You are here
So, you wanna save the world?

So, you wanna save the world?

By Steve Munroe, co-founder and CEO of Satori Worldwide

So you wanna save the world? save yourself first!

It seems that since Angelina Jolie and George Clooney made development chic, I get more and more emails from young people wanting to know how they can forge a career in global service. While I wish to encourage their enthusiasm, I also find myself wanting to ask them one basic question: are you sure you are up for it?

Here are a few things I wish I had known before I launched my own career in development.

Resilience is not part of the curriculum, but it should be.

When I emerged from grad school I was full of theories and credentials. This stood me in good stead at work-related conferences, but it did little to prepare me for the shock of working directly with beneficiaries — people who have suffered torture, extreme poverty and desperation of all sorts.

Neither did my degrees help me cope with halting bureaucracies, corruption, and the many health risks associated with living in challenging development contexts.

Not being aware of any practical strategies to nurture one’s resilience is not only a recipe for frustrated ambition, it’s a scourge on development forces generally. This is why attrition rates, illness, addiction and family breakdown run high. Sadly, the veil of silence on these issues is only now beginning to lift as more and more development actors draw attention to the realities of aid work, and even more importantly, question the impact this has on our primary agenda: serving the world’s disaffected.

Beware of burn out, because cynicism is a killer.

Few people like to talk about it, but seasoned aid and development workers are seldom the happiest bunch. Not surprising given the realities they deal with every day. But what is surprising is just how many aid workers wear their cynicism like a badge of honor.  One of our facilitators, Kit Loring, explains the toll this can take in this video.

The great irony here is that jadedness does not serve you, or anyone else. It does not make you tougher, smarter, or better at your job. What it does do is help bring down office morale, makes you prone to giving up too soon, and makes you a difficult person to live with.

If you would like an idea of the havoc this can wreak in your life, and how you can recover your balance, read Missionaries, Mercenaries and Misfits: How two Aid Workers came full circle in the Developing World (disclaimer: I am one of the two).

Be prepared to learn more than you teach.

Working in the field can be a humbling experience, and this is as it should be. Behind the more cerebral approaches to development is the sobering truth that ‘results-based management’ and ‘strategic interventions’ are poor substitutes for being able to truly LISTEN and SERVE.  Egocentric attitudes of how things ‘should be done’ can rob us of the flexibility and insight that is required to actually get things done.  So, remember why you are there, open your eyes and ears, and breathe deeply of your surroundings (and yes, this is easier said than done). If you do the result will be transformative. You will be a beneficiary.


Meaning is your greatest motivator.

One of the most interesting things about burnout is that it is generally non-existent for people who feel truly connected to a higher purpose, whatever that may be.

Do you know what that is for you?

If you don’t, I suggest you find out, because this will be your touchstone. The most successful and impactful aid and development workers I have known are the ones who could stay true to their sense of purpose over time. And if this seems like ‘airy fairy’ talk, take heed: there are plenty of practical tools to help you stay centered no matter how challenging your circumstances.

Would I do it again?

Truth is, even if I had known all of these things beforehand, I think I would still have chosen a life of global service, because I truly believe in the cause. But I would have wasted a lot less of my time, and that of others, trying to figure out how to do it with integrity if resilience and self-care had been part of my early learning.

The good news is that we need not re-invent the wheel to tackle these issues; as a community there is a lot we can learn from other disciplines, like psychology, social work and even ancient wisdom traditions, to help us stay effective in our work.


Satori Worldwide is committed to promoting the wellbeing of aid workers, expatriate families and others working in the field.  If you are keen to learn the tools that will help you maintain balance and resilience in the field, you can join us for our next retreat in Bali—where fresh air, fresh food and fresh perspective await you.

If you would like to learn more about the less-publicised aspects of working in the field to see if “you are up for it” visit our Challenges of Global Service page and learn why caring for yourself may well be one of the most altruistic things you will ever do.

The following two tabs change content below.

Guest Author/s

Our guest authors come from a diverse range of international development backgrounds. If you'd like to submit a blog to WhyDev check out our submissions guidelines on the website.

Latest posts by Guest Author/s (see all)

Related posts

12 thoughts on “So, you wanna save the world?

  1. […] and well-being, starting with one that pretty much sums up our stance on the issue: “So, you wanna save the world? Save yourself first!” And it seems we’re not the only ones concerned about aid worker wellness–nearly […]

  2. […] opinions on career advice. However, in light of some more recent thoughts about motivation, well being and knowledge in aid and development, I have been thinking about the space in-between motivation […]

  3. […] and aid career seekers. See Tales from the Hood’s posts on Motivation and Sacrifice, one from Satori Worldwide on, one from La Vidaid Loca, and another from The Principled Agent. Here’s a few of my thoughts on […]

  4. Great post that I thoroughly enjoyed! I worked abroad in South America for two years after graduating from college. And I got that bug, that zeal you speak about, while at the same time getting constant reinforcement day in and day out of how tough it really was. I'm back in the States, been back for three years now, and have struggled with a lot of what you touch upon. I care deeply about development issues but having those two years under my belt, also know what is and isn't for me. I'd like to work abroad a bit more, but I don't see me making a life out of it. I live in LA and struggle so much to find ways to still work for what I care about even if I don't see myself being one of the aid workers abroad. It's been so hard to find resources on how to get involved in a home office, at what capacity that is possible, etc…

    I guess all this is to say your blog post was a great reminder to keep on searching and digging, and really reflecting on what is and isn't for me. Thanks!

  5. Caitlin Newman

    Great article. This definitely should be included in my graduate school education in international development. If not a course, then a panel or lecture series…. Thank you for the insights.

    1. Hi Caitlin,

      Thanks for this. We have been thinking along the same lines, as we think it is important that people go into the field with all the skills they need to be effective over time. Part of this is passion and knowledge, and part of it is being internally prepared for the realities of the work and lifestyle.

      If you think this is something your school might be receptive to, get in touch and let's talk about it. (


  6. I really liked this article because, as a grad student, I have wanted to go into aid work and have found that talking to aid workers and reading aid blogs, everyone seems so miserable and cynical and I have thought that I cannot imagine leading a life like this. It makes me sad and frustrated – and cynical – about starting a career in aid. I'll be honest, I do not think I am cut out for aid work and have begun looking at other career choices in international development.

    1. Hi Emily,

      Thanks for your candor…we believe very strongly that an honest discussion needs to be had on the realities of aid work…both good and bad. There is often a dismissal of people who voice fears/doubts etc as being "not cut out for it". This only serves to cut these discussions off and isolate people further, strengthening the stigmatization around issues of mental health and authentic well being.

      HOWEVER, we also know that not all aid workers are burnt out or cynical, or that it is a bad field to get into. Aid workers (often) work in high stress but minimally supported environments. When soldiers come back from a tour in Afghanistan after eight months, they have a range of services available to them and there is an understanding of issues such as PTSD. (We are not suggesting these services are perfect or stigmatization does not exist, just that there is a support system available.) Aid workers can be in Afghanistan and other similar hardship posts for YEARS for multiple organizations, where they fall through the cracks are receive little if any support.

      This is why we have focused our efforts around the idea that the responsibility for self care rests with the individual, and aim to teach people how to cultivate resilience as it is NOT an innate skill for many people. There are many aid workers who are not cynical (in a debilitating sense), who are highly passionate and rightly satisfied with the impact they are making, and manage to maintain balance and inner strength. Through our programs we try to help people develop personal practices which allow them to do the same.

      Thanks for your comment!


  7. MRM

    Great article, this is a field I've been looking into and this type of evaluation is important for helping people like myself understand the realities of aid work. I also enjoyed Missionaries, Mercenaries and Misfits. Recommend for anyone who is interested in this type of work/lifestyle.

    Looking forward to more posts like this!

    1. Hi MRM, glad you found the article(s) useful. Feel free to read more/sign up at and follow us on twitter. Comments always appreciated!

  8. […] Sage advice on being a development worker – GA_googleAddAttr("AdOpt", "1"); GA_googleAddAttr("Origin", "other"); […]

  9. […] Sage advice on being a development worker – GA_googleAddAttr("AdOpt", "1"); GA_googleAddAttr("Origin", "other"); […]

Comments are closed.