Aid Worker Voices

The moral career of a humanitarian aid worker

The moral career of a humanitarian aid worker

Sit back.  This one may take a while.

The goal of this post is to meaningfully apply the concepts of ‘moral career’ and ‘looking-glass self’ to better understand the lives of aid workers as they move through their professional lives.  In this post I want to emphasize the overall journey of a career as opposed to a snapshot of single moment. This will make it possible to consider the evolution of self identity that occurs over the course of an aid worker’s career.

Moral career and self identity
I borrow the phrase ‘moral career’ from sociologist Erving Goffman. His classic book Asylums, which was published in 1961 as a “collection of essays on the social situation of mental patients and other inmates”.  Goffman defines moral career as “…any social strand of any person’s course through life…the regular sequence of changes that career entails in the person’s self  and in his imagery for judging himself and others.”  He continues by explaining that,

“The moral career of a person of a given social category involves a standard sequence of changes on his way of conceiving of selves, including importantly, his own….Each moral career, and behind this, each self, occurs within the confines of an institutional system…and can be seen as something that resides in the arrangements prevailing in a social system for its members.”

Finally he concludes that, “This special kind on institutional arrangement does not so much support the self as constitute it.”  (Asylums, 1961: 168)

Here Goffman brilliantly foreshadows the groundbreaking works of first Stanley Milgram (author of Obedience to Authority and then, later by Phillip G. Zimbardo (famous for the Stanford prison experiment and The Lucifer Effect). Both researchers stress the “institutional arrangement” and its impact on behavior and, hence, sense of self as one reflects on their behavior.  And, oh, their free will as well.

Is is possible that in most instances instead of thinking and then deciding to act, we act and then explain our actions to ourselves and then to others? Questions of this nature are challenging, to be  sure, but important to consider.

There are two main points to keep in mind as we move forward.  First, the idea that we all go through stages in various parts of our lives is now fairly standard social science fare, perhaps made most famous by Elizabeth Kübler-Ross’ book On Death and Dying.  Her detailing of the five stages of coming to grips with death remains a useful tool for many.  This post will serve to extend the idea of stages to include the lives of aid workers.  The second point is harder to grasp because it is counterintuitive, namely that our sense of self is in many ways outside of our control.

Social psychologist George H. Cooley is generally credited with the term ‘looking-glass self.’  One’s looking glass selfsense of self is, to a certain extent, a product of how we imaging others to see us -both physically and our behaviors-,  how we imagine others evaluate what they see.

We all know intuitively how beneficiaries will see us when driving up in a white land cruiser or, alternately, on public transport.

To merge another of Goffman’s ideas with Cooley for a moment, we all manage our identity by manipulating how we are seen by others.  What both Cooley and Goffman are saying is, simply, that our identity is in flux and depends upon social context to a good extent.  For aid workers, the ‘social context’ one finds themselves in can be a challenge and is something that is thrust upon more frequently that chosen.

That said, we can put everyone on a continuum with two end points.  On one extreme there are people who’s sense of self are totally driven by how they see others seeing them.  We’ll call these chameleon-like people ‘other directed’.  On the other extreme are those who are totally unwavering in their self concept and are driven, as it were, by an internal gyroscope.  We’ll call these people ‘inner directed.’  The two ends of the continuum are, of course ideal types and only exist as points of reference.

Key to note is that where one is on the above continuum is in flux most of the time and depends on many factors, perhaps most importantly (1) the age and maturity of the person and (2) the social context in which the person finds himself/herself.  Very young people are always reading social cues from others and, in general, are very other directed:  if an authority figure tells a young person they are stupid they tend to believe it.  All of us, in various social situations, look for cues to see how we are fitting into our social surroundings with appropriate cultural sensitivity.

The remainder of this post will focus on using Goffman’s term to better understand the lives of aid workers and to suggest that they too have a moral career.

A fitting, fictional example
Perhaps the most prominent example of fiction writing about the lives of aid workers is the series of books by J.  Here Mary-Anne and Jon Langstrom speak to us from Missionary, Mercenary, Mystic, Misfit:

“Somewhere I read—can’t remember where, exactly. Anyway, it was a description of aid workers as missionaries, mercenaries, mystics, and misfits. And the longer I stick around, the more I see it.” Jon looked around for the waiter, and then motioned for two more bottles of St. George. Mary-Anne could already tell that she’d probably miss curfew. Again.

MMMM“The problem is that when people use that phrase, they’re usually describing where we’ve come from. They mean it’s what we were before we accidentally found our way into humanitarian work. But I think they’re wrong. I think it’s about what we become. It’s a description of states of being toward which humanitarians gravitate.”

Mary-Anne was suddenly on the edge of her chair, hanging on every word.

Jon Langstrom’s tone was matter-of-fact. “We all start out with these altruistic intentions. We’re going to save the world, or at least a little corner of it. We’re going to do everything properly, we’re on the ‘right’ side of all the issues all the time. We’re self-styled warriors for truth and light. That’s the ‘missionaries’ part.”

Two more bottles of St. George appeared and Jon held one out to her. Mary-Anne took it although somewhere in the back of her head she knew she’d probably regret doing so. But for now she was in the mood to drink a bit more and listen to Jon Langstrom bequeath his wisdom. She took a sip and said, “Go on.””

Jon took a sip himself and nodded.

“So, we’re all on the side of right and light, warriors for the poor, and all of that. Then we get into it a little way and we see that it works by calculus, not math. We see what goes into the sausage. We see that for all of our dialogic, participatory, multi-stakeholder, community-led, bottom-up, embrace-and-empower-everything-local ideals and maybe even practice, that the decisions that truly matter are made elsewhere and on the basis of other things entirely. We come to understand that we have to play hardball. If we stick around long enough, we usually get to the place where we’re willing to fight for a program or strategy we think is the best one, even when it means throwing a colleague under the bus. There are times and places in this industry where, for all of our professed love of all humanity, a win-win is just not possible. We choose this poor community rather than that one because the donor wants this one, not because the needs are greater. We sacrifice little bits of who we are and what we believe in the service of some alleged bigger picture. Then the little bits get bigger. We become extreme. We’re willing to execute more tactical bad in the name of an increasingly elusive and vague strategic ‘greater good.’ For some, it becomes an ‘ends justify means’ thing. But one way or the other, we become mercenary.”

He exhaled sharply. It was almost totally dark in the courtyard at Billy-Bob’s now. Without waiting for a response from Mary-Anne, Jon continued.

“That altruism, or what we took as altruism that drove us to this line of work isn’t a bad thing. We want the world to be better. We can envision a more just or a less unjust world. Some of us become hyper cause-oriented. We delve into the theory or maybe the technical nuts and bolts of practice in a particular sector. And in that sense some of us become mystics.”

“But as in everything else, there are trade-offs. There is always the danger of spending so long immersed in the language and culture of humanitarian aid that anything outside feels incomprehensible. We spend so long focused on a particular way of thinking about issues, like reproductive health or third world hunger, that we lose our ability to engage with those who see the issues differently. Or, and this is the even greater danger, we lose the ability to really engage with those who simply haven’t thought about them at all: the ordinary people in our families and social circles.”

“It’s a paradox, but we can spend so long out here that we begin to treat home like we treat ‘the field.’ Which is to say that we become perpetual temporary interlopers who embrace our ‘not from here’ status as an excuse to see everything clinically and still always have a way out. Our visa is about to expire and we have to go home or to the next mission. Or we have another mission and have to leave home…”

Jon stopped mid-sentence and paused, as if weighing his words.

“We become misfits.”

J does several things with this dialogue.  First, he acknowledges that the alliterative phrase “missionary, mercenary, mystic and misfit” in an oft used trope, but he immediately distances himself from the traditional two-dimensional use of these words as mere labels for static categories.  An example of this is the otherwise insightful article published in 2006 by UK researcher R.L. Strait entitled “Mercenaries, Missionaries, and Misfits:  Representations of Development Personnel”   J’s character, Jon Langstom, is quick to note that these four stages -missionary, mercenary, mystic and misfit- are “states of being” and points along a journey; he anticipates the utility of the moral career concept.

But what exactly is this utility?  Let me be clear in pointing out that neither J nor I are selling any version of the truth, but rather doing what comes naturally to those who seek to understand, namely describe and categorize and then offer, tentative as it may be, analysis and explanation. In the words of Miguel de Unamuno,

“My intent has been, is, and will continue to be, that those who read my works shall think and meditate upon fundamental problems, and has never been to hand them completed thoughts. I have always sought to agitate and, even better, to stimulate, rather than to instruct. Neither do I sell bread, nor is it bread, but yeast or ferment.” (Perplexities and Paradoxes New York: Greenwood Press, 1968:8)

That is to say, any conceptutal framework that one imposes on social reality can be usefully judged by the kinds of questions it generates.  Since this blog [book] intends to report on data gathered rather than spin out deep analysis, I will not go into answers to some questions below, but perhaps simply suggest them as useful points of departure.

So, what questions does emerge as we think about the “moral career of the aid worker?”

  • Can further describing these stages be of therapeutic value to an individual aid worker as she attempts to examine her career??
  • Are human resource personnel responsive to and aware of these stages?
  • When mental illness becomes an issue, how does this impact these stages?
  • Are these stages different/progress through these stages different for relief/aid versus development workers?
  • How do life-partners help or hinder awareness of stages?
  • How does this play into the concept of compartmentalization (e.g., deployment smoker)?
  • To what extent are these four stages exhaustive?  Are there stages that are missed, jumped over or just ignored?  If so, what are they?
  • What kinds of events or experiences move a person from stage to the next?
  • How long does one stay in each stage?  Is is possible to get permanently “stalled” in one of the early stages?
  • Can you regress through the stages and/or can there be a cycling through?
  • How do you communicate with someone in another stage?  How is social networking helping or hindering progress through stages?
  • After misfit….what is there?  Does one ever fit back into her ‘home’ world?
  • Finally, how do you know who you really are?  As Berger pointed out, we are all reinterpreting our past.  How do we know out present self is fully formed? how can you know your motivations are true to who you are?  When are you you and when are you just playing the role into which the social situation places you?

Yes, the above list does drill down to the existential core.   Too deep for some, but valid nonetheless since considering these questions might serve as a useful backdrop for more deeply understanding the data. Asking these deep questions allows us to better understand the reality of the aid workers experience and it allows us to better represent aid worker voices.

For example, my post “You are as you are seen:  race/ethnicity/identity” includes numerous touching and thoughtful statements from aid workers as they reflected on their identity and, in retrospect, on their journey though some stages.  Other posts [chapters] include similar points of departure for our understanding. Take a look at this post “The impact of gender on the lives of aid workers” regarding the impact of gender on identity.


I’ll end here with a nod back to Goffman.  He argues that only by understanding both one’s structural context and the internal dialogue that takes place can we fully understand not only our own identities but as well the identities of those around us.  I agree.

As always,  feel free to contact me with your thoughts, feedback or snarky comments.

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 more than a decade.

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Of bureaucracies and aid organizations

Of bureaucracies and aid organizations

The is a followup to my most recent post which focuses on the question “what is the ‘humanitarian aid system?”.

Framing the discussion
In his 2014 essay The Humanitarian Future Paul Currion points out that, “Of the Fortune 500 firms first listed in 1955, nearly 90 percent no longer exist in 2014, and this type of creative destruction is sorely lacking in the humanitarian sector.”  This ‘lack of creative destruction’ is my point of departure for this second post focusing on the question “can the humanitarian aid system be fixed?”.  Currion is spot on with his observation and below I discuss why this is such an important point from a sociological perspective.

There are many typologies of bureaucracies. For discussion purposes here is a simple version in which Itypes include (1) for profit entities like Apple, Halliburton or Barkleys, (2) governments or governing bodies like the United Nations, the Parliament of Italy or FIFA, and (3) not for profit organizations such as Oxfam, the Catholic Church or the LSE.

One of those types is not like the other two relative to the pruning force of ‘creative destruction.’  The second two do not have nearly the same level of competition for survival as does the first.  It is beyond the scope of this essay to discuss type 2, governing bodies, but much of what I point out below is as relevant to this type as it is the not-for profit world of humanitarian aid organizations.

The business world functions according to Darwinian principles:  big fish eat little fish, and only those corporations with the most myopic focus on maximization of profits tend to survive in the fiercely competitive global marketplace.  Efficiency and focus of operation equals success, certainly, but in the long haul -say between 1955 and 2014- the ability to adapt to all manner of cultural, technological and social changes is even more critical.

The not for profit organizations which are the core of the humanitarian aid system are largely outside this algorithm of capitalism, thus lacking a natural pruning process.

The ‘creative destruction’ phrase that Currion uses above is perhaps misstated.  ‘Creative’ infers a mind and the algorithm of capitalism is merely a blind machine, allowing the survival of economically competitive businesses and selecting out the others.  The forces of capitalism naturally prune weak/failing companies and failure is possible and actually imminent for those that don’t adapt to changing social trends.  Business are bureaucracies and therefore they are forced to be as efficient as possible to cope with the burdens of increased overhead, internal cooperation, and communication.

Weber 101:  The problem with getting bigger
The intellectual grandparent of the analysis of bureaucracies is Max Weber.  Below is some of what I have learned from studying his works.

A truism relative to bureacracies is that all organizations have a tendency to get bigger as time passes. Two quickly stated reasons are (1)  adding features is always less painful than subtracting and (2) the economy of scale comes into play.  As bureaucracies get inexorably larger, many things begin to happen, most bad.  Here’s a partial list:

  • Overhead -administrative and otherwise – increases
  • Ability to alter course and mission – decreases
  • Bureaucratic ritualism – increases
  • Efficiency of internal and external communication channels – decreases
  • Access to leaders – decreases
  • Dependence upon experts at all levels – increases
  • Ability of leaders to stay in touch with all aspects of functioning – decreases
  • Tendency to gravitate toward exclusively quantifiable indicators of success – increases
  • Overall efficiency in achieving mission – decreasesUnknown

In the for-profit world these negative factors are muted and dealt with by the forces of competition, but much less so in the non-profit world in which the humanitarian aid systems inhabits.

It is a given that businesses that are on top, like those on the Fortune 500, must stay lean, mean and on task to continue being successful.  But how does a not-for profit humanitarian aid organization deal with all of the entropic forces listed above?

One strategy is to avoid getting too big, and a second is minimizing noise by remaining focused on a specific mission.  More discussion on these strategies below.

‘Crisis caravans’ are clusters of bureaucracies 
Another critical dimension of this discussion is the hurdles faced when two or more bureaucracies must/need to interact with each other.  In the business world market forces insure that over the long-haul inter-organization communication is done efficiently.  In the non-for profit world this is not the case and the forces insuring smooth interagency communication and coordination are much less robust.

To illustrate, here is a specific personal example.

I am director of Project Pericles at Elon University, Elon being one of 30 like-minded colleges and universities nationwide answering the charge to raise the level of civic engagement and social responsibility in our respective institutions.  The directors of each institution meet once a year to share information and move forward collaborations and initiatives generated by the Project Pericles national office.  The bigger picture is that there are a good number of other similarly missioned national consortia such as Campus Compact and Imagining America.

Here, yes, are gaggles of academic types who have common cause, are all passionate about their missions, and certainly are aware of the explosive and positive synergy that can come about when like minded, well resourced individuals come together. One might think that certainly within the Periclean institutions there would be constant, productive communication and that between the national Pericles office and the national offices of the other consortia there would be coordination and cooperation.

Not the case.

Despite many and compelling reasons to make more and better inter-organizational communication, coordination and collaboration a high priority and despite the fact that, when asked, the various administrators and directors would say, yes, they would like it to be so, the grade card on this effort reads a C- at best.

One factor that plays a part in this ‘failure’ is that we are all perpetually occupied with the day to day work on our campuses, always “putting out the fire nearest to us”.  The same is true for people in most jobs:  looking at the big picture is a rare luxury, and spending time on activities which don’t fall clearly in our job description (read:  for which we get rewarded, i.e., “count”) is hard to justify.

That is to say, if you think intra-organizational communication and overall functioning is a challenge, the situation only gets worse when you add efforts toward inter-organizational communication, cooperation and collaboration.  It almost goes without saying that the more organizations in the consortia (or cluster of like-missioned entities), the lower the chances for productive, concerted action.  This is not a problem specific to higher education, of course, but rather a general truism regarding interaction among and between large organizations in general.

And so it is with the ‘humanitarian aid system’; Polman was shooting fish in a barrel with The Crisis Caravan (2010).   [Look here for a post on the ‘crisis caravan.’]

Muting the inherent challenges of a growing bureaucracy
Though I have not done a thorough reading of the history of MSF, I’ll suggest that the fissioning into now 24 semi-autonomous entities over the years was a natural reaction to the sense that they were getting too big to handle as one bureaucratic organization.  MSF has, essentially, followed the franchise model from the business world with the Geneva main office remaining in charge of branding control and much of the administrative work while the many semi-autonomous affiliates remain smaller and leaner .  They have also dealt with the challenges of inter-organizational coordination and cooperation by having stated and unstated policies of being as self-sufficient as possible.  Cluster meetings, peut-être, but not much beyond that.

As a side note, another possible reason for having several affiliates in different countries is making the most of fiscal regulations (i.e., some governments offer tax relief on charity donations as long as the charity is registered in country) and/or local grants (again, some  grants are restricted to charities registered in a specific country).  It’s not necessarily the case for MSF but it is for other organizations.  For instance, the European Commission Humanitarian Aid & Civil Protection Office (ECHO), which is one of the biggest humanitarian aid donors, only funds charities that are registered in one of the EU member states.

Though there are other examples of organizational fissioning, here are just two.  OXFAM is now a confederation of 17 organizations around the world. The  International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies (IFRC) was founded in 1919 and today it coordinates activities between the 188 National Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies.

The brute force of positive human will
It is a testament to the dedication of workers within the humanitarian aid sector that coordination and communication among the various humanitarian aid entities happens at the high level that it does.  In May 2016 the he World Humanitarian Summit (WHS) will be held in Istanbul. The WHS is happening in spite of the overwhelming challenges to intra-organizational coordination. It is happening because of the brute force of positive human will and collective desire within the humanitarian aid sector to respond in dignity enhancing ways to the needs of those who have been crushed by wars, famine and marginalization of all types.  More and more humanitarian aid organizations are adhering to trans-organizational agreements on standards (e.g., the Core Humanitarian Standards).  Sector-wide cluster meetings are becoming increasingly organized and coordinated.  The humanitarian aid system moves forward despite a multitude of challenges, such as:

  • the above mentioned inherent and inevitable  bureaucratic functioning hurdles
  • a work force that tends to have dysfunctionally high turnover
  • a mission that is increasingly compromised by the actions of various militaries
  • changing technology allowing for real-time social media scrutiny and kibitzing
  • all manner of MONGO-types muddying the waters
  • a decreasing respect for the sanctity of the humanitarian space (read:  good people die in the line duty).

Is the aid system broken?
That there will be constant chatter about how the ‘aid system is broken” is a given.  Recent The Guardian op-eds  by and Currion are great examples. People experience frustrations when they see inefficiency, stupidity, waste and lack of coordination, especially when lives are on the line. But is the humanitarian aid system broken? No.

Are there aspects of the system that could be improved? Definitely.

human will

My guess is that Weber would be astounded at the frequently creative but always relentlessly stubborn actions of many devoted individuals who have mightily resisted and overcome the many challenges faced by these large, complicated bureaucracies

No, the humanitarian aid system is not ‘broken’.  Just the opposite, it embodies a heroic response to the greatest human challenge of them all, that of harnessing our innate human urge to make the world a little bit more free of unnecessary suffering and indignities.

I agree with J.  We should all just calm down but at the same time never ease up in our efforts.

Contact me with your thoughts, feedback or snarky comments.



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 more than a decade.

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What is the “humanitarian aid system”

What is the “humanitarian aid system”

This note is in part prompted by an op-ed piece in The Guardian by J in which he asks, “Is humanitarian aid really broken? Or should we all just calm down?”. J points out that, “The answer to ‘What can we do to fix the aid system?’ depends on what exactly you think is broken and what you think it was meant to do in the first place.”


But I would like to ask an even more basic question, namely ‘what is the humanitarian aid system?’  Thisscreen1-550x335 question became very germane to us as we imagined our survey of aid workers, the discussion of which is the purpose of this blog.  As a sociologist, the first thing I was taught in my research methods class was that before you sample and survey a population you have to, well, define exactly what that population is.  In this case we are studying “aid workers” (hence the title of our blog AidWorkerVoices).  But again, just who are these ‘humanitarian aid workers’?

Used as an adjective, as it is in this context, the simple dictionary definition of ‘humanitarian’ is “concerned with or seeking to promote human welfare.”  To be accurate, then, an inclusive definition of ‘humanitarian aid worker’ would have to embrace a wide range of people approaching this goal of promoting human welfare from many directions and from a staggering array of organizational platforms.

That said, our data indicates that most respondents to our survey worked for what would be traditionally defined as humanitarian aid work,  i.e., big budget, large global reach organizations.

Here is what our sample population looked like, all self-identified and all presumably representing one time point along a career path.  Less than 30% were what the public might stereotypically label “humanitarian aid workers”, the rest doing some sort of development-related work.  Our phrasing of the question left much room for interpretation by the respondent, but I think it is interesting that most (53%) put themselves in the “development” category.

Screenshot 2016-01-11 12.58.47

And now for this
Several points I want to make below, all interrelated and all critical to examine as we move forward in our efforts to understand and make more effective humanitarian actions of all kinds. These will come from my admittedly mostly US perspective, but nonetheless the points remain somewhat universal.

First, the humanitarian system includes innumerable points along a continuum from pure aid (e.g., emergency relief) to pure development.  Ask those working for, say CARE in Ethiopia, to tell you exactly where aid ends and development begins and they will respond with a shrug.  In the words of one aid worker, “…it’s always a challenge, especially in this context, in this environment, when does emergency begin, when is it development?”  And so it is with many individual aid workers as they progress from one point in their career to another, sometimes doing aid, sometimes development, most times a blur of both or neither.

second point is one that seems obvious and was underscored in Caroline Abu-Sada’s (editor) MSF commissioned book In the Eyes of Others:  How People in Crisis Perceive Humanitarian Aid (2012).  From the ‘beneficiaries’ perspective it really does not matter from where aid or assistance of any sort comes.  Frequently, the outside entity offering immediate to long term ‘help’ is only perceived in the most vague manner; organizational messaging and logos remain an undifferentiated blur.  That is to say, the ‘humanitarian aid system’ is a construct that can have very little relevance in the minds of those for whom the aid system’s efforts are intended. Imagine you are working on a development project in a certain community, then a disaster affects those same people: “sorry we only do development” does not seem a good way to lift them out of poverty. Luckily it is typically not the case, but you do have humanitarian actors that refuse to carry out development activities.

A third point, and one for which more detail is needed, is that actors within the humanitarian system include many entities and individuals outside of the traditional insider’s definition of what aid or even development is.

Although I agree with the wordsmiths at ALNAP (The Active Learning Network for Accountability and Performance in Humanitarian Action) who describe the humanitarian system as “an organic construct, like a constellation: a complex whole formed of interacting core and related actors.” I do feel that their model (below), elaborate as it may be, falls short of being usefully inclusive.  Their premise is that aid work is a profession and their model thus emphasizes the 450,000 aid professionals worldwide.

To the extent that aid work is a profession -and IScreen Shot 2016-01-11 at 1.29.09 PM agree that it is and should be seen as a profession- there are umbrella entities like ALNAP that are taking proactive measures to both understand and make positive changes to the humanitarian aid system.  Indeed, the establishment of the Core Humanitarian Standards, a product of the Joint Standard Initiative, is a positive example of forward thinking efforts.

My point is that in reality the humanitarian aid system is far more inclusive than even the complicated ALNAP model infers, and this fact is ignored in discussions about “fixing the (broken) aid system.”

Expanding on what they include, here are some additional -though far from exhaustive- thoughts where new categories are suggested and some that ALNAP does mention are elaborated upon.  These appear in no particular order.  My reason for this is explained below.

  • Peace Corps volunteers and their European counterparts from other developed nations number in the thousands with impact in over 70 nations worldwide.  They are doing -or at least are intending to do-humanitarian development work.
  • MONGO’s (My Own NGO) -of which there is an increasing number. Many are US based, but this creating your own non-profit organization to help “save the world” seems to be a generally Western phenomena that is only getting stronger. Note for example the rise of social entrepreneurship programs in US colleges and universities and elsewhere fueling the rise in number of small non-profits.  Though MONGO’s are largely a Western (and/or global north) phenomena these is a trend upward around the world of these entities, though some many have ‘ghost’ partners from the north.
  • Everyday individuals, part of the global diaspora, sending remittances while working and living in the US or in other parts of the developed world.  These funds -totaling as much as US$550 billion in 2015- are aid of the increasingly popular “cash transfer” nature and make a huge impact.
  • All of the many Corporate Social Responsibility personnel working around the world.  Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) is becoming more of a factor in the sector in ways that can no longer be ignored or marginalized.  The 10 principles of the United Nations Global Compact to the cynical (read:  realists) may sound like so much hot air, but increasingly the millennials and  generation x students are making a change in CSR from within.  In large part this is caused by a long term trend in higher education emphasizing community and global service in American higher education.  Our own Periclean Scholars program at Elon University is an example where students who graduate from the program have global citizenship and humanitarian ethics embedded in their DNA and will take that into their profesional lives.  In the last 15 year or more US higher education has had an increasingly central focus on “civic engagement and social responsibly”, indeed there are many consortia specifically devoted to just that (Imagining America, Campus Compact, Project Pericles, to name a few).  Of special note along these lines is the long history that CARE has working with scores of corporations.
  • Academic/service learning students from American colleges and universities doing aid and/or development work  (the “service learning” mentioned above) during both short and long term travel abroad experiences count in the tens of thousands annually.
  • Church groups from the US (mainly) doing ‘mission’ work and the many individuals doing 1-2 year outreach experiences (e.g., Mormons).  European-based Catholic missionary work also continues apace. In many parts of the world massive sums of money go to ‘help the poor’ from church, temple or mosque coffers and/or is simply done by individuals whose motivation is to satisfy religious expectations.
  • Civic groups such as Rotary International  have a footprint around the world that cannot be easily measured but certainly is part of the mix.
  • Though this is obvious, the impact of those affected by disaster and/or long term needs who help their family, friends, neighbors is massive.  The families in Jordan and Lebanon, for example, who have absorbed refugees from Iraq and Syria are not only doing humanitarian aid, but arguably are the largest provider.  These are all cross-national examples (either working outside of their country of origin, or working with foreign populations), but clearly there are many who do feed the malnourished or teach the illiterate across US (or replace US with virtually any other nation) communities, and this highlights how broad the community is.
  • People working for donor agencies, especially if headquarters-based. They often have technical expertise in humanitarian and/or development aid provision, and sometime travel to the field for monitoring missions, but at the same time they are not your typical aid worker. They spend most of their time in western capitals with their families, they have somewhat regular working hours. Some of them are actually employed by another entity (e.g. ministry of Health or of Agriculture) and only temporarily seconded to the humanitarian/development arm. 

  • Consultants hired by external firms to provide for instance monitoring and evaluation of aid projects. Some of these firms focus solely on aid, but others work in several sectors. Are their employees aid workers? More broadly, how do we consider companies that are subcontracted to provide works/services for an NGO or UN agency in the framework of an aid project? Strictly speaking they are only doing business, not aid work. In practice however the type of activities they do (e.g. give out cash to beneficiaries, carry out a survey on beneficiaries’ needs, etc.) are indistinguishable from the same things done by “real” aid workers.

  • Civil protection/defense, fire brigades and other similar corps: they are usually among the first responders to emergencies. Sometimes they work together with humanitarians: for instance, the European Commission has a single structure that oversees both humanitarian aid and civil protection. Yet I would argue they are somewhat different, perhaps because their focus is “at home” rather than in third countries,  but isn’t it a bit neocolonialistic? Similarly, military personnel also sometimes distribute relief or implement development projects to “win hearts and minds” (and they often label their own initiatives as “humanitarian”, as in the Balkans in the 1990s). But I would say they are not “true” humanitarian workers.

  • Another example of work that is done to ‘promote human welfare’ though not direct and hence not traditionally seen as aid work are the efforts of those international organizations (like UN agencies) working with myriad governments doing normative work (e.g setting international standards or benchmarks) or developing capacity of national officials in, for example supporting the ministries of education or health in areas like planning or technical cooperation.

And the list goes on.

An organic construct
In short, the take-home from the above is as simple as this.  “Fixing” the humanitarian aid system cannot be done.  Period.

Why?  Because, inclusively defined, the humanitarian aid system is not closed, involves (literally) innumerable entities and actors along a complex and fluid continuum, and many of these entities and actors by their nature transcend governance and policy influences of any kind.  Systems theory 101 tells us that although you can limit your definition of what is or is not included in your model -in this case “the humanitarian aid system” -the reality as it is perceived by the beneficiaries is more complicated and must be accounted for as you assess impact and imagine changes.  And a butterfly flaps its wings.

Take that, Joint Standards Initiative.

But there is hope.  The ‘humanitarian aid system’ in any one particular geographic/cultural context likely does have a relatively finite number of entities doing work.  Efforts to maximize the communication, coordinationsand-castle-2, cooperation and principled functioning among these players in any given location is a step towards ‘fixing’ the system.  This will never be easy, simple, quick or, in the end, terribly effective.  In the words of one aid worker, “the aid/hum/dev sector cannot be considered as a whole, so we basically have to pick what we think is broken, define and circumscribe, and fix it.” Paul Currion adds additional layers of complexity to this discussion in his article “The Humanitarian Future“.

These local fixes will be by no means “one size fits all” in nature, and thus we’re always back to square one as we move around the globe, location to location.

‘Is the aid system broken?’, J asks.  Well, yes in some specific and narrow cases, as he accurately points out. The humanitarian aid system is a growing, amorphous and uncoordinated array of ‘do-gooders’ being pulled by our natural human urge to respond to those in need, just as Henri Dunnant did in 1859 in Solferino.

We are both blessed and cursed with this very powerful urge, but we can at least deal positively and productively with the our humanistic impulses by taking a broader approach to defining the ‘humanitarian aid system’ and earning satisfaction at successfully, on occasion, protecting some of our castles in the sand.

Post scripts
Though I say above that there is hope for ‘fixing’ the system I really am far short of closure on that point. I invite you to read here and here for my thoughts about the very premise of humanitarian aid and to decrypt the reference to sand castles above.

Look soon for a second part to this post explaining why the humanitarian aid system is -all things considered- doing an amazing job.

Contact me with your thoughts, feedback or snarky comments.

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 more than a decade.

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Fresh Eyes: An Outsiders Point of View

As a university senior, I recognize that I’m not the most qualified academic to study the lives of humanitarian aid workers. In fact…I’m not even majoring in something that has systematically provided me with tools to understand the lives of aid workers.

I’m a political science major and have been from my first semester at Elon University. I came into college with an hope of someday continuing to law school, but (like many others) my career aspirations have changed. After studying abroad in Cape Town, South Africa in the Fall of 2014, I returned to Elon and took a course called “Being and Becoming a Global Citizen”. This course, taught by Dr. Tom Arcaro, opened my eyes to the field of humanitarian aid work and began my work on this project.

My political science background has come in handy when it came to helping analyze the quantitative research from the survey results. I’ll admit, I’m a bit of a data-geek and loved wallowing in the numbers and percentages of this dataset. There is so much to learn from the results of a survey of this scope and magnitude.

Screen Shot 2016-01-05 at 2.31.12 PMWomen in aid
As a bit of a feminist, I couldn’t help but focus on the variable of gender when looking at the data. I immediately was interested in looking at the variables of gender and age in order to understand how gender affects the length of a person’s career. Of our 1010 respondents, women dominated the aid industry from 18-35, but after 35 those numbers substantially fall off and begin to level out with men. What is the cause of this sharp decrease? It’s difficult to say for certainty using quantitative data, but my initial thought is that it has something to do with a women’s biological clock and stereotypical family roles.

As mentioned above, I’m not an aid worker or an academic scholar in this field so my conclusions of the above age and gender graph may be completely off base. When converted to percentages based on gender (see table below), the numbers aren’t nearly as dramatic but nevertheless a clear trend remains. Feel free to leave a note in the comments section regarding the above age and gender gap graph. I’d love to hear the opinions of actual aid workers regarding this disparity to shed some light on what’s going on.

Screen Shot 2016-01-05 at 3.06.04 PM

My initial impression of this data left me with many questions. When I look at this dataset in Excel and SPSS it quickly becomes apparent that there are some serious gender differences in the field of humanitarian aid work beyond just that of the age curve. My personal connection, as a feminist who hopes to someday have career in aid work, caused me to seek answers to some of these important questions.

Stay tuned for more in-depth posts regarding gender in aid work. Please feel free to leave a comment or send me and email at



Laura Murphy is an undergraduate at Elon University studying political science and international studies. She first took an interest in humanitarian aid work after taking an exploratory class in January 2015 and recently began working with Tom Arcaro on his dataset. She is a self-proclaimed data-geek and has a interest in a career in humanitarian aid work.

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The impact of gender on the lives of aid workers

“Being a guy is like playing the easy setting. Less harassment, more respect.”
–31-35yo male expat aid worker

“Being female and working in many male dominated cultures I have to be extra mindful about how my actions are perceived, especially in management positions. Also, safety.”
–25-30yo female expat aid worker

The impact of gender on the lives of aid workers

One person’s view from 50,000 feet
That one’s gender is a factor in daily life is a cultural universal.  Gender differentiation has always existed among human cultures all over the planet and for our entire existence, starting in those caves hundreds of thousands of years ago in what is now South Africa.  Humans, a species blessed -or cursed- with the ability to engage in complex thought and having the ability to possess and, more importantly, pass on cultural learning from one generation to the next, have made gender differentiation a major and lasting and social factor.

Though with only rare exceptions all of us have either a penis or a vagina -and the attendant secondary sexual characteristics that go along with said equipment, unlike other mammalian species, humans have socially constructed gender.  Further, we havediff taken our sexuality -who we feel an urge to have sex with- and conflated it with gender identity.  We are a complicated species and, unfortunately, have tended in most cultures to find a way to morph somewhat benign and perhaps functionally useful gender differentiation into a not-so-benign and, for 50% of the population markedly not advantageous, gender stratification.  My personal theory is that gender stratification is fairly “new” and that up until about 15,ooo years ago we lived actually most of our existence in a non-sexist manner.  Social differentiation transforms into social stratification in cultural settings where a surplus of food, etc. is being regularly generated (i.e., concurrent with the rise of the domestication of plant and animal species) and this transformation, methinks, gives rise to gender stratification, i.e., sexism.

Yes, sexism.  An ideology of domination and subordination based on the assumption of the biological and/or cultural inferiority of those with vaginas and the use of this assumption to legitimate and rationalize (commonly grounded in our modern Abrahamic religions) the inferior or unequal treatment of these vagina possessors.

Are we doomed forever to a world based in gender stratification, dominated by varying degrees of sexism?  Perhaps not, but I think it will take several more generations before we live in a world where we simply enjoy our differences instead of exploiting them.

Same same, but different; now, from 35,000 feet
Aid work is, well, work.  It is a job in a sector.  Of the 400,000-500,00 people around the world which might fall into this category, there exists a healthy mix of both males and females.  In many organizations there are more females than males, and of those that took the time to complete our survey, 70% were female.  Representative of the sector?  Likely not, but a good indication of strong female presence in the sector.

Given that we live in a gendered and, yes, sexist world, one can conclude that there are few if any occupations where to one degree or another one’s gender is not a factor.  Well, duh.

Screenshot 2015-11-23 09.07.56On to data from our survey 
I have previously written two posts having to do with the male-female differences in our survey responses.  Check here and here for these posts.  I turn now to the results from our specific questions about the impact of gender.

Two questions
Which of these four factors is the most important in influencing how we see ourselves:  race/ethnicity/cultural status, social class/relative wealth and power, gender or age?   Which of those four factors is the most important in influencing how others perceive and react to us?

Certainly every one of these factors is critically important for all of us no matter where we are in the world or what our occupation might be.  Indeed, that is a basic truism in the social sciences. Though Max Weber was referring more narrowly to wealth and power when he first used the term, his concept of “life chances” can be usefully applied more broadly to all four of these factors. Each can and frequently does play into how we go through our lives and our work days, that is, what “life chances” we enjoy -or don’t enjoy- depending upon where we are vis-a-vis these four major social variables.  Which factor is the most important for an individual can change quickly, even moment by moment as we transition from one social setting to the next, for example getting off a plane to a deployment faced with immediate and dramatic cultural shifts.  In short, all four factors are critical, and various combinations can lead alternately to open or closed doors.

This comment from a young, white, male expat aid worker sums this point up nicely:

“In Muslim countries, being a male makes a lot of things easier, even though in West Africa you are generally perceived as white before being perceived as a man or a woman. The only disadvantages in being a Male in some unstable countries are that it makes you more of a target for ‘extremist/hostile’ groups in some contexts.”

Vaginas and penises
That one’s perceived gender can influence how a person is responded to is the focus below, and by presenting some  representative narrative responses from our survey I hope to shed light on the deeper contextual nuances of perceived gender identity among aid workers.

As a related note, how you feel about yourself at any one moment is influenced by how you believe others are seeing you and how they are evaluating -judging-what they see.  Perhaps that is part of the allure of being an aid worker: “How wonderful you are to help other people!”  Though the “looking-glass self” can have that positive side, the way you are perceived by others can sometimes be negative (“When two thousand years old you are, see how many times a week you are accused of being ‘too male, too pale, stale.'” stated one male respondent to our survey).  

To go one step further, looking through the lens of sociologist Irving Goffman’s concept of “impression management” when we are at home and/or in our cubicle environment we are able to use myriad props, cues and affectations to enhance -or mute- any or all of our gender, ethnic/race, age or class statuses.  We are in control of how we are seen by others and can manipulate -albeit most times doing so unconsciously- the looking-glass effect, somewhat.  By stark contrast, while in the field there are times when we have very little control over how we are perceived.  One important interpersonal skill any aid worker must have is the ability to imagine what people in an array of contexts see when they look at them and then act in accordance with that knowledge.  To the point:  a young, black, female, American aid worker gets of the plane in [fill in the blank].  What do the beneficiaries see first, i.e., which of these four demographic variables is most salient?  Yes, it varies.  Yes, it is culture/situation specific.  But in the end, the person getting off the plane is not the one in control of how she is being perceived, how she is identified and reacted to.  The choice of whether or not you wear your aid organization branded t-shirt is trivial.  You will -despite your intentions otherwise- be seen as a “Westerner’ first.

Some results
Below are our results to the question related to gender being a factor for aid or development workers.  On one level I am a bit surprised that nearly a third -30%- Screenshot 2014-07-22 18.00.29of the respondents indicated their gender was not a factor at all in their work.  When broken down by male compared to female, the percentages differ in what I would consider a predictable manner with females lower at 28% compared to 36% for males. I can understand that a male might not be habituated to thinking in terms of gender, but for well of a fourth of the females to report gender not a factor sounds, well, a bit odd, especially as I look more closely at the other numbers and read through some of the comments that were offered in the open-ended followup question (Q41). That said, perhaps these numbers nod at the points I made above.

What we do see very clearly in the data below is that that by a very wide margin gender is a more negative factor for females than for males, with 39% of the females indicating that their gender was a negative factor compared to only 7% of the males indicating the same.

Q 40:  To what extent has your gender been a factor in your humanitarian aid work experience?

Screenshot 2015-10-26 11.42.15

Combined responses:

Screenshot 2015-10-26 11.46.47


In the words of women -and men- in the field
Among the 443 (thank you all!) that provided a response in the followup open ended question (Q41) several themes and patterns emerge.

Gender impacts both relationships with colleagues in the aid worker industry and those with the non-aid workers (both aid/support beneficiaries and non-beneficiary community members) in both negative and positive ways. Below are examples.

  • “It’s been creeping up on me … I never thought it is an issue but over the years I did notice that it is. Either with project clients and sometimes with colleagues.” (30+yo female expat aid worker)
  • “I would say the positive aspects outweigh the negative. As a woman, I have been able to work with women and children in communities more closely than if I was a man. I also feel blessed to have close female friends in this field and we try to support and nurture each other as much as possible. I have not witnessed men bonding in this way. However, I have experienced sexism and harassment quite a bit in the course of my work. In some countries the harassment was significant and carried with it the threat of violence. On a couple of occasions I have not received jobs due to my gender. I have also experienced female bullying.” (41+y0 female expat aid worker)

These next ones gets pretty specific regarding power dynamics and expresses anger that I suspect may generate some head nods among the women reading this post.

  • “Because white women like me can still be viewed negatively, dismissed, ignored, by other white men – yes, really. So, a white woman in a senior position in Africa? Tough. African men ignore me routinely, especially if I am in the company of a male colleague, I may as well not be there sometimes. Only when they realise they need me to get to the money, do they talk to me. By then it is too late. Enough assholes in aid work, I am not supporting those who do not acknowledge a white woman.”  (31+yo female expat air worker)
  • More risk associated with being alone/out Sometimes I get the sense that people don’t take what I’m saying as seriously, and I noticed they’ll look to or defer to the man in the group, even if I’m the one in the position to answer/position of authority.

The next few examples highlight the nuance of gender impact and, importantly, voice clearly the point that in gender stratified cultures getting free access to -and generating a sense of trust with-women is much easier for female aid workers.

  • “My answer will change based on the day. It is definitely a large factor but in some instances it is positive and in others it is negative. I deal regularly with sexist rules and comments made by other expat staff members who I am sure do not even realize what they are saying or doing (e.g. no you cannot ride a bike, no you cannot drive a car. you are too emotional you must not be able to cope with stress. no you cannot attend this meeting with us, etc. etc.) When dealing with locals I have found that being a woman is often a positive as people seemScreenshot 2014-07-22 18.02.25 to open up and trust women more than men and are more likely to feel they must take care of a woman, therefore offering me more access to people’s homes to be able to talk to them.” (41+y0 female expat aid worker)
  • Being a woman can be exceedingly difficult, especially in conflict zones where I’m working with mostly men. All of the decisions are based on a 2-dimensional perspective. It takes a lot of explaining to bring about a holistic approach and/or incorporate the lives of women in planning. Sometimes, as an expat woman, I’m considered androgynous and given the same access as a male. But that can also be isolating, depending on the context since I end up in the male category and have to fight to speak to a woman or plan things that factor in women’s lives. Sometimes, I’m a critical bridge between the women/vulnerable and decision makers, a “voice” for women when they’re kept out of the process. That can also be a burden if decision makers are expecting you to be the voice for millions of women.  (40+yo female expat aid worker)
  • In my organization, “rank and file” staff at HQ level are dominated by young women, whereas senior managers and leadership continue to be dominated by men. This is changing, but still observable. In the HQ setting, being a driven female was positive because my motivation was rewarded with opportunities. In the field, the overwhelming majority of “rank and file” staff (local nationals) are men, as well as heads of local organizations and government, and often fairly traditional. This made being a senior leader challenging at times, as I had to work harder to earn respect from my male counterparts.

More thoughts on safety, sexism and the advantages of being a female
Many respondents referred to the fact that being a woman carried -or was perceived to carry- more risk:

  • This was a challenging question. While I don’t feel I have ever been discriminated against for being female in my job, there are certain implications. In my organization, the majority of staff at HQ are actually female – so I am at a slight disadvantage were I to try and work at HQ. In the field it is different – there are some perceptions by male coworkers that some deployment areas are ‘too dangerous’ for women so this can limit your movement.
  • It’s been difficult in two ways: 1. There is certainly an “old boys network” in my work context. My bosses are more likely to listen to other male workers’ opinions, especially on academic or theoretical topics. 2. Being a woman in a Central American context is frustrating on a daily level (catcalls, threats to security) which I think decreases my productivity.
  • I have experienced sexual harassment from “locals” and staff alike too many times to count. I have at times felt like a liability to male staff when confronted with armed groups who use the threat of rape and kidnap of females as pressure to get what they want. I also believe my gender has enabled me to connect with children despite language barriers and open conversations that may not have happened otherwise.
  • The only issue that my gender has caused is that it was a factor in deciding whether or not to go to work in Afghanistan. That’s the only time it has influenced any decision I’ve made.
  • In a lot of countries being a woman means working ten times harder than men just to be taken seriously (even by your own colleagues). And I have been in situations when me being a woman put me in more physical danger.

This pity response provides a great summary of the above:
Sometimes positive (interviewing female participants) and other times more dangerous.

Which is the most salient demographic variable?  In many cultures (most?) age is traditionally a major factor regarding to whom respect and attention is given.  The first comment below captures just that, and the second one, from a male, illustrates that even physical stature can have an impact.

  • I think as a woman, there are still issues in respecting me in some cases, likely. I think my age (I’m still young compared to most local colleagues) has probably been a bigger factor than my gender though.
  • Being a (tall) male has helped to gain respect, especially among beneficiary communities and local partners.

Being able to access female beneficiaries is critical and is an advantage for females.

  • Being a woman can sometimes help in communication and negotiation
  • When I am able to work directly with poor or marginalized women in visual storytelling processes, my gender creates a more open and safe environment for them. As such, I always ask for a female translator, if needed, when working with women.
  • It has been relatively easy to speak with authority figures in other countries as a male, however I know how much is lost because I have not been able to speak to some females in some countries. (male expat aid worker)

Here is the view of the same situation from a few male expat aid workers stressing the access issue:

  • Being male, and given the strong pro-male bias in all developing countries, it makes the decision making aspect and coordination aspects of the work easier; however, due to my focus on maternal health, it is a problem in getting full access to women in all cultural contexts and when you do have to do a needs assessment or medical interview, you may not get all the information you need, you need to rely on translations that are often not so good.
  • It has been relatively easy to speak with authority figures in other countries as a male, however I know how much is lost because I have not been able to speak to some females in some countries.
  • In most of the world, being male has come with added respect, increased security access, and the ability to bully when necessary. Unfortunately, i don’t have access to the female voice.

This final thought comes from Annalisa Addis, a female aid worker who wonderfully sums up most of the above.

“Regarding Q40, a partial explanation of why so many respondents said that gender was “not a factor at all” might be due to how the question was formulated (i.e. too generic and/or lacking a “mixed impact” answer). Let me elaborate a bit. It is clear that gender might play a role in several aspects of the life of an aid worker: for instance in their recruitment, in their interactions with their bosses, in their interactions with local colleagues, in establishing relationship with beneficiaries, in the way they spend their free time, and so on. For some of these things, being a woman might be detrimental (e.g. personal security), but for others it can be an advantage (e.g. easier access to female beneficiaries). Some people (like me) may feel that, on average, the impact of their gender is neither negative nor positive, and thus they may have chosen “no impact”. But literally speaking, “no impact at all” is very different from “there are both positive aspects and negative ones, but I can’t choose which one is stronger as they somehow even each other out”. I bet that you would have gotten different percentages had you asked to evaluate how gender has affected a series of separate things (for instance: recruitment, professional relationships within the office, professional relationship with local authorities, life outside of the office).”

Some take-home thoughts
imagesBeing a female aid worker is, in sum, not the same as being a male aid worker in many, many ways.  The quantitative results from our main question highlighted the fact that one’s gender is more of a negative factor for women. The qualitative data produced the insight that though there are negatives and positives of being a female when working with colleagues as well as with beneficiaries and locals, the negatives working with colleagues were much more commonly cited than the negatives when working with beneficiaries or locals.  Indeed, what I am reading is that in terms of doing her job, being a female was frequently a distinct disadvantage.

One take-home point from all of the above is that aid and development organizations recruiting and hoping to retain qualified females need to be constantly aware of the impact of gender and ceaselessly work to minimize the negatives in whatever ways they can. They should begin by hearing the voices of the women already in their ranks and using their insights and growth to support those who come behind them, both males and females.  A second and critical point is that the gender mix of the team in any aid situation needs scrutiny and work needs to be done to insure maximum effective use of gender differences.  Finally, this comment from a male expat aid worker nails much of the above pretty well.

“I find that most people in this sector are women. They have a monopoly on a lot of jobs around gender and child welfare. So for a man, it is good as we are under-represented in a lot of areas. Having said that, it seems to me that there are too many men at the top end of the sector, and this should perhaps change, although I think the humanitarian sector must be better than average regarding equality.”

With regard to the different demographics variables (gender, age, ethnicity, nationality) and how all of them, not just gender interact is critical.  There is a growing literature about “intersectionality” focusing on how an individual’s many biological and social identity characteristics interact on multiple levels, and for me this phenomena is even more complicated when imagining how aid worker identity is understood both from a first person perspective and in the eye’s of the beneficiaries.

In the words of Annalisa Addis (cited above),

“In the context of aid work, all these things get reshuffled, so being a woman might actually be an advantage (or a non-issue) in certain situations, but you may still get problems (or special treatment) due to your skin colour, or your age. At the end of the day, you are ALL these things at once – what changes are the implications attached to each of them, and which ones prevail. This resonates with those respondents who felt sort of genderless, but very much racialised, in the context of aid work. Crucially, intersectionality illuminates why the simple fact of “being a woman” is not sufficient to make any sort of generalisation (you need to differentiate among women of different ethnicities, from different backgrounds, of different age groups, etc.). Local authorities may listen to NGO country directors regardless of their gender, because they can provide or withold critical resources: in this case power is more relevant than gender, but there may be millions of examples where other considerations prevail.”

There is so much more to report from our survey data about this general topic, so stay tuned.  In my next posts I’ll comment more about gender differences and about the impact of all of the social variables on the lives of aid workers.  Perhaps the sociologist Irving Goffman was on to something when he said “This special kind of institutional arrangement [that we find ourself in] does not so much support the self as constitute it.” Indeed, in many respects we are as others see us, like it or not.

Thoughts, questions or comments?  Reach me via email.

Special thanks go to Annalisa Addis who contributed to this post.


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 more than a decade.

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A (second) note on faith and aid workers

A (second) note on faith and aid workers

I recently presented and commented on our survey data relevant to faith and aid workers.  Just before this post went live EvilGenius was putting out two mini-polls on that topic.  As with our longer survey, many respondents were generous with their time and offered extensive and thoughtful comments.

Blair v HitchensEvilGenius asked first for the respondent’s views on the net impact of religion as a force for good or bad in the world.  Though this question is clearly very complex, there is precedent for asking it.  The Tony Blair vs Christopher Hitchens debate that took place in Toronto, Canada back in 2010 examined the same question, specifically, “Be it resolved, religion is a force for good in the world”.

The second mini-poll is a bit more specific and probes into the question “does being faith-based impact the efficacy of aid organizations.”

I’ll present some data on both of these questions and then conclude with some observations of my own. Please note that the response rate to both of these mini-polls was low and we are very interested in more viewpoints.  If you are reading this and have not yet take the polls please do so now.  Each is here and here and below.


Is religion force for good in the world?
The specific question was “Based on what you’ve seen and what you know from your experience related to aid or development work, is religion on balance a force for good, or a force for bad in the world?”  The vast majority of those who responded to this question indicated “I have an inside knowledge the aid, development, or charity sector/industry. I work or have worked for a charity or NGO, an institutional donor like DFID or the Gates Foundation, a beltway bandit like DAI, or I have been a consultant to one of these kinds of entities.”

The results, though clearly tentative, are dramatic.  An anemic 13% of those responding felt that on balance religion was a force for good in the world.  The rest were either not sure at 35% or, actually a majority at 52%, felt just the opposite.

Screenshot 2015-10-25 08.08.07

Below are responses representing all three choices.  I have highlighted what I think are particularly salient points.

First, on balance a force for bad.  I have included two since this was the majority view, with the second representing a view evoking Marx:

  • “To begin, I think that it is difficult to say on balance whether it is a force for good or bad, as many of the effects of religion are not necessarily quantifiable or equivalent, but considering the harm that is caused by religion, which cannot be negated by its good religionimpacts, I’m comfortable saying that it is a force for the worse in the world. Between the manipulation of religious beliefs to oppress, marginalize, and dehumanize people, often by religious authorities, and the conservative and reactionary character of many religious institutions, religion causes great harm around the world, especially when it comes to social justice. Being from the US, I’m very aware of how religious conservatism is a major driver of polarization and oppression in my country. That being said, I think there are many benefits of faith, and I know many people who are driven to good due to their faith or spirituality. From what I have experienced of the world, I think faith is seldom if ever an actual cause of things like oppression and conflict, but due to its fundamental and existential place in many people’s lives, it is susceptible to manipulation by people with power, especially those who have some form of religious authority. Faith and spirituality drive people to seek justice and make the world a better place, but religion can be used to exclude certain people from those deserving of sharing the betterment of the world. Finally, being an atheist, I find that many people still think having faith of some form is a prerequisite for being a moral person, and in many situations, not least at home in the US, I am not comfortable revealing my lack of faith. This I think gets at one of the greatest problems with religion, that it tends to prevent people from accepting without judgement others who are different from themselves, which is absolutely critical in the modern world if we are to successfully live together and achieve the aims of social justice and development that we strive for.”
  • “Divisive regressive tool for social control.”

Next, on balance a force for good:

The majority of people in the world are religious. The majority of people in the world live their lives peacefully (and are only unfortunately caught up in conflict if they are in a conflict area). Their faith brings them personal strength, and meaning as well as strengthening and organising communities. At the local level (which is ultimately the level aid should be concerned with), religion is a mostly a force for good.”

And finally, I am not sure:

“I see the strength and support it can give people, and a platform from which people perform generous acts, but I also see how it excludes, marginalizes, or encourages people (from many faiths) into more extreme posturing on issues of social justice and compassion.”

I see the importance of faith + humility and understanding. No faiths can be proven and the religion I believe in is no more evidence based than another faith. I therefore cannot say or think that my faith is the correct one but it is just something that speaks to me in my heart and is very personal. I wish reLincolnligious institutions would promote understanding and knowledge of different faiths. I wish they would not preach their way as being the only correct path. I wish they would also encourage enquiry and address the limitations of their histories and sources. Sierra Leone provides the perfect example of different faiths living harmoniously, ‘Jesus loves Allah’, ‘Allah loves Jesus’ written on cars.”

To the respondent who wondered, ” Can we get away from these dichotomies? I will point out that though the question is certainly very complex, as is evidenced by other’s responses, pushing people to take a position on the question does generate useful dialogue.


Faith based aid organizations ‘bad’?
The next mini-poll generated some thoughtful responses as well.  The key question was, “Irrespective of anything else, does the fact that an organization is faith-based or not faith-based have an effect on the quality, and ultimately the impact of its programmes and interventions in the field?”  The results to this, 55% ‘No’ and 45% ‘Yes’,  and what went behind these responses is hinted at in the followup question.  Here are the quantitative results indicating the a majority of this small sample felt, of course, that it all depends, but minority opinion was biased toward non-faith-based organizations.

Screenshot 2015-10-25 10.34.29

Here are a couple representative narrative responses that articulate some of the nuances.

“Truly, my answer is “depends.” I have seen both stellar examples of how FBNGOs leverage faith to the advantage of the population they serve and terrible examples how faith is used to excuse bad projects. Ultimately, the failures are due to bad management, which exists regardless of faith.”

“Depends on the context that the organisation is working in. If a faith based organisation is working in communities of the same faith then they can be more effective than others as they can engage deeper with people’s worldview and behaviour. However if working outside this context or in communities hat are not religious then their impact would not be different to non faith based organisations.”

Concluding thoughtsworld on fire
Religion is a major social force all over the world and has clearly shaped most of our past and clearly much of our present (see: ISIS).  Understanding this force is critical for this who concern themselves with effective aid.

Let’s continue the conversation.  EvilGenius has been busy as well so click here for an AidSpeak blog post on this topic.

As always, contact me with feedback on this or any post.  The two most recent EvilGenius mini-polls linked above are directly relevant to the topic of this post.  Again, if you have not done so already, please take the time to give us your thoughts.

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 more than a decade.

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A note on faith and aid work(ers)

Besides [being a] calling it was also a sense of adventure.”

-41-45 yo female HQ worker

“None of the answers above describes why I because an aid worker, but I did choose the ‘closest’ response. It was never a life-long dream to provide aid to those less fortunate than myself. I’m not sure if I really have a strong, concrete answer. Compassion? Righteous anger? Indignant injustice? Fighting against “The Man”? God’s calling?”

-36-40  unspecified gender HQ worker

“I think it is a bit disrespectful to ask about the level of idealism of aid workers. Aren’t people working on a 9-5pm job idealists too thinking they will have a better life and get promoted? I think aid workers have an aspiration, something guide them and do not lack a sense of realism.”

-26-30 yo female expat aid worker

A note on faith and aid work(ers)

Inferences from the data
We did not directly ask questions about faith (or lack thereof), but both our quantitative and qualitative data do shed some light on the topic of faith and aid work. A significant subset -nearly 1 in 5- in our sample (17%) identified as working for faith based organizations.  The World Bank lists faith basednearly 500 such faith based organizations around the world ranging dramatically in size, reach and mission.

As I looked through all of the quantitative data I found few differences between those working in faith based versus non-faith based organizations.  The numbers were fairly comparable when looking at demographic data such as gender, race, and education level.  The faith based workers did tend to be, on the whole, slightly younger than those working in non-fatih based organizations.

There was one dramatic exception.

Q22 asked, “Which statement below *best* describes your primary reason for becoming an aid worker?”  Below are the results comparing those who reported working in faith-based versus non-faith-based organizations. Of note is that while almost a third (29%) of those in faith-based organizations indicated that the primary reason they became an aid worker is because “I felt called by God or  higher power.”  By contrast only slightly more than 1% of those based in non-faith-based organizations indicated the same.


Screenshot 2015-10-12 08.41.14

Q23 asked,  “Please elaborate on the response you gave to the question above on why you became an aid worker” and nearly 60% of the respondents chose to take us up on that offer.  Many gave specific mention that there was a strong social justice component to their motivation, but that is grist for a separate post.  Below are some comments from the faith-based respondents.

26 of the 94 -28%- respondents from faith-based organization specifically referred to God/bible/being “called” in their narrative answer.  Here are a few:

  • As a Christian, I feel God gave me a passion to work with those in need especially those in East Africa.” 
  •  “I think God had a large part in my becoming a humanitarian aid worker. But I could have stated home and helped people. My skills and passion were more focused on issues of global poverty and injustice. So put them together and I
    This is the word cloud from the 94 responses made by faith based organization workers.

    This is the word cloud from the 94 responses made by faith based organization workers.

    followed my dream of becoming a humanitarian aid worker.”   31-35 yo male expat aid worker

  • “In my opinion, there is very little difference in my feeling called by God and my following my dream to provide aid to those less fortunate than myself. I believe I have dreams and passion and skills that God uses for the good of others; at the same time, I believe Christians are called to do justice for those less fortunate in some way or other. In my case, it is working in development.”  26-30 yo female expat aid worker

There was this comment from an aid worker in a faith based organization that stood out:

“I have always engaged in work with a social conscience. I ‘fell’ into this work in the 1980s as a destitute backpacker in West Africa. Incidentally, I am an atheist.”  31-35 yo female expat aid worker

Big differences not there
One place where perhaps one could have anticipated a difference in responses is Q28  “Regarding your sense of idealism, which statement below best describes your experience?” and Q29 which asked for a narrative response asking about changes in the respondent’s level of idealism.  The numbers differ little between those working in faith based versus non-faith based organizations, and that a slightly higher percentage of faith-based workers reported lower levels of idealism compared to their view before becoming an aid worker.

In Q59 we asked the respondents to give their views about the overall direction of humanitarian aid work and the numbers indicate that the faith based workers had a consistently (though slight) more optimistic view of the impact being made.

I’ll end this post with one of my favorite responses.

“I bought into the Liberal narrative fed to me by my left-leaning university professors and supported by a guilty and near-sighted North America: ‘The Third World’ was an innocent place ‘out there’ where innocent good people suffered, because of the Big Bad West – due to All Catastrophic Colonialism -both historical and neo. I could not call myself a Good Person, a Good Christian, or on the Right Side of History if I didn’t Make The Sacrifice and Go Out There and Do Something (sorry for obnoxious capitalization).”  —36-40 yo female HQ worker

Concluding thought
To what extent does faith play a part in aid work?  Given the nature of our data the best I can do is make a few inferences.  For a small percentage it seems to play a crucial role, but for most aid workers it does not appear to be a major factor.  My view is that Screenshot 2015-10-12 19.59.45we are wired to seek fairness and justice. Like most physical attributes, this wiring is not binary but rather distributed within a population likely in something resembling a normal curve.  Were there tools of analysis sophisticated enough we would find that aid workers generally come from one end of that curve, the end that accents the human need to ease pain and, ultimately, to do unto others as we would have them do unto us.  Some are -yes- called to do humanitarian aid work, but the calling is being done by forces from within, not from ‘above.’

Yeah, I just said that.

As always, contact me with feedback on this or any post.  The two most recent EvilGenius mini-polls linked above are directly relevant to the topic of this post.  If you have not done so already, please take the time to give us your thoughts.

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 more than a decade.

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“I definitely understand why dating within the aid worker population is appealing. Conversations with laymen are hard. I think I only try once in a while, usually when I’m unusually overwhelmed or frustrated and it kind of comes pouring out. But it’s exhausting, because you realize how many words you need to use just to catch the person up on why something is as vexing as it is. It’s such an intricate environment.”

-31-35 yo female HQ worker

“It’s too different, lengthy and involving effort on both sides to do it – I don’t think they are really interested, and neither am I.”

-31-35 yo female expat worker

“As long as I return alive, that’s all she cares about. Fine by me. It’s better she does not know.”

-51-55 yo male HQ worker

Explaining your job
Aid workers have a job frequently misunderstood by the general public; stereotypes abound, some positive, others not so much. How many times have you heard, “Thank you for all you do!” “Wow, you get to travel to exotic places!” “Oh, you are one of those arrogant bastards trying to export Western lifestyle in all parts of the globe.”?

Here are some questions that went though my mind as looked at narrative data in our survey:

  • When the situation calls for it, how do aid workers explain their job to friends, lovers, family and children in their lives?
  • Is the need to explain based mainly on affective/emotional needs or are there purely instrumental reasons for disclosing?red
  • To what degree do the preconceptions people have about the aid work sector impact the ability to explain their job?
  • To what degree is the aid work job too complicated to explain effectively?
  • To what degree does the nature of aid work impact the tendency for aid workers to compartmentalize their lives?

Below I focus on the questions 33-38 on our survey which asked respondents about the challenge of explaining the nature of their job to those around them, namely friends, lovers, family and children in their lives.

The 1048 total narrative responses were fascinating to wade through.  While many were short and minimally responsive, there were countless comments that shed more nuanced light onto our research questions.

Parents, siblings, in-laws
Q33 asked, “Which statement below best describes your ability to explain to non-aid worker non-significant other adult family members the nature of your job?”  Rising above the awkward wording in the question were 426 respondents offering some  comment regarding difficulty explaining their job to parents, siblings, in-laws and others close to them.  I’ll preface this section by pointing out that there was a subtle but, I feel, telling difference in how men and women responded.  The results below indicate that women tend to have slightly less less trouble than men explaining their job.

Screenshot 2015-10-05 12.23.16

These first two illustrate clearly that explaining the job is clearly not “one size fits all.”

  • “It’s too complicated to get through the layers of assumptions, stereotypes and cliches; most of my family seem to think i’m on a vastly extended gap year, in a comic relief sort of way. They don’t know the kind of money and resources i oversee or the complexities of the work. I think too if i described to them what i actually work with, they wouldn’t be able to hear it as it is hard to think about directly. For some of them, the response is ‘well, you chose it’ if i mention any difficulties. For others, there’s almost a resentment connected to ‘oh you’re so worthy’ which i don’t completely understand. A couple of my close family know what i actually do to a greater degree and are proud of me. Mostly i think people start with an assumption that they know what it is and it’s too hard and too boring to get into why it’s not that. In addition, my technical area of violence against women is not something people generally want to think about or talk about too much – and there are also a lot of assumptions about this too.”  -41-45 yo female HQ worker
  • “This depends on the person. In general, I try to gloss over the bad stuff and just focus on the good stuff. Or if I talk about the bad stuff I complain about the food or not having any personal space and I leave out the dead babies unless someone asks a direct question.”  -31-35 yo female HQ worker

The next comments present a representative array of situations to which many aid workers can easily relate.

  • I used to make more of an effort but I have found it increasingly difficult due to the sense that I feel it is difficult to explain the entire context in which HAWs work – the aid system itself, the given country and cultural context, levels of relative poverty, the given disaster/situation, etc. Plus usually it is not easy dinner conversation or something that they find pleasant to discuss casually so I speak in mostly general terms and focus only on “bite sized” anecdotes if I delve deeper.”  -26-30 yo female expat aid worker
  • “Generally, family and friends are not interested. When I talk about my work, and see their eyes glaze, then I listen to what they are interested in.”  -61-65 yo female expat aid worker
  • “My mother thinks I’m insane for not having qualified as a solicitor in my home town and marrying a corkman, buying a house and immediately setting about the course of procreation.” -26-30 yo female expat aid worker
  • “I made the mistake of being honest about some aid inefficacy that I witnessed to. Now, it may seem stupid, but my parents believe I am just wasting time – which hurts me because I am still doing the best I can.”  -26-30 yo female local aid worker
  • “I have no difficulty, but often get the sense that others do not understand it still. They still think I live in a mud hut and give out stuff to poor villagers. I give up trying to explain often.” –41-45 yo male expat aid worker

Significant others
Q35 looked at sharing with life partners and lovers asking, “Which statement below best describes your ability to explain to non-aid worker significant other the nature of your job?”  Though many reported having the luxury of their partner also being an aid worker or in a similar job, many offered comments illustrating a range of understanding and acceptance.  Of note is the fact that many used this comment space to point out that they were without a significant other.  This respondent, methinks, speaks for many:

“Um, what if I don’t have a “significant other.” You bastards. Didn’t think of that did you? When I was dating aid workers (which happens) I didn’t have any trouble explaining “what I did” but the relationships were so dysfunctional that explaining our jobs in tidy sentences was the least of our problems. I dream of dating somebody who knows nothing about what I do…” -41-45 yo male HQ worker

On the dating front, I saw this comment frequently in various wordings, “Since becoming an aid worker I have only dated aid workers, diplomats, military, or related. They all get it. I can’t really imagine having a significant other who has not been in such a sector.”  -31-35 yo female expat aid worker

Screenshot 2015-10-05 12.23.33

This respondent reminded me of Mary-Anne in J’s books and likely represents the views of many aid workers:  

“Part of being an aid worker is not really understanding what “significant other” means – or only dating in the sector – both of which being equally confusing. in the sector, it’s hard to detach from work – and it’s a relationship (vacationship or locationship) built around coordinating R&Rs and understanding each other’s acronyms. outside the sector it depends on how much of an interest he takes in my work – hopefully a good amount, but not always the case. more often than not it remains a mystery.”  -36-40 yo female expat aid worker

These next posts illustrate a common “holding back” theme.

“My on again off again boyfriend thinks I do this job for the ego boost (I try to explain that I spend a fair amount of time hating myself and trying to un-see what I’ve seen). He wants me to quit…”  –

“My partner worries about my exposure to danger, so I censor most of what I do.” — 31-35 yo male expat aid worker

And finally for comic (?) relief, here is the response given by AidWorkerJesus, “I’m not allowed to comment about my significant other, despite the allegations in certain racier pages of the non-canonical gospels.”

Q37  drilled into the task of explaining the job to children asking, “Which statement below best describes your ability to explain to non-adult family members the nature of your job?”  There were many who felt that it was impossible and/or inappropriate but also many who felt that children could sometimes understand more easily than adults in part because they were free of preconceptions.

Screenshot 2015-10-05 12.23.49

The five posts below illustrate a common thread I have noticed throughout the narrative data.  Aid workers are very sensitive to the fact that what they do is frequently misunderstood and reframed improperly in ethnocentric/Westerncentric terms.

  • “Nieces/Nephews understand that I travel a lot to help people. I focus more on natural disasters (earthquakes, cyclones etc) to avoid explaining complex conflict (i.e. CAR) and to discourage sub-Saharan African bias.” -31-35 yo female HQ worker
  • “Out of fear of instilling a “help the people with charity” mentality in my younger relatives, I just try to emphasize that people help themselves more than I help anyone.”  -26-30 yo female HQ worker
  • “Way too complicated. “Helping poor people in Africa” is about all my teenage nephews could compute, and I refuse to talk about my job in that way.” -41-45 yo female expat aid worker
  • “Not sure they’re interested. I also don’t care to glamourise this work in case they feel it’s something that can get into through voluntourism.”  -31-35 yo female expat aid worker
  • “It’s easiest when I describe to people that we help governments in developing countries to support their Ministries in e.g. Health and Education perform better, collect data, deliver services, etc. Family can relate to Government Ministires doing real and important and complicated work. That way, it’s not about pencils and goats and they can undertand this isn’t little charity projects – it’s professional work and yes third world countries have functioning States like you do.” -36-40 yo female HQ worker

This next statement captures the same sentiment and expands on the ongoing challenge of aid workers to frame the social reality 0f their world in the most accurate and unbiased manner possible.  Part of the task involves understanding and then working to change the ‘mental models’ of others.

“There are different mental models that we all have regarding interpretations of aid work and I find it difficult to relate to others’ mental models or bring people into my mental models. This prevents meaningful discussions or prevents moving past surface level conversations. This is exasperated by increased levels of idealism amongst youth that I find difficult to relate to.”  -26-30 yo female expat aid worker

Other comments illustrate that some kids can understand more than some might think though some may not be ready for deeper appreciation.

taking to child“It’s easier to explain to kids that things are complicate because they haven’t yet formed opinions. They can manage complexity better than many adults.”  -31-35 yo female expat aid worker

“I think that when my niece, and inshallah my own kids, are older (10?12?) I will start to have some of those conversations. For the moment, at age 5, it’s all about Disney princesses. Maybe we should write to Disney and get them to make a film about aid work!”  -31-35 yo female expat aid worker

“The easiest is to whip out my phone and say, ‘yeah look at the photo of that elephant, I took that. Now check this photo of a starving kid, I took that too, now eat your veggies.'”  -31-35 yo male expat aid worker

The last respondent I’ll highlight raises a very critical question about who can handle the full truth.  Most parents struggle with the issue of how long to preserve the age of innocence, and no parents are in a tougher situation than those like the woman below.

“I work a lot on gender violence issues and have a real difficulty addressing this with my children, especially with my daughter. I don’t want her to be aware of how dire the discrimination of women can be. I don’t want it to affect her identity.” -36-40 yo female expat aid worker

Concluding thoughts
One takeaway from this section of the survey is that being an aid worker is complicated, both the actual job be perhaps even morecompartmentalize so the personal sharing of the details of the job.  Sharing the life and death intensity, the stark, raw reality of some of what is experienced can feel wrong at times, putting some memories into words can seem incomplete.  No description regardless of the verbal skills of the aid worker can do full justice to the complex nuances of sights, sounds, smells, and emotional highs and lows.  In the words of one respondent,  “You would have to experience the fear and hopelessness first hand to get the whole picture.”

Another respondent noted, “That is one of the main problems we have. After being away for years your mentality, values and personality changes. You disconnect from your old habitual community and then it is difficult to communicate as we ended up on two different planets: usually I am not interested what they tell me because the topics they touch are not interesting to me and other way round.”  -36-40 yo male expat aid worker

Transforming an experience with innumerable dimensions into words -necessarily a linear description- means destroying -and hence disrespecting- some of the content.  There are some details which cannot and perhaps should not be shared with outsiders.  You had to be there or, at least, have been somewhere similar, and that means with those who you’ve lived with in the team house or other aid workers, in the same ‘compartment.’

As a final though,  I was struck, yet again, by the thought and care put into many responses. If you are one of those 1010 who responded to our survey, thanks again.  You continue to  help us shed light on your world.

As always, contact me with feedback on this or any post.  Also, if you have not done so already please take the EvilGenius mini-polls linked above.

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 more than a decade.

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Would you recommend this line of work to young people in your life?

Would you recommend this line of work to young people in your life?

imagesKunduzTo state the obvious, being an aid worker can be dangerous physically and mentally; many deployments can be existentially challenging in all senses.  The career trajectory of an aid worker can generate hinderances to ‘normal’ home and family life.  For many aid workers, the early career bloom of idealism soon withers and turns into rock-hard realism and even cynicism.

In other words, being an aid worker ain’t no walk in the park.

Given the nature of this line of work, the responses to Q39 are very interesting and perhaps speak to the deep conviction of many aid workers that what they do is valuable and meaningful.  We asked, “If someone you are close to (a child or mentee) wanted to become a humanitarian aid worker, would you encourage him/her, or would you try to discourage him/her?” and the response was overwhelmingly ‘yes!’  If you combine the ‘Strongly encourage’ and ‘Encourage with qualifications’ you get a rousing 92% affirming that they would recommend to youngsters that they should become humanitarian aid workers.  That there were no significant differences between the responses of males or females is at least mildly surprising. Here are the data for the whole sample.

Screenshot 2015-10-05 13.30.14

















What do these data mean?  I’ll stand by my observation that this is a positive sign for aid workers and that though many may have lost some of the initial idealism with which they began their careers, it is a path they would recommend to young people.

Let me know if you have thoughts, feedback or comment.



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 more than a decade.

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Why do you remain in this sector?

“At this point, I have seen too much as a emergency aid worker and feel it is unlikely I would be able to get a job outside of this field.”
–31-35 yo female expat aid worker

 “Not sure if I can do this work forever but don’t know how to turn my back on those that I committed to work alongside in their fight for justice and survival.”
–18-25 yo female working in HQ

“Injustice merits a response and the longer I work as an aid worker the greater I see the injustice, particularly the ways in which aid and the UN perpetuate and cover up injustice.”

Why do you remain in this sector?

First this
In a recent post I presented and then commented responses to Q’s22-24, with an emphasis on examining reasons people gave for getting into the humanitarian aid and development sector.  This post expends that conversation.  Q22-24 ashed about why respondents became aid workers and then remain in the sector. Q28-29 delve into questions regarding the level of idealism held and Q59-60 ask the respondents views on the future of humanitarian aid work.  All of these questions are clearly interrelated and will be the grist for my next several posts.  Stay tuned.

Q24 was a followup question asking “What are your primary reasons for remaining an aid worker? Are your reasons for staying in this field different from the ones that brought you to it in the first place?”  While many of our open ended questions generated robust response, with 614 of the 1010 people who started our survey taking the time to write something, this question obviously struck a nerve.

Let me begin with the words from one 36-40 female expat aid worker who exemplifies the honestly and seriousness with which many our respondents approached their answers.  She also articulates a wonderful sense of duty to the sector, remaining active despite frustrations and trying to make positive change from within.

“These are really difficult questions! I have asked myself many times recently why I remain working as an aid worker. In the last few months I have wondered if I might be better off working in a different field. Over the years my commitment to children’s protection has probably increased as I’ve learned more about the areas I am particularly passionate about. But my commitment to the international humanitarian system has significantly waned. I have remained because the more of the world I see and the way that international organisations respond the stronger I feel the need to contribute and challenge the way we do things to improve our understanding and our responses. But I have altered the type of work I do and with whom I work.”

This next respondent nails the complexity of trying to address the “why?” question with any single answer.

I do still feel called to love the poor, and by loving them in tangible ways by enabling them to come out of poverty and injustice. I no longer feel like I can make the change, but create the space. I don’t develop or cause development, that’s the job of the community itself. I stay in the field because I like it and I’m good at it and I’m compelled by the suffering of the world and feel that I am to respond to that compulsion by direct work rather than giving money alone. The motivation changes day to day, somedays I need to pay the bills, other days it feels good to do your work well, or you love your team. Some days it really is about the children and the community. Most days it is a mix. -26-30 yo female HQ worker

Can’t turn back
One theme struck powerful note with me.  Many responses reminded me of research I had done years ago on soldiers who volunteered for second, third or more tours of duty in Vietnam.  Why go back to a danger zone when you could be home and safe?  The answers were many, somewhat interrelated and foreshadow central themes in the answers given by many of our respondentstotal-aid-worker-victims-by-year to Q24.  Why a second (or third) tour?

  • A deep allegiance to the people with whom they served, as in “I can’t leave them back there alone after what they have done for me”.
  • A sense that they would not fit in any more back at home; the war had changed them in ways friends and family might not understand.
  • No one would be able to understand what they had seen in the war back home.  It is best to remain with people with whom I can share.
  • An inner desire to reach individual potentials -mental, physical and spiritual.  Being in “the shit” was real, intense, and brought out potentials that would have remained mostly dormant in civilian life.  Back home defines banal.

This final point is worth a deeper look.  It is my view that, in general, that humans seek intensity, meaning, and deep, human connection to those around them. In the words of Erich Fromm, they simply seek to be fully born, and the ‘conveyor belt’ life outside of aid work can seem quite pedestrian. Deployment in a conflict zone is richly intense, as many aid workers can testify.  I also believe that people are naturally motivated to feel a sense of accomplishment (happiness? self-actualization? wholeness?) when they are stretching their mental, physical and spiritual capabilities.  Many of our respondents appear to stay in this sector for exactly these reasons.  Why not go home instead of being redeployed?  One respondent mused that it is sometimes “…difficult to differentiate between loyalty and stupidity.”

Point taken.

Here are a few more choice responses that help illustrate the above.

“There are still so many emergencies and so many things to improve in the world. You do get addicted to the job and it’s hard to settle back in life in Europe and a “normal” job.” –30-34 yo female HQ worker

“At this point, I have seen too much as a emergency aid worker and feel it is unlikely I would be able to [do]a job outside of this field.”  –26-30 yo female expat

“Stubbornness. Sheer stubbornness. The work does not get better, easier or more rewarding but I stick at it. I feel like a rottweiler that has bitten into a leg and will not let go even though it’s been bashed over the head with a heavy metal frying pan.”  –-30-34 yo female expat

banal“What else would I do with my life? Live in the suburbs and drive kids to sports activities?”  –36-40 yo female expat

“Yes. Having been in war zones I now want to make sure my work has some impact on the people caught up in them. Working on other issues now seems irrelevant when you know kids are getting shot at.”  -26-30 yo male expat

This last one sums up the feelings of many.  What the aid worker does matters in a life and death kind of way and going back to “traditional” work would be “meaningless.”   Leaving the sector meant for many  going into the for profit sector and that would be impossible given their sense of what they wanted to do with their life.

“Working with likeminded people with similar value sets. Working somewhere were the goal is not about raising profits – but about making the world more safe, equitable and just. (however – often think it would be MUCH easier working elsewhere).” –-40-44 yo male expat

Basic commitment remains
Here is a great example from a woman staying in the sector for what I believe is one of the most important reasons, namely passing on wisdom that comes from experience.

“I think my overall reason, the underlying moral call to action, remains the same. As I get older I am also driven to stay in the field because I think I have more to offer based on previous experience. Finally, am a passionate believer that aid organisations can and must do better at communicating with disaster-affected people, and his motivates me to keep on, because there are so few of us who seem to be advocating for this and know how to do it.” -31-35 yo female expat

Many indicated that they stay in the sector despite having lower expectations in part because it beat any alternatives.

“That belief in a more just world hasn’t changed. However, my understanding of the complexity of the structures that fuel inequity has deepened. I have accepted that I can impact only a small fraction of the problem, but that the efforts are worth doing. That said, in my current role, I am quite overloaded and unhappy with the shift of focus in my role, so am considering leaving to pursue a PhD to deepen my knowledge even further in my area of interest.” –41-45 yo female HQ worker

“Sometimes, just sometimes, I feel I am achieving something, a cog in a bigger machine.” –30-34 yo male expat

I find it not surprising but rather a little saddening that this young woman quoted below so soon feels a sense of futility in her efforts.

“I still am learning every day about what makes change happen and what makes communities work – I am much less convinced that I can have any noticeable effect on communities, but since I came here to learn, I am still learning.”  –18-25 yo female expat


Called by God
There were many respondents (doing the numbers now) that mention being “called” to do humanitarian aid work of some sort.  Just short of 6% of the total sample indicated that they came to aid work initially because “They felt called by God or a higher power.”  Not infrequently these respondents note a change in their feelings in this regard as the years of service pass.

“Now that I’m here, it’s probably a good thing that I sit behind a desk in the US and am not more directly involved in relief or aid work, and I’m not spreading my arrogance and “wisdom”. I don’t have a special skill set (even with an MA), so I feel it would be more foolish of me to work in the “field.” So I continue as an aid worker because it interests me and I like to travel and work with colleagues from all over the world, and I like that in the long run what I do makes a difference to people (as opposed to a career in the private sector.) The sense of excitement or adventure I was seeking in the beginning still impacts my decision to stay, but I’m definitely more jaded about my feeling that God called me to this profession. It’s still true, but it’s far more complex than that now.” 26-30 yo female HQ worker

“Still called by God to help provide dignity through humanitarian assistance.”


Options limited
Many reported feeling “good at it [aid work]” and now only have skill sets relevant in this sector.  Some noted specifically that they  could not get paid as much in private sector. As one male put it,  I stay in the sector because “mo cash”.  Another male, one assumes tongue in cheek, offered cash“The phat stacks of cash”.  Though many respondents voiced similar sentiments, I find it interesting that by a wide margin males were more likely to explicitly mention money as a motivation.

“I’m trying as hard as I can to become an ex aid worker. it’s not easy to transition out of the aid world, especially in today’s economy.”  –36-40 yo male HQ worker

“Many of my initial reasons are still in place, if (greatly) tempered by cynicism about the aid and development industry. At the same time, I am now around 15 years in (post- grad school), as is my spouse; there is a certain element of “if not this, then what?” present in our decisions….it is, to some extent hard to imagine changing to another field, or at least to one that is radically different. After so much time gaining expertise and competence in this field, it seems daunting to start again all over in another one…even if I could figure out which other one I would choose.”  –46-50 yo male expat

The comment above could have been made by a worker in virtually any other profession.  Lateral moves within a job sector can and do happen with regularity throughout one’s career, but radial career change is daunting and, frequently, means settling for less pay, responsibility and status -at least initially- in the new position. And so as I get deeper into using these data to understand the world of humanitarian aid workers I am finding more similarities than differences to other types of jobs.

This of course raises the basic question about how to define this sector.  Our survey conflated relief work (e.g., emergency responder types) and development work and thus lumped together responses from workers in very different realms.  That said, my sense after reading thousands of narrative responses (many respondents took the time to write answers to all of the open-ended questions, some just a few) is that any one person, especially those beyond the first years in their career, could have served in many places along the continuum from ‘pure’ emergency response to long term development work.  In a sense field itself is conflated.  We will continue to explore what makes working in this sector unique.

In my next posts I will further this conversation.

As always, please feel free to contact me with reactions, feedback or suggestions.

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 more than a decade.

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