Aid Worker Voices

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 make 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 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 American 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.

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.”

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.  We are as others see us, like it or not.

Thoughts, questions or comments?  Reach me via email.


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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.



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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 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.

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Our survey had 1,010 respondents. Only one was The Lord.

Our survey had 1,010 respondents.  Only one was The Lord.

Our survey was live for many months and when we finally deactivated the link we had 1,010 respondents completing at least some portion.  I was pleasantly surprised that with 61 items -including 19 open-ended and/or follow-up questions- so many people gave their time to do the survey and took the effort in many cases to compose very thoughtful narrative responses.

Some respondents were more serious than others.  None more so than The Lord.  Below are some of His responses.


Q1: Which best describes your current situation?
  • I am currently employed by a humanitarian aid organization.
Q2: Which best describes your current situation?
  • Local aid worker
Q3: Which best describes your history of experience doing humanitarian aid work?
  • I have been doing humanitarian aid work for ten or more years.
Q4: With which gender do you identify?
  • Male

Aid Worker Jesus appears to be a deployment smoker.

Q5: How old are you?
  • 71 or older
Q6: Which below best describes you?
  • Non-White
Q7: Please use the space below to (1) react to the inappropriateness of the choices in the question above and (2) describe how you identify yourself based on common cultural-linguistic, ethnic, racial, tribal, national or other categories.

I am the Lord thy God.

Q8: Which best describes your institutional educational background?
  • Less than high school
Q9: How would you describe your non-institutional educational background?

Carpentry / woodworking apprenticeship and trade practice in my adopted father’s workshop, from age 14-30.

Q10: Which nation do you currently call home?
  • Country:Occupied Palestinian Territories
Q12: Which best describes your relationship status?
  • Single and not dating
Q13: Which best describes your marital status?
  • Unknown
Q14: Do you have any children?
  • Yes, three or more 
Q15: Which best describes your travel experience related to humanitarian aid work?
  • I have done work related travel outside of my home nation more than 20 times.
Q16: Which best describes your deployment experience related to humanitarian aid work?
  • My longest deployment outside of my home nation is more than 2 years.
Q17: Which best describes the humanitarian aid work organization with which you are (or were) most recently affiliated?
  • Faith based. [author’s note: well, duh]
PAGE 3: Reflections on your experience as an aid worker 
Q22: Which statement below *best* describes your primary reason for becoming an aid worker?
  • I felt called by God or a higher power.
Q23: Please elaborate on the response you gave to the question above on why you became an aid worker.

Many aid workers early in their career feel they are trying to save the world, to prove themselves. Unlike other aid workers, I already saved the world, back when I was 33. So you could say I am in the aid worker game as a sequel. And like most sequels, the budget is bigger but the story is worse.

Q24: 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?

I was put on earth to work miracles by my father. Nowadays people need miracles of a different kind: keeping an airbridge open; getting a better price from suppliers for a few tons of soap; recruiting some good technical leads. It is either stay in aid work where the need for miracles is profound, or go back to carpentry.

Q26: Which response below best describes your coping mechanisms (coping with stress, coping with burnout, coping with loss of idealism)?
  • I have used an array of coping mechanisms but my “go to” is finding strength in my faith.
Q27: Please use the space below to elaborate on the response to the question above concerning your coping mechanisms (coping with stress, coping with burnout, coping with loss of idealism).

Well, a lot of people believe in me. About 2.1 billion by recent estimates. I try to use that to sustain me. It would be churlish not to, don’t you think?

Q29: Please use the space below to elaborate on your level of idealism related to your humanitarian aid work.

When you have been nailed to a cross, then maybe come and talk to me about how tough your job is. Until then, my idealism is undiminished.

Q31: Use the space below to elaborate on what do or do not like about being a humanitarian aid worker. An illustrative anecdote will be useful, perhaps.

Likes: Irregular hours, lots of travel, services in constant need in the minor daily miracles department just to keep the program running, not being nailed to a cross. Dislikes: Having a driver is nice and all, but it is no substitute for having a dozen disciples. I really used to “roll deep” back in the day, you know.

Q33: Which statement below best describes your ability to explain to non-aid worker non-significant other adult family members the nature of your job?
  • I have some difficulty explaining my job, and can only articulate a general sense of what I do.
Q34: Please elaborate on the response you gave to the question above regarding explaining your job to adult family members.

My father created the heavens and the earth. Not a sparrow falls that he does not see. He gifted all mankind with the gift of free will. Nonetheless it is still impossible to explain participatory appraisal methods without devolving into debates about PFIM and the like in the time between now and judgement day.

Q35: Which statement below best describes your ability to explain to non-aid worker significant other the nature of your job?
  • I have some difficulty explaining my job, and can only articulate a general sense of what I do.
Q36: Please elaborate on the response you gave to the question above regarding explaining your job to your significant other.

I’m not allowed to comment about my significant other, despite the allegations in certain racier pages of the non-canonical gospels.

Q37: Which statement below best describes your ability to explain to non-adult family members the nature of your job?
  • I don’t even try to explain my job.
Q38: Please elaborate on the response you gave to the question above regarding explaining your job to non-adult family members.

The Holy Spirit works in mysterious ways. By which I mean he/she hasn’t really been a good family member in recent years. It’s been difficult. Teenagers eh?

Q40: To what extent has your gender been a factor in your humanitarian aid work experience?
  • Overall has been a very negative factor
Q41: Please use the space below to elaborate how your gender has or has not been a factor in your humanitarian aid work experience.

When two thousand years old you are, see how many times a week you are accused of being ‘too male, too pale, stale’.

Q43: Please use the space below to elaborate how your race/ethnicity/cultural identity has or has not been a factor on your humanitarian aid work experience.

People tend to project their own race onto me. (See: Renaissance, Art Of). This comes in handy both in meetings with donors and also with community leaders. Son Of God skills FTW.

PAGE 4: Your views on the current status and future of humanitarian aid work 
Q45: Please use the space below to elaborate on the previous question about why humanitarian aid workers will ultimately become ex-humanitarian aid workers. 

All aid workers will ultimately be gathered unto my father. Well, except maybe Protection types. Dad says the jury is still out on them.

Q58: What is your general view of so-called MONGOs (My Own NGO) or other smaller humanitarian aid work entities?

Yea, the smallest miracle brings grace to the giver and receiver. Grace but perhaps limited impact.

Q59: Which statement below best describes your views about the overall direction of humanitarian aid work?
  • Humanitarian aid work is and will continue to have a significant positive impact on the lives of more and more people.

So, yes, I would love the chance to ask The Lord some additional followup questions.  Lord, if You read this humble blog post please know that I would be honored to hear from You.  Email works great and Skype is even better, and, well, f2f would be kicking’ it, but, hey, Your call.

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Why did you become an aid worker?

“To make the conditions present for a life of human dignity for all.”

-36-40yo female expat aid worker,  white

“It comes down to this: there is serious injustice in the world, and that makes me really fucking angry.”

-18-25yo female expat aid worker, non-white

I think it’s a mixture of accident, the lure of adventure, and (self)righteous indignation over how messed up the world is combined with an (arrogant) sense that maybe I could make things suck slightly less.

-31-35yo female expat aid worker, white


Why did you become an aid worker?

An overview
Our personal lives seldom unfold in a linear, logical, preplanned fashion.  We rarely know exactly what external forces will push or pull us in various directions.  Even the assumption that we are sole masters of our fate, unfettered by cultural currents and eddies, can be called into question. Perhaps anthropologist Miles Richardson said it best in his essay Culture and the Struggle to Be Human: “Rather than thinking and then proceeding to act; we act and then proceed to explain.”

Here’s one respondent, a 26-30yo female expat worker, that states this nicely:

“It’s too simplistic. Yes, I wanted adventure… yes, I wanted to do something productive with winning the birth lottery… yes, it’s kind of an accident…”

This next statement comes from a 40-44 yo female aid worker in the sector for more than ten years who had indicated she became an aid worker “by accident”:

 “I would hope that I am no longer in it by accident, but to be honest, I am not entirely sure.”


That said, what did our survey respondents have to say about their life-path decisions?

The quantitative data
That said, our Q22, Which statement below *best* describes your primary reason for becoming an aid worker?, put the respondent in a position of trying to explain the past.

Somewhat predictably, at 34%, the most frequently selected closed ended response was  “None of the above even comes close to articulating my reason for becoming an aid worker.”

Screenshot 2015-09-18 09.41.50

Males and females responded very similarly to this question, though males were almost twice as likely to choose “I needed adventure in my life and being an aid worker seemed like a good idea.”  Females were slightly more likely to indicate the altruistic response, I was following my dream to provide aid to those less fortunate than myself.” and also to say, in effect, “it’s complicated.”  These specific differences were apparent as I read through the many narrative responses.

Screenshot 2015-09-21 03.26.13


Some narrative responses
The open ended invitation to elaborate on Q22 generated a very robust 596 narrative responses (out of a total of 1010 that started the survey), 410 from females and 187 from males.  Q24 asked a two-part followup  “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?” and 615 people responded (426 females, 189 males).EVEREST--012

First we’ll take a look at some of the reasons people gave for becoming an aid worker.

This first example is both interesting and representative of many other respondent’s thoughts.  This 36+yo female aid worker working for a “bog box” organization indicated that she came into the field because I felt called by God or a higher power.”  

She goes on to say,

“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).”

Why does she remain in this sector (Q24)?

“Salary and Benefits. Though no longer idealistic and no longer buying the narrative in Q23, I don’t see the aid industry as being any worse (or better) than anything else out there. It’s still more interesting than working at A-1 Insurance Company and more sophisticated than being a high school teacher…you do still get to travel and see and learn things most other careers do not afford you. Finally, expat colleagues are really great even when annoying. You can’t really go back. Besides, not sure what else I would do at this point. Yes, reasons are very different. But I’ve learned to accept a different narrative so it makes it ok.”

This transition from idealism in the early going to pragmatism in the later career seems a common pattern.  Here is a 26-30yo male expat aid worker’s description:

“Slowly changing indeed. Even if my organization is the biggest and most present actor in the medical emergency field, we still spend 65% of our annual budget in stable projects where the emergency is long gone and we don’t know how to get out. Which ultimately leads to a normal office job for me. It’s still ok, mainly because the challenges and level of responsabilities are much  higher than what a guy my age would be able to get at home. If I remain an aid worker in the next years, it will be because this organization offers a lot of opportunities to get more important responsibilities. The altruist feelings I had at the beginning are still there, but much less present.”

whiteguilt_flow_emperor(White privilege) guilt seems a quite common force pushing people toward this sector.  Here are a couple typical responses.

“Ever since I was a child I felt like I didn’t deserve my privilege of being an upper middle class white American, and I’ve known since then that I wanted to dedicate my life to making the world a better place for everyone to live, but actually living in Rwanda and doing the expat aid worker thing sorta happened by accident. I thought for a long time that I’d be helping people in the United States.”  18-25 yo female expat aid worker

“I felt like the postcode you are born in, or on a larger scale, the country you are born in, should not dictate your opportunities for the rest of your life. It is a politically motivated decision to be an aid worker, I do not think the Western world deserves the right to the best standard of life.”  26-30yo male expat aid worker

So many of the responses were heartfelt and thoughtful, few more than this one from a 26-30yo female expat aid worker.

“I believe in solidarity and mutual aid; whenever possible, elevate and act on the priorities and needs of people advocating for themselves, for example in justice-oriented social movements. I do aid work for my job because it’s a way to offer help and resources at the moment when people most need it, with (I beleive) less harmful impacts than ‘development’ that’s done without the active centering of social movements. The rest of my (nonworking) life is devoted to organizing and solidarity activism. Aid work is my compromise: I get paid, I get to help, I get to learn first-hand what is going on and how, and I get to feed my cowboy streak without buying too deeply into a development project that dictates longterm distribution of resources according to funder pleasure. I realize this sounds naive at first typing, but I do really think that the longterm balance falls (generally, with many exceptions) on the side of humanitarian aid as a necessary, useful tool, whereas development projects led by foreign NGOs tends to undermine local organizing over the longterm. Philosophically, I’d rather be an advocate or researcher with Food First working to support the work of La Via Campesino. And I have been– I’ve participated in plenty of protests and campaigns against smallholder farmer-damaging free trade agreements and for local community gardens in US cities. But I also want to be a direct participant, embracing the moral dilemmas and engaging with (instead of studying) the complexity. Aid work seems like a good way to do so.”

There is much more to add at this point, but I’ll close with the assertion people gravitate toward life paths that makes them feel good and responds to their basic urge to have justice.

“I believe that we have an obligation to correct structural injustices in the world and enable each and every person to realize their full potential, irrespective of where they live or what privilege/underprivilage they access.” 36-40 yo HQ female

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


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The Crisis Caravan: Inter-agency coordination

The Crisis Caravan:  Inter-agency coordination (updated 9-14)

Q56 touches on what has been euphemistically called the “crisis caravan.”  The results below indicate that well over half (53%) of our respondents thought that there were frequent or even constant problems related to inter-agency coordination and cooperation.

Here’s the data on Q56:

Screenshot 2015-08-30 09.56.39


Yeah, well, yawn.

The world is a complex mess and, of direct relevance to this question, there has been a constant and perhaps dysfunctional increase in the number of entities that are responding to humanitarian crises around the globe.  At least 50 “big box” NGO’s and literally countless smaller and/or MONGO organizations appear where ever there is a major humanitarian crisis. How many in the “crisis caravan?”

Too many to count is the most accurate number I can come up with.

If there are communication problems within humanitarian organizations (as discussed in my last post) it stands to reason that of course there will be even more complex and distressingly pervasive inter-agency communication issues.

When Polman wrote her book she was looking backwards, writing about what was.  No one sober looming back at 1994 and Rwanda or post-quake Haiti can disagree with her very critical observations regarding the big picture:  seen from the advantaged perspective of frozen time and access to all of the ‘data’, the crisis caravan seemed then -and perhaps seems now- quite a hot mess.

But is it really?  Our respondents seem to think so.

So, what has been, is being, and will be done to address this problem?

CHS_Diagram_smallHas been and is being done:  A couple answers appear immediately.  First, two words:  cluster meetings.  Secondly, the Core Humanitarian Standard is the most recent demonstrative example of concerted and coordinated efforts in this sector to articulate and make public universally accepted standards for humanitarian responses.  Read the history of this development here.  This and other efforts emphasize common standards that will, if adhered to, will enhance coordination and cooperation.

What will be done:  I’ve thought about this a bit and here’s what comes up.  We live in a world dominated by a species that is wired to desire justice and to have empathy for others.  There will always be a steady supply of those who want to help others. And, given the trend in American higher education in the last 15 years toward more and more “service learning” programs and “social entrepreneurship” pathways, the stream of do-gooders coming from the US will not dry up any time soon.  Just the opposite -bad news coming- I predict that there will be an even increasing number of MONGO’s started in the coming years.  More do-gooders and MONGO’s means inevitably and inexorably that the ‘crisis caravan’ will look even more chaotic in the coming years.

What will be done?  The well intentioned organizations and individuals working to enhance the sector and to address all of the ‘crisis caravan-esque’ issues will continue working, innovating, messaging and, in the end, being always frustrated that their best efforts will never be complete or perfect.  Their ernest work will be counterbalanced by the nature of the beast:  more MONGO’s, the inherent problems of communication in all and any bureaucracies, and, perhaps most distressing, the tendency we all have to “put out the fire closest to us.”  The world, as I noted above, is a complex mess, and so far there is no ‘silver bullet’ to be found, though many seem fixated on finding one.

Thinking in terms of the big picture is a luxury many of us don’t have when confronted with the immediacy of current crises.  We are, and must remain, given the life and death urgency of the now, stuck in the weeds.

As always, please contact me with questions or comments or add your thoughts for discussion over at Aid Source forum which accompanies this project.



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Not so good: The relationship between the “home office” and the “field”

And now more on the survey results…

The relationship between the “home office” and the “field”

“Well, HQ is HQ and the people there are just different. Not necessarily ill-intentioned or stupid (although it seems that way at times), just different.” –26-30 yo female expat aid worker

Yes, we are aware of the increasing blurring between what can be called “home office” and the “field” and also that many aid workers are neither and both at the same time.  That said, here are some interesting results from our survey questions that simply asked for an overall perspective.  Below we look at both the quantitative and qualitative results from three questions, Q50-52.

Q50 results below indicate a pretty negative view of the relationship.  Our results indicated a microscopic 1% indicating that “The field and the home office are completely in sync regarding important matters like priorities and processes.” A hefty 40% indicated these two realms were “rarely in sync.”  Why is this?  One broad-strokes answer is the truism that as bureaucracies get larger -and a good percentage of our respondents are from “big box” organizations- communication and coordination are structurally more complicated and, hence compromised.

Here is one narrative example to illustrate:

“Generally its all down to regular communication and putting faces to the names. The home office sometimes push “top-down” priorities that they want to see be coherent across all active programme-countries, and sometimes need to step back from their perfect plan and accept that it can’t be copy/pasted across different sites. On the other hand, I have seen the field staff exaggerate how “badly understood” they are by the home office (sometimes to excuse a lack of progress…its so easy to blame things that the home office “just dont understand” about the conditions. But sometimes, it really is just due to bad field-management!..that makes it hard for the home office to know the difference).”  -26-30 yo female expat aid worker

This next respondent nails my point:  “This [lack of sync] applies to all organisations with HQ and regional offices, not just aid work.”  –56-60 yo female consultant

So, here is the quantitative data from Q50 and Q51:

Screenshot 2015-08-28 17.07.59


Q51 results are interesting in that it gets a bit more personal, our question asking about the current organization of the respondent.  The “rarely” response, like Q50 above is still low at a paltry 9%….less than one in 10.  The “rarely” response is still high, but now that the respondents are talking about their own organization the number is 29% (as compared to the 39% reported about the relationship in general in the industry.

Screenshot 2015-08-28 17.08.38


Here are some specific narrative responses that flesh out the numbers above.

First these two from what I would call a reality-based perspective:

  • “Much of the decision making is done in the field and since the vast majority of employees are very competent, this works well. The biggest source of feeling “out of sync” is in regard to human resources- both being able to staff the field adequately and taking care of people when they leave.” 31-35 yo female expat aid worker
  • “Time zones, language/cultural barriers, personality differences, technological skill- these are just some of the challenges to attaining complete alignment between the 2 types of offices.” 18-25 female working in HQ

You can sense the frustration in these next three:

  • “We are regularly left out of home office conference calls and group emails that include all other country offices in the region. I don’t know whether the home office forgets to include us or is being passive aggressive. Either way, we are a mess. The leadership of my country office criticizes our regional office and our HQ/home office regularly. It seems like the feelings are mutual.” -18-25yo female expat worker employed within the UN system
  • “Put simply, there is an immense disconnect between reality and policy. Also, I often feel or am made to feel inferior by the hierarchy in which final decisions must go through HQ and are decided by people who are totally removed from the contexts. To make decisions, you must spent endless hours justifying a decision before you can make it. Can’t imagine what national staff must feel like (hence the indifference, I suppose).” –36-40 yo male working in HQ
  • “Damn emails. the world was beautiful before emails and the immediate responses needed by someone at HQ. that^s why I like to work in the field where I can decide that the internet ‘didn’t work for several days’.”  –56-60 yo male expat aid worker


These next two are particularly insightful and speak to issues that most in the sector will recognize:

  • “In my experience, the relationship between the field and home office is good when there is a close dialogue and working relationship between the Country Director an the Regional Director that the CD reports to. This being said with increasingly multiple reporting or accountability lines, I am not sure that the above really applies… It’s always a difficult balance, especially in high profile emergencies, between the field having space and support to make decisions and the home office feeling that its interests are being met.” –46-50 yo female HQ based
  • “This is the results of having very high turnover at all positions including high level management ones. Some people came with centralization ideals, others with decentralizations. Result: we find ourselves with two layers that develop themselves regardless of the other. Processes, procedures and responsibilities are often blurry. “Home office” works 4.5 days a week from 8 to 4pm, “field” is 6.5 days a week from 7 to 8pm. “Home office” is gangrened with political and career building moves. Often, the field ends up flipping the finger and taking over everything. “Home office” then try to finds itself a justification to exist in terms of informal support line. Once in a while they get hormones rush, and they go top-down very strongly. At field level, you then choose your battles. Field has a strong feeling that they don’t need the “home office” to operate. The “home office” thinks that they are the captain of the boat. The whole thing could be a giant case study to analyse for a final exam in management.” –26-30 yo male expat aid worker

Indeed, this is a problem of organizational management, but though we can react to communication and sync issues as they arise, the bigger picture is that the problems identified about are inherent whenever organizational size increases.  The truism in the business sector that “big fish eat little fish” -and hence that there is a force toward the domination by bigger business entities- is somewhat also true in the aid sector, if only because the economy of scale.  That and, well, Max Weber was right in pointing out the bureaucratization inevitably leads toward quantification and depersonalization and to the overall phenomena of organizations acting in the interests of survival as an entity and straying from original mission.

The point made in the last respondent’s comment that there is “very high turnover at all positions including high level management ones” cannot be ignoreed as a major factor impacting the overall efficiency level of aid organizations.  Two obvious impacts include (1) training new personal takes time, energy and both human and material resources and this constant drain inevitably impacts overall system performance and (2) institutional memory is constantly being lost as personnel come and go, hence the sense that some organizations are always recreating the wheel.  To be clear, these issues are not unique to the aid industry.

To go back to the sociologist Max Weber for a moment, he invokes the image of the stahlhartes Gehäuse or ‘iron cage’ in his ruminations about the inexorable rise of bureaucratization in the modern world.  He would look at the aid world and say ‘it is what it is’ (or some German phrase meaning as much).  Big bureaucracies will always be necessary and indeed to only way forward for social organization but they will always be inherently hampered by their size:  the bigger they get the less efficient they become…for many of the reasons touched on above, and more.

When I talk about the “iron cage of rationality” with my students I will trot out an aphorism I coined may years ago to explain one important dimension of the problem of bureaucratization, this one especially relevant in the aid world when examining the need to “show results.”  Merging a thought by Blaise Pascal “Not being able to make what is just strong, one made what is strong, just” with my understanding of Weber I came up with “Not being able to measure that which is real, we tend to make that which is measurable, real.”  Where was the drunk looking for his watch?  Under the lamp post.  Why?  Because that is where the light is best.  Hence we forever spin our wheels constantly inside the iron cage.


So I’ll end not with comments from our respondents but from my muse Max Weber.  To wit,

When those subject to bureaucratic control seek to escape the influence of existing bureaucratic apparatus, this is normally possible only by creating an organization of their own which is equally subject to the process of bureaucratization.”

Yes, MONGO’s do seem like a good idea at the time….

And, finally, on a realistic (?) and melancholy note

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

As always, please contact me with questions or comments or add your thoughts for discussion over at Aid Source forum which accompanies this project.




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