Even with the advent of online dating services and Tinder, love in the field can be a battlefield. Isolation, gender imbalances and reruns have aid workers forlorn and looking for love. In all the wrong places. Dr. WhyDev is on hand to get you back on that horse with 52 pick-up lines that are sure to win the heart of any cynical aid worker.
Are you an orphanage? Because I want to give you kids.
You must be tired, because you’ve been running around the field all day.
Let me be your logframe of love.
The UN must be missing an M&E Officer, because you’ve been monitoring me all night.
Hey baby, I’m going to make you MDG #9 and give you 100%-access to my love.
This first date has been pretty successful so far. Now let’s bring it to scale.
Your presence here is having a significant effect on me.
Do you have foreign aid? Because I just fell into a poverty trap.
I thought robust started with an ‘r’. Why does mine start with ‘u’?
Do you live in a corn field? Because I’m stalking you.
My love for you is like diarrhea – I just can’t hold it in.
Are you a refugee? Because you must have fled from heaven.
Do you believe in love at first sight, or would you like me to conduct an RCT with treatment and control groups?
Hey, girl. I’m Mr. Human Right. Someone said you were looking for me?
Can I borrow a micro-kiss? I promise I’ll give it right back with a lot of interest.
I’m a disaster and need UN assistance right now. I need U. Now.
Do you have any Cambodian/Kenyan/Haitian in you? Would you like some?
Let me into your bed, and I’ll be your Haiyan all night long.
This ain’t no participatory process baby, you’re coming home with me right now.
I hope you’re not a monk ‘cos I’d love to go Tibet with you.
I don’t need no Viagra to build my capacity. I’ve got you.
You don’t need to worry about my sustainability. I can go all night.
What’s your favourite position when you’re out in the field? Reverse Consultant or Missionary? How about Emancipatory Style?
Are you taking malaria prophylaxis? ‘Cos you’ve been Doxycycline through my mind all night long.
Your body is a wonderland that I’m gonna need security clearance to evaluate.
Damn, girl. If being sexy was a crime, you’d be taken to the ICC.
Do you work for the World Food Programme? Because you got me starving for your attention.
I Ecua-dor you!
Do you have a staph infection, or are you just blushing since I walked in the room?
Are you Australian? Because you meet all of my koala-fications.
After one night with me, you’ll be going all Dambisa on me, screaming Moyo, Moyo, Moyo.
Hey baby, are you from the Red Cross? Because I’ve got some sexual health humanitarian needs.
Don’t worry, baby. The safe word is “Kony.”
Hey baby, come take a shower with me, so we can do some participatory M&E on our WASH practices.
There’s some serious flooding going on in the north of Thailand. I suggest we take shelter at my place and Bangkok.
Oh come on, don’t knock me back. That’s hardly following inclusive best practices.
I’d like to buy you some donuts, so we can see some real bottom-up development, if you know what I mean.
Let’s go back to my place so you can investigate my low hanging fruit (deliberately ambiguous if spoken by a man or woman).
Hey baby, you’re hitting all the right indicators. It’s time to take this to the field.
I’m not looking to put a ring on it, baby. I’m all about the low overhead.
You look like just the person to help me scale up what I’ve got going on down below.
I think about you at least 50 times per diem.
I couldn’t help but notice you at the shelter cluster meeting. Why don’t you take refuge at my place tonight?
From the bottom up and the top down, you got development in all the right places.
I hear there’s grant money out there for family planning. Let’s do a joint scoping mission.
We’d better call the disaster response team, because I think I just felt the earth shake beneath me.
Hey baby, I like my women like I like my anthropology. Thick and cultural.
You’re so hot, I’m declaring you a crisis zone!
Just like Bono, I want to push you closer and closer to The Edge.
I’d be great in a hostage situation. There’s a lot I can do with my hands tied behind my back.
We gotta stop with the whole Easterly-Sachs thing, and get more like Rigby-Yeoh.
UNAIDS, UNOCHA, UNHCR. There’s something missing from all of this. UN me.
We acknowledge that there was a discussion on AidSource in 2012 that managed about 10 pick-up lines. We are building on this participatory framework developed by our colleagues, and adding 52 more for testing, benchmarking and evaluating in the field.
Wearing the rather unkempt hairdo I’d grown while studying abroad in Senegal, I used a brief stop in Gettysburg, Pennsylvania (I know – not exactly the exotic locale you might be expecting from this blog) to get a dearly overdue haircut.
After a few wisecracks about my receding hairline, the barber and I drifted into the familiar realm of aimless small talk that accompanies a haircut almost anywhere. Before long, I was describing my work as an intern at Roots of Development. Deeply interested, the barber prodded me for more information. As he tamed my wild hair, I gave him what details I could – since I had taken the position only a few weeks prior, it was really not all that much. Seeking to describe the organisation fairly, and hoping to avoid industry jargon, I oversimplified and murmured something along the lines of, “We help poor people in a small town in Haiti escape poverty.”
I cringed as I repeated silently the organisation’s chosen discourse. “We work WITH communities who choose, build, manage and maintain their own projects. We support development without dependency.” Nonetheless, the clumsy summary I had supplied was ample justification for a firm handshake from the barber when I rose from his worn-in leather chair.
As he squeezed my hand, he hardened his gaze and said, “Thank you for the work you are doing. You are making the world a better place.” I smiled, returned his firm grip and walked out.
The next time I peered into the mirror, I found myself admiring the haircut, yet wondering if I’d earned his praise.
Certainly the intent of development is noble. At face value, the notion of alleviating human suffering, of improving living conditions or elongating lives, is unarguably good. That said, the disturbing truth is that academic and professional evaluations of the development industry have been largely negative.
Pondering these critiques, I stopped short of patting myself on the back.
In that moment of self-reflection (cue dramatic soap opera music and flashback effect), I recalled a particular conversation I’d had the previous spring in Senegal, with a group of five Peace Corps Volunteers serving there. They had diverse areas of work, two focusing on sustainable agriculture in rural areas and the other three partnering with small businesses in some of the country’s cities. A curious undergrad with similar interests, I used the opportunity to inquire about the Peace Corps experience, eyeing it as a potential post-grad plan.
“Do you feel as though you are getting a good cultural experience? Are you learning the language and finding a place in Senegalese society?” I asked.
They replied with a resounding yes. “The most powerful cultural experience of my life,” answered one. “It’s an opportunity like no other to spend some time in a country I might otherwise never visit,” said another.
I coughed awkwardly, knowing my next question was a tad stereotypical and would be less enthusiastically received. “Do you think you are making a difference here?”
A long silence followed, broken at last by a muffled, “Well…” Each articulated to me a well-processed answer, indicating it was a question they had received prior or, even more likely, frequently asked themselves. No answer was absolute. Soft, uneasy yes’s and very tentative no’s. Obviously, like me, they had gazed uneasily into the mirror a few times. Like most development practitioners, the Peace Corps Volunteers had chosen this line of work with a healthy dose of self-doubt and cognitive dissonance, or at least developed it during their time in the field.
A great wealth of criticism has come from professional, academic and institutional circles in the development community, forming a chorus of impassioned, and persuasive, condemnation. The age of unbridled optimism (or perhaps hubris) among development workers concerning our capacity to affect change is long, and rightfully, gone.
Most practitioners know aid can be problematic and that development rhetoric tends to oversimplify the causes of global poverty. They know the minimal funds that emerge from the “developed” world have a tinge of political interest or a bitter ideological after taste. Most are well-versed in development theory and criticism, having read books like The White Man’s Burden, Dead Aid and The Anti-Politics Machine.
Yet, despite their knowledge and concerns, most practitioners will, from time to time, be lauded for their compassion and praised for their generosity. Many – like me, following that overdue haircut, and my Peace Corps buddies in Senegal – will take a hard look in the mirror and wonder if they deserve such accolades.
Though I’ve given this topic a lot of thought, I’ve yet to reach a satisfying conclusion. I’m still not sure how to continue on as a practitioner without a healthy dose of cognitive dissonance. So instead of leaving you with some profound realization, I’ll end with a question to older, wiser (just take the compliment) development practitioners.
How have you integrated recognition of the industry’s flaws into your professional identity? How have you learned to recognize development’s problems, while continuing to work in the field or advocating for its expansion? How do you motivate yourselves on tough days when you doubt the impact of your efforts?
I hope dearly it’s more than the dual tides of time and apathy that have allowed the leaders of the field to remain there for a decade, or a few.
[Check back next week for a follow-up post featuring responses to these questions from several experienced development practitioners (and some of your favourite aid bloggers).]
79. The number of aid workers who have already died in 2014.
@morealtitude has analysed the trends in security, and finds that between 2000 and 2013, 82% of aid worker fatalities were among national staff. International staff are at a higher risk of being kidnapped in a hostile environment, as the number of international aid workers kidnapped since 2000 has risen 1,218%. The security threat is largely confined to five countries: Afghanistan, Pakistan, South Sudan, Sudan and Syria.
May I have your attention please?
Global Citizen, to mark World Humanitarian Day last week, released a link-bait list highlighting “30 humanitarians making zero poverty by 2030 possible.” It is an unusual list to say the least. The author, Michael Wilson, claims it’s in no particular order. However, Xi Jinping and Li Ruogu come in at #2 and #4 respectively. Xi Jinping is the successor to Hu Jintao, General Secretary of the Communist Party of China (not ‘President’). Xi’s leadership will focus on slower growth rates, social stresses and domestic political issues.
Li Ruogu heads the Export-Import Bank of China. Over the next 10 years, China will provide US$1 trillion of financing to the African continent, 70-80% of which will be provided by the Exim Bank. The region also received over 50% of China’s foreign aid allocation between 2010 and 2012. Both men’s efforts may contribute to making zero poverty by 2030 possible, but their intentions, motivations and goals are just as important.
The Communist Party of China’s “number one core interest is to maintain its fundamental system and state security.” That is, to remain in power. (Read Richard McGregor’s The Party for the clearest insight into how the government and Communist party function.)
Will the real humanitarian please stand up?
The term ‘humanitarian’ is quaint. It is an adjective that can qualify a noun or noun phrase – “The humanitarian situation in South Sudan is dire.” It is also a noun denoting a person – “The job of a humanitarian is exhausting.” Urban Dictionarydescribes a humanitarian as, “Someone very generous, and dedicated to the healing of the world. Or, if you want, someone who gives a shit about the planet.” Or, as one commenter cheekily replied, “someone who only eats vegans.”
The first humanitarian was the person who brought fire to life, and spent the rest of his/her life building the capacity of others to make fire. In everyday dictionary-speak, it refers to a concern with seeking or promoting human welfare. The Global Citizens’ 30 can all squeeze under this leaky roof. Indeed, insurance salespeople can too.
Martin Luther King Jr.’s often quoted question asks, “What are you doing for others?”
The 30 are doing lots, but we have to ask how and why are they doing for the welfare of others. How and why do they give a shit about other people and the planet?
I repeat, will the real humanitarian please stand up?
This list is also in no particular order. It was made on the basis of identifying a small sample of those who embody the how and why of being humanitarian. That is, they exemplify how to promote human welfare and demonstrate a clear “why” for doing so, usually justice, humility and compassion. Most importantly, they give a shit. Please add your contributions in the comments.
1. Jina Moore is a compassionate journalist covering women’s issues in African countries right now for mainstream media. Her narrative is at the same time intellectual and emotionally engaging. She has a deep respect for the people she writes about and does not steal their stories or take away their rights and dignity. These kinds of narratives are important, especially in humanitarian crises. The world needs more bridge builders like Jina.
2. Saaed Wame founded Namwera AIDS Coordinating Committee (NACC) of Malawi in 1996 with zero dollars, a heart for children facing the difficulties he had faced as a child and a vision for his community. Today, NACC has a US$100,000 annual budget, operating in 400+ villages in four districts in southern Malawi with 5,000 active volunteers. NACC has grown from strength to strength, adding programs and deepening its presence at the community level over the past 15 years. Saaed exhibits spirit, confidence and connectedness that are evident throughout NACC’s programs.
3. Mulugeta Gebru, founder of Jerusalem Children and Community Development Organization (JeCCDO), is a man of undying vision and perseverance. Grassroots-based organisations are part of the social fabric of the community in which children live and grow. When violence breaks out, a flood hits, or a case of abuse is discovered, committed people at the community level are the ones who snap into action to make sure kids are safe and cared for. This is why Mulugeta closed down JeCCDO’s orphanages that were operating across Ethiopia in favour of community-based care in 1996.
4. Roum Phearom’s organisation, Capacity Building for Disability Cooperation (CABDICO), is facing a funding crisis and is only able to pay her $200 a month. Recently, she was offered another job that would see her salary double. She turned it down. “I refused the job that paid more because I have had the opportunity to learn about speech therapy. That convinced me to stay.” Phearom works with children with disabilities in Cambodia, tirelessly visiting their homes each day to help them walk, talk and go to school. She has given up opportunities elsewhere to do the thing she loves the most, support children with disabilities to have a bright future.
5. The polio vaccination teams in Pakistan are known as the Lady Health Workers (LHW). It is a team of over 100,000 community workers, who have been delivering health services across Pakistan since 1994. More than 30 have been killed in the past two years alone, targeted by anti-government groups. They risk their lives each day for less than $5 a day. Despite the challenges of their work, research has shown that households served by LHW are 15 percentage points more likely to have children under the age of 3 immunised.
6. Kon Karapanagiotidis is the CEO and founder of the Asylum Seeker Resource Centre (ASRC). I am also his fanboy. With more than 95% of its funding coming from the community and philanthropy, the centre is able to operate as a true advocate and firm voice for the rights of asylum seekers and refugees. It also provides numerous services to over 1,200 asylum seekers, through the work of 30-odd staff and 800+ volunteers. Kon is the antithesis of “why bother?” and hopeslessness. I believe he embodies what it is to be a humanitarian: service, compassion, humility, passion and unwavering addiction to justice.
We’re gonna have a problem here if we keep fetishising and praising the efforts of the rich and powerful, and overlook the everyday service and commitment of real humanitarians.
The WhyDev team (minus a couple of internationals) went out for karaoke last Friday night in Melbourne. This is not an unusual event for us; three team members have lived in China and performed karaoke during the middle of the day, stone-cold sober with work colleagues. Karaoke is to us what water is to fish. However, what was unusual was our song selection. Missing were many aid work classics. (And some not-so-classics.)
That got us thinking – what are the classic aid worker songs that define how we see the world and our role in it?
We have our own ideas, but we’d love to compile a playlist of the Top 5 Aid Worker Tunes through crowdsourcing. We’ve chosen a shortlist. Yes, it’s imperfect. Yes, Toto’s “Africa” features. Yes, you can enter your own choice. You get five picks. Like Indiana Jones in Last Crusade, choose wisely.
Please take this as seriously as you like. The poll will be open for one week. We will then tally the results and post the definitive, annotated guide to the Top 5 Aid Worker Tunes next week. Continue reading →
Burnout is a problem many aid workers face. In this post, psychologist and organisational consultant Alessandra Pigni discusses the causes of burnout and how it differs from stress or PTSD. A follow-up post will appear next week and will look at what (aid) organisations can do to prevent burnout.
Why does burnout, rather than PTSD, seem to be more common among aid workers?
We need to make a clear distinction between the psychological conditions aid workers may experience following traumatic events, and the distress they experience in their day-to-day work. Both can lead to psycho-somatic suffering, but the causes and remedies are different. Aid workers do not experience burnout following the exposure to a traumatic event, but they may experience trauma-related conditions including (but not exclusively) post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). Instead burnout is related to a way of working and to a particular type of organisational culture that I shall describe.
Research suggests that 5% to 10% of aid workers suffer from PTSD. Between 30% and 50% suffer from moderate to severe levels of emotional distress, and 40% are at high risk of burnout. What we need to understand is that given adequate support, most people have the strength and resilience to overcome a traumatic episode without developing PTSD.
This means that aid organisations need to provide tailored support to those professionals who may need it, offering a range of options and not exclusively trauma counselling. The work of trauma therapist Babette Rothschild is excellent if we want to understand PTSD: the author warns us about avoiding the common mistake of thinking that exposure to a traumatic event equals PTSD, and consequently rushing people into counselling.
Burnout is a different issue and unlike PTSD it is a widespread problem across the aid sector. Burnout is a “man-made” condition over which individuals and mostly organisations have a high degree of control. As burnout experts Prof Maslach and Leiter illustrate, burnout is a condition caused by being exposed to an unhealthy work environment, meaning the internal organisational environment.
So while people need to figure out what they can do on an individual level to prevent burnout and, for example, keep their perfectionism and workaholism in check, change will be limited without a shift in organisational thinking.
Aid workers have a pretty good idea of the challenges that they will face in a humanitarian/developing context: power cuts, at times violent and insecure surroundings, gunshots, checkpoints, etc. Place a group of aid workers around a table and you can almost feel that there is a sort of pride in how much they have endured, they always have a story to tell about showering out of a bucket and having to negotiate with the rebels the access to remote areas!
While these though conditions are far from easy, aid workers make an informed career choice. They know that these ‘rough edges’ come with a job that they expect to be meaningful, and full of action, a job that will allow them to experience the world, while being part of a community of people driven by common values. This is where burnout comes in because often these idealised expectations are betrayed by reality.
In order to understand how burnout is not simply a stress problem over which a single individual can have full control, let me go back to the research by Maslach and Leiter who clarify that “while most people think job burnout is just a matter of working too hard, that’s not necessarily true.”
Stress is to burnout what feeling a little blue is to clinical depression. “Burnout is when you feel overwhelming exhaustion, frustration, cynicism and a sense of ineffectiveness and failure.” The authors list six areas that can result in burnout:
lack of control over the work;
workplace community problems, such as incivility and a lack of support among co-workers;
a lack of fairness, such as inequality of pay, promotions or workload;
and a conflict between one’s personal values and the requirements of a job.
Do you recognise any of these traits in your organisation?
This evidence-based understanding of burnout and of its key features is essential to appreciate how this condition is an organisational challenge. Most aid workers do not simply overwork, they may also be immersed in an organisational culture that resembles the points highlighted by Leiter and Maslach. It is not unusual for aid workers to experience a sort of ‘cognitive dissonance’ between what they thought it was going to be and what it is.
This gap between expectations and reality, the mismatch between official mission statements and work on the ground, a defensive culture of overwork and sacrifice, and the lack of rewards and fairness is what leads aid workers to burnout. Burnout feels like falling out of love with your job.
If you are just tired, a break and some self-care will do. Burnout requires a different kind of approach, and the best approach is preventing it at the organisational level by strengthening a supportive and respectful work environment.
[Ed. note - participants in WhyDev's pilot peer coaching program indicated a range of benefits to participating in the program, including feeling less stressed and isolated. We're currently fundraising to launch DevPeers, the next iteration of this program.
Are aid workers more ‘maladjusted’ than others – or does our work just make our maladjustments more obvious?
“According to the General Health Questionnaire (GHQ), a staggering 50% of aid workers could be classified as non-psychotic psychiatric cases. The authors offer three possible reasons for the result, the third being the most intriguing: the tendency of maladjusted individuals to choose to become aid workers.” (Brendan Rigby, WhyDev)
I first came across this notion of “maladjustment” many years ago in a study on what motivates international volunteers, and I was curious – was it my “issues” that motivated me into volunteering and aid work? Certainly I felt like the choices I was making brought out my insecurities, but on the other hand everyone else I knew had their own issues, and most of those people hadn’t gone into aid work.
As I considered this question further in subsequent years it also occurred to me that the aid worker experience often cuts quickly through the superficial. Any demons, vulnerabilities or insecurities you have will be exposed by the emotional, physical and intellectual pressure-cooker of aid work – particularly humanitarian work.
The authors of the paper referenced above speculated that their results could be explained by “a high incidence of people with psychological problems choosing to become aid workers.” But the study did not compare pre- and post-mission data to check this hypothesis or provide other evidence to support it. Another well-known study that did involve longitudinal research found on the other hand that aid workers with experience of severe childhood stress seemed less at risk, and postulated that this may be because their earlier experiences had helped them develop more effective coping strategies. This is intriguing, because exposure to early life stress is often considered to predispose a person to greater vulnerability later in life, not less.
So I was very interested to hear psychologist Carla Uriarte’s opinion about this. She has been working in aid worker psychosocial health for more than a decade and in a recent interview about a new aid worker resilience training program she is co-teaching for the Garrison Institute in New York, she said:
“I’ve been intensively working with aid workers for the last eight years. Many aid workers, from a general perspective, show an exceptionally good resilience capacity. I’ve worked with people who have better personal coping mechanisms than the majority of people, but they are confronted with very extreme experiences, which overwhelm in some cases, some instances, some moments, those coping resources. [I think it is also true that] very stressful experiences bring out our vulnerabilities in a more clear way.”
She points out that when you put all of these individual cases together, the effect intensifies: “Now when you’re working with a team of people who don’t know you, and are trying to cope with their own difficulties, then it’s a lot more difficult for those issues to calm themselves. So I think what happens is they get more acute.”
In her chapter on aid worker safety and security in the anthology Workplace Violence, Ros Thomas draws on research done with mental health workers to assert that: “…when aid workers experience trauma it brings to the surface uncertainties, fear and vulnerability in colleagues who have contact with them.”
But the same characteristics that the stresses of aid work bring to the fore may also motivate and equip people to do the work. Aid workers “seek adventure, travel and to engage in something different,” says Thomas, but they are also “motivated by a wish to engage in meaningful activities that contribute to securing a better life for those in distress.” The constant change and adaptation aid work demands are known to be stressful, Uriarte argues, but they also attract people to it. Other research indicates a strong sense of empathy often motivates people to get involved in helping or caregiving work, even while potentially making them more vulnerable to empathic distress.
So it does seem fair to suggest that rather than being less well-adjusted than the general population, we aid workers are equally maladjusted, but have chosen a line of work that makes it harder to mask or ignore our weaknesses and vulnerabilities.
If that’s true, the relevant question becomes: how do we maximise the way the “maladjustments” each of us brings to aid work make us particularly suited for it, while minimising the negative consequences?
As Uriarte points out, some claim people who choose to train as psychologists are similarly maladjusted. But unlike aid workers, the connection between the individual’s own process and the work he/she does with others is explicitly recognized in the training of psychologists and social workers. They’re required to maintain some kind of peer supervision and self-reflection process as part of their professional practice.
What might happen if that also applied to aid work? The need for continuing “organisational learning” through reflection is a given (though not necessarily done well) in humanitarian and development best practice. Systematic practice of reflection and learning at the individual level, going beyond the traditional work-output focus of an aid worker’s performance appraisal, might be equally valuable.
WhyDev piloted a Peer Coaching program for aid workers last year with a lot of success and is currently fundraising to launch a refined version of DevPeers. For me yoga and meditation have been key in the process of self-reflection at both a mental and physical level and I recently partnered with Marianne Elliott to offer an online yoga course ’30 Days of Yoga’ targeted for Aid Workers. The Contemplative Based Resilience Training offered by the Garrison Institute, for which Uriarte is part of an expert faculty, brings together meditation and yoga-based practices with psychosocial education in a multi-faceted resilience training program.
Our survey of aid workers (read: anyone who’s ever somehow been part of the aid industry, ever) has been live for about one week, now. We’re seeing some interesting patterns begin to emerge out of the quantitative portions, and we’re getting some really interesting responses from you in the open-ended boxes. Thank you, and please keep those responses coming!
One piece of the picture of who you are (and me, too. I’m an aid worker), which I find particularly interesting, is what’s starting to emerge from multiple-choice questions #44 and #46, and “elaborate your thoughts” open-ended answer boxes which accompany them both. In their entirety, these two questions read:
Question 44: Many (most?) humanitarian aid workers will ultimately become ex-humanitarian aid workers. Excluding those few -but tragic- that will die in service, which below do you think is the *most* common reason why humanitarian aid workers choose to leave this line of work?
Question 46: Many (most?) humanitarian aid workers will ultimately become ex-humanitarian aid workers. Excluding the unlikely and tragic possibility that you will die in service, if you do so by choice which below do you think will be *your* reason for leaving this line of work?
So, basically, why do you think most people leave the aid industry? And then why do you think you will eventually leave?
Bear in mind that we’re not anywhere near closing the survey, so this obviously preliminary analysis could (and very possibly will) change before we’re all done. But one week in, here’s how you answered (screenshots directly from Survey Monkey):
(Responses to why *others* are likely to leave the aid sector).
(Responses to why *you* are likely to leave the aid sector).
My quick read-outs:
Retirement & Leave the Sector: It looks as if it’s fairly common to assume is that you will all eventually retire. There appear to be similarly strong assumptions around simply leaving the sector, say, for work in another industry. My (again, very initial) takeaway here is that this probably points to the reality that we increasingly see work in the aid sector as exactly that: work.
Maybe we work somewhere in the aid industry until we retire. This assumes that we will retire, which assumes some sort of retirement planning, which in turn assumes we’re somehow compensated enough to enable an actual retirement. There will come a time when we say, “okay, I’m done. I going to stop making the world better, and just play golf…”
Leaving the sector, while pretty broad and encompassing, also suggests that many of us see this all as “just another job.” Other studies have shown that it is common for people to shift industries several times over the course of an adult working lifetime. The aid industry is one of those industries, like many others, that people increasingly cycle through, as one option among many.
Termination: It was very interesting to see that almost none of you view termination (being fired) as much of a possibility, either for others (0.34%), or for yourselves (o.69%). Many elaborated this in the open-ended box following question #48 (“what do you think is the most common reason humanitarian workers are fired?”). In the words of one respondent, simply:
“Overall, I think you have to try pretty hard to get fired.”
Yep. This rings true, based on my experience. Outright termination is fairly rare.
Burnout & Disillusionment: The most interesting for me, personally, were the results that came out of Burnout and Disillusionment. Look at the tables above. Almost as many of you see disillusionment as almost as common a reason as retirement for others to leave the aid industry.
Tabulating views on “others” versus “you” were interesting as well. Based on results so far, many of you see others as more likely to leave because of disillusionment than you, yourself (others, 19.32%; self, 16.96%). This contrast is even more marked if we look at “burnout.” More of you chose burnout as the reason for others leaving the sector than any other option (27.8%), but “termination” was the only option with fewer choices than burnout as the reason why you would likely leave (9.69%).
My read: Basically we see others as burnt-out and disillusioned, or at least highly at-risk, while we still see ourselves as less so, or perhaps somehow immune. What does it mean? I’m not sure—still pondering. There’s a level at which it feels as if many of us have a generally negative view of our sector, yet remain basically optimistic (or maybe wishful) ourselves.
What do you think? We’d love to hear your thoughts in the comments thread below this post. You can also tweet to@tarcaro and @talesfromthhood with the hashtag #humsurvey. Be sure to follow my own snapshots of the #humsurvey results and discuss me and other respondents in more or less real time over on my Facebook page.
And of course, be sure to get as many as possible of your aid industry friends to take the survey.
We consider ourselves something of technical experts when it comes to making lists. We were able to come up with 52 reasons to date an aid worker. (Without the help of alcohol). We then somehow managed to squeeze out another 52 things you’ll never hear an aid worker say. (We could have hit 104). And, we found 44 gifts you should never give an aid worker. (Yes, eight short of 52, but it was a rush job before the holiday break).
When the Guardian published their list of global development Twitter All Stars to watch in 2014, the reverberation of #facepalms across the global north and south exposed the glaring holes of its list.
So, I got a crack team on the job to fill in the holes of the Guardian’s 2014 watch list of global development Tweeters. No one was consulted during our process of compilation. It was very undemocratic; oligarchic even. No log-frames were harmed in the making of it.
A stellar Nigerian journalist covering West Africa, Chika’s feed is an invaluable resource for the region. Her tweets are straightforward and unrelenting. It also helps that she is a hell of a reporter, often writing for Al JazeeraEnglish, and a super awesome person all around.
Violence against women does not get nearly enough attention and Lauren is rightly pissed off about it. She doesn’t just tweet about it, she directs the Women Under Siege project. Lauren calls out the bullshit when she sees it, holding media and leaders to account when glossing over sexualized violence in conflict.
This Delta hating, Texas loving academic will switch between the incompetence of Mack Brown, (former) coach of the University of Texas, and John Prendergast, head of the Enough Project, with such ease that I sometimes question if she has a ghost Tweeter helping out. Her feed is all about the Lakes Region of Africa and then some. With a sharp wit and smart mind, Laura’s balance of entertainment and information makes her one of the best Tweeters no matter the subject.
She’s smart, loves grassroots organisations, and built a reputation around this at How Matters. Then, she was head hunted by Oxfam America to be a Senior Writer on Aid Effectiveness. It’s like that bit in the Mighty Ducks where the perennial fighter for the underdog gets some recognition from the big guys and gets placed in D.C where she can wield influence for the greater good. Listen to this lady, she speaks pure gold.
She’s Canadian, but has good insights into what works and what doesn’t in development. Most surprisingly, being Canadian, she doesn’t apologise for them. We still don’t understand why she doesn’t blog.
We can’t help but think that with 750 followers, approximately 0.0015% the number of followers that Justin Bieber has, a few people are missing out. She’s sassy, unapologetically feminist, and seems to have good taste in music. If you are interested in hearing what an intelligent, young, engaged woman is thinking, this is a good start.
Another dark horse given the surprising lack of followers, Rowan is the founder and editor of developmentintern.com (@devintern), a site that focusses on the thoughts of interns in global development. And no, they aren’t only concerned with how many teaspoons of sugar makes the ideal cup of coffee. Seriously though, this is a young man with an outlook that belies his age. If he could grow a beard (we are laying down the challenge), he could be a young William Easterly.
With a focus on human rights, gender and access to justice, this is one smart lady with some good thoughts on bottom up development. She also happens to be (at least from this side of the computer screen) lovely. We think that if ever there was someone you would like to hug after a long day working in development where nothing has gone right, and the bar has run out of your favourite beer, and your wife has left you for your best friend, it might just be Akhila.
Kainja may be a scholar of media and communications academic, but don’t assume that makes Jimmy a dull boy. Asking tough questions of leaders and citizens, his commentary on political and social changes in Sub-Saharan Africa, especially his home in Malawi, is not to be missed.
Marc Maxson is not your usual aid worker. Yes, he is a returned Peace Corps volunteer and works for a Washington D.C.-based non-governmental organization. The difference is that Marc Maxson also has a PhD in neuroscience. Watch with amazement at GlobalGiving and on his blog, Chewy Chunks, as Marc applies and develops brand new concepts and approaches to solving “impossible” problems, of which there are many in international development.
Want to get your heart and mind revved up on social justice and participatory democracy? Srinath has got the chops for that. She’s the former chief executive for CIVICUS, and is currently the Executive Director of Childline India. She calls it like she sees it, and we all benefit.
What happens when you’ve worked in aid and philanthropy for years, but there’s just this pestering call in your brain for an alternative, for a group of people to stand up and take their rightful place at the development table? Why you found your own organization; that is, if you’re Lemma. She’s the co-founder and Executive Director of Africans in the Diaspora, and she’s building African philanthropy among the diaspora community one person at a time.
There are few fixtures of the aid industry which hold as much mystique and show as much staying power as the concept and romance of “the field.” No other grail is so fervently sought among the bright-eyed, hopeful students and newbies as the field. The field, they believe, is where the action is, where they’re actually doing it, whatever “it” is. The harder or more exotic the field location, the better. Cubicles and conferences room in, say DC, are a necessary evil to be put up with until such time as one can escape to the field. There is no aspect of a young aid professional’s experience so frequently inflated or over-stated on resumes or at happy hour as time in the field. “Nearly one year” is always better than ten and a half months, and so on.
By the same token, there is no other trump card played with more authority and self-assurance, whether to put upstart newbs in their places or to establish one’s own silverback status, as years in the field. Years in Kabul or Huambo or San Salvador (and, for reasons I fail to grasp in 2014, Cambodia) make you a hardcore, front-line badass who makes things happen. Years in Brussels or Singapore or DC (the latter, at least as dangerous as Phnom Penh) makes you a pansy cubicle-farmer who goes to a lot of meetings and writes papers that no one in the field will ever read.
Some of you will call me an aid world heretic for this, but it’s got to be said: It’s time to recognize that “the field” is a relic from a previous era in aid history. Like VHS tapes and personal CD players, “the field” is an artifact left over from a time when white guys in khakis and untucked shirts (or maybe white women in a sexy, black tanktops) left someplace comfortable and civilized to go someplace difficult and dangerous, where they would do aid to beneficiaries.
I can think of few aspects of the culture of the aid industry which are more counterproductive to what we say we’re trying to accomplish, than to keep alive this notion of this mythical place called “the field.”
The reality of the aid industry today is that it no longer (if it ever did) conforms to a field/everywhere else way of thinking. It is far too common, even now in 2014, to think and say that there’s this place called the field where aid actually happens, and then there’s everywhere else—HQ, maybe—where other things get discussed or done, but what does not happen in the field is not really aid.
It’s time to recognize that this is just plain incorrect. Make fun, if you will, of what goes on in well-lit UN conference rooms in Geneva, or at the global HQs in Washington, DC, Oxford, New York or Singapore (I certainly have and sometimes still do). But it’s important to understand that those things are not just “support” or “fundraising.” They may not be particularly Facebook- or edgy memoir-worthy, but the workshops, meetings, strategy sessions in the humanitarian capitals are every bit as much aid work as are running cholera clinics in Port-au-Prince, getting a truckload of non-food items across the Acekele border crossing, or being the accountability officer in Goma.
More specifically, to see the field as the place where aid really happens, as compared to everywhere else, is to also miss a basic reality that the decisions which truly make the most difference are not made in this alleged place called the field. Implementation and technical teams at or very near the point of delivery need to be staffed by competent practitioners, and they need to be well-led, of course. It’s important to have solid people there. But look at what gets decided where:
At the project site, or at the country office you get to decide things like the training schedule for the nurse/midwives. Or maybe you get to decide on the wording of the questions in the household survey instrument. You get to decide which trucking company to go with for next month’s shelter kit delivery. Those are all important, of course, and they must be decided well.
But in the everywhere else, you decide or participate in decisions about where the funding goes. This region gets 2/3, that region gets 1/3. You decide which countries get funding. You decide what sectors get prioritized. These places, more than those. These people, not those. Maternal Child Health, but not harm reduction. At the project site, you basically implement the decisions made by those who are elsewhere. When I was a country director (during my own years in this alleged place called the field), I tried repeatedly to articulate and implement a strategy which focused on particular sectors in particular parts of the country where I worked (Vietnam). But at the end of the day, aid industry Darwinism took over and I implemented the grants I could win—which were not necessarily in my sectors or geographic areas of preference. I might have been on the so-called front lines, but the real decisions about where and who and what had been made elsewhere.
To use another example, in the early weeks of the Haiti earthquake response, World Food Programme (WFP) provided nearly 50 metric tonnes of food for earthquake survivors. The decision to make this amount of food available was made in Rome. The decision about how the food was to be divided up was made—well—globally, via email and internet, by the heads of relief and food programming of the various INGO partners (several INGOs did the distribution for WFP). The decisions about targeting (they targeted women on behalf of households) and ration size (50 kg. bags) were made by WFP with some input from NGOs, again more or less globally.
In the end, the relief operations teams in “the field” got to decide things like how to divide the tonnage and territory among themselves, where the distribution sites would be, exactly, and to some extent their own individual modes of beneficiary registration. I was in Port-au-Prince at this time, working for one of the INGOs tasked with distributing that WFP food, and I remember that period very well as a time of crazy ‘round-the-clock work. But in the end, we were implementing decisions made by others who, in some cases were thousands of miles away.
Beyond the basic, structural realities of the aid industry, there is also a deeper, darker problem perpetuated by the field versus everywhere else thinking. Our continued fixation with the field crystalizes residual, essentially ethnocentric notions about those who need help, and about those who do the helping. No matter how much lip service and maybe even real effort we devote to valuing all things “local”, to local capacity building, or local empowerment, to trying to break down the divide(s) between expats and non-expats, we re-cement the divide between “us” and “them” every time we refer to the place where aid supposedly happens as the field.
Speaking to the empowered, globally-minded Westerners now, we might say that we want Ugandans or Indonesians or Bolivians or whomever else to be empowered owners of their own development, but every time we refer to where they are as “the field”, we underscore our perhaps unconscious views that they are undeveloped, while we are, well, developed. By continually invoking this notion of the field we reinforce the very divides we say we want to bridge; we further solidify the very inequities we insist we want to eradicate. Inevitably “the field” becomes an even more deeply entrenched separation between “us” and “them”, whether the “them” is those we claim our projects and programs help, our local colleagues with whom we like to say we’re so close, or our colleagues hunched over desks in nice offices, writing the grants which keep our salaries flowing, and the position papers which (hopefully) keep our employing agencies credible.
Yes, the field sounds exciting. The field sounds romantic. Set in UN cubicles of New York or Geneva, Emergency Sex would hardly be worth reading (although I think it’s safe to say that more or less the same shenanigans go on there, too). But set in the field, it feels like a furtive peek through the locker-room door into a world that seems both exotic and foreboding. But the romance and the exotic factor of the field are chimera. The number of places in the world where you truly cannot get good internet or a cappuccino become fewer and farther between by the day. And in this context, the field becomes a huge distraction.
I can’t say I have the answer to the question of, “if not the field, then what?” I do know that how we think and speak (or write) about aid matters. I prefer to think about what I do and how that fits into the overall picture more than the where I do it. How does what I do today fit into the grand scheme of aid somehow making it into the hands of those who need it most? How does what I do today contribute to improved efficiency and effectiveness of the machine intended to make the world better? It’s not about the where: I know people living in places which, if I was to name them, would make anyone’s list of places in “the field”, but who cannot articulate a straight line of logic between what they spend their days doing and the amount of poverty in the world becoming somehow less.
And so, if I could be indulged to deliver one bit of unsolicited advice, it would be simply this: Understand and be honest about your motivations—the “why” matters. Find your spot in the overall scheme of what needs to be done.
But stop fixating on the where. There is no field.
After the recent National Security Administration (NSA) scandal in the United States, people other than English teachers and lit majors started talking about Orwell. Sales of his classic 1984 skyrocketed.
Obama even referenced 1984‘s authoritarian Big Brother character in his defence of the program, reassuring everyone the program had not overstepped any lines, so that was a relief. (Although German Chancellor Angela Merkel might disagree with Obama on that point.)
While 1984 is certainly worth a read if you haven’t already read it, I also recommend Orwell’s first novel, Burmese Days. After reading it, it’s clear why Orwell matters to aid workers.
The novel paints a dark picture of British colonialism in 1920s Burma. John Flory is a British timber merchant who befriends Dr. Veraswami, an Indian supporter of the British Empire. The doctor needs Flory’s help, as the magistrate of their district is plotting his downfall, and Veraswami’s membership into the all-white British Club is the only thing that can save him. As Flory decides what to do, the beautiful Elizabeth Lackersteen arrives from Paris, appearing to provide Flory an escape from his solitary life and the stresses of colonial life.
As a depiction of life in imperial Burma, the novel has nothing and everything to do with aid work. You should read it, but in case you don’t, here are eight relevant lessons from the novel. (Some spoilers.)
1. Our existence is full of competing tensions.
Flory has an uncomfortable relationship with British imperialism. On the one hand, he hates it and the racist attitudes it perpetuates. On the other hand, if it comes to an end, he’s out of a job.
Similarly, a good development worker should be working themselves out of a job, so there is an uneasy tension that as life improves for poor people there won’t be (or shouldn’t be) jobs for development workers.
Additionally, there is the tension that if the standard of living where we work improved to the standard of the places we come from, we wouldn’t be able to afford the comfortable lifestyles many of us enjoy. Gone would be our easy existence of eating out and drinking cheap beers, and of being able to afford spacious apartments and maids to clean them.
(For an interesting discussion of this issue, see this article on living well while doing good.)
2. Despite their choice to live in whichever country you find yourself, there are people who despise the nationals of that country.
Orwell describes a character who hates the Burmese, describing him as “one of those Englishmen – common, unfortunately – who should never be allowed to set foot in the East.”
You will meet people who should not be in the country you live, given their prejudice against the people who live there. It will be weird. You will be tempted to point out to such people that if the nationals are so terrible, an easy way to avoid them is to leave their country.
Don’t think the aid world is immune to these attitudes. A friend living in Cambodia recounts hearing an aid worker casually comment “we all know that if we leave the (Cambodian) child here (in Cambodia) with a foster family or whatever, they either going to be trafficked, or become maids.” Um. No, we don’t.
3. Getting involved with a national can be messy…
Flory takes a Burmese mistress and learns that disentangling himself from the relationship is more difficult than he had thought. Plus after being involved with him, the other villagers view her as damaged and she cannot find a husband to support her. It’s not a great situation.
Different cultural norms and various power dynamics make cross-cultural dating difficult, particularly if “dating” as a concept doesn’t really exist in one of the cultures. I know someone whose ex-girlfriend didn’t really understand the “ex” part of that title, and so she popped up in his home country long after he’d returned home. It was awkward.
4. … but sometimes it’s one of few dating options.
After various romantic encounters, including one with a guy who leaves town rather than pay his debts, a young British woman in the novel settles for marrying someone much older than her.
Having rigorously studied the topic at WhyDev, we can confirm that you may be able to sympathize with this predicament, particularly if you’re a woman.
5. Not having people around that you can talk to is detrimental to your mental health.
As is a common experience while living in a foreign country, Flory is sometimes stifled by his loneliness and feels there is no one who truly understands him.
This, combined with the stresses of work, can be a huge problem for aid workers. Make sure you are taking care of yourself and have a support network around you.
We’ve had some bright people write their thoughts on this topic and provide some resources on self-care, if this is something you’re struggling with.
6. Feeling torn between places is painful.
When you’ve shuttled between countries or just been away from your home country a while, it will probably mess with your head and your idea of “home.”
Flory describes the loneliness of not quite knowing where home is far better than I ever could:
“It is devilish to suffer from a pain that is all but nameless. Blessed are they who are stricken only with classifiable diseases! Blessed are the poor, the sick, the crossed in love, for at least other people know what is the matter with them and will listen to their belly-achings with sympathy. But who that has not suffered it understands the pain of exile?”
This feeling will be really hard to explain to those back home, some of whom may perceive your life to be nothing more than one big exotic vacation.
7. You will probably have an uneasy relationship with missionaries.
Granted, in Burmese Days the complaint about missionaries is that once they converted the Burmese, the Burmese Christians had the nerve to believe they were as good as the British.
Hopefully this won’t be your complaint, but it’s likely that your relationship with missionaries will be complicated. (Even if you’re religious. Maybe even more if you’re religious.)
8. Your life will be challenging, but it will also be good.
Orwell describes Flory’s life as being “a good life while one was young and need not think about the future or the past.”
What was true for a twenty-something timber merchant in 1920s Burma is true ninety years later for a twenty- or thirty-something aid worker in Kenya or Ecuador or Kosovo or Cambodia.
It’s a strange and sometimes frustrating life, but it’s also a good one.
What has literature taught you about aid work? Tell us in the comments below.