Why do you work in aid & development?

Recently, two heavyweights in the aid & development online community, and respected professionals in their own right, posted reflections on why they work in the sector. This was followed by very reluctant, but wise advice from Dave Algoso (who wrote ‘Career advice (from people smarter than me’ on whydev for us). I highly recommend that you read what they have to say (the symmetry of their titles is beautiful):

Rather than write a post of my own reflection (which would be called ‘Electrify‘), I want to open this thread of introspection to you. Why do you work in aid and development? Or, if you are not yet working, why are you studying for your MA in Development Studies or similar? Why are you currently volunteering at [large or small NGO]? To quip, why dev?

We often hear from, and read, the same bloggers. But, rarely do we hear from other voices. From you. Occasionally, you make a comment, post a link on Facebook or hire an airplane to write a message of smoke in the sky.

So, read the above posts. Think about Dave Algoso’s two sub-rules about knowing yourself: 1) Know what you value; 2) Know what you are good at. And, let ourselves and others know why you do what you do. If anything, such introspective writing will help you at your next job interview.

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Brendan Rigby

Director & co-founder at WhyDev
Brendan is an education specialist with eight years of experience working as a teacher, researcher and programme officer. Most recently, he was an Education Officer with UNICEF in Tamale, Ghana. This year, Brendan is a PhD candidate at the University of Melbourne’s Graduate School of Education. He is also a communications consultant for Plan Asia and Director of Venture Support at StartSomeGood.

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What are you thinking?

7 Comments to “Why do you work in aid & development?”

  1. [...] worker, and I am grappling with how that actually feels. A lot of others have written about why we work in aid & development, or on becoming an aid worker. These are all really great discussions that stimulate important [...]

  2. @nokenwari says:

    I also want to say bravo to all other commenters. Some great points. I look forward to hearing more.

  3. @nokenwari says:

    A fascinating question and one which I often reflect upon, for myself and others (as one who recruits and prepares volunteers for overseas placements).

    I think the importance of motivations is often underestimated and unfortunately have seen numerous examples of agencies promoting engagement in ethically dubious ways. This is not to say that I am entirely convinced of claimed altruistic motivations sometimes espoused but simply that engagement strategies with the highest yield may not always be as helpful as a purely economic rationalist argument might maintain.

    Something about my upbringing (perhaps sharing with 7 siblings) made me unable to be satisfied with any injustice. I have never felt comfortable with presumptions of privilege (whether through inherited generational wealth, randomness of birth location, sex, gender, sexual preference, race, religion, disability or lack thereof, etc.). Unfortunately the premise that privilege is generally not deserved is usually only popular when speaking about Rupert Murdoch or his children or someone else more well off than the person to whom you’re speaking. Once people’s own relative privilege is challenged (including my own) the conversation suddenly becomes uncomfortable and hard to continue.

    Unlike Weh’s first response, I could probably do other jobs better – I am fascinated by science and technology and sometimes wish I had the same aptitude for development that I have for these. Perhaps strangely, I end up thinking of development in very mathematical language – whether this produces interesting observations or makes me an insufferable bore, I’m not sure.

    While guilt was certainly involved in my early education about social justice, what drives me now is logic. I cannot rationalise not working for justice. Knowing that a more just world is always possible and holding firmly to the idea that a more just world is better for everyone makes it impossible for me not to stay passionate.

    Some find the idea that a perfectly just world will never be achieved disheartening, I find the idea perpetually motivating. (There is a strange overlap with the maths of infinite (and perhaps infinitesimal) sets here and I may try to blog on it another time.) In essence each forward step already taken is one which we can look back on with pride for what was achieved and as motivation that the next forward step is possible. While the relative progress towards a perfectly just utopia might be unmeasurably small, the real story of the person who benefits from the improvement is undeniable. 7 billion may be as far from infinity as 7, but there is a massive difference.

    Nerd, much?

  4. @JeffCoolHo says:

    These posts have made me dig down to the 'selfish' reasons I've chosen to pursue aid & development. Quite honestly, I think I'd be bored otherwise. How can you find motivation when the work you do (outside of a&d) can be so pointless? I look at some of my classmates, who help people play games on Facebook. If that were me, well, I don't know how I could get up and go to work every day. If you throw the money incentive out the window (if you're fortunate enough to be able to do that), then the motivation for me is just to help people. Call it empathy, call it good intentions, whatever. But throw in interesting work, chance for adventure and learning new languages and you've got some great perks that I don't think can ever get boring.

  5. I know I did NOT get involved in development to be a penny pincher and a paper pusher, and I doubt neither did many others. My renewed calling is to revive and support the magnification of empathy within development. It strikes me how much this is being lost in the over-technicalization of this work to improve real people's lives. However, the foreign aid system is made up of well-intentioned people who want to change the world! Therefore, I think we who make up the system must further develop our compassion skills, e.g. "soft skills," to find and nurture alternatives to "business as usual" that will raise the level of human dignity and put resources behind local means of overcoming obstacles. There are some good orgs and some good projects, but we know there are many more organizations still battling a modernist viewpoints and serious racism within the system. My deep, deep feeling is that development work should not be so abstract – it's ultimately about connecting with and listening to people for goodness sake! No more "experts" from the outside or heavy accountability systems that demotivate everyone – it's time for those days to be over and so that's what I want my piece of it to be devoted to. And in moments, it dwarfs me. But this is my work–my faith and I have no choice but forward.

  6. I have chosen to work in aid and development as I believe I have been fortunate to live in a good society and receive a good education, whereas many in the world haven't been so lucky, and so I would like to use my knowledge to try to build other people's opportunites. We are only given one life and I want to use mine to try to make a positive contribution to the world – rather than possibly going the other way or at least being ignorant to the world around us. After extensive international travel, it is very hard to return to home and turn a blind eye to what I have seen. I am very passionate about development issues and I think that if you are passionate about something than you will do the best you can. If I have been lucky to get an education, unlike many, and a good one at that, then I want to commit to giving others the same opportunities that i have been lucky to receive.

    But hey, I'm only just starting out and feel like a little fish in a massive ocean of the world of aid and development and am still struggling to figure out what precise road I will take in the field, however all i know is that there is nothing else I would rather do than work in development.

  7. Stuart says:

    This should be interesting. (Inspired by Tales from the Hood).

    I believe. Contributing positively to society is better than standing still. If that positive contribution can be channelled effectively, efficiently, collaboratively, appropriately and comprehensively (7 billion comprehensive?) we'll be sorted. Seeing a spark in the most disengaged youth, even for a split second, continues to fuel my optimism.

    I enjoy what I do. I get to engage with hundreds of children and youth, facilitating coaching sessions and talking about football (I won't belittle you by writing soccer in brackets). They love football. I love football. Today I spoke extensively with a 14 year old who was in a 'Refugee Transition Program'. We mainly talked about the colour of Real Madrid's new third choice strip. In this little niche, I think I do OK. I'm not going to contribute massively by discovering vaccinations, debating climate change or fixing political corruption in Guatemala. Other people love all that and contribute in their own way.

  8. @wmyeoh says:

    Thanks for opening up discussion on this topic Brendan. I'll kick off with my own perspective. I work in development simply because, for me, it's the only thing I know makes sense. It's also pretty much the only thing that I know that I'm reasonably good at.

    Having been fortunate enough to travel to quite a few countries around the world, where people are doing it a lot tougher than most of the people in my own life back home, I started to become more aware of what was going on around me. Seeing these things and then ignoring them would seem somewhat dishonest, particularly knowing that I had the capacity to help.

    I guess I'm not saying that everyone has to take this approach, we can't all give up our day jobs to help people in need. However, once knowing that it's what I wanted to do, it was the best of the available options. I could never do a Bill Gates and make packets of money only to then do a huge amount of great work with it, because business-smart isn't something that comes naturally. As Dave Algoso said, know what you're good at, and stick with it.