Aid Worker Voices

Responding to Terrain

Responding to Terrain

Along with (as of this writing) 2,623 others, I have signed the “United Nations, International Organisations, World Governments – Protect Aid Workers Now!” petition.  In response to the events at Terrain in South Sudan, the aid community came together in many virtual fora, perhaps most dramatically so in the Facebook group “Fifty Shades of Aid.”   One outcome of those responses is the petition.

The discussions in that group continues to be a rich mixture of passion, compassion, insight and measured analysis of not just the events near Juba but others like it all over the humanitarian space.

If you have not done so, sign the petition.  Now.

In the preface to Aid Worker Voices I offer the thought that, collectively, aid workers are the conscience of our growing global consciousness.  That this segment of humanity needs to be heard from and listened to is indeed the premise of my book.  Most immediately, though, the issue is the protection of the humanitarian space.

A couple years ago I wrote the short piece below, sadly more relevant now.  It is pointed at a mainstream American audience, so take that into account as you read.  Share with me if you have any thoughts or feedback.

Supporting those on the front lines of support
By Tom Arcaro –

Spin the globe in the last decade and disasters pop up like so many ugly weeds:  the tsunami in Sri Lanka, the earthquake in Haiti, the famine in the Horn of Africa. Now we are faced with a massive humanitarian crisis in Syria where multitudes of children and innocents -“collateral damage” in a civil war – seek refuge in makeshift camps.
All of these events evoked strong emotion and then an outpouring of financial support. Americans, compelled by a basic sense of common humanity, give a great deal to organizations that care for victims of humanitarian crises. Indeed, various estimates put the dollar figure given by Americans at more than $300 billion per year.
Humanitarian aid workers use our donations to provide frontline care to millions of our world’s most desperate populations and, critically, connect those of us who donate money to those who are suffering in the countless ragged encampments on the borders of disaster zones. Their job is as risky as it is critical.
Estimates are that last year alone, 272 aid workers were victims of violence, including 91 kidnappings, 115 injuries and 66 deaths. These numbers from the Humanitarian Outcomes international consulting group do not include the additional psychological trauma that can lead to depression, anxiety, post traumatic stress syndrome, and, yes, even suicide.
Aid workers put themselves in harm’s way every day – look no further than the seven people from the Red Cross/Red Crescent just kidnapped in Syria – and for that, for being our point of contact and the human expression of our financial and material donations, we owe them our thanks.
Here’s how we should show our respect for the job they do in our name:  
First, we must begin by seeking to understand more deeply the complexities of these humanitarian crises. We need to have an insatiable desire to know the world around us, far outside of our comfort zone of the United States. Spend 15 minutes each day reading international news, and be sure to check out foreign news sources. I recommend the BBC or Al-Jazeera, both of which give perspectives you won’t find in the American press.
Second, we need to understand that some giving can be toxic, especially if it is done paternalistically, in a way that is culturally inappropriate, or inefficiently. We must vet on a regular basis any aid organization to which we donate. Some organizations are not much more than well-run scams, doing little to actually make a positive impact as they promise. We should give, but ever mindfully.
Third, by understanding more deeply, we can avoid giving inappropriate or unnecessary material items known in the humanitarian aid world as “stuff we don’t need.” Examples are many and can be found when looking at the history of the response to the earthquake in Haiti where crates of expired medicines sat on the tarmac of the airport for weeks.
Finally, and most importantly, we can support aid workers – and thus help them better serve those caught in the humanitarian crisis – by not remaining neutral in the face of extremism.
The international medical organization Doctors Without Borders, also known by its French acronym MSF, withdrew this summer from Somalia when it concluded that its workers could no longer be assured of safety. Unfortunately, the new normal in the humanitarian aid world is that in some locations local political factions or religious fundamentalist groups can basically abuse aid resources for political purposes, manipulate humanitarian space, and even directly target aid workers in violent attacks, more or less with total impunity.
This threat to the sanctity of humanitarian space is made possible by the inaction of those who consider themselves moderates, both here and abroad.
We must be more aggressive in our challenge to extremists – both political and religious – and show an aggressive intolerance toward, well, intolerance.
Our points of contact, the humanitarian aid workers now on the ground in hot spots around the globe, need all of us to be more mindful in our giving, our knowing and our responsibility to help regain the sanctity of the humanitarian space.

Tom Arcaro

Tom Arcaro

Tom Arcaro is a professor of sociology and director of Project Pericles at Elon University. He founded the Periclean Scholars program in 2003 and has been working on and studying about development issues for nearly two decades.

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Cover for Aid Worker Voices

Cover for Aid Worker Voices

And here’s a version of the the cover, still a work in progress.  Cover photograph by J.

Screenshot 2016-08-18 10.30.28

Tom Arcaro

Tom Arcaro

Tom Arcaro is a professor of sociology and director of Project Pericles at Elon University. He founded the Periclean Scholars program in 2003 and has been working on and studying about development issues for nearly two decades.

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Advice from Becca: you do you

uduYou do you
Our survey respondents were overwhelmingly female -71%- and they had a lot to say on all topics.  Below Becca, a 36 year old expat aid worker, currently living in the US but -no new story here- a frequent traveler to Southeast Asia and west Africa.  Her career story reflects many themes that appeared in our data:

  • She entered the sector very early post-university, not quite knowing what was ahead.
  • Though she has seen some of the worst conditions -think Ebola response in Guinea- she maintains a deep commitment to what she does.
  • Her deployment record is lengthy, varied, and seemingly never-ending.
  • She is challenged by the countless times non-sector people have questioned her job, motives, life choices and even the meaning of her life’s work.

Before we get to her thoughts, a personal aside.  I too have trouble with communicating what I do and why I do it up to and including putting together this book.  When I have nothing to gain -in terms of extrinsic rewards- why devote so much time and effort?  How will this help to pay the bills? The push back is sometimes subtle, but it is there, making the time when I can burrow down into this work all the more valuable to me.

But, now on to Becca.  Below she shares her story as it relates to personal relationships, both current and prospective.  A single, post-30 year old woman, she is embroiled in an internal clash between her moral, humanistic calling to be of service to others and her very human urge to engage in long-term mate bonding.  We know from research on the topic of happiness that both making meaningful impact upon our world and close family relationships are essential factors.  Her dilemma is that, though she has good relations with her family or orientation she lacks even the beginning of a family of procreation.

What’s a girl to do?  Here’s Becca’s thoughts:


Becca, aid worker
“Are you married?”  “Do you have kids?”  “Are you in a relationship?” “Have you met anyone?”

These questions can bring any woman over a certain age to their knees, but when you’re an aid worker, they often lead to additional questions and comments which can be downright debilitating.

becca belle

Becca’s pooch, Belle.

“Well, would you like to be married?” “How do you expect to meet someone if you’re always traveling?” “You work such long hours; it must be difficult to meet someone.” “Honey – I really want a grandchild – don’t you think it’s time to settle down?”

And with every “no”, the final comment is usually something along the lines of “Well, at least you get to travel such exotic locations – I’d give anything to see what you’ve seen”.  The grass-is-always-greener syndrome.

If “Aid Workers Anonymous” was a thing, I’d start each meeting with – “Hi, my name is Becca, and I’m 36 years old, female, unmarried, and don’t have children”, in an effort to address the elephant in the room straightaway and not give others the chance to ask the dreaded litany of questions.

Because in the United States, a woman over thirty that is career-oriented, unmarried, and without kids is almost sacrilegious.  Our media touts stories either applauding or lamenting the ability for women to “have it all” … but what does that mean when you’re an aid worker?  Does having it all have to include kids and a husband and the white picket fence and a dog named Spud and giving up the international travel and life experiences you’re having in the field?

Of course not – in fact, that stereotype doesn’t have to exist for women in any profession, though – as I’m starting to sound like I’m standing on a soapbox – I’ll stick with what I know and describe my experience as an aid worker and how it’s impacted my relationships – past, present, and future goals.

I literally fell into the aid worker role.  I’d been working in Charleston, South Carolina for a year, hating my job working in the very upper-crust, blue-blood preservation world (turns out I’m neither upper-crust nor blue-blood), and responded to an advertisement to get back into the project management world through an organization largely funded by the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID).  I stopped in Chapel Hill, NC for the interview on my way home for Thanksgiving, was awarded the job on the spot, and the rest is history.

Guinea_flying into

Flying into Guinea

That was more than 10 years ago, and I’ve had a million opportunities since then.  I’ve traveled extensively throughout sub-Saharan Africa supporting a malaria prevention program; I lived in Hanoi, Vietnam for 14 months supporting an HIV prevention program focusing on key at-risk populations (men who have sex with men, drug users, and sex workers; as my mentor would say – “sex and drugs and rock ‘n roll”); I’ve been to Bangkok and Jakarta more times than I can count; and was lucky enough to spend a full month touring the Caribbean on an HIV/Human Resources for Health (HRH) project.  I’m currently based in Wilmington, North Carolina, am managing 2 staff, four international projects (2 each in Guinea and Thailand), and am pretty content in my job.  Every day isn’t rainbows and unicorns and the travel can be wearing, BUT … overall, I’m content.

While my career is in a pretty good place, I’d say my relationship life is … meh.  I have great friends and a supportive family, but … I’m the only one in my group of friends that is unmarried and without kids.  I’m currently single (and ready to mingle, fellas!), but tend to work a godawful number of hours in a week, travel frequently, and spend any free time I carve out sleeping, or binge watching Netflix, or traveling domestically to see friends and family, or hanging out with my dog.  I’ve recently realized that I live for my job, as opposed to the other – “normal” – way around.

Most of the time, I’m perfectly content – I recently bought a house, have some disposable income to play with, and get to travel the world.  But sometimes – like during a recent anniversary party celebrating two of the best friends a girl could ask for; or after spending 3 weeks with best friends made in Hanoi and my godson – it gets a bit lonely.  And then I look at my life and think – “Shit.  I’m 36 years old.  Yes, I get to travel the world, and yes, I love what I do, but … is this all there is?”

Going into the field is always a treat as a single woman as well.  I find that, globally, folks have NO PROBLEM asking how old you are, if you’re married, if you’d like to be married, if you have kids, if you’d like to have kids, and commenting generally on anything from your hair color to your weight to your clothes in relation to why you’re single and don’t yet have kids.

Translation – people can (unknowingly) be rude.  And those rude comments can be hell.

I didn’t make a conscious choice to “give up” one dream (the husband, babies, white picket fence, and all that) when I became an aid worker.  I also FIRMLY believe that that the two don’t have to be mutually exclusive … you can ABSOLUTELY be an aid worker, follow your dream, travel the world, and still have a family.

I do think that the United States is a bit harsher in terms of timelines and reminders of a woman’s biological clock.  I never felt old or any pressure to procreate when I was living in Hanoi … women around me – single AND married – were in their 40’s and just either having or adopting their first child.  My best friend from Hanoi used to constantly tell me, “Becca, you’re 34 years old … why in the world do you think it’s over for you” when I would lament the fact that I wanted a husband and wanted kids (I can get a bit whiny, truth be told).

But on the flip side of that, it felt like my family and friends who thought my Hanoi stint was just a blip … “surely, she’ll return to the real world and settle down and start that family she’s always talking about”.

Coming home from Hanoi was eye opening, and not just related to the husband/baby pressure … I’d been away 14 months and my entire world had changed.  I’d experienced and seen things that my family and friends never would.  I’d been put through the ringer by my company and the donor, and lived to tell the tale.  I made friendships that I was convinced (and have been proven right) would become some of the most important in my world.

But I was expected to fit right back into the “Becca” mold I’d previously inhabited.  I should forget about Hanoi, go right back to work, and FIND A HUSBAND SO I CAN FINALLY HAVE THE BABIES I’VE ALWAYS WANTED.

Oof – just thinking back to that time is exhausting.

Sitting here writing this, I’ve just come off of a 2-month period where I’ve been to Guinea for 2 weeks, Bangkok for 3, and spent 2 weeks with friends that traveled from the UK for their first-ever visit to America.  I’ve put a moratorium on work travel for the foreseeable future, and think it’s time to start focusing on me and meeting those relationship goals I do have … I would like to meet someone, and I would like to have children one day … and half the battle of even TRYING to meet someone is having the time to do so – to go on dates and decide if you’re a match.  When you’re traveling all the time, it’s really hard to make that a priority.  So I’ve drawn a line in the sand with my job, and am ready to turn the focus back to me.

Will it work?  Who knows.  But ya gotta try, right???

I don’t know if I’ve got any great wisdom to share or true conclusions to be drawn, but I think it’s important for aid worker women to know a few things:

  • There is NOTHING wrong with you because you’ve chosen a life in aid work as opposed to a more “traditional” job (but even as I write that, I think “what does that even mean?”).
  • Being an aid worker does not preclude you from having a husband and babies (if you so desire).
  • NOT having a husband and babies is TOTALLY cool too!
  • Being “of a certain age” should not provoke knowing head nods and slight grimaces when you tell people how old you are and that you’re single. Those people are assholes.
  • Aid work is about passion … if you love what you do and are fortunate enough to have the husband and babies too – more power to you. If the other half of the equation hasn’t come along just yet … relax … you’re still doing amazing work for the world and should feel proud of that!

In other words …

You do you … and tell any naysayers to go fuck themselves.


The malady of infiniteness
I suspect that many aid worker’s can relate to Becca’s story and will nod that ‘the struggle is real.’ This tension between the moral and mating callings within the heart is timeless and certainly not restricted to females, and, as Becca points out, there are no easy solutions.  The sociologist Emile Durkheim told us long ago that we are destined to wrestle with the ‘malady of infiniteness’, with social possibilities being many and life paths being  limited.  Being human means to be constantly battling contradictions; we are a species who can frequently imagine and desire more than our finite lives can provide.

And so it is with most everyone, including SWF aid workers.

Tom Arcaro

Tom Arcaro

Tom Arcaro is a professor of sociology and director of Project Pericles at Elon University. He founded the Periclean Scholars program in 2003 and has been working on and studying about development issues for nearly two decades.

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Interlude: Interested in aid worker fiction? Check these out!

AWV Interlude (re-edited and enhanced 3Aug16)

Interested in aid worker fiction?  Check these out!

Aid worker fiction?
That we can -and should- learn much about the world through art, to me, is self evident, and the sub-set of art represented by fiction writing is certainly no exception.  Using the vehicle of fiction, writers are frequently able to tell compelling stories that capture and convey essential truths about complex subject matter.  They present these insights in a way that resonates with and informs readers in a manner that makes an impact beyond what is possible through non-fiction alone.  Good fiction writers do not simply spin tales that merely amuse or detract us from reality.  Quite the opposite, with their words they sometimes present a more textured and nuanced view of life, love and sociocultural complexities.

And so it is with the humanitarian fiction of J, the consummate sector ‘insider’    Out now or coming soon is some excellent fiction from J, my colleague and partner in crime (read: researching aid workers).

HUMANNeeded in your library now!
I was a happy beta reader for HUMAN – the world’s first humanitarian science fiction novel is now available for purchase on Amazon!

From the Amazon page:  Aid work was never “just a job” for Nassandra. But on Planet Earth, as head of the Inter-Galactic Aid Programme relief response, she found herself tested in ways she’d never imagined. As the last Native Earth tribes fought for their survival against the savage Rtulan who plundered Earth’s very substance, Nassandra found herself caught in a drama of passion, struggle and an unexpected search for the essence of humanity.

I have been on a lifelong quest searching for answers to the question “what does being human mean?” and HUMAN certainly gave me new points to consider.  Through the character of Nassandra, J brings the reader face to face with with her own humanity and through her we encounter many dilemmas faced by aid workers everywhere.  Strongly recommend!

More than just a “dusting off” job
J put a great deal of effort into a re-issue of his first novel, Dangerous Passions: A Humanitarian Romance, and it is a must read for aid workers everywhere.

From the Amazon page: “They sacrificed everything for the poor… but was there enough left for their love?”516kGl09kQL 

Mary-Anne and Jean-Philippe come from different worlds. She’s a simple girl from America’s conservative deep south, trying to break free of the societal bonds that hold her back. He’s a hardened, cynical man of the world haunted by a dark past. Both are thrown together in the chaos of a disaster response after a massive earthquake in Haiti. Can Mary-Anne ever love a man like him? Can Jean-Philippe ever find a soul-mate in a woman like her? Will stress and the danger of a disaster zone ultimately keep them apart? Or will their love smolder into a white-hot flame of passion? 

A rollicking, thought-provoking, hilarious, and sometimes somber story of humanitarian workers trying to make sense of work and life (and maybe get a little action) in the aftermath of a massive natural catastrophe.

You can follow the adventures of Mary-Anne and Philippe in J’s more recent fiction books.  In recent years I have used with great success Missionary, Mercenary,Mystic, Misfit  as a companion reader along with J’s non-fiction work Letters Left Unsent in my Elon University class “Being and Becoming a Global Citizen.”   My students find Mary-Anne to be accessible and her story a great vehicle for understanding what aid work “is really like.” The latest installment of Mary-Anne’s work with World Aid Corps (WAC) is Honor Among Thieves.  All of J’s fiction is page-turningly excellent and despite some insider language and humor is easily accessible for all audiances.

Next time you’re caught in airport purgatory or otherwise find yourself with some rare down time on your hands…download any of J’s books for some entertaining and informative diversion.

You can find out more regarding these books by going to J’s publishing web site Evil Genius Press.


Tom Arcaro

Tom Arcaro

Tom Arcaro is a professor of sociology and director of Project Pericles at Elon University. He founded the Periclean Scholars program in 2003 and has been working on and studying about development issues for nearly two decades.

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The End: Voices of thanks, snark and next steps

“Am I done yet?”
–36-40 yo female HQ worker

I finally feel like I fit somewhere.”
–36-40yo female expat aid worker

“Did you have an advisor look this over before you created it?”
–18-25yo male expat aid worker

Voices of thanks and snark

Yes, we’re done.  Almost.
The only appropriate end to this exploration of aid worker voices must come from the aid workers themselves. Here are their -and my- parting shots.

Our final question on the survey, Q61, asked “Please use the space below to share your feelings about any of the above questions.”

Yes, at the end of a very long survey containing 61 questions and including 23 open-ended “add your comments” questions, nearly 1 in 5 (18%) intrepid souls felt called to put in their last thoughts.  To each of these aid workers I say “Thanks!”

Many, in fact, literally shared their feelings with comments like

  • “I feel all my cynicism and bitterness coming up :-)”
  • “It has been good to write these down and share my thoughts-thanks!”
  • “This is a depressing quiz.”
  • “It has been helpful to reflect and a safe place to write about some of my anger.”

Indeed, that the survey provided a “safe place to write about some of [her] anger” speaks to the core purpose of this book [blog], that is to provide a place to amplify aid worker voices.

This one from a 31-35yo female HQ worker I think captured the feelings of many when she wrote,

Good questions. Necessary questions. I apologize if I used it as an opportunity to vent. It felt good. And I should probably say that if you’d caught me on a different day, I may have been slightly more optimistic. But I guess the roller-coaster aspect of the job is what we all know.”

That she took responding to the survey as an “opportunity to vent” is one of the main reasons that we kept the survey ‘live’ for so long (14 months).  We made the survey public never having a clear plan for how long it would remain available; we had no compelling methodological logic driving this choice, rather the decision was based on the positive cathartic function the survey appeared to be serving for many.  Here is another blush from a 31-35yo female expat aid worker:

“Very interesting survey and I appreciate the chance to share my views – it is surprising how little time (and few opportunities) one has to actually *think* about things in the busyness of the day-to-day. I wish your survey results could be shared in an open forum (not only virtual) where significant players can be present and honestly reflect for a moment.”

Many of the 181 respondents that took the time to write on this final question  -41%, in fact.  Of these many commented on how interesting it was to answer the questions and many said they’d be very interested to read the final results.  Dozens of people write just to say “thanks.”

Here are a few representative examples:

  • “Interesting and thanks for doing it.”
  • “Just would like to say that I think it’s great that you’re doing this work and gathering this info.  Wishing you the best of luck with your project.”
  • “This has been a useful exercise in self-reflection. Good luck!”

One young female HQ aid worker went so far as to talk about how she might use some of the questions as a point of departure for workplace discussions.

“I’ve asked a few of these questions to some of my closer peers- the ones who I feel are on the same page as me, and will partake in a good rant over lunch. But going through this and how important these questions are, for better understanding ourselves and each other, I’m feeling more confident in posing some of these to others. Who knows- maybe even some of those internally-focused, ladder-climbing types just need to be challenged and made to revisit these issues. I may give it a go (albeit in a situation that I can escape quicker than a sit-down lunch).

Reflections on a career
Some took the opportunity to reflect on their career and aspects of the sector as a whole. One pattern in the responses was clear:  many felt that working in the humanitarian aid sector was a meaningful career choice, especially as an alternative to working in the for-profit sector.

I was touched when I read this response below from a young aid worker.  His passion and conviction are evident, and I believe his assessment of and motivations for being in the sector are shared by many.

“I think it is easy to see aid workers as a little hedonistic. I think this is true. They can be, and many are. There is definitely a certain something that makes us all tick. But, deep down, something this survey might reveal, they all have very strong motivations for getting into the sector. You see a lot of them hedonismtalking about work all the time, but not so many talking about their motivations. Many can seem cold to everything, but I think that is a coping mechanism. People get into the sector because they care, and they will always care, they just get a little hardened. It is easy to see this in the way an aid worker will slag off every NGO under the sun to their same-sector colleagues – but in the midst of non-aid workers, they would defend the sector to the death! I do this job because I care. I care because I feel politically driven by the wealth divide the world suffers under. I feel undeserving of the education I have received for free and think everyone should be entitled to the same, and the same opportunities. At the same time, the burning political motivations inside me stop me from being able to work in a normal sector. I can not physically motivate myself to work for the purpose of making someone else rich. I do not believe in the capitalist system. If I’m not working to directly assist people, I do not work. So, as much as it is a sacrifice to work in this sector, sacrificing money, relationships, stability, friends. It is also a selfish decision. I want to do this work as I get to closely fulfil my ideals, it keeps me motivated, I get to travel, I get to help people, and I don’t have to be a ‘slave to the system’!” –26-30yo male expat aid worker

This next one ends in a quite sober fashion. With very personal words this young woman describes the stages of self-reflection many aid workers go through and uses this moment to vent about the differences between the intense life the “field” and contradiction of working in HQ.

“I have been working for the past 5 years in this field, in a variety of locations, such as HQ, refugee camps, field offices, and have experienced different levels of cooperation between humanitarian actors. It seems to me that the bigger the crisis, the brighter the spotlight, and the less inclined people are to work together because they want to shine. Also, my opinion is that humanitarian workers go completely mad, because they see so many things – good and bad – that they have to cope with in their own ways. At one point it becomes much less about the people you are helping because you are very consumed with what is happening with your own self. Also, the fact that you get sniped, stoned, spat on, raped and so on while doing humanitarian work doesn’t help keep up idealism. You ask yourself “why am I doing this” more and more often and when you finally get out of it and make it to HQ you feel so removed from the work and start thinking that you work for a multinational for-profit. And then you get bogged down by the salary, benefits and think you deserve it all because you spent time in the field. Just to sum it up, I think I’ll be leaving this field soon, because you’re of no use to anyone, if you’re cynical and burnt out.” –26-30yo female expat aid worker

Though our respondents were from all age groups there was a definite concentration in the younger ages.  The voice below from a legit silverback speaks to the fulfillment sensed by some in the sector.

“Overall, my “midlife crisis” going into aid work was a good decision for my wife and me. It was a whole new career of over 20 years that gave me a new perspective on the world. I would not have traded those 20 years for anything. In semi-retirement I continue to do aid work.”  –66-70yo male expat aid worker

This next voices the frustration of trying to explain the work.

“I think humanitarian work is tough and confusing and those outside of it definitely don’t get it and those within it barely get it. It’s both good and bad like everything else and though I’m leaving soon, my feelings haven’t changed much. Yes, I’m skeptical, but I still believe that working for an NGO is better than working for a corporate entity; my work has more of a chance to do good rather than to help a shareholder. I will probably come back to humanitarian work in some form, but first there are personal projects that I have to do and pursue self-employment options outside of humanitarianism.”  –36-40yo male based in HQ

Let the snark begin
Although the tenor of most responses was positive or neutral, there were more than a few (14, to be exact) that felt moved to provide direct, negative feedback, some of which is well taken; the survey questions were not perfectly worded by any means.  There were unfortunate question and response wordings, missedsnark

opportunities for easier coding and analysis, perhaps some important topics inadvertently left out, and even an overall tone that could have been more thoughtful or focused.  To be clear, I think that much can be learned from those who cared enough to be critical.

A few were just a tad bit patronizing and not very helpful (and yes, I do notice that these all come from males).

  • “Did you have an advisor look this over before you created it?” –18-25yo male expat aid worker
  • “Poorly worded questions, focus on humanitarian without defining what that is. Subjective responses will be useless in determining and findings when compiled.”  -50-55yo male expat aid worker
  • “You should work on some of the questions.  -36-40 male expat aid worker

One middle aged (white) male HQ worker commented very thoughtfully (“seriously, who designed this survey?”) on the wording of many questions and in one case pointed out a flaw common in many surveys, especially those like this one asking about people’s perceptions and opinions.  With a survey taken at one point in time what you get is more snapshot than moving picture.  Listen to how he puts this:

“Every answer here needs to be contextualized in the transition I am undergoing: I have been working for a donor, and have just transitioned to working for a [African] non-profit. This transition was spurred by positively hating working for a donor (initially I was thrilled). Only time will tell if I end up hating this as much!”

He ended his contribution as a respondent with this:

“Hire a survey designer: 1/4 of these questions were really lousy and would have benefit [sic] from some sharpening up.” 

I agree with this next one, though he is vague as to what he means by “bias about humanitarian work.”

“There seem to be a bias about humanitarian work in general in the questions asked. The rising trend is that corporations, investment and development will solve all the problem. Good if it does but so far injustice and exploitation are growing. There are more hungry people in middle income Countries than in Low Income Countries. Therefore wealth does not solve all problems, injustice remains and more has to be done about it.”

A few stressed an issue with the conflation of “humanitarian aid work” versus development activities, none better stated that this:

“I am concerned about your use of language. To me ‘humanitarian aid work’ is a subset of the aid agenda (which deals with humanitarian crises – droughts, famines, etc.). While I have done ‘humanitarian’ work before. My country position is almost exclusively ‘development’ whereby I word with countries to implement systems and change aimed at improving the well being of people over the long term…”  -36-40yo female expat aid worker

Concluding thoughts on the sector

“Related to the questions about explaining the job to people outside the industry, what is nearly impossible to explain is your personal emotional and intellectual response to new situations or the general seriousness of the situations faced: you experience completely new feelings that cause completely unexpected understandings of the world that are very difficult to really completely explain to non-aid workers.” –41-45yo male expat aid worker

Knowing that others hear and, better yet, share or at least can understand feelings and perceptions about the live to which you have devoted yourself is meaningful psychologically.  The respondent quoted above -and all of the many hundreds in the preceding chapters- have now had their voices heard and shared. I for one will count that as a net positive toward the goal of creating a more just world for all.

My hope is that in this book I have accomplished the modest goal of effectively presenting and making sense of the aid worker voices that were gifted to me by those who took the time to take our survey.  Countless person-hours were spent by 1010 self-identified “aid workers ” finding on line and then choosing to complete our survey. Many wrote narrative answers to all of the open-ended questions, sometimes pouring out their hearts and sharing intimate thoughts. My driving logic as I went through the responses was to with fidelity present a summary of all that was said, the good, the bad and the ungrammatical.

My commentary and analysis was just that, analysis of what I heard in all those voices and my modest attempt to use a sociological framework to make sense of it all.   That, and a bit of commentary from my perch on the margins of development work, though having been exposed to this kind of work for the last 25 years and directing an academic program engaged in development work and, beginning in 2015, using the Core Humanitarian Standards as part of our syllabi.

Though respondent opinions and observations at times clashed and contradicted, in one sense you can describe this book as an effort to employ crowdsourcing to understand the aid sector.  Certainly no one would expect all opinions to be the same since the respondents were diverse in age, gender, racial/ethnic/cultural identity, experiences, and place of employment.  But given the depth of thought many put into their responses, taken as a whole I believe that what has been presented captures a great deal of truth about the sector.

And, one more time, a massive THANK YOU to all who participated.

Next steps

“Aid work is part of the wider economic ecosystem. I think we are not really better or worse than anyone else – just a different organ in the body of humanity.”  –36-40yo female HQ worker

I have no doubt that those represented in this book are mostly expat aid workers from the global north.  Perhaps a more accurate title might have been “Expat aid worker voices.”  Fair enough. That said, this book should be best viewed as an exploratory beginning, one that raises some questions and that can light the path for similar work.

Next steps include inviting everyone who reads this book to remain in the conversation and to encourage others to joint. To be heard is to be acknowledged and affirmed, and it is my belief that as the sector gets to know itself better -and the larger social ecosystem of which it is a part- it will be more whole and humane.

Please contact me if you have any thoughts, feedback or parting shots.


Tom Arcaro

Tom Arcaro

Tom Arcaro is a professor of sociology and director of Project Pericles at Elon University. He founded the Periclean Scholars program in 2003 and has been working on and studying about development issues for nearly two decades.

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Aid workers as parents

“Ultimately it’s a culture change, not just a policy change.”

–Lucy, founder of


Aid workers as parents

How does that work?
A small but significant subset within our survey population -21%- were aid workers who have one or more children. Being an aid worker can be a complex, demanding and all-comsuming occupation.  The fact that many aid workers are also parents -a complex, demanding and all-comsuming job- brings up many questions.  Here are just a few.

  • In a sector characterized by international travel and frequent deployments how can an aid worker be
    a parent?
  • How does the parenting role differ between males and females, and what are the problems unique toScreenshot 2016-06-23 21.39.02 each and those that are common to both?
  • More generally, how do aid workers deal with their part in the family ecosystem of which they are enmeshed either by choice or necessity?
  • What are the leave policies of the big box aid organizations and smaller NGO’s and how can the maternity/paternity leave policies of these organizations become more progressive?

All big questions, these.

To get deeper insight into how to address these questions (and more) I was fortunate to talk with the founder of a new but rapidly growing group called “AidMamas.”  Some members meet in person, in Google hangouts, on Facebook and most recently members have begun blogging. Topics of conversation tend to focus on the struggles of juggling the role of parent with that of aid worker.  Though most members are women, men are welcomed to the group and help serve to expand the conversation to family life in general.

The founder, Lucy, is a young mother, now more on the edges development work. She has embraced the challenge of bringing together -at least virtually- other men and women like herself and facilitating ‘frank and full conversation about being a parent and working in the international aid and development sector.’

What follows are anecdotes and observations from our conversations.

Maternity/paternity leave policies
This is not the proper place to call out any specific ‘big box’ aid or development organization, but I think that a safe generalization to make is maternity and paternity leave policies are overall very weak throughout the sector.  One young female aid worker put a harsh point on the situation.

“You have a choice: come back to work after 3-6 weeks of unpaid leave practically still bleeding post childbirth, find someone to watch your poor infant who is still physically attached to you, or lose your job.”

The irony of this statement is even more rich when you know that this particular development worker is the primary bread winner in her family -in development terms a female headed household– going back in the field.

Lucy points out that, “If you examine the parental leave policies of many organisations, paternity leave (if it exists at all) still lags woefully far behind maternity leave (if it exists at all).  Maternity leave that is long enough to both enable women to maintain job security and adequately provide that early nutrition source that the sector so strongly supports for beneficiaries without demanding acrobatic feats of logistical planning and awkward office encounters, is rare. Support transitioning back to work is patchy at best across the sector.”

maternityIn a more perfect world where the best interests of both children and the family were made top priority, the option of both maternity and/or paternity leave would be standard and provisions for at least 6 months of breast feeding not only provided but aggressively encouraged. What is keeping the sector -and the West in general and the US more specifically- from this model is the steamroller which is capitalism.  The pervasive logic is ‘no work, no pay’, simple as that.

But perhaps this logic is flawed.

When women make the choice not to come back to work immediately -or in many cases not at all- because of childcare issues, their practical experience and institutional memory is lost; the human capital and expertise that is wasted by losing these women is considerable.  Think of it this way:  much like setting fire to a warehouse full of blankets or food losing these women is a waste of valuable human resources.  The questions about the overall values in the sector and who determines those values is in play here in a very important way.  The management of human resources within the sector is critical; this is not ‘just a women’s issue’ but rather impacts the efficacy of the entire sector.

Can you be a parent and an aid worker?  Yes, but this role juggling feat could be made whole lot easier with more progressive sector-wide policies.

Is cred gendered?
In terms of self concept, many aid workers endure what might be called the ” imposter syndrome.”  Are those who work in aid more ‘legit’ than those doing development work?  Does working in a conflict zone give you a more respected seat at the table?  To the point of this post, can an aid worker who is also an active parent -a breast feeding mom, for example- ever compare with a single male (or female) who can jump to the front of the line for any deployment?  Given that, yes, women bear children and in the best case scenario can have the support and freedom to choose to breast feed their children for an extended period the answer is yes, cred is gendered.

Yeah, so what?

Diminishing the contribution of the majority of aid workers who choose to be breeders and family members is not only counterproductive but also a textbook example of sexism. The question is how to address the situation.  In Lucy’s words, “Ultimately it’s a culture change, not just a policy change.”

This is not a woman’s issue but an issue of family relationships.  Most aid workers have mothers, fathers and siblings and all to a certain degree are part of a family ‘ecosystem’ that, when they are away, is compromised and must adapt. Yes, maternity leaves should be standard, but more broadly the fact that all aid workers have family lives must also be taken into account not just within HR policies but more broadly as a cultural issue.

A cultural universal
That this most basic form of role conflict has existed for parents for all of modern history all over the world is a basic anthropological fact.  Beyond parenting duties, women have always worked though frequently in a seamless fashion in and around the home, close to the children.  Fetching water and fire wood, tending gardens, running small entrepreneurial enterprises; these examples are played out everywhere in the world.  The iteration of role conflict that groups like AidMamas is addressing is where the mother works ‘outside the home’ in a formally paid position.


© 2016 AidMamas Lucy O’Donoghue, Photo Credit: Claire Whiting

Can the global culture change to being less paternalistic and more family-friendly?  Not in the short run, to be sure.  The efforts of the many internet-based groups bringing together like minded and situated individuals is a move in the right direction.  Not to put too fine a neo-Marxist point on it but the fostering a class consciousness must proceed revolutionary changes in culture, and so the efforts of groups like AidMamas is a small through critical step in the right direction.

One small warning for these groups is to avoid the creation of a self-serving echo chamber of ideas and dialogue.  Affirmation and sharing are good but is best tempered by sobriety that comes from always seeking to relate all micro-issues to the broader humanistic goal of maximizing all human potential.

Summing up the above Lucy puts it thusly:

“Take a closer look under the ‘hood’ of the sector and examine in your own organisation, how well do we support those female-headed households – both among those we’re working to assist, and among the staff? If we don’t know how to support the female-headed households among our staff, how well are we really supporting the female-headed households in local communities?  We need to get it right from the inside out.”

Many thanks again to Lucy of AidMamas for sharing her insights.

The fact that our survey was not completed by the many women and men who left the sector because of the issues discussed above  is ironic, and I wonder what those voices would have said.  If you are one of those folks, please contact me if you would be willing to share your comments or have anything you would like to add.





Tom Arcaro

Tom Arcaro

Tom Arcaro is a professor of sociology and director of Project Pericles at Elon University. He founded the Periclean Scholars program in 2003 and has been working on and studying about development issues for nearly two decades.

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Oh ye of little faith

“I swear, if I hear “pray for peace” once more, I may actually lose it.”

–male expat aid worker

Oh ye of little faith

Faith based NGO’s
Faith-based aid organizations are now and have always been a major factor in the sector. Collectively these organizations continue and refine a trend -most especially among the Christian religions- that has gone on for centuries and, historically, is indeed an integral dimension of colonization. These organizations range from the  ‘big box’ globally influential mega-NGOs to the classic ‘MONGO’ or My Own NGO based in a specific church.  The larger organizations tend to avoid overt proselytization while the smaller ones less so, some being almost aggressively pushing their faith messages.

Screenshot 2016-06-17 05.52.00

Q17 asked simply, “Which best describes the humanitarian aid work organization with which you are (or were) most recently affiliated?”  Of our respondents, 17% indicated they were affiliated with faith based organization.

Given the nature of what some aid workers experience in the field, especially in those locations that have undergone what an anthropologist might call ‘cultural disintegration’ i.e., conflict zones, what do aid workers have to say?  How do they address the sometimes massive gap between the lofty messages of religion and the realities they witness?



Venting from an aid worker
Here is what an aid worker deployed in a post-conflict environment ranted to me over Skype a few days ago:

So, there’s this place where my employer built houses, a mosque, latrines, etc. for a small community of IDPs. Classic relief infrastructure. Was a worthwhile project. At each corner, there is an elevated guard booth for UN soldiers to stand guard at night to protect them. It’s been great-ish for the past 9 months.

Last week, the UN peace-keeping mission in-country decided it was time to stop posting guards. So the booths have been empty at night.

The very next evening, the local community came and stole the metal doors off the latrines. So now no one can poop in privacy.

What kind of asshole steals the bathroom door from IDPs?

Anyway, we concluded the visit and walked out. 50 meters away sat the chief of the local police and the local religious leader. They were all anxious to pump my hand. “Thank you, [my employer]… let’s pray for peace.”

Or, you could just stop stealing from IDPs.

Taking time to share one more time this aid worker went on.

Sorry, but I gotta vent. Here’s another….

Apparently, taking a machete and murdering people against whom one had a grudge of some kind, or to whom one owed money, and then tossing the corpse down a well was so widespread (and continues, to some extent) that it has negatively moved the needle on clean water access nation-wide.

Call me ethnocentric. But this does not seem complicated.


But everyone’s all, “pray for peace.”

I swear, if I hear “pray for peace” once more, I may actually lose it.

Pray for peace?
Both of the anecdotes above illustrate the deep and perhaps pervasive hypocrisy that exists in much of the world
regarding faith and religion.  Go to church on Sunday, cut up or steal from people the rest of the week. Appearing religious for show only perhaps, or,cynically, to apply a smokescreen covering essentially immoral actions.

In my conversation with this aid worker I responded to his comment “Call me ethnocentric” by offering,  “NOT ethnocentric. Warped values are warped values universally.”

The view that says culture forms us completely, the Standard Social Science Model (SSSM) as described by Leda Cosmides & John Tooby in their essay Evolutionary Psychology: A Primer , is wrong. We are not born, as Steven Pinker points out in The Blank Slate with a formless blob of a brain but rather with myriad and complex modules that with timely stimulation comprise our “human nature”  individually and collectively.  We are a moral animal from the inside out; morals come from our primate and pre-primate past, enhanced by further evolution and our expanding frontal cortex.  There is right and wrong, at base.

That said, we are a species prone to contradictions because we have seemingly competing modules in our brains.  Anthropologist Miles Richardson poetically summarized it long ago.  Listen to his words:

“Blind, senseless, uncaring nature produced us. She cast us out of the primate troop, by cursing us with the ability to imagine God and thereby making us one of the most successful species, and certainly the most lonely. Being human is not to be a passive reader of blueprints, it is not to be a puppet on a string of norms, but it is to be man the hero, fighting to make sense of what nature has accomplished with us, the creation of a paradox: a species who can dream of eternal life but who must die, a species who preaches peace but who is more effective at waging war, a species who can imagine perfect beauty but whose shit stinks like all the rest.” (emphasis added)

The importance of this insight for aid workers is clear:  it is NOT ethnocentric to view machete killings and rape as a tool religionof war or dominance as cultural practices to be accepted. You do NOT have to adopt a convoluted ‘cultural relativity’ perspective I-must-see-things-from-their-perspective regarding all cultural practices you see.  The third position -the one between ethnocentrism and blind acceptance of the cultural relativity- is the one embraced by the Universal Declaration of Human Rights adopted in 1948.  This third position says there are exactly that, universal and transcendent human rights the violation of which is wrong.

As I have written elsewhere, I do believe that morality is woven into our being as humans and that we do know the difference between right and wrong.  The problem is that, as we have been told many times by anthropologists and writers, oftentimes ‘things fall apart’ and cultures can all too commonly foster dysfunctional and, yes, immoral behavior.

A central part of the cannon in the sociology of religion is Emile Durkheim’s The Elementary Forms of Religious Life in which he points out that religions evolved as a mechanism serving to externalize and to give voice to our moralities and in so doing function as a controlling and cohesive force in society.  That aid workers frequently hear the refrain “let’s pray for peace” among those with which they work in the field (and at home) is to be expected…as is the feeling that this refrain can be excruciatingly hollow and hypocritical.

From Kenneth Burke's "Dialectician's Prayer"

From Kenneth Burke’s “Dialectician’s Prayer”

Grappling with the frequently massive gaps between the ‘is’ and the ‘ought’ is an occupational hazard among aid workers.  The sector as a whole can be seen as our global community’s effort to bridge that gap and confront head on the contradictions inherent in our species.


I think it will be a long time until “how things are and how we say things are, are one.”  And so it goes.


As always let me know if you have feedback, comments or something to add.



Tom Arcaro

Tom Arcaro

Tom Arcaro is a professor of sociology and director of Project Pericles at Elon University. He founded the Periclean Scholars program in 2003 and has been working on and studying about development issues for nearly two decades.

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Using the Interwebs: networking and blogging sites hosted by or geared to aid and development workers

[Note:  an extended and edited version of this post will become part of the introductory chapter to Aid Worker Voices.]

Using the Interwebs:  networking and blogging sites hosted by or geared to aid and development workers

googleImpact of the Internet
Of the many functions of the Internet there is no doubt that it has made developing lines of communication between like-minded persons fairly routine.  Not long after the beginning of the Internet there were “bulletin boards” were people could post comments and have others respond, and this basic pattern has remained, becoming more sophisticated and far reaching over time.

With some searching you can find niche webs sites, blogs, Facebook pages for nearly any interest imaginable, many of them functioning as places for those who share the same views to meet, exchange information and generally connect on various levels.

Indeed, it has become routine for US Peace Corp volunteers to blog about their experiences, some of which showing depth and maturity, others perhaps being quite banal.

Aid and development workers were fairly early adopters of these vehicles of communication and there are hundreds (thousands?) of blogs, etc. written by and for aid and development workers.  The co-founder of this blog, AidWorkerVoices, the mysterious J, among the earliest and most active.

Examples include
Below is a sampling of web locations where you can find sites hosted by or geared to aid and development workers. Given the huge number of sites added every week a truly comprehensive and up to date list would be impossible.  We are indeed a species that thrives on communication.

Blogs and web sites:

The Tiny Spark podcast site

News sites:

Facebook pages

[Many of the sites mentioned above also haver Facebook pages associated with them, some open to everyone and others membership by request from page administrator.]

If you have a favorite site that I should add to the lists above, let me know.  Lucy from AidMamas (above) gave me a heads-up on “Development blogs you should read” that may be worth a look.

Positive use of the Internet
The examples above are just a tiny portion of sites out there.  All serve to affirm, inform, amuse and facilitate networking of all manner and, in some cases, to amplify snarkiness in an echo-chamber fashion. I believe that the sector is well served by these means of communication; the impact is a net positive. As humans we all have a strong need to feel that we are not alone in our experiences, emotions, perceptions and struggles, and on the whole these sites serve in affirming same.  A sector that knows itself better can function more efficiently, one might assert. That said, the various moments of ‘vetting’ can get quite snarky at times and can contribute to self defeating cynicism in some cases.

You will notice in the list above a very northern/Western/expat bias that represents the privileges held by aid and development workers from those parts of the world.  You’ll note that with only one exception all of the sites are in English, further indication of a skewed list. I am particularly interested in how local aid workers network and otherwise communicate and commiserate, though I am sure there is no ‘one size fits all’ answer. One question I pose is how can this technology be used to be more inclusive and hence useful for all.  Suggestions?

A note on technological determinism
What does the future hold for communication within the aid sector and for the men and women who toil every day in cubicles, the ‘field’ and across the globe who want to hear and be heard by their far-flung colleagues?

Time travel to 30 years ago and then imagine explaining Skype, FaceTime, Facebook and Google to the average person.  Hard or even impossible, right?  The rate of technological innovation is increasingly fast; the next thirty years will bring many more innovations and changes than the last thirty did.  You and I are literally unable to image what the future will bring in terms of various technological innovations.

determinismWhen he first imagined his networking tool Mark Zuckerberg had no idea as to the long term social and cultural impact that Facebook would have. History is full of examples of similar technologies the inventors of which also had no idea of the changes that would come from their ideas and actions. The social impacts of technological changes are staggeringly complex and impossible to accurately foresee. This is the idea of technological determinism.

We can only hope that the changes to come will have a net positive impact on the aid sector and the rest of humanity, hence the usage of the word ‘determinism.’  Let us enjoy the ever expanding blogosphere and Twitterverse and continue to offer insight, succor and support to each other.

Comic relief as a critical element
Just as my colleague and silver back sector veteran J has found an eager audience for his aid worker fiction lately (HUMAN, and the series of books starring Mary-Anne), anthropologists have done the same almostLaura-Bohannan-Return-to-Laughter from the very beginning.  I am reminded of the classic anthropological novel published under the name Eleanor Smith Bowen written by Laura Bohannan in the mid 1950’s.  Though this novel is mainly about the intersection of two cultures -something all aid workers know something about- in the last part of the book she illustrates beautifully words from Shakespeare’s King Lear, namely “The worst returns to laughter…” and from there she gets her title.  After a devastating epidemic comes through her fieldwork community (in Nigeria among the Tiv) she describes how they quickly return to being able to laugh at the situation, putting voice to the age-old truism that the difference between tragedy and comedy is the passage of time, and that healing from trauma is most quickly done by the social bonding (and re-bonding) that comes from laughing together.

And perhaps for some (most?) aid workers, social media and the Internet allow for just that, bonding with their peers through smirks, giggles and outrageous belly-laughs.  A very human need, that.

Finally, for those those U2/Bono fans out there you might take a look at this if you haven’t already.  Wait for it.

As always, please contact me with comment, question or snark.

Tom Arcaro

Tom Arcaro

Tom Arcaro is a professor of sociology and director of Project Pericles at Elon University. He founded the Periclean Scholars program in 2003 and has been working on and studying about development issues for nearly two decades.

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Smiles came across her face as she was reading

Note:  This is a beginning to the preface to Aid Worker Voices.

Smiles came across her face as she was reading

I have spent the last week or so traveling with a few students and colleagues from our university.  We are here doing our school’s version of ‘engaged learning’ which in our case ends up being a fairly thoughtful version of development-lite.  Having listened to the students and to my colleagues meeting and talking with community partners -in this case organized by Habitat for Humanity-International, Zambia- I can say with conviction that our whole party clearly understands that development work is infinitely messy, complicated on many political, cultural and interpersonal levels, almost necessarily moves at a glacial pace and, at the end of the day, you can never be certain that intended changes have ended up a net positive, all factors considered.

As a layover break between my work in Zambia and Namibia we are now in Livingstone.  On our secondIMG_9526 night here I met a young female aid worker on R&R and, soon, the ritual surface chatting melted into a deep conversation about aid and development work and the frustrations thereof.  Not long into that part of the conversation I invited her to look at what I was working on -this blog.  She spend a good deal of time reading through many of the posts, spending the most time on “How do you explain your job to non-sector people?”.

Smiles came across her face as she was reading.

For any writer, or at least for me, the most fulfilling moment possible is when you know someone has read your work and felt something.  In this case the ‘thing’ felt was a deep sensation of being connected to other aid workers expressing the same sentiments she had felt at various times.

This is why J and I did this research and why I have put together this blog:  to have aid worker voices heard, shared and, for context, analyzed and commented upon.

Research ethics?
Reflecting on the ‘why’ of this research I am reminded of a book I read as an anthropology grad student many years ago called Through Navaho Eyes by John Worth and Sol Adair.  Their research involved giving film equipment to various groups and asking them to ‘make a short movie’, their premise being that films have language and are a window into the filmmaker’s culture and weltanschauung.  

navaho eyesAlthough their research was prior to the days when IRB approval was sought, before beginning with any new group Worth and Adair routinely met with the community leaders to explain the research and to get permission to proceed.  When they went to a Navaho reservation, explained the process, and then asked the chief for permission he took a long moment to first ask, “Will it hurt the sheep?”

Worth and Adair, knowing the Navaho herded sheep, were only a bit surprised by the question and quickly answered in a respectful manner saying ‘no’, the filming process most certainly will not hurt the sheep.

The chief took their answer and bowed his head in thought, finally raising his head with a second question, “Will it help the sheep?”

Again, though a bit more surprised this time thinking they had already answered the sheep question, Worth and Adair assured the chief that the sheep would not be impacted at all by the filming; it would not ‘help the sheep.’

The chief took this answer, bowing his head again for what seemed to Worth and Adair a very long time, finally raising his head and asking, “Then why do it?”


And, not inconsequentially, the same can be asked of all development work.

I tell this sheep story to my sociology students before having them do research projects to introduce the topic of ethics.  I also remind myself of this story every time I feel the need to ‘generate some data’ about a topic.

So, why study aid and development workers?  One short answer is that smiles came across her face as she was reading this blog.  And those smiles were good.

As always, please contact me with comment, question or snark.


Tom Arcaro

Tom Arcaro

Tom Arcaro is a professor of sociology and director of Project Pericles at Elon University. He founded the Periclean Scholars program in 2003 and has been working on and studying about development issues for nearly two decades.

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A theory-wonkish excursus

[Note:  this short note is intended as more background for the Castles in the Sand post.]

“Not summer’s bloom lies ahead of us, but rather a polar night of icy darkness and hardness, no matter which group may triumph externally now.”
–Max Weber

 “…until we recognize how dependent we are on the oppression and marginalization of others for our own betterment and benefit (i.e. access to cheap disposable goods, foreign foods and fresh imports, temporary foreign workers to fill low-income job vacancies, etc…), humanitarian aid work is just another cog in this bullshit machinery.”

A theory-wonkish excursus

The view from 35,000 feet
Encountering C W Mills’ The Sociological Imagination early in my career provided me with a critical set of conceptual tools.  Though the book offers much more, what I emphasis to my students is that the sociological imagination urges us to take the long view both geographically and historically, thus demanding a ‘the global is an interwoven social system the current state of which can only be properly viewed using a keen sense of world history’ perspective.  Mix Max Weber and his pathbreaking work on the inexorable stranglehold on humanity by capitalism and bureaucratic organization into that framework and that begins to explain the quotation above.

Understanding why the World Humanitarian Summit is destined to ‘fail’ begins here.

That Karl Marx and Charles Darwin were contemporaries is well known, their intellectual and professional paths crossing in the UK, at least to the extent that Marx sent Darwin a copy of Das Kapital (that Darwin wrote back and thanked him for).  I mention these two monumental figures because each is responsible for first articulating the two driving algorithms of our world, Darwin, evolution and Marx, of course, capitalism.

Just as Theodosius Dobzhansky argues that “nothing in biology makes sense except in the light of evolution” I would offer that nothing makes sense in the world of economics except in the light of capitalism.  To go further, I would point out that Marx’ full-on version of economic determinism -that all aspects of modern culture are driven by the logic of capital (does the phrase “follow the money” come to mind?)- merits a serious look even more so in 2016 than when he first began to formulate it in the mid Reagan Thatcher1800’s.  This Guardian article by George Monbiot does a great job of explaining the ideology of neoliberalism and provides deep insight into the massive economic and political forces that control our entire global social system. This system includes within it, of course, the three parts of the humanitarian aid system, namely (1)  aid organizations that get funding from (2) donors (be they individuals, governments, the UN, foundations or whatever) and (3) those who are the object of these efforts.

Side note:  The irony that Henri Dunant experienced Solferino the same year On the Origin of Species was published -1859- is not lost on me.  While Marx and Darwin were giving voice to the major forces determining our life on this planet for his part Dunant was doing the same for our inner urges to respond to those in need though his book A Memory of Solferino.

A third person of note in this context, one of our contemporaries, provided us with a bridge between the biological and the social and must be mentioned.  In the last pages of his 1976 book The Selfish Gene Richard Dawkins coins the term ‘meme’ and defined it as a “unit of cultural transmission.”   Other thinkers, notably Daniel Dennett in the US and Susan Blackmore in the UK have done much to extend Dawkins’ concept of the meme, Dennett pointing out that the process of evolution is substrate neutral and can/does include memes and Blackmore offering an extended discussion of the concept of ‘memeplexes’ by noting that just as human bodies are complexes of genes, social entities can be seen as complexes of memes (the Catholic Church being one of her main examples).

Let’s now consider Marx’ observation that “The ruling ideas of each age have ever been the ideas of its ruling class.”  Biological evolution is fundamentally Darwinian in nature (survival of the fittest and all that) whereas memetic evolution is partly Darwinian but also has an even bigger element of Lamarckianism (acquired characteristics can be passed on to others).   Stated differently, the vectors of communication for genes are limited (sex, anyone?) and change takes place over many, many generations while the vectors for spreading memes are increasing -and increasingly rapid- due in large part to technological change in how we communicate.  The spreading of memes can be virtually instantaneous via, for example, YouTube and Twitter. Critical to note is that those most heavily influencing the flow of information, i.e., the spreading of memes, are those, typically, with money and power, i.e., “the ruling class.”Marx

Non-linear systems
As I have pointed out elsewhere, human life on this planet can only be fully understood as being part of multiple nonlinear systems.  In her 2013 article “Nonlinear Systems Theory, Feminism, and Postprocessualism” Suzanne M. Spencer-Wood does an excellent job in probing and explaining this perspective, doing a very solid job in weaving in a discussion of the impact that human agency has on chaotic and nonlinear systems.

Genetic and memetic evolution are impacted now by (an in turn impact) economic and cultural evolution.  The bottom line is that engineering cultural change is extraordinarily complicated and that our efforts at “development” -despite our best intentions- can never yield predictable long term results and may in fact lead to negative impacts.  Perhaps more distressingly, our short term specific (tsunami, for example) relief efforts are also injecting influences that inexorably will have unanticipated and unpredictable results both locally and in the global social system as a whole.

As one aid worker put it “Compared to the money being invested, we’re doing a pretty poor job of getting anywhere. A lot of misguided approaches or self-interested approaches or inappropriate interventions or I could go on and on. Why do we know that poverty is not simple or linear, yet still implement interventions as if it is? We need to get better. We need to be smarter, think more critically.”

To understand the humanitarian aid sector you have to acknowledge that it is part of larger social and even biological systems.  No part -even you, MSF- is disconnected from any other.  Input into the system, however small or positively intentioned, at any one point can and does impact the rest of the system.  A “fix” at one point can never be in isolation from the rest of the larger sociocultural system.

Said one aid worker,

“I think humanitarian aid work operates within a system that is built on inequality – we won’t see large scale change happen in the lives of people, in terms of long term development, until we start to challenge the structures and systems that result in this inequity in the first place. And the heart of those institutions is within North America and Europe – until we recognize how dependent we are on the oppression and marginalization of others for our own betterment and benefit (i.e. access to cheap disposable goods, foreign foods and fresh imports, temporary foreign workers to fill low-income job vacancies, etc…), humanitarian aid work is just another cog in this bullshit machinery.” (emphasis added)

So, yes, the message that I heard from many aid workers about the future of the aid sector about the larger forces impacting the sector (e.g., neoliberal economic policies) are spot on.  See this deep critique of the sector along these lines from aid workers  and this post in particular for aid worker voices on the future of the sector.

Yes, more to come….

Please do contact me with your feedback or critique.

Tom Arcaro

Tom Arcaro

Tom Arcaro is a professor of sociology and director of Project Pericles at Elon University. He founded the Periclean Scholars program in 2003 and has been working on and studying about development issues for nearly two decades.

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