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.”
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.
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?
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?
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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