Tag Archives: Aid workers


Results for the Top 5 Aid Worker Tunes are in. You won’t believe what they are!

The results are in! 475 votes were cast, despite no incentive being offered and a lack of Ryan Seacrest. What follows is an annotated bibliography of the Top 5 Aid Worker Tunes, starting with #5.

#5  Chop My Money (P-Square)

No surprises this dance floor classic made the Top 5, particularly for those aid workers who have been on assignment in West Africa. Nigerian twin brothers, Peter and Paul Okoye, signed a record deal with Akon’s Konvict Muzik record label in 2011, and Akon himself features on this track. Amassing over 21 million views on YouTube, “chop my money” essentially means “spend my money,” which the Brothers P proclaim again and again that they don’t care. I’m not sure on the origins, but “chopmoney” in Ghana at least refers to money usually given by a husband to his wife for food.

#4  99 Problems (Jay Z)

Like Katy Perry, a dark horse where this list is concerned. Personally, I’m very happy to see it made the Top 5. It is another problem less that Jay Z has to worry about. “If you having list problems I feel bad for you soon. I got 99 problems but WhyDev ain’t one.” Produced by legend Rick Rubin, the title and chorus actually come from an early version by Law & Order’s Ice-T. According to Jay-Z, he is referring to a police dog, and not to a woman.

#3  Circle of Life (The Lion King)

Further embedding stereotypes of the African continent and providing parody material for years to come, “Circle of Life” is a classic late night, drunken aid worker house party anthem. Usually played around midnight or soon after, the song unites the inebriated in a joyous celebration of childhood, white man’s burden and arms raised to the sky. (Do you realise The Lion King  is 20 years old? There are students studying development as undergraduates right now, who did not grow up with the film and its glorious soundtrack).

#2  Imagine (John Lennon)

Imagine if this song didn’t make it into the Top 5? Not so much a party anthem, but rather a war cry for peace, unity and the dissolution of government, religion and statehood, “Imagine” is an aid worker’s wet dream. Lennon stated that the song is “virtually a Communist Manifesto even though I am not particularly a Communist and I do not belong to any movement.” It’s also in Rolling Stone’s top 5 of the greatest 500 songs of all time.

#1  Africa (Toto)

The odds of “Africa” coming in at #1 were about 2 to 1. Although the YouTube video has fewer views than “Chop My Money,” this is the anthem of ex-pat aid workers all around the world. The rest of the world was introduced to it by the animated series Family Guy, in which a flashback shows Peter’s neighbour Joe (cop, eventually wheelchair-bound) meeting his wife Bonnie for the first time. In a strip club. To the music of Toto. As she gives him a lap dance.  The actual music video is far stranger. It features a library, a globe and a spear. Oh, and there is a book he takes from the shelf entitled “Africa.” However, the real kicker is the idea behind the song, which is aptly explained by the drummer, Jeff Porcaro: “… a white boy is trying to write a song on Africa, but since he’s never been there, he can only tell what he’s seen on TV or remembers in the past.” Lead singer, David Paich continues and tell us what we all knew deep down:

“At the beginning of the ’80s, I watched a late night documentary on TV about all the terrible death and suffering of the people in Africa. It both moved and appalled me, and the pictures just wouldn’t leave my head. I tried to imagine how I’d feel about if I was there and what I’d do.”

In addition, I’ve chosen one song from the list of “Other” songs nominated by voters for the inaugural Kenny Loggins Honourable Mention WhyDev Award for Merit. It of course goes to “Danger Zone,” by the award’s namesake. Thanks to the music video and its counterpart Top Gun, Navy recruitment spiked in 1986 when the film was released. Somehow I don’t think Brad Pitt’s World War Z  had the same effect for NGOs and the UN.

The rest of the nominations:

Give a Little Bit (Goo Goo Dolls)
Emma (Emmanual Jal)
Once in a Lifetime (Talking Heads)
Inner Ninja (Classified)
Moonshine (Bruno Mars)
Redemption Song (Bob Marly)
Living Darfur (Mattafix)
Roar (Katy Perry)
Danger Zone (Kenny Loggins)
Disparate Youth (Santigold)
Fix You (Coldplay)
Sleep Now in the Fire (Rage Against the Machine)
Leaving on a Jet Plane (John Denver)
Roam (B52s)
Wavin’ Flag (K’naan feat. David Bisbal)
Taking Care of Business (BTO)
My Heart Will Go On (Celine Deon)
Hall of Fame (The Script)
We Found Love (Rihanna)
Like a Rolling Stone (Bob Dylan)
Leaders of the Free World (Elbow)
I Wanna Dance with Somebody (Whitney Houston)
If I Was President (Wyclef Jean)
On the Floor (Jennifer Lopez)
Last Night on Earth (U2)
Wonderwall (Oasis)


Will the real humanitarians please stand up?

May I have your attention please?

155. The number of aid workers killed in 2013.

134. The number of aid workers kidnapped in 2013.

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.

Xi Jinping, General Secretary of the Communist Party of China
Xi Jinping, General Secretary of the Communist Party of China

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 Dictionary describes 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.

Thank you to Weh Yeoh, Linda Raftree and Jennifer Lentfer for their recommendations.


Are aid workers more ‘maladjusted’ than others?

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.


Perceptions and realities of the aid industry: A view from inside

The post was first published here.

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* leave the aid sector
(Responses to why *others* are likely to leave the aid sector).


responses to why *you* 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.

Angelina Jolie saving lives in Beyond Borders

The myth of “the field”

Last July, Alison Rabe argued that aid workers belong in the field. J. responds by saying the field doesn’t exist. 

A few months ago I wrote a little rant about “the field.” Continuing that train of thought, now…

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.

Angelina Jolie saving lives in Beyond Borders
Angelina Jolie saving lives in Beyond Borders

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.

christmas gift

44 gifts no aid worker wants to receive this holiday season

It’s tough finding the perfect gift for the aid worker on your list. They tend to eschew possessions, and it can be difficult even pinning down their location to give them said gift. While we at WhyDev can confidently say that we have no idea what you should get your aid worker friend, lover, partner, colleague, or sparring partner,  here are some things we are confident they will not want.

1. Dambisa Moyo’s Dead Aid

2. Lonely Planet’s West Africa guide book

3. Fair trade chocolate

4. A goat from Oxfam

5. A pair of TOMS shoes

6. The opportunity to volunteer at this place, where tourists are welcome:

2013-11-17 10.55.43

7. Dancing with Jesus. Yes, it’s a thing

8. Jasmine pants

9. The “Biological Clock” talk from mum and aunties

10. The Impossible on Blu-Ray starring Ewan McGregor

11. Actually, any form of gift. Prefer an unconditional cash transfer

11a. Cash transfer must be by direct deposit only – do not try to mail us a cheque

12. A ticket to see a TEDx event

13. A blind date set up for New Year’s Eve

14. Any items from these ‘Naughty’ retailers naughty-nice-web-version_1d-3

15. Beyonce’s “Single Ladies” on iTunes. It’s not empowering!

16. A Hallmark card with a quote from Nelson Mandela

17. An invitation to a wedding

18. An invitation to a baby shower

19. Gift vouchers. There is no Wal-Mart in Juba!

20. This alarm clock


21. One Direction’s latest album (I think we just paid all aid workers a blanket compliment there)

22. Men are from Mars, Women are from Venus

23. Sympathy

24. Tony Robbins career advice books

25. A subscription to this magazine: charlotte magazine's home and garden spring & summer 2010

26. Anything that has ever had anything to do with Bono

27. Fishing vests. Because they have so many pockets and look aid worker-y?

28. A subscription to a Murdoch media newspaper of your choice

29. Toto’s “Africa” single

30. Self-help CDs

31. Tips for their investment portfolios, which don’t exist

32. Socks

33. Questions about if they’ll be home for the holidays next year

34. free_the_children_2012_kony_baseball_jersey

35. A week’s holiday package at this fake (yet luxurious!) slum in South Africa

36. Anything weighing over a kilo, as they won’t want to pack it when they move in six months

37. Laxatives. Trust us, they don’t need them

38. Anything from H&M

39. Inappropriate travel luggage which is supposed to be easy to spot on the luggage carousel



40. Miley Cyrus’ Wrecking Ball LP for anyone working within gender

41. Assurances that the NGO will be able to find the money to turn that volunteer position into a paid one in just another two months, they promise….

42. A loyalty card for Walmart, Tescos, or Woolworths (depending on where home is for you)

43. A donation to Madonna’s Malawian NGO

44. This book. Actually, hang on, that could be useful. Does Borders stock it?


Happy holidays from the WhyDev Team, and here is hoping your 2014 will be entirely free of TOMS shoes and fishing vests!

Burmese Days

8 reasons Orwell matters to aid workers

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.

Burmese DaysThe 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.

Screen Shot 2013-11-10 at 1.47.25 PM
Working in aid may leave you feeling like Jane Austen’s character Charlotte Lucas, from “Pride and Prejudice.”

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.


Telling the difference between a bad day, a run of bad days, and burnout

How do I tell the difference between a bad day, a run of bad days, and burnout? 

And what can I do about if it’s the latter?

This week and next, WhyDev’s blog posts are focussing on self-care. You can read the previous post by Marianne on finding the sweet spot for self-care, and another post by Narayani Berkowitz on when she realised self-care was vital for her as an aid worker. 

For more on self-care, join WhyDev and Marianne for a Twitter chat on self-care on October 15 at 9 pm EDT/October 16 at 12:00 pm AEDT. Follow the hashtag #WhySelfCare. 

When I was working in Afghanistan, I woke up one day and realized that I had lost the motivation to go for a run, do a yoga practice, eat a healthy meal, or even – most shocking of all – go to work.

Somehow I hadn’t noticed my descent into a grey fog of fatigue and despair while it was happening. I had noticed some of the signs, but I hadn’t been paying attention to what they added up to.

One sleepless night here and there is to be expected, when you spend your day interviewing people who are reporting their experiences of rape, torture or violent bereavement, right?

Some days feel like this.

One day of lethargy, or frustration, or even apathetic despair, is normal when your daily work resembles Sisyphus’s daily roll-a-rock-up-a-mountain effort, right?

So how can we tell when the occasional moment of fatigue, despondency or frustration has begun to transform itself into the larger pattern of what could be called burnout, or depression, or simply overwhelm and despair?

For me, this required first getting to know myself well enough to register what was ‘healthy’ for me. Next, I needed to become sufficently self-aware to notice when my behaviour, choices and daily or weekly patterns began to deviate from that healthy baseline on a regular basis.

Get to know your own healthy baseline

‘Normal’ for me might involve getting at least eight hours sleep, eating mostly fresh vegetables, doing an hour of exercise every day, doing at least 20 minutes of meditation, catching up with friends a few times a week, having a glass of wine most nights and spending at least three nights a week at home with a book – recharging.

For someone else – equally healthy and balanced – a ‘normal’ baseline might involve getting six hours sleep most nights, doing 30 minutes of gentle exercise three times a week, praying every morning, eating meat regularly and meeting up with friends most nights.

What matters is not that we all confirm to one idea of what ‘healthy’ looks like, but that we each know what healthy looks and feels like for us.

This can be as simple as getting yourself a notebook (I call mine ‘The Book of Me’ and it’s my real self-care bible) and keeping a note of some simple measures of what life looks like for you when you are feeling balanced and healthy. For example:

  • how many hours of sleep do I generally get?
  • how often do I eat, and what kinds of food do I choose to eat?
  • how much water do I drink?
  • how much alcohol do I regularly drink?
  • what kinds of exercise do I do, and how often?
  • how often do I choose to spend time with others?
  • how much time do I enjoy spending alone?
  • what sorts of things do I do purely for pleasure, how often do I do them?
  • how often do I communicate and/or connect with my family and friends?
  • if I have a spiritual practice (like prayer), how often do I pray?
  • how often do I laugh?
  • how often do I cry?
  • how often do I lose my temper?

If you are already feeling off-balance, it might help to remember a time when you were feeling healthy and make a note of what your usual habits were at that time. If this approach is very new, you might like to keep track of these measures over a period of time to see if they remain reasonably consistent, and to get a good idea of your own ‘healthy baseline’.

Track changes in your mood, habits and patterns

Once you have a good idea of what your healthy baseline looks like, you’ll have a better chance of noticing when things start to stray significantly.

In my case the big changes were:

  • I stopped sleeping. Over the course of several weeks I found I was regularly getting 3-4 hours of sleep rather than my usual eight.
  • I stopped exercising.
  • I started drinking more, more often.
  • I stopped cooking meals, and survived on snack food.
  • I stopped trying to explain how I felt, or what I was experiencing, to friends and family back in New Zealand – because they could never understand; and
  • I lost my motivation at work – and found it hard to concentrate on even the simplest daily tasks.

One of these changes might not have been cause for serious concern, but if I had been tracking them as they started to add up – and to be sustained over time – I might have noticed my downward spiral in time to get the support, and make the positive changes, I needed.

Call a friend

Sometimes it can be very hard to see changes in ourselves, especially if we are already beginning to experience the effects of chronic stress or trauma. Which is why it can be very useful to have someone on hand who you know and trust enough to tell you when you are deviating significantly from your healthy norms.

This is much more likely to work if:

  • You’ve had a conversation about what your respective healthy baseline looks like – so that you know you are being witnessed on your own terms, rather than on the basis of someone else’s ‘normal’; and
  • You’ve both agreed in advance that you have permission to tell each other if you notice a pattern of changes that deviate from your ‘heatlhy’ baseline.

What can I do when I notice a worrying trend?

It’s one thing to notice that my ‘well-being’ indicators are trending downwards, but it’s something else to know what to do when that happens. So here are some of the most, and least, useful things I did when I realized I was not doing well.

Not so useful strategies

My first instinct was to ignore the signs: ‘Head down, tail up Marianne’, I thought, ‘just keep working and hope things get better.’ That didn’t work.

Once I couldn’t ignore the situation any longer, my second instinct was to beat myself up about it: ‘What’s wrong with you Marianne? You have nothing to complain about. Everyone else is coping, why can’t you?’ That didn’t work either.

My third, not very useful, impulse was to ask for help from the wrong places, and in unhelpful way. I turned to a friend who, had I been paying attention I would have seen, wasn’t doing so well himself.

Useful strategies

The first useful thing I did was accept that I was struggling, and the next – and maybe most important – thing I did was start being a bit kinder to myself.

Accepting that it was okay for me to be struggling under the circumstances, and finding a way to meet myself with compassion even in my messy state, opened the door to every other useful thing I did for myself, which included:

  • Seeking help from a professional. When the staff counselor in Kabul said, ‘Honestly, I’d be surprised if anyone who had been through what you’ve been through wasn’t struggling’, I felt reassured by her expertise in a way no one else could have reassured me in that moment.
  • Letting some trusted friends (who were feeling at least reasonably stable themselves) know that I was struggling and asking for their support.
  • Taking a break – I took my scheduled R&R break and went on a retreat in Thailand, instead of rushing to visit family or postponing my break to get more work done.
  • Adding some core practices for emotional and physical resilience into my daily routine. For me, they were meditation and yoga.

Look after yourself (and each other) out there

The biggest lesson I learned from my experience of personal burnout in Afghanistan was this: only I really know how I’m doing, so it’s important that I know what healthy looks and feels like to me and I know what to do when the signs start pointing in the wrong direction. A trusted friend, however, can be a really useful support both in telling the difference between a bad week and a more serious situation and in getting the help we need to return to full health.


Travel is not education

Recently, I came across the following quote on a personal blog:

“Don’t tell me how educated you are, tell me how much you have travelled.”

The quote was unattributed on this blog, but Google attributes it to the Prophet Muhammad. Google also indicates that it appears on many lists and blogs with titles like “25 Inspiring Travel Quotes,” “Top 50 Inspirational Travel Quotes,” “Travel And Open Your Mind,” and “The 80 Greatest Travel Quotes of All Time.”

As much as it pains me to argue against words offering so much inspiration to so many, reading them made me roll my eyes so hard I think I popped a few blood vessels.

Though it is patent nonsense, I understand why the sentiment exists.

We’ve all felt that way, haven’t we? Particularly for those of us who have not only traveled, but who have also lived and worked overseas. Amongst aid workers, it can be a source of pride to boast about the countries we’ve been to or worked in, and how “rough” they were.

Our experiences in these countries shape us, change us, and teach us things we would never have learned at home. They help us understand the gap that often exists between theory and practice, as well as the complexity of issues and places for which we were fed simple narratives. Traveling and living elsewhere also helps us understand ourselves and our home countries better.

And that is nice for us. But our appreciation for these lessons sometimes leads to a smug worldliness that views those who don’t travel as lesser beings. (Even worse are those who not only stay in their country, but also stay in their hometowns, and incredibly seem to enjoy themselves there.)

This attitude is not only arrogant but also misguided.

Here’s why travel does not equal education: it is not necessarily an antidote for ignorance and it is no replacement for curiosity.

One of my family members doesn’t like to travel, and has never been to Portugal, yet knows more about their harm reduction approach to drugs than I do. Does my firsthand knowledge of Lisbon’s bars trump his knowledge of Portuguese public policy?

I’ve met people who have lived on multiple continents that scoff at the idea they would know anything as obscure as the heads of state of any African countries (it is good to suss these people out to avoid having them on your team at a trivia night). I’ve also met Cambodians who haven’t left southeast Asia, yet know about the French nuclear power industry, and the Canadian banking system’s resilience during the 2008 recession.

Which leads to another reason that conflating travel and education is really stupid – the ability to travel is largely dependent on your wealth and your nationality.

As a Canadian, I get really irritated when countries require me to have a visa to visit. It is just such a drag to have to get the passport photo, go to an embassy, and fill out the paperwork, you know? The worst.

I stopped complaining about that when I fully comprehended that for many, their nationality means they can’t just pay the visa processing fee and go. It means that they can’t go at all.

For a Cambodian to visit the United States, they require a host in the US, a ton of money in their bank account, proof of their English proficiency, and they are also screened via an interview process.

For a Canadian to visit the United States (or Europe or Morocco or Malaysia or, or, or…), they have to show up at the border with a passport.

So if we’re valuing travel above education, we’re valuing a very Western experience that is unavailable to many. We’re also undervaluing our own formal education, something I’ve come to appreciate more and more as I live in a country where the public education system is terrible.

Let me be clear: I like traveling. I’ve spent considerable time and money on travel because I think it is enriching and worthwhile. Given the often negative aspects of voluntourism, I often wish people would just visit the countries they’re interested in, and go see the Taj Mahal without bothering to build the school or visit the Amazon without running the day camps for kids.

But I’m not deluded enough to think that travel replaces education.

Robert Delong is right: sometimes we think travel and being somewhere different are progress. Or even education.

But it’s just movement.


52 things you will never hear an aid worker say

By Laurie Phillips, Brendan Rigby, Allison Smith, and Weh Yeoh

Over a year ago, we gave you 52 reasons to date an aid worker. It remains one of our most popular posts, and maybe it convinced you that an aid worker would make a great romantic partner. If so, you should know right now that there are some things you will never hear from their lips.

      1. “It was great to get such a stable, fulfilling job with full benefits right after finishing my degree.”
      2. “Angelina Jolie needs more credit for her role in raising awareness of international adoptions.”
      3. “The project I’m working on is going really smoothly. I think it will be finished ahead of schedule.”
      4. “I don’t think taking up a missionary position is a bad idea at all.”
      5. “Africa is a country.”
      6. “Volunteering in orphanages is a good way to gain field experience.”
      7. “We should not be sending aid to ‘bongo bongo land’.”
      8. “Nick Kristof’s skills are wasted as a reporter.”
      9. “No, my parents fully support my career decisions.”
      10. “I always donate to charity.Jolie
      11. “Leave Bono alone!”
      12. “I’m a virgin.”
      13. “KONY 2012 was a revolution that will define our generation.”
      14. “I don’t mind Nescafe.”
      15. “I’m here to make a difference.”
      16. “I am very strict with myself in taking doxycycline everyday.”
      17. “I just can’t believe how many single, attractive men work in aid.”
      18. “Economic growth is the only way to lift people out of poverty!”
      19. “We need more music concerts to raise more awareness!”
      20. “I have never sung Toto’s Africa out loud while dancing in the rain.”sattractive
      21. “Toto’s Africa really captures the primordial, tribal soul of Africa and its people.”
      22. “Inter-agency working groups is where we get work done!”
      23. “I’ve never read Emergency Sex. What is it about?”
      24. “The report was very well-written, in clear and plain language.”
      25. “We just have so many funding options that I don’t know where to start!”
      26. “You know what? You are so spot on. I do just find my job rewarding.”
      27. “I probably wouldn’t be much better off I had studied neurosurgery like my brother.”
      28. “I’m looking to buy an investment property.”
      29. “Our organisation gave us all iPhones last year so we are forced to use them.”
      30. “The air-conditioning in our field office is simply delightful.”airplane
      31. “I’m a Republican.”
      32. “I quite enjoy the challenges of long distance relationships when I’m on the road.”
      33. “You know – you’re right. As a stockbroker, you do help to heal the world too, in your own way.”
      34. “If you haven’t read Dambisa Moyo, you haven’t fully discovered the comprehensive compendium on why aid isn’t working.”
      35. “I’m more than happy that we underspent our grant money and will gratefully return it to the donors.”
      36. “I’d be happy to volunteer to man the stall for our NGO this weekend. I didn’t have any other plans.”
      37. “I think our director just puts too much money into professional development.”
      38. “I’m just happy for my ex-colleague who switched across from our small NGO to work with that well-funded government aid agency. Good for her.”
      39. “Sometimes I think the Washington Consensus was too quickly dismissed.”
      40. “Everything I was told about this country before I moved here was incredibly accurate.”
      41. “I’ve definitely cut back on drinking since I started working in development.”horsedrunk
      42. “We don’t have enough interns!”
      43. “No, no karaoke for me.”
      44. “Voluntourism really is the key to sustainable development!”
      45. “I think I will refuse to accept a per diem for this field trip.”
      46. “Let’s get a consultant in to sort out this mess we have created.”
      47. “Just for a change, why don’t we try open plan offices this year?”
      48. “The accuracy with which our comms team has captured the work we really do is simply amazing.”
      49. “Overheads are important, guys. We just need to keep them down, okay?”
      50. “We have a paid Skype account at our office.”
      51. “The inter-agency cooperation in Haiti is a world class model of how collaborative development should work.”
      52. “I’ve never had a crush on any of the WhyDev team members.”

Anything else you’re sure an aid worker would never say? Let us know in the comments.