Aid Worker Voices

More on the blog that turned into a book

Below is a press release from Elon University about Aid Worker Voices.
Here is the revised press release that came out today that includes comments from Becca Price, Elon ’01, who helped in many phases of the project.

Sociologist Tom Arcaro tells the story of the global aid workers using their own voices

The book, published by Carpe Viem Press, is now available

awv-ecoverSept. 23, 2016 — Using expansive insights from more than 1,000 development aid workers around the world, Tom Arcaro tells the stories of their challenges, triumphs and motivations in Aid Worker Voices.” 

This latest book by Aracaro, a renowned professor of sociology at Elon University, is now available on Amazon as a paperback or Kindle edition through Carpe Viem Press. The book is the product of years of work by Arcaro including an in-depth survey of a broad swath of aid workers. Arcaro has distilled the results of that comprehensive survey to produce Aid Worker Voices, a nearly 300-page book that appeals to a wide range of readers. 

“A must-read for whoever is interested in understanding aid workers or wants to become one, as well as for anyone who took part to the “Aid Worker Voices” survey whose results are presented in this book,” says one reviewer on Amazon. “This book does not give solutions to “fix” the aid systems, but paints a quite accurate picture of what aid workers experience in their day-to-day, which is very far from Hollywood representations of it.”
“Aid Worker Voices” is the intersection of multiple interests — Arcaro’s role as director of Project Pericles at Elon, a program helps instill students with a sense of social responsibility and civic concern, and his growing interest in global development aid and those that work in the field. “Over the years, I’ve gotten more and more immersed in development aid material and literature, and reading more and more about development aid workers,” Arcaro said.

Arcaro said he was overwhelmed by the volume of respondents to the survey, which was made available online for about eight months, as well as the depth of the responses that aid workers provided. “The people that responded are the real deal — these are the aid workers with a lot of experience,” Arcaro said. “I was just amazed at the thoughtfulness that some people put into their answers.”

Many took the time to write a “short essay” in response to some survey questions, with Arcaro saying he heard from some that “it was cathartic to do the survey because no one had ever asked them about these things before.”Among the areas explored are the motivations workers as they entered the field, their thoughts on bureaucracies and aid organizations, how faith enters into their work, the impact of their gender on the work they do and how they are received, and issues surrounding race and identity.

Arcaro also dives into the challenges aid workers might face explaining the work they do to those that aren’t involved in the field and why those who have changed careers left this line of work. Arcaro also used the insights he gained from the survey to look at the future of the development aid sector. “It was just fun and frankly an honor to read all of what they had to write,” Arcaro said of the survey responses. “It was humbling that so many took the time to respond so thoughtfully.”

Tom Arcaro

Tom Arcaro

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

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Aid Worker Voices available NOW!

Aid Worker Voices available NOW!

awv-ecoverThe blog that turned into a book
Aid Worker Voices is available for purchase now on Amazon in hard copy or as a download on Kindle.

I have so many people to thank in getting this project done.  From the book:


Thanks to the 1010 nameless aid and development workers who took the time to complete the survey and especially those who provided rich narrative responses to the many open-ended questions. Also thanks to the dozens of aid workers with whom I Skyped, emailed or otherwise communicated with to get additional background information. Special thanks go to Annalisa Addis, Amelie Gagnon, Lucy O’Donoghue and Becca Price for reading, commenting on and contributing to early drafts of the manuscript.

I deeply appreciate all of the beta readers for taking time to provide feedback, among them Elizabeth Stanfield, Karen Mac Randal, Dee Zarnowski, Killian Barefoot, Stacey Oliver, Gabrielle Richard, Keely Alexander, Federica, and Joshua Sidwell.

At Elon University thanks go to the members of the Elon University Faculty Research and Development Committee for granting me a sabbatical so that I could devote concentrated time to pour through the data and write the blog posts which form the basis of this book.

My student assistant Laura Murphy kept me on track month after month and provided very useful feedback and valuable spreadsheet work.

Teresa LePors of Belk Library provided critical research assistance.

My editor Jennie Langley kept my spirits high and the manuscript in great order. Additional editing assistant expertly provided by Xernay Aniwar and Morgan Seijo-Vila’.

My most special thanks go to my partner from the very beginning of this project. He goes by the nom de guerre of “J”.

Cover design and photograph by J.

Tom Arcaro

Tom Arcaro

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

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Beyond Aid Worker Voices: another side of aid work

awv-ecoverAid Worker Voices, the book, coming VERY soon
Proof copies coming tomorrow, then -hopefully- the public release of Aid Worker Voices!  I will put ordering information here on the blog in the next day or so.  In the meantime….


Another side of aid work
Last Friday I spent the day helping a colleague work on a documentary about refugee families who are being assisted by a big box NGO here in central North Carolina.  We visited a community garden in its first year of being planted and tended by locally settled refugees from DRC, Burma, Cambodia and beyond. The vegetables, being cultivated in a field once dominated by kudzu, included corn, peppers, egg plant, okra, beans and other staple foods enough to sustain many families.  The land is owned by the NGO and will soon have a proper fence, access to water, power, a tool storage facility, and cleared space for community gatherings.  That is to say, this appears to be a sustainable enterprise with deep, long lasting impact potential.

We also visited a small apartment complex where we interviewed a refugee from Burma.  Through an interpreter he told the story of his family and their desire to live free of violence and fear.  Their move to the US was not quick or smooth, but now they are in a setting “with human rights” and “democracy.”  There were tears during the interview born of bad memories and new hope.  My colleague, a refugee himself from Iraq, handled the interview with deep sensitivity.  He had been there himself. fullsizerender-4

I talked with the aid worker in charge of helping to resettle the constant influx of refugees to this area of central North Carolina and told her about Aid Worker Voices -both the blog and the book.

We had a quick, spirited discussion about the aid world, reviewing current events in South Sudan, Syria, Iraq and elsewhere.  The chance to talk with a someone who shared a common knowledge of the humanitarian aid and development industry was great for both of us.  In the end we repeated the truism that ‘it is all interconnected’, that her work in this small town in North Carolina was just one part of the global efforts of her NGO to deliver aid and assistance to beneficiaries.

Her voice as a local aid worker is important and hers -and others like hers- need to be heard more broadly.


Tom Arcaro

Tom Arcaro

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

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How does your LGBTQ+ identity affect your aid industry workplace experience?

How does your LGBTQ+ identity affect your aid industry workplace experience?

Filling a gap
Our original survey did not target the opinions of those who identify as LBGTQ+. Toward the goal of making it possible for Aid Worker Voices to include this significant subpopulation, I did some additional interviews and, on the suggestion of several people, worked with my colleague J to construct a ‘mini-poll’ exploring the question “How does your LGBTQ+ identity affect your aid industry workplace experience?”

We began the online survey with these words:

The aid industry goes to great lengths to persuade itself and others that it is a champion for justice and equality in the world. The UN system, NGOs of all sizes and kinds, and individual humanitarians invest time, energy, sometimes even money to make the point that they are forever on the right sides of all the issues. If there is one apparent element of aid/dev/NGO/UN worker identity, it would be this notion that we are all open-minded and inclusive.

Since we’re all so open-minded, it would make sense, then, that our organizations are havens of peace and light, that our workplaces are sanctuaries from an intolerant and sometimes downright cruel outside world. Right?

There are many issues over which relationships and workplace tolerance can unfortunately break down (including in the aid industry): Nationality, ethnicity, religion…

In this mini-poll we’d like to take a look at how sexual preference and gender identity can play out in the context of the aid industry workplace. Specifically we’d like to discuss perceptions and experiences from our LGBTQ+ colleagues.

Note:  Yes, we do understand that sexual orientation and gender identities and expressions are complex and personal issues that can vary in time. When we asked people what terms and acronyms they felt were most appropriate, we literally got a different response from every single person. For the purposes of this survey, we’re going with LGBTQ+ to refer to individuals who identify as lesbian, gay, bisexual, queer or otherwise non-heterosexual, as well as trans.

Note: This survey is not limited to LGBTQ+ people. If you do not identify as LGBTQ+ yourself, we would like you to answer each question as you believe it applies to LGBTQ+ people in the aid industry or in your place of work.


Survey says…
The response to the survey has been good and the vast majority  (96%) of those who gave their opinions are industry insiders and/or have an intimate knowledge of the sector, and 86% indicated that they identify as LGBTQ+. So, cred level appears high among those responding, which makes the voices shared worth a close listen.

The mini-poll contained ten questions, all but a few allowing for open-ended comments.  As with our original survey (the data from which are reported and commented on in Aid Worker Voices), I was overwhelmed by the thoughtfulness with which some people responded.


So here are the results.
In response to the question “In your opinion how accepting of those who identify as LGBT+ is the aid and development industry?”  predictably only 2% thought there were no problems which many -39%- indicating that the industry had serious problems.  The fact that (1) the industry is very large and diverse and thus it is difficult to generalize and (2) there is a significant difference between the organization home base and ‘in the field’ was highlighted in some comments.  These comments articulate well both points.

“There are obviously vast disparities between different organisations and different offices within the same organisation.

However, as an industry there is very limited recognition of LGBTI staff and/or how their security, health and well-being might be affected by their identity and orientation. So, although many individuals who work in this industry are accepting, the industry as a system is not.”

“While the AID industry in certain ways can be quite progressive in certain ways, it also continues to perpetate a lot of the same problems that underscore homophobia within our global discourse. It silences LGBTI staff versus raising their profiles or supporting the issues. They fail to understand the complexities of why Gender and sexual diversity issues, just like gender, underscores all development issues beyond just staff.”Screenshot 2016-09-06 11.16.20

“There is not enough programming for beneficiaries who identify as lgbtq nor is there enough support for national and expat (although a bit more) who identify as lgbtq.”

“There is a “culture” of general social justice, “the left”, and being inclusive but both institutionally and culturally humanitarian aid is much less accepting than it thinks it is. There is minimal support and knowledge of how to support and deal with LGBT issues that can arise in the field and generally LGBT people are just told to keep quiet and not cause trouble for their organization.”

So my read of the above is that though the sector may appear progressive it lacks complete followthrough on the idea that being inclusive means just that, and that if efforts toward this end fail to account for those who identify as LGBTQ+ there is still much work to be done.  On this note, here is what one respondent said regarding a lack of action.

“Zero appetite for including LGBTQ+ in protection programming – at least explicitly- so little wonder that among staff the issue is largely ignored.”

But can the sector as a whole really pivot in a more progressive direction when there are many faith based organizations for which this type of inclusiveness flies in the face of religious doctrine?  Said one respondent,

“I work for a Christian aid agency, some colleagues are homophobic and the organisation has an official stance against equal marriage.”


How many degrees of ‘out’ are there?
Are LGBTQ+ aid workers ‘out’?

Were we to live in a world of binaries that might be a simple question.  We do not.

Here is what the respondents indicated, and as you can see there are many degrees of disclosure.  In my field of sociology we make the distinction between ’emotional telling’ and ‘instrumental telling’, that is, between opening up to those with whom you interact because you care about them and vice versa and in telling others only for practical, necessary purposes (for example telling your dentist that you are HIV+).  In aid and development work both kinds of telling happen and this varies considerably from situation to situation.  While deployed in some areas of the world the decision to ‘tell’ or not can be critical. Listen to these next voices.

“I could possibly be forced out of my job in the Middle East at my (very large and respected NGO) because of my sexuality. They, in general, do not like the issues associated with having out gay men. There have been instances where gay male nationals who were too effeminate have been forced out of the organization.”

“I work for the UN and it has pro-LGBT policies and the environment is tolerant in HQ locations based on my experience. However, I have worked in E.Africa and many staff were highly homophobic – international staff – mainly from all over Africa. In my current field posting, many staff come from conservative countries or religious backgrounds that are homophobic, so despite working for the UN the atmosphere is entirely different from HQ and I have seen the bullying of LGBTQ+ and open homophobic comments.”

Our data were clear on this topic with the vast majority -77%- saying that “I feel more threatened, marginalized, or just offended from host governments, communities, and beneficiaries, etc. than in the workplace.” And even when your immediate workmates in the field are open-minded, there are still major safety and career concerns.

Screenshot 2016-09-06 13.58.49“I feel that I have open-minded colleagues in the field. I am openly gay to them but as they don’t have many other LGBTQ+ friends or colleagues, I worry that they may inadvertently put me in a difficult or dangerous situation. The management of my workplace have little appreciation of this challenge that I face. I wouldn’t be sure that they would stand by me if a homophobia incident caused a breakdown with a partner that threatened a project. They’d probably just move me to another project, and this wouldn’t necessarily be good for my career.”

“I do not feel it would be safe for my career or wellbeing to be open in the UN compound and environment in which I work. Only the younger, western or westernised, professional level and higher educated colleagues seem to be non-homophobic and open. However, the majority of colleagues are not of this type and homophobic remarks are rampant amongs security, pilots, administrative staff etc. It sounds snobbish but it’s true. In my section I don’t feel threatened at all despite that some colleagues are a bit homophobic in general, despite being human rights workers. For national staff, homophobia is normal, nobody could ever be out to national staff here or anyone in the host community.”

Do managers make deployment decisions based on LGBTQ+ status?  here is what one respondent said,

“While difficult to substantiate, I believe that I have not been considered for a series of overseas assignments for which i was highly qualified, due to my status. I was once inadvertently included in an email trail from senior HR managers confirming that I would not get a post because of my status. This was extremely demoralizing to me from a career standpoint.”


Moving forward toward policy solutions?
In the final two questions of the survey we asked what could be done to move the needle in a more positive direction to make the work experience for those identifying as LGBTQ+ better.  The responses were thoughtful and, in some cases, provocative.  This respondent suggests what might be considered an unreasonable pathway forward given the fundamental humanitarian mandate to provide assistance as neutrally as possible.  But, then, when and how do we make progress?

“Insist with the receiving countries that all staff be accepted without reference to race, gender or sexual orientation. Easier said than done, but someone needs to set an example. I believe that if the state discriminates against its LGBTQ minority, it should be sanctioned by the HRC and denied development/aid assistance.”

Many respondents suggested something along the lines of “change HQ policies to have them explicitly include language -and put teeth to that language-  protecting staff identifying as LGBTQ+.”  One went on to include the point that beneficiaries need also to be considered.

“I believe more funding and programmes should be available for this very vulnerable group. In displacement or refugee settings, LGBTQ+ communities are often twice or thrice times the victims or prejudice, assault and socio-economic vulnerability.”

This next respondent who sums up much of the above while making a specific suggestion.

“The UN bureaucracy needs to get over its squeamishness about the ‘third sex’. It needs to take a much more principled stance with member states that persecute their gay citizens through punitive laws and state-sanctioned violence. Perhaps its time for a “UN-Gay” organization to emerge that will lobby for the rights and interests of 10% of humanity? But good luck getting funding! On a personal level, I genuinely feel that my career prospects have been stymied by my coming out at work and that senior managers in my organization do not feel empowered to support my advancement. I also feel that HR will only ‘reward’ those who remain closeted and single. Of course, prevailing attitudes in the UN reflect the membership of 193 states, the majority of which are socially conservative. But aren’t we allowing the membership to dictate policies that only add to the prevailing climate of prejudice against LGBTQ people? The UN needs to lead by example and adopt truly inclusive policies that really do assist its gay employees.”

I’ll end this section with the touching and very personal words from one soul willing to share. Certainly many aid workers sacrifice, but perhaps LGBTQ+ bear an additional layer of psychological pain.

“Intimacy is the biggest hurdle. Imagine going for months without any expression of a deep part of your personhood. It is isolating and safe spaces are definitely needed.”


More details from a happily married gay woman
One veteran development worker took the time to address the questions in the survey with a bit more detail.

“The degree to which the aid and development industry is accepting of LGBTQ+ people is a tricky question, and the answer has an individual and an institutional level.   

Let me explain part of the complexity. Although the organisation I am familiar with includes in their staff rules that everybody should embrace diversity, not discriminate, and respect each others differences. At least officially there is a safe space created for everybody to be who they are, so technically, the industry -or at least my organisation- is quite open and welcoming to every kind of person really.

But the reality is that these same organisations have offices in many countries where there is State-sponsored homophobia – so de facto, LGBTQ+ people (or at least myself) are excluding themselves from employment opportunities by fear of being harassed, threatened, or even jailed (this happened to someone in Senegal, because they were gay). If one wants to progress in their career, try something new, get other experiences, it might be difficult to rotate if you identify as LGBTQ+.

Last year I contemplated a post in Nairobi. Knowing that Kenya criminalises homosexuality and that social climate might be hostile regarding this issue, I had to ask myself if I wanted to put my wife in such environment, and most importantly our child. So we considered living apart (i.e. in different countries), moving in Nairobi with a gay male couple (to pass as two straight couples), living in a high-security bubble, only interact with like-minded expats —we seriously considered even the craziest options.

I have no trouble in serving in countries that have laws that I am against, but will I put my family at risk for sheer career progression? I am not able to take that step. I am lucky enough to be based in a European capital, and I get to work in countries where I could never dream of living in with my family.

What I have become to realise is that when I was a more junior professional, I tended to avoid social situations from colleagues, especially colleagues that I could not have ‘checked’ if they were open or not on social issues. Not so much because I would fear their reaction, but mainly I guess because I would not want to deal with the awkwardness of having to explain. Once, I introduced my wife as ‘my wife’ to a colleague and right there, in front of us, she literally replied “what do you mean?” That was awkward.

Now, older? Wiser? That I am positioned in a more senior position? In another country? I feel that I do not owe anything to anyone and that I do not have to deal with their reaction, basically.

In my office, everybody knows I am gay: peers, supervisors, interns, etc. It’s a relatively small office where we are all very social, so from the start it was a no brainer for me to be transparent about my personal life—and I felt very free about it. At my HQ, also, as soon as discussions become personal, I am absolutely open about being gay. I take it for granted that if someone asks about my intimate life, they are able to deal with any reality that it might entail. If not, too bad for them.

By contrast the reality is that when I work with my clients, outside of my organization, I am absolutely mute on my spousal situation. The great thing in having a child, is that I can redirect any discussion (or just focus on) things about children. That’s my joker. And I don’t need to lie.


A family of three head out on holiday.

What I try to do is to position myself as an ally to anyone who is not ‘conforming’. There was a colleague in one of our small country offices that I thought was gay – others were teasing him about not being married, and I could feel that he was not so comfortable with the teasing so I supported him not to be wishing to marry (quoting my grandma: “don’t get married!”) and made a case about living one’s own life etc. Then a few months later, colleagues were still teasing him about not being married, and then he said he had found someone but that this person ‘did not fully meet his family expectations’ or that it was something like ‘socially impossible’… and I was like “I knew it!”… but what happened next is that he basically declared he was in love with me. And then I was like ‘this is soooooo wrong, if he only knew’!

I don’t really feel threatened or marginalized, in the field than when back at HQ but I do feel in the closet with my clients, and totally free with my peers, colleagues, supervisors, etc.  In fact, one thing I find very comforting is the fact that my office peers with whom I am open (out of the closet) are very sensible and sensitive to potential threaths to me when we travel together — when discussions fall into very heteronormative issues or when I am asked about my “husband”, colleagues do not hesitate to tag with me in adding more nuance, or even to help me protect my cover. I find this unspoken alliance very sweet!

What could the industry do to change for the better the work experience for those who are LGTBQ+?  Perhaps there is a distinction to make between single, couple, family LGBT situations.  Single people can deal with their lives themselves, perhaps. For couples, there might be a need for the employers to facilitate or help with employment of the partner… but for families, I really do not know what would be a workable solution. The only concrete thing I could see the industry doing is to lobby on government to abolish discriminatory legislation, so at least people can feel safe, or at least not threatened by law.

Being gay absolutely limits your posting/ employment opportunities when you have a family. If I were single, I would probably be ok to take a few years of potentially dry spell, or try something new:)

But when you are not alone, the professional benefits have to be weighted by the living conditions on your family, and that is not easy. I am happy because I get to travel frequently to work with my clients, while being posted in an open city, but I do see the limitations on my career.”

Others in the closet?
As a final note I’ll mention that as part of this research process I interviewed a number of aid and development workers who live in a parallel closet, namely those who are atheists.   In particular, many non-believers who happen to work for faith based organizations feel compelled to play the game of ‘passing’ with their colleagues and superiors, remaining ‘closeted’ atheists, as it were.  That there are laws against nonbelievers in some countries and that the lives of ‘out’ atheists are in danger -as is the case in Bangladesh- cannot be ignored, especially given the fact that there are likely more atheists in the aid sector than there are LGBTQ+.  A final take home point here is that we need all to work toward a world where there is tolerance for all and that a ‘you be you’ attitude is more globally accepted by individuals, organizations and governments.

I am not holding my breath on that happening anytime soon, though.

Tom Arcaro

Tom Arcaro

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

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Responding to Terrain

Responding to Terrain

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tom Arcaro

Tom Arcaro

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

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Cover for Aid Worker Voices

Cover for Aid Worker Voices

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

Screenshot 2016-08-18 10.30.28

Tom Arcaro

Tom Arcaro

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

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Advice from Becca: you do you

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

becca belle

Becca’s pooch, Belle.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Guinea_flying into

Flying into Guinea

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Oof – just thinking back to that time is exhausting.

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

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

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

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

In other words …

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


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

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

Tom Arcaro

Tom Arcaro

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

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

AWV Interlude (re-edited and enhanced 3Aug16)

Interested in aid worker fiction?  Check these out!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Tom Arcaro

Tom Arcaro

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

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The End: Voices of thanks, snark and next steps

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

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

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

Voices of thanks and snark

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Here are a few representative examples:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

He ended his contribution as a respondent with this:

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

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

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

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

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

Concluding thoughts on the sector

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

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

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

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

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

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

Next steps

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

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

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

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


Tom Arcaro

Tom Arcaro

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

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Aid workers as parents

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

–Lucy, founder of


Aid workers as parents

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

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

All big questions, these.

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

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

What follows are anecdotes and observations from our conversations.

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

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

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

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

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

But perhaps this logic is flawed.

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

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

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

Yeah, so what?

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

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

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


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

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

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

Summing up the above Lucy puts it thusly:

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

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

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





Tom Arcaro

Tom Arcaro

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

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