or offensive. The behaviour itself is harmless. But the mindset that accompanies it is one that takes the focus away from those whose lives we are trying to improve, and onto the person doing the work. Even if momentary, I find it difficult to accept.

As importantly, the message that it sends to the public is poor. At a time when people are increasingly sceptical of aid’s efficacy and concerned about wastage, is this really how we want to portray ourselves to those outside the sector?

Image Credit: PLR Internet Marketing

Gandhi once said that “The best way to find yourself is to lose yourself in the service of others.” If you read anything about Gandhi’s life, as imperfect as he was, he always pushed himself towards removing his sense of self completely.

But what if he hadn’t? What if every time Gandhi completed something ground-breaking, he leaned over, picked up a device, and broadcasted to the world? What if others did the same?

Gandhi   Aung San Suu Kyi2

I cannot imagine that Gandhi or Suu Kyi ever thought it necessary to broadcast their achievements. Nor would they, even for a second, want to take the spotlight away from what they were trying to achieve or those they were achieving it for, onto themselves. Sure, they never had smartphones (perhaps why they managed to get so much work done), but if they had, would they have taken advantage of them in this way?

I’m blessed to have worked alongside some extraordinarily humble Chinese and Cambodian colleagues, who are achieving some amazing things daily. The vast majority are happy to chip away at their work, but don’t broadcast in the ways I mentioned above. These are people we could take cues from, where the focus really is all about the work, and not about themselves.

Kayla McClurg had something very insightful to say about Martin Luther King Jr’s life:

When I reflect on the life and witness of Martin Luther King Jr, one thing that strikes me is obvious: he didn’t start out to be who he ended up being. He didn’t set out to be a visionary leader, intent on making an impact on the country and culture of his day. He allowed himself to be created. Slowly, layer by layer, choice by choice, he became himself. He didn’t choose “leader of a mass civil rights movement” from a list of vocational options. His identity emerged gradually from within as he yielded to the guidance of the community and listened and prayed and read and participated and took the risks of creativity that were uniquely his to take.

I can’t help but think that his approach is completely at odds with the broadcasting I’ve described above. For him, it was never about portraying an image of himself, let alone even being a world-beater. He simply wanted to become the best person he could, without thinking about where that could lead him. When the time came for him to lead a resistance movement, MLK was simply the right person for the job.

I propose that before the next time we hit “post” on that picture of our laptop, the mojito and the sunset in the background, overlooking an African beach, we pause and take a deep breath. Does the internet really need this? Or would we be better off sharing something more valuable? Cat videos, perhaps?

Is broadcasting unnecessary, harmless, just good fun or potentially damaging? I’d love to hear your thoughts in the comments below.


* For the interests of transparency, this is a company that I have had professional dealings with, though they do not in any way relate to this photo, or what is happening in it.

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Weh Yeoh

Co-Founder & Board Member at WhyDev
Weh Yeoh was born in Sydney, Australia, and has lived, volunteered and worked in Cambodia for the past 3 years. He is a professionally trained physiotherapist who has completed an MA in Development Studies. He has a diverse background, having travelled through remote parts of Asia, volunteered in an orphanage and adult shelter for people with disabilities in Vietnam, interned in India, and studied Mandarin in Beijing. He is an obsessed barefoot runner and connoisseur of durian.

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41 thoughts on “Hey aid worker! It’s not about you

  1. […] rant was inspired by this article ‘Hey aid worker! It’s not about you’. Firstly, we are not our jobs, they do not and […]

  2. […] the most damning critique came from here – .  In listing types of bloggers, “You have the development worker who blogs like she is a travel […]

  3. lucy

    I see the point you are trying to make here, but I don’t feel that you make it all that well. I think the main flaw of this piece is that you have not distinguished between ‘development workers’ and ‘gap year students’. I have been in development for a long time and rarely see any ‘selfies’ posted on facebook. It just not done enough for it to be an issue – gap year students and volunteers do. And why shouldn’t they? Demonising this behaviour is hardly justified.
    On the other side of the argument, it’s necessary to take into account that INGOs need experienced professionals to be able to effectively run the organisations in order to make a lasting impact on targeted communities in the long run. So yes, these professionals will have higher salaries and be afforded travel luxuries because if the development organisation wants to succeed it will have to invest in their talent and intellect.
    I agree with the ideas in this piece, but it could do with some tweaking!

  4. I completely agree with you!! thanks for this post

  5. Liam Maguire

    Takes all sorts

  6. What a holier than thou comment, given we are treated to a tasty summary of the writer’s work and private ego, caracterised by humble bragging and audience seduction. Of course aid workers and development workers have to be careful about their image but not to the point of lying about the pleasant aspects, that would be hypocritical. may be they should learn to limit who is seeing what on their Face book accounts- what their family and friends can see should not be the same as what the rest of the world can see. An better separation of the private and the public, adapted to the new media. We mustn’t forget either that there aid and development are wide and vague denominators that hide huge variations in motivation, vocation or career, income etc. It is just like the civil service, to which the prime minister belongs and the janitor. Some code of conduct they share, but really their realities within the system are very very different indeed!
    Furthermore martin Luther King and Gandhi were not so humble as you may assume. I leave it to God to look into our hearts and find out who is truly humble and who just acts it. But we all can do with a reminder of the virtue of humility now that we are all almost relentlessly encouraged to feel bigger than the Olympian Gods

  7. Great post and I am all for a good rant.

    Just want to put things straight with some of your readers who don’t work in development and say that not all NGOs are wasteful and let their staff work by the poolside (but I agree that there certainly are a few). A minority of NGOs send their staff to luxury hotels (if they did I’d personally find it shameful and hypocritical). In my experience the majority of NGOs are very small and just don’t have this kind of budget to play with, and can’t because they have to justify all costs to donors these days. I am used to between $15-25 Dollars for food and the same for a hotel per day by the way and don’t know many other development workers in my area who get much more. So belive me all good people and donors, not all NGOs are that wasteful. Just wanted to clarify that. 😉

    I was interested in your comment that some development workers write like they are travel bloggers. Actually the example you gave cracked me up. Are you sure they are development workers and not just some kids on a gap year who volunteered for a few days? Because it sounded like that. I think that it is human nature though to talk about what touches you and it is not necesarily narcistic. It often helps raise awareness of issues much more effectively than providing boring stats too (I am talking in my capacity as a comms specialits here). So whether it has been intended or not personal stories are interesting to people and why shouldn’t developing workers share their nicer experiences too? They are not defined by their job, it is just a small part of them.

    1. Thanks for this Tammy. The travel blogging example is entirely fictional, though it does bear some resemblance to reality of course. You are completely right that telling a human story is often much more effective than statistics, if done tastefully. My objection with most of the writing that imitates travel blogging is that invariably the story tends to revolve around the narrator. After all, with the absence of the traveller themselves, you don’t have a story. Things only occur in relation to what the traveller does, sees, eats or hears.

      In the example I gave, the story quickly turns from being about the people in the village to the writer herself. “She placed a band around my wrist signifying our friendship, and told me that I had beautiful hair.”

      But for sure, we shouldn’t neglect the power of very personal stories when the focus is on people other than ourselves.

  8. Good article and a necessary rant, I think. However, sometimes, when working in areas where the very fact of your presence as a foreigner (Mzungu, Obruni etc etc) affects how projects run, isn’t a keen sense of self awareness necessary so that you are evaluating your unintended influences on projects? Denying the existence of your self doesn’t encourage you to be able to analyse this fact.

  9. Adrian

    Very very nicely put…many interconnected and overlapping issues (and hints to issues) compacted in one article. However, I do wonder…

    I think that any development worker would not be honest if they did not admit to themselves that they are reflected in this article, at least to some degree or is some moments. Even the best intentioned sometimes disconnect from the reality that surrounds them or from the motivations around their work. They have their narcissistic or righteous white saviour moments. I guess human beings are incoherent and constantly confused by nature (are we really ever sure or confident about anything we do? why we do things or make certain choices in life – even at the coffee shop or what to wear in the morning, for that matter)? M.L. King went through many incoherent and confused times (like every human being)…and I am sure that at one point in his life, if he had twitter, facebook, Internet, etc he would have probably posted a picture of himself doing something stupid or kicking back. But then (as mentioned in the article) he developed as a person and became who he was, a solid, (more) coherent and amazing person. I guess not all aid workers (or people claiming to do so) have fully developed into coherent and solid people – and maybe (we) never will – and very very few if any will ever reach the extent of solidity and coherence as M.L. King. So ultimately, in general terms, the existence of such ‘aid workers’ is just the reflection of human nature, where no one is perfect, no one is a saint (have there ever been any?), and everyone is going through their own personal development phase, trying to understand themselves and what they do, and why they do things. For others, instead, they simply have chosen to work in the wrong sector or have distorted motivations. This is valid for any sector. Every sector has its lose ends, people who work in contradiction with the principles governing that sector or with different intentions, or who simply chose the wrong sector to work in. Why should the development field be any different, if just like in the other fields, it is made up of the same incoherent and confused human beings? It is just because those who do not work in the development field, have a distorted image of it and think that we have (or should have) some sort of moral greatness, that we should not be incoherent and confused liked other human beings, that we are all necessarily M.L. Kings.

    In addition, I think, too much attention is placed on these ‘a bit more incoherent and confused ‘aid workers (and human beings) to the extent that they are the only ones that stand out (for all the reasons stated in the article). Their postings on twitter, facebook, etc or their talk with friends and relatives about how they are saving the world with their western wand. They are the ones that lead to the creation of stereotypes just like terrorists for Muslims, mafia for Italians, beachbums for Australians, etc. But I wonder if this external image is of concern only to those that are primarily concerned about external images? People who reach conclusions and make judgements based on external images (such as twitter and facebook postings), rather than digging deeper into things and bypassing the surface? Is it really possible to judge a whole sector (or anyone) based on tweets?

    Therefore, I wonder, are the negative judgments on development workers brought forward by superficial ‘judges’ and are based on superficial evidence provided by superficial aid workers (through their tweets, etc)? Do the development workers you describe in the article (I think we can include ourselves sometimes) express the real character and nature of today’s development workers, or are they only providing the external image, the superficial surface of the deeper core? How many ‘real’ (or more ‘mature’) development workers are out there? Are they counterbalancing the wasted work of the less ‘mature’? I really do hope the ‘mature’ development workers are the core, cause the others piss me off (and I piss myself off too sometimes….).

    Sorry for the rant and the philosophical over analysis. Just a lot of words with little real meaning. Ultimately it really is just about “doing your damned job and being happy about it!”

  10. Evan

    Thanks Weh! In general I agree with the main point (as I understand it) of your post: that we should all be questioning why we are working in a particular sector/country/place and whether what we are doing really is meeting a genuine need or if it is really just a self-serving exercise to get that exotic photo and future stories of your own magnanimity (or degrees of each). This question should especially be applied to those ‘pay $2000 to volunteer for a week in Bolivia’ programs.

    I do, however, agree with many of the above comments that we need to not encourage people, especially those starting in the development sector, to martyr themselves or devalidate someone’s experience because they are not doing it tough enough (being ‘real’ enough) or have not be around long enough. Although I have only been working in development a short time myself I have already met countless of Development Veterans who have spent the last 20 years martyring themselves, only working in the hardest, most remote, most conflict intense places, and quite frankly they’re all a little bit weird!

    But my real comment/question is: Weh, why are all of your examples of bad aid worker practices perpetrated by women? What about the male development worker posting photos of himself with a couple of Thai hookers?

    1. Good point Evan. Unfortunately, at the moment, I don’t have a lot of access to (male) development sexpats, but I will try and broaden my circles to alleviate this problem. Cheers for the comment.

    2. “This question should especially be applied to those ‘pay $2000 to volunteer for a week in Bolivia’ programs.” in my view a *good* program will cover this as an issue, and ask the participants to read Illich’s “to hell with your good intentions” piece or facilitate the discussion around respectfully operating in country, and questioning the value of their actions and intentions and the role of what they are doing and who is actually benefiting from the experience.

  11. Shane

    You know….been a “development worker” for over thirty years now and have heard every angle and nuance on this argument, ad nauseum and have come to this peaceful conclusion: In the big picture…..the BIG PICTURE – none of it….or you…mean jack shit. Just do your damned job and try to be happy about it.

    1. I like your bluntness Shane. Has much changed in how aid workers present themselves or has the tools/medium be which they do evolved (i.e Facebook)?

      Lets keep in mind that not everyone has 30 years experience, and are grappling with these issues now and early in their career. We need to grapple with it, and in our own way and our own time. But, yes, we also just need to do ours jobs and be happy. Good advice.

  12. What Weh is discussing here very much harkens back to what Dan Pallotta began with in his book ‘Uncharitable: How Restraints on Nonprofits Undermine Their Potential’ – available from all fine retailers and purveyors of books.

    Pallotta begins his argument for changing the way in which Nonprofits work and how they raise and use funds by focusing on the image of nonprofits – the cultural milieu which has cast aid workers, volunteers and nonprofit schlubs as saints. Rightly so he points out that we are anything but these, being the vain egotistical beings we are. Too many people view aid & development work with this assumption, but it’s one asked of many people working jobs abroad.

    In Turkmenistan I was asked why foreign gas & oil workers were paid significantly more than any locals. I provided a litany of reasons that included being away from family, working in a foreign country, job experience, etc. All the same reasons that one would justify aid & development with. Of course none of that addresses the issue of self-promotion, but they’re realities that are reflected in the perception we provide to friends and family.

    If all that were shown was photos of foreign staff eating watery rice and sleeping on bug infest mats then their organization would be facing a number of issues at home. Lawsuits would likely to be raised on behalf of the employees/volunteers for the hardships they’re facing. In all likelihood the working conditions would be consider inhumane. After all, US registered organizations are still subject to American human resources requirements and legislation.

    And, if nothing else, providing a decent hotel room or seat on a flight is the least an organization can do if it wants to ensure that it has a workforce – the myriad of other issues that pertain to that aside – because at the end of the day when an aid worker is asking herself why she’s doing this, and wondering if she should continue, that G&T on a balcony might be just enough to keep her there. It’s just as much about retention of staff as it is spending donors money and what’s to say that aid workers don’t deserve it?

    The promotion of self through social media, regardless of profession, and the expectations we have for said profession really bring to light a different question – what do we consider the self? Where is the line between a career and the person? How much of the self is to be shared and as mentioned in this comment section by Kelly Royds – who has the right to be speaking about experiences?

    1. furahal: Gregory I really appreciate your comment.I am weary of extremist views and you have a weighted one.

  13. Megan

    This is so on point. I struggle with this because, hey who doesn’t like nice things? But I also feel that when I decline business class on a 26 hour journey in favor of coach (I am currently en route), I am a minority in my organization. How can I in good conscience justifiably have my org/donor spend 4-5x as much on my flight, when the realities of life of the people of where I am headed are worlds away in comparison. Where are my values if I don’t want to instead redirect that money into my programs? I think most people in the development sector have their hearts in the right place when they start, but many just get a little distracted with life’s luxuries when there are no enforced rules in place for overspending. This is exactly the type of reality check that we ALL need.

  14. 1. I’m not sure why you’re upset about the girl taking the selfies – because she should be feeling guilty for being in luxury paid for by donors? Because she could get her work into trouble by showing the donors what they’re paying for? Or you’re just not a fan of selfies?

    2. The rest of the sharing you’re describing is personal and non-professional – why shouldn’t people let their friends know they’re having a nice time sometimes? This is a little bit hair-shirts-and-self-flagellation for the aid professional, to me.

    3. Your comparison with Gandhi and MLK rings a bit false to me, because of 2. The MLK quote is all about not being self promoting as a leader, but nothing you’ve described is self promotion in a professional sense – you’re comparing apples and oranges. Maybe they wouldn’t have let themselves be seen in this way, because it would be bad for their image – which brings us to….

    4. The real underlying point of the article seems to me to be: are aid workers allowed to have fun, or is it bad for their work? And are they allowed to be seen to have fun, or is it bad for the image of the industry? Which are interesting questions…. But not really properly addressed, just present as an undercurrent. You take us there a couple of times “In fact, the more you deny the very existence of your own self, surely the better job you will do.”… “At a time when people are increasingly sceptical of aid’s efficacy and concerned about wastage, is this really how we want to portray ourselves to those outside the sector?”… But then you veer off again. I would like to see you expand on and justify these statements.

  15. abstalavista

    I would have avoided taking up so much space with such an extended comment, but Weh said to (so he’s to blame if you don’t like it)!

    My biggest concern with this article is that it is somehow undesirable to have ego, that it is a bad force within that needs to be suppressed if anyone is to do any good. I would argue that only is this is not true, but that the reverse is true and it is harmful to what we are trying to achieve through volunteer work to suggest otherwise.

    One of the things that struck me during my pre-departure training for AVI was that according to the psychologist they sent in to talk to us, most volunteers he encountered were very confident, motivated, self-sufficient, and set high standards for themselves. As he put it, you had to be confident if you thought you could reasonably live in a developing country away from friends and family, working in often confronting conditions and that you might be able to make a difference. We may take overseas volunteering as an interesting, exciting opportunity to help, but many people I spoke to before I left would never have the confidence to simply pack up and do something like volunteering.

    In fact it seems that this sense of self, this ego, may be part of what attracts people to volunteerism in the first place and may often be associated with motivated, driven and capable people who also –hopefully- have a social conscience.

    But more than that, who does it help to suppress our egos? To make ourselves martyrs for a cause? This mindset smacks of a certain imposed religiosity and is a systemic one that goes some way to explain why we in the west often pay community sector workers, teacher etc. so little – this idea that it should only be about the cause. I know that showing I am a strong-willed female who knows her mind helps encourage my largely young, largely female colleagues perform their duties (which involves convincing older, male lawyers of their legal opinions) as I have now been asked to provide mentoring in that regard. It wouldn’t be possible without ego. And it should also be noted that the amazing colleagues who are happy to ‘chip away at their work’ without broadcasting feels a little too much like a ‘sweet, passive Asian’ stereotype to me. My colleagues post photos of our retreats, lunches, functions all the time.

    I would argue that Aung San Suu Kyi feels like a strange example also, as it is not as though she chose house arrest as her career path, and indeed if she thought it would do some good – such as attracting others to her cause- she probably would be posting photos of what she was doing. Look at Ai Weiwei and the ways he is attempting to draw attention to the oppression of the Chinese government by disseminating images of himself daily online. Or where it has been used to rally numbers to a cause such as in Egypt. Indeed, when I post photos of all kinds is when I get the most interest from others in volunteering, or even visiting Cambodia. An article by my father published in a local country newspaper led to unbelievable interest in Cambodia from older farmers who had never considered visiting Cambodia before. Surely such interest may equal an investment in the future of Cambodia through tourism also?

    Finally I would say that while these photos can be irritating and feel insensitive at times (and I have felt it also, just like everyone else), it needs to be asked- who are we to place a context to them, or even set higher standards for those in aid who take them? I have colleagues who love to be photographed and we take photographs together all the time – should I not share those photos on Facebook (even when I am tagging them, as they are my friends on Facebook, or showing them in the office) lest it look like I am an arrogant, insensitive wanker? What if the photos of someone in a pool have the same motivation as anyone else – it’s been a stressful month and I am taking a minute to relax. Or even if it is of the *wink wink, look how hard I am doing it here, reassurance to family and friends that I am not struggling. Or even, God-forbid, someone being honest that volunteering is not always a hardship. Is self-censorship really necessary in these contexts? Who does it help and who does it hurt? These answers are not self-evident; they are heavily context-specific and will vary on the person and the motivation.

    While I think the idea of not being self-aggrandising and having it interfere with your work is a good one – in aid or any profession – dictating to people how to practice their role and making assumptions about the way in which they are doing so based on a couple of Facebook photos seems to smack a bit of the arrogance that you would seek to curb.

  16. I agree that there is no such thing as a “selfless” aid worker. We are all the center of our own worlds. The danger comes when we forget that our job as outsiders is to find and support those who are engaged in making their communities better places to live. We come and go and want to share our adventures with family and friends, but we all have a personal responsibility to not misrepresent what we are there to do. We’re all a part of changing the conversation about aid and agency, no matter who we’re talking to.

  17. Nice post. It seems like this kind of behavior is a symptom. I think the cause of it goes much deeper as you’ve pointed out. Rather than stop broadcasting, what is it about the person and their motivation for working in aid/development that makes them see it the way they do? Until the underlying motivations shift, stopping the broadcasting is just a bandaid solution. 🙂

  18. Jess R.

    I’ll begin by saying that I completely agree with the author’s core sentiment; aid should be about capacity building and service, not racking up another notch on the hipster scale of Life Experiences. But I’ll also counter that the article comes across as naive; most aid comes with political or religious strings attached because it’s driven by the agendas of governments, corporations or megamillionaire sponsorship (Thank you, public health experts Bill and Melinda Gates!). It’s rarely about the people; it’s about improving celebrity images, thwarting terrorism, or alleviating liberal guilt for having inadvertently amassed so much wealth and not knowing what to do with it. On a more personal note, one thing I really don’t miss about being a part of the NGO-community is discourse exactly like this one that constantly has aid workers second-guessing every dollar they spend; the gee, you-claim-to-have-a-heart-for-the-poor (I did?) -and-yet-you-frequent-the-most-expensive-coffee-shop-in-town kind of guilt that consciously or unconsciously haunts everyone on a grant-based salary. (“The UN decadence! Ugh!”) Do I still dwell on the disparities in wealth between myself and the locals? Hell, yes. I literally make 21x the salary of the garment factory workers I lived with for 6 months and every time I see them coming home after a 12-hour day I ask myself how I could be helping them in a way that doesn’t undermine their dignity and self-sufficiency. But I do this because these are personal relationships and they matter to me – not because I work in an industry in which the public expects every worker to be a saint and in reality, expend the most energy protecting a false image of modesty.

  19. c.h

    A few thoughts.

    1. Yes, definitely. A full cup can’t be filled. How can you add new experiences, new growth, new connections and learning to your life, if you’re spending every spare moment constantly reconnecting to the one you have that is 5,000 miles away? That for me is the real issue here, the real missed opportunity in all this behaviour.

    2. Yes… but maybe. When folks need to connect with the folks back home — and that is perfectly reasonable to do some of the time — if there must be photos, I would rather see people doing stupid hotel pics any day of the week, than pics that treat beneficiaries as backdrop. It is least worst.

  20. While I was reading this, I kept thinking I know this person and that person. I have friends like this! Exactly like this! ( Not just aid worker but also those working in the Non-profit sector in the US where I got my degree) But I felt a little guilty laughing since most of them are so well-intentioned and hardworking. And while sometimes I think this kind of stuff is misguided and in pretty poor taste, I also suspect that as someone who grew up in South-Asia I just might not “get it” since some of the humor that underlies this stuff is so cultural specific.

  21. Thanks for the article Wey. I think you are talking about two things:

    The first thing seems to be about how employees represent themselves when they are on the job. I don’t think aid workers are in some special category here. For example, a draft social media policy came across my desk the other day – for employees of an aid organisation – and states that any photos taken on field/work trips are not to be published to any personal social media (twitter, facebook pages). The rationale is that if you are there for work, than your photos (in communities, with people you work with etc) are representative of the organisation, not your personal life. So, I think this policy is perhaps an attempt to steer people away from promoting their self image on the job. But I think this could apply to any kind of organisation that is mindful of the image they promote.

    The second thing, seems to be a wider comment on self promotion in social media. This is a pretty confusing area because on the one hand, good self promotion can get you jobs and on the other, bad self-promotion can harm your employability. It’s not always that clear for people what is good and what is not, because this can change depending on the kind of work you are interested in. But I think the quote about MLK is very telling, and important to share, as it is easy to get lost in the process of trying to show who you are in social media.

    1. Thanks for drawing attention to that distinction there Kelly. It is interesting that a social media policy stipulates that you cannot publish work photos to your personal social media accounts, but it is very common sense. I agree that good self promotion is probably helpful for your career, as long as it’s done tastefully. However, I’d much rather worry about doing a good job, or trying to be as good a person as I can be, than presenting an image of myself to get jobs. If you stay true to yourself and act with integrity, you are bound to attract attention from the right kind of people (including employers) and all the rewards you deserve will surely come your way anyway.

  22. I personally agree that humblebragging about one’s good deeds is distasteful even amongst us commoners, and whilst I am a huge TMI, overshare-on-facebook kinda girl about many mundanities, the one thing I never talk about, especially on public media, is my… charitable actions? I don’t know, it makes me squirm and feel uncomfortable just alluding to it. I’m probably too insecure to mention them, because I’d assume people thought I was a wanker, just as I would think they’re wankers for telling me!!

    1. Thanks for the comment Rosie. And thanks for making me look up the definition of TMI on Urban Dictionary. I feel young again!

  23. Weh, your post made me think of two articles I recently read.

    1. “Thay suggests that our search for fame, wealth, power and sexual gratification provides the perfect refuge for people to hide from the truth about the many challenges facing the world. Worse still, our addiction to material goods and a hectic lifestyle provides only a temporary plaster for gaping emotional and spiritual wounds, which only drives greater loneliness and unhappiness.” (

    I think that the type of self-aggrandisement (yes, it is a word Les!) practiced on social media is about ‘fame’, gratification, etc. Yet, the perhaps funny thing is that when practiced by ‘aid workers’, it allows what Thay suggests as the ‘perfect refuge…to hide from the truth about many challenges’.

    2. “But if you consider this in human terms, and you imagine a person defined by a desperation to be liked, what do you see? You see a person without integrity, without a center. In more pathological cases, you see a narcissist — a person who can’t tolerate the tarnishing of his or her self-image that not being liked represents, and who therefore either withdraws from human contact or goes to extreme, integrity-sacrificing lengths to be likable.” (

    1. I think Thay is bang on, Brendan. I think sometimes people try to convince themselves that if their friends and acquaintances “like” the lives that they are broadcasting on social media, then those lives must be good. So putting up a photo on Instagram where I’m reclining by the pool in a foreign country and seeing the likes it receives can reassure me that my life is good, even though the truth is I’m lonely and I’m struggling with cultural barriers and any of the other difficulties that accompany being in a strange place.

      Most troublingly, I’ve seen this on the social media accounts of those I know are struggling with depression and other mental health issues – yet their social media profiles are constantly broadcasting upbeat photos and declaring how great their lives are.

      I’m not advocating that anyone experiencing some kind of difficulty should broadcast that on social media, either, but just saying that it concerns me when people going through difficult things are constantly broadcasting a positive image as though to either convince themselves that their lives are ok, or to have the affirmation of others that they are ok.

      This is obviously anecdotal, but I’ve noticed a correlation between frequency of Facebook use and insecurity, which ties in with what Franzen talks about, as narcissism and insecurity are so closely tied.

  24. KBeck

    I agree with the idea that you shouldn’t see yourself as the centre of what you’re doing as a development worker, but the phrase “the more you deny the very existence of your own self, surely the better job you will do” rang some alarm bells for me. I think development workers need to be aware of the cultural lense they view the world through, the preconceptions and (neo-)colonial baggage they bring with them and the power structures they come from. These things influence how we think, work and interact with people. They also influence how others work and interact with us. If we don’t have this self-awareness, there is a danger that we will see ourselves as neutral helpers who couldn’t possibly be doing harm because our intentions are pure. Like the woman digging the hole. In conclusion: narcissism bad, self-awareness good.

    1. Thanks KBeck, I think you are right on the money there. There is a difference to being self aware and self-promotion. In retrospect I probably could have worded that section a bit better to highlight this. PS This is a great piece on that particular topic, via How Matters:

  25. Zoe

    Just to weigh in on the other side… Although i do understand that it doesn’t look great portraying an image of the aid worker sitting by the beach every day and I agree that companies shouldn’t be using photos of tourists digging wells, i think it is a bit unrealistic that aid and dev workers should not reveal any of their day-to-day work to their peers.

    Most of us are not Gandhi and I don’t think we necessarily have to be aid and dev martyrs where every day is tough and we’re giving up our lives to save others. For a lot of people, aid and dev is just another job. Broadcasting your every day life is not so different here to what you would do at home. If you’re sitting by the pool on a weekday working in Sydney, Instagram’s probably going to see it. If you’re on a work trip or doing some field work or you’ve finished a major project, Facebook’s probably going to hear about it.

    Why should the aid and dev worker be any different from someone working back home? If anything, the fact that you’re away from home means the people who care about you probably want more “broadcasting” of your day to day activities. Just because we’re in helping/caring roles does it mean we have to sacrifice ourselves completely?

    As always, looking forward to continuing the debate in person… great photos, by the way!

    1. sayitagain

      My impression from the article is that Weh is asking people to question the type of posts they make about work, rather than refrain from posting about their lives altogether.

      Having said that, I find the suggestion that not broadcasting my daily life (and I certainly do) is synonymous with “sacrificing myself” mildly disturbing. Kind of proves the point of the article.

    2. Thanks for the comment Zoe. I don’t think the expectation is for everybody to become Gandhi-like. In fact, Gandhi himself was less than perfect. He had many faults. But he was aware of them, and he always strove to better himself which is perhaps his most admirable quality.

      In answer to your question – “why should aid workers be different?”, as sayitagain mentioned below, how we portray aid work is really important. I wouldn’t want to take the focus off the job and onto ourselves. It just doesn’t sit well.

      Finally, in answer to your comments about what “normal” people do and broadcasting, this is perhaps where we’re not seeing eye to eye. Just to play devil’s avocado, if somebody is sitting by a pool on a weekday working in Sydney, why exactly do we all need to hear about it?

      1. Anne Marie Sanderson

        More posts from WhyDev? for sure! Wow this was a lot read and wonderful food for thought.

        Thank you for your article Weh!

        You have certainly stimulated a lot of very interesting thought and conversation! : )

        Best wishes!

  26. Les

    Well said, Weh. Unfortunately, the overarching funding model for development work demands exactly that – self-agrandisation (I may have made that word up), which means that the communications specilist is now an indespensable part of any programme team.

    Gandhi has rather soft hands.

  27. sayitagain

    More cat videos, and more posts from

    1. I cannot tell if you are being sarcastic about the cat videos or WhyDev posts! But, hopefully the former. We could just give you cat videos on WhyDev?

      1. sayitagain

        No sarcasm here! I just happen to agree with Weh that we should focus more on sharing entertaining and informative material rather than manicured photographs of ourselves.

        Personally I hate cats but my comment is intended to support the zetigeist of the post.

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