Taking your pulse
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This is an excellent snapshot of the experiences of aid workers
“This is an excellent snapshot of the experiences of aid workers. Dr. Arcaro’s commentary is engaging, often humorous and gives important context (and occasional limits) to the quotes from the workers themselves. Dr. Arcaro and his team chose questions that solicited thoughtful replies — and garnered a surprising variety of responses. Chapters address issues as diverse as corruption in the field to balancing work with family to the future of humanitarian aid. This is a must read if you are in the field or are considering entering it. However, many of the concerns the workers expressed provide a glimpse into modern life as well — and I would recommend it for a broader audience as well.”
MUST read for anyone curious about aid work
“If you are an aid worker, know/live with/are married to an aid worker, or just want to know more about what exactly aid workers experience – this book is for you! Reading this has been like reading my own diary – I found myself saying “YES!” more than once in relation to the experiences shared by the survey respondents. Dr. Arcaro does a superb job of breaking down survey results, adding witty commentary, and giving aid workers a relatable narrative they can share with people in their worlds who don’t understand quite what it is that we do (NO, we’re not spies). I loved this book, and think it’s a must read for anyone seeking insight into the aid workers world!”
Some questions about Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) as it relates to a more comprehensive picture of aid and development efforts
What does assistance look like from the recipient’s perspective?
In 2012, MSF published In The Eyes of Others: How People in Crisis Perceive Humanitarian Aid, edited by Caroline Abu-Sada. I have used selected chapters from this book in my classes in recent years and it is recommended reading for all students in our Periclean Scholars program. In the very last chapter author Antonio Donini states, “Humanitarianism started off as a powerful discourse; now it is a discourse of power, both at the international and community level (p. 190).”
Indeed. At play is the control and flow of resources, both human and material, inexorably complicated by cultural (mis)understandings and (mis)perceptions.
It might be useful to revisit the question of what comprises the aid and development sector from a more comprehensive “in the eyes of others” perspective, i.e., from the view within the villages and communities across the world that are the focus of aid and development efforts. One critical question is whether all those who seek to partner and ‘help’ are part of a confusing and dysfunctional cacophony or comprise a healing, harmonious set of responses. What comprises the array of people and organizations seeking to help? A comprehensive list of all the entities and actions intending to support economic and/or social equity initiatives in any given location would be long. [Note: I recognize that aid and development are inherently different but argue that frequently they far are from separate categories of response and rather lie on a very fluid continuum.]
Below is my effort listing major categories:
- Domestic regional/local corporations (CSR)
- High school and university/college ‘service’ trips, local and national community outreach
- Fulbright exchanges
- In country educational institution outreach
- Neighbor to neighbor support
- Local community groups
- Local philanthropic support
Traditional aid and development organizations
- Big box NGO’s such as OXFAM, World Vision, MSF, etc.
- Small “boutique” NGO’s (aka MONGOS)
- United Nations
- National government schemes (the US Peace Corps, for example)
- In country nation/state/municipality government schemes
- Faith communities-local
- Faith communities-national
- Faith communities-International
Given this long and likely incomplete list, it is almost inevitable that there will be a high degree of redundancy in terms of support with various well-intended schemes covering the same needs. That said, the call for more communication and coordination seems both obvious and impossible. How can we move the needle toward a more effective system?
On that note, what is known about how one main player -corporate CSR- operates?
Some questions related to CSR efforts
Detailed answers to most of the questions below will be difficult to get, and then only on a case by case basis. The suggestive list below may allow useful research to move in a positive direction.
- What is the typical pathway to become part of the CSR teams?
- How are CSR staff recruited?
- What training and/or background is required?
- What steps are taken to maximize cultural sensitivity?
- How does CRS staff attrition/retention compare to other divisions within the corporation?
- How are non-CRS staff recruited, trained, and placed with regard to volunteer activity related to CSR?
- To whom do senior CSR staff report?
- Are there professional development opportunities for CSR personnel related to aid and development work?
- Are there standard measures of community impact used?
- To what extent is branding emphasized by CSR staff when messaging their outreach?
- Are there internal corporate standards/rubrics for ethical and/or effective aid and development?
- Are there CSR policies for dealing with corruption w/in countries of focus?
- How do corporate CSR leaders in various locations around the world coordinate with other aid and development organizations (both domestic and international) and with host governments?
- How do corporate CSR leaders communicate and coordinate with their counterparts industry-wide?
- Is there a need for a set of guiding principles for all corporate CSR similar to the Core Humanitarian Standards (CHS) that exist within the aid and development industry?
- What are some of the more difficult challenges with regard to CSR outreach?
Getting objective, systematic and thorough answers to the above questions for any one corporation is a place to start, and perhaps that might be a useful next step to get us closer to a world where aid and development efforts are -and are perceived to be in the eyes of those for whom these actions are intended- to more effective, coordinated, and ethical.
Please let me know if you have any thoughts or feedback to the above.
A quixotic next chapter?
Aid Worker Voices is now published, and I am ready to start a new chapter.
Having just come off of my work on the lives of aid workers I know that there is much research work to be done that can serve the goal of better coordination and cooperation among and between all organizational entities sharing the goal of addressing pressing humanitarian and development needs on a global scale.
Beyond what I have been referring to as the “aid sector” are many other entities devoting considerable humanitarian oriented energies, perhaps the three most important of which are corporations, higher educational institutions, and the faith community. That all entities sharing the mission of addressing social justice issues and the short and long term needs of the marginalized should coordinate and cooperate at a much higher level than exists presently cannot be disputed. How to move the needle in that direction is the question.
One answer lies here, I think.
The Core Humanitarian Standards (CHS) are now recognized by the majority of entities within the aid sector and provide a benchmark for sound ethical practice with regard to interactions between aid and development organizations and their object partners and populations. Though an admittedly quixotic goal, I propose that not only should all of the major humanitarian players mentioned above have their own CSR-like standards, but that there should be a universal guide to humanitarian outreach to which all major -and ‘minor’ (e.g., small NGO’s sometimes euphemistically referred to as MONGO’s as in My Own NGO)- entities adhere.
Corporations have the B-Corporation designation, and for nearly a decade this movement, begun in the US, has spread internationally. The general premise is that B-Corporations function with an eye toward the ‘triple bottom line of people, planet and profit.’ Higher education neither in the US nor internationally has any comparable generally recognized philosophy of action. The faith community (writ large), though there are strong efforts at ecumenical cooperation, is in the same boat.
For me personally, one question that is both fascinating and critically important was phrased best by James Dawes in the beginning pages of his book That The World May Know: Bearing Witness to Atrocity. He asks, “What is the line that separates those who are merely moved and those who are moved to act?” The inference is that he is referring to individuals but I take license to expand that to organizations as well.
My interest in this general research topic is simple. Using my skills as a researcher and writer I want to be a meaningful and useful part of the conversation as we move forward in our collective attempts to respond to humanitarian needs locally and globally.
CSR and Cargill
Many agree that the line between Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) and more traditional ‘big box’ aid and development organizations (OXFAM, World Vision, MSF, etc.) has been blurred for a long time and that in the future these two forces will follow the progressive lead represented by, among others, the long partnership between Cargill and CARE.
My research on CSR tells me that there are many –Cargill perhaps a leader- connections between INGO’s (like CARE) and corporations, but that this connection is not studied in any detail. There are tons of articles about why corporation should do CSR, but most are from the business angle. I also know that Cargill-Honduras is very progressive in working with the local communities and that a majority of Cargill employees volunteer in some way.
As one possible path forward, I think it may be useful to proceed with a case-study, using the Cargill CSR efforts San Pedro Sula as the focus and go into the question of how the communities see Cargill and vice versa.
I am sober to the fact that any outside study would need vetting by execs at Cargill (and IRB here at Elon) but here is the bottom line. As the world gets ever more complex the lines between ‘traditional’ aid and development entities (e.g., Peace Corps, World Vision, CARE, OXFAM, MSF, and so on) are clearly blurred -especially in the eyes of the community members. There is an increasingly compelling set of reasons why the corporate world and the aid world should communicate and coordinate even more in the future. This future needs to be informed by a clear set of rubrics and ‘best practice’ examples, and what I propose is preliminary groundwork for this be laid by careful and objective study. That study could –should?- begin in a location that has both challenges but also much in the way of progressive success, namely San Pedro Sula.
What could come this effort? More voices heard, more issues uncovered and more bringing together of thought leaders are all possible positive outcomes. Let’s see what the future holds.
Contact me if you have questions, suggestions or comment.
Below is a press release from Elon University about Aid Worker Voices.
Here is the revised press release that came out today that includes comments from Becca Price, Elon ’01, who helped in many phases of the project.
Sociologist Tom Arcaro tells the story of the global aid workers using their own voices
The book, published by Carpe Viem Press, is now available
Sept. 23, 2016 — Using expansive insights from more than 1,000 development aid workers around the world, Tom Arcaro tells the stories of their challenges, triumphs and motivations in “Aid Worker Voices.”
This latest book by Aracaro, a renowned professor of sociology at Elon University, is now available on Amazon as a paperback or Kindle edition through Carpe Viem Press. The book is the product of years of work by Arcaro including an in-depth survey of a broad swath of aid workers. Arcaro has distilled the results of that comprehensive survey to produce “Aid Worker Voices, a nearly 300-page book that appeals to a wide range of readers.
“A must-read for whoever is interested in understanding aid workers or wants to become one, as well as for anyone who took part to the “Aid Worker Voices” survey whose results are presented in this book,” says one reviewer on Amazon. “This book does not give solutions to “fix” the aid systems, but paints a quite accurate picture of what aid workers experience in their day-to-day, which is very far from Hollywood representations of it.”
“Aid Worker Voices” is the intersection of multiple interests — Arcaro’s role as director of Project Pericles at Elon, a program helps instill students with a sense of social responsibility and civic concern, and his growing interest in global development aid and those that work in the field. “Over the years, I’ve gotten more and more immersed in development aid material and literature, and reading more and more about development aid workers,” Arcaro said.
Arcaro said he was overwhelmed by the volume of respondents to the survey, which was made available online for about eight months, as well as the depth of the responses that aid workers provided. “The people that responded are the real deal — these are the aid workers with a lot of experience,” Arcaro said. “I was just amazed at the thoughtfulness that some people put into their answers.”
Many took the time to write a “short essay” in response to some survey questions, with Arcaro saying he heard from some that “it was cathartic to do the survey because no one had ever asked them about these things before.”Among the areas explored are the motivations workers as they entered the field, their thoughts on bureaucracies and aid organizations, how faith enters into their work, the impact of their gender on the work they do and how they are received, and issues surrounding race and identity.
Arcaro also dives into the challenges aid workers might face explaining the work they do to those that aren’t involved in the field and why those who have changed careers left this line of work. Arcaro also used the insights he gained from the survey to look at the future of the development aid sector. “It was just fun and frankly an honor to read all of what they had to write,” Arcaro said of the survey responses. “It was humbling that so many took the time to respond so thoughtfully.”
Aid Worker Voices available NOW!
I have so many people to thank in getting this project done. From the book:
Thanks to the 1010 nameless aid and development workers who took the time to complete the survey and especially those who provided rich narrative responses to the many open-ended questions. Also thanks to the dozens of aid workers with whom I Skyped, emailed or otherwise communicated with to get additional background information. Special thanks go to Annalisa Addis, Amelie Gagnon, Lucy O’Donoghue and Becca Price for reading, commenting on and contributing to early drafts of the manuscript.
I deeply appreciate all of the beta readers for taking time to provide feedback, among them Elizabeth Stanfield, Karen Mac Randal, Dee Zarnowski, Killian Barefoot, Stacey Oliver, Gabrielle Richard, Keely Alexander, Federica, and Joshua Sidwell.
At Elon University thanks go to the members of the Elon University Faculty Research and Development Committee for granting me a sabbatical so that I could devote concentrated time to pour through the data and write the blog posts which form the basis of this book.
My student assistant Laura Murphy kept me on track month after month and provided very useful feedback and valuable spreadsheet work.
Teresa LePors of Belk Library provided critical research assistance.
My editor Jennie Langley kept my spirits high and the manuscript in great order. Additional editing assistant expertly provided by Xernay Aniwar and Morgan Seijo-Vila’.
My most special thanks go to my partner from the very beginning of this project. He goes by the nom de guerre of “J”.
Cover design and photograph by J.
Aid Worker Voices, the book, coming VERY soon
Proof copies coming tomorrow, then -hopefully- the public release of Aid Worker Voices! I will put ordering information here on the blog in the next day or so. In the meantime….
Another side of aid work
Last Friday I spent the day helping a colleague work on a documentary about refugee families who are being assisted by a big box NGO here in central North Carolina. We visited a community garden in its first year of being planted and tended by locally settled refugees from DRC, Burma, Cambodia and beyond. The vegetables, being cultivated in a field once dominated by kudzu, included corn, peppers, egg plant, okra, beans and other staple foods enough to sustain many families. The land is owned by the NGO and will soon have a proper fence, access to water, power, a tool storage facility, and cleared space for community gatherings. That is to say, this appears to be a sustainable enterprise with deep, long lasting impact potential.
We also visited a small apartment complex where we interviewed a refugee from Burma. Through an interpreter he told the story of his family and their desire to live free of violence and fear. Their move to the US was not quick or smooth, but now they are in a setting “with human rights” and “democracy.” There were tears during the interview born of bad memories and new hope. My colleague, a refugee himself from Iraq, handled the interview with deep sensitivity. He had been there himself.
I talked with the aid worker in charge of helping to resettle the constant influx of refugees to this area of central North Carolina and told her about Aid Worker Voices -both the blog and the book.
We had a quick, spirited discussion about the aid world, reviewing current events in South Sudan, Syria, Iraq and elsewhere. The chance to talk with a someone who shared a common knowledge of the humanitarian aid and development industry was great for both of us. In the end we repeated the truism that ‘it is all interconnected’, that her work in this small town in North Carolina was just one part of the global efforts of her NGO to deliver aid and assistance to beneficiaries.
Her voice as a local aid worker is important and hers -and others like hers- need to be heard more broadly.
How does your LGBTQ+ identity affect your aid industry workplace experience?
Filling a gap
Our original survey did not target the opinions of those who identify as LBGTQ+. Toward the goal of making it possible for Aid Worker Voices to include this significant subpopulation, I did some additional interviews and, on the suggestion of several people, worked with my colleague J to construct a ‘mini-poll’ exploring the question “How does your LGBTQ+ identity affect your aid industry workplace experience?”
We began the online survey with these words:
The aid industry goes to great lengths to persuade itself and others that it is a champion for justice and equality in the world. The UN system, NGOs of all sizes and kinds, and individual humanitarians invest time, energy, sometimes even money to make the point that they are forever on the right sides of all the issues. If there is one apparent element of aid/dev/NGO/UN worker identity, it would be this notion that we are all open-minded and inclusive.
Since we’re all so open-minded, it would make sense, then, that our organizations are havens of peace and light, that our workplaces are sanctuaries from an intolerant and sometimes downright cruel outside world. Right?
There are many issues over which relationships and workplace tolerance can unfortunately break down (including in the aid industry): Nationality, ethnicity, religion…
In this mini-poll we’d like to take a look at how sexual preference and gender identity can play out in the context of the aid industry workplace. Specifically we’d like to discuss perceptions and experiences from our LGBTQ+ colleagues.
Note: Yes, we do understand that sexual orientation and gender identities and expressions are complex and personal issues that can vary in time. When we asked people what terms and acronyms they felt were most appropriate, we literally got a different response from every single person. For the purposes of this survey, we’re going with LGBTQ+ to refer to individuals who identify as lesbian, gay, bisexual, queer or otherwise non-heterosexual, as well as trans.
Note: This survey is not limited to LGBTQ+ people. If you do not identify as LGBTQ+ yourself, we would like you to answer each question as you believe it applies to LGBTQ+ people in the aid industry or in your place of work.
The response to the survey has been good and the vast majority (96%) of those who gave their opinions are industry insiders and/or have an intimate knowledge of the sector, and 86% indicated that they identify as LGBTQ+. So, cred level appears high among those responding, which makes the voices shared worth a close listen.
The mini-poll contained ten questions, all but a few allowing for open-ended comments. As with our original survey (the data from which are reported and commented on in Aid Worker Voices), I was overwhelmed by the thoughtfulness with which some people responded.
So here are the results.
In response to the question “In your opinion how accepting of those who identify as LGBT+ is the aid and development industry?” predictably only 2% thought there were no problems which many -39%- indicating that the industry had serious problems. The fact that (1) the industry is very large and diverse and thus it is difficult to generalize and (2) there is a significant difference between the organization home base and ‘in the field’ was highlighted in some comments. These comments articulate well both points.
“There are obviously vast disparities between different organisations and different offices within the same organisation.
However, as an industry there is very limited recognition of LGBTI staff and/or how their security, health and well-being might be affected by their identity and orientation. So, although many individuals who work in this industry are accepting, the industry as a system is not.”
“While the AID industry in certain ways can be quite progressive in certain ways, it also continues to perpetate a lot of the same problems that underscore homophobia within our global discourse. It silences LGBTI staff versus raising their profiles or supporting the issues. They fail to understand the complexities of why Gender and sexual diversity issues, just like gender, underscores all development issues beyond just staff.”
“There is not enough programming for beneficiaries who identify as lgbtq nor is there enough support for national and expat (although a bit more) who identify as lgbtq.”
“There is a “culture” of general social justice, “the left”, and being inclusive but both institutionally and culturally humanitarian aid is much less accepting than it thinks it is. There is minimal support and knowledge of how to support and deal with LGBT issues that can arise in the field and generally LGBT people are just told to keep quiet and not cause trouble for their organization.”
So my read of the above is that though the sector may appear progressive it lacks complete followthrough on the idea that being inclusive means just that, and that if efforts toward this end fail to account for those who identify as LGBTQ+ there is still much work to be done. On this note, here is what one respondent said regarding a lack of action.
“Zero appetite for including LGBTQ+ in protection programming – at least explicitly- so little wonder that among staff the issue is largely ignored.”
But can the sector as a whole really pivot in a more progressive direction when there are many faith based organizations for which this type of inclusiveness flies in the face of religious doctrine? Said one respondent,
“I work for a Christian aid agency, some colleagues are homophobic and the organisation has an official stance against equal marriage.”
How many degrees of ‘out’ are there?
Are LGBTQ+ aid workers ‘out’?
Were we to live in a world of binaries that might be a simple question. We do not.
Here is what the respondents indicated, and as you can see there are many degrees of disclosure. In my field of sociology we make the distinction between ’emotional telling’ and ‘instrumental telling’, that is, between opening up to those with whom you interact because you care about them and vice versa and in telling others only for practical, necessary purposes (for example telling your dentist that you are HIV+). In aid and development work both kinds of telling happen and this varies considerably from situation to situation. While deployed in some areas of the world the decision to ‘tell’ or not can be critical. Listen to these next voices.
“I could possibly be forced out of my job in the Middle East at my (very large and respected NGO) because of my sexuality. They, in general, do not like the issues associated with having out gay men. There have been instances where gay male nationals who were too effeminate have been forced out of the organization.”
“I work for the UN and it has pro-LGBT policies and the environment is tolerant in HQ locations based on my experience. However, I have worked in E.Africa and many staff were highly homophobic – international staff – mainly from all over Africa. In my current field posting, many staff come from conservative countries or religious backgrounds that are homophobic, so despite working for the UN the atmosphere is entirely different from HQ and I have seen the bullying of LGBTQ+ and open homophobic comments.”
Our data were clear on this topic with the vast majority -77%- saying that “I feel more threatened, marginalized, or just offended from host governments, communities, and beneficiaries, etc. than in the workplace.” And even when your immediate workmates in the field are open-minded, there are still major safety and career concerns.
“I feel that I have open-minded colleagues in the field. I am openly gay to them but as they don’t have many other LGBTQ+ friends or colleagues, I worry that they may inadvertently put me in a difficult or dangerous situation. The management of my workplace have little appreciation of this challenge that I face. I wouldn’t be sure that they would stand by me if a homophobia incident caused a breakdown with a partner that threatened a project. They’d probably just move me to another project, and this wouldn’t necessarily be good for my career.”
“I do not feel it would be safe for my career or wellbeing to be open in the UN compound and environment in which I work. Only the younger, western or westernised, professional level and higher educated colleagues seem to be non-homophobic and open. However, the majority of colleagues are not of this type and homophobic remarks are rampant amongs security, pilots, administrative staff etc. It sounds snobbish but it’s true. In my section I don’t feel threatened at all despite that some colleagues are a bit homophobic in general, despite being human rights workers. For national staff, homophobia is normal, nobody could ever be out to national staff here or anyone in the host community.”
Do managers make deployment decisions based on LGBTQ+ status? here is what one respondent said,
“While difficult to substantiate, I believe that I have not been considered for a series of overseas assignments for which i was highly qualified, due to my status. I was once inadvertently included in an email trail from senior HR managers confirming that I would not get a post because of my status. This was extremely demoralizing to me from a career standpoint.”
Moving forward toward policy solutions?
In the final two questions of the survey we asked what could be done to move the needle in a more positive direction to make the work experience for those identifying as LGBTQ+ better. The responses were thoughtful and, in some cases, provocative. This respondent suggests what might be considered an unreasonable pathway forward given the fundamental humanitarian mandate to provide assistance as neutrally as possible. But, then, when and how do we make progress?
“Insist with the receiving countries that all staff be accepted without reference to race, gender or sexual orientation. Easier said than done, but someone needs to set an example. I believe that if the state discriminates against its LGBTQ minority, it should be sanctioned by the HRC and denied development/aid assistance.”
Many respondents suggested something along the lines of “change HQ policies to have them explicitly include language -and put teeth to that language- protecting staff identifying as LGBTQ+.” One went on to include the point that beneficiaries need also to be considered.
“I believe more funding and programmes should be available for this very vulnerable group. In displacement or refugee settings, LGBTQ+ communities are often twice or thrice times the victims or prejudice, assault and socio-economic vulnerability.”
This next respondent who sums up much of the above while making a specific suggestion.
“The UN bureaucracy needs to get over its squeamishness about the ‘third sex’. It needs to take a much more principled stance with member states that persecute their gay citizens through punitive laws and state-sanctioned violence. Perhaps its time for a “UN-Gay” organization to emerge that will lobby for the rights and interests of 10% of humanity? But good luck getting funding! On a personal level, I genuinely feel that my career prospects have been stymied by my coming out at work and that senior managers in my organization do not feel empowered to support my advancement. I also feel that HR will only ‘reward’ those who remain closeted and single. Of course, prevailing attitudes in the UN reflect the membership of 193 states, the majority of which are socially conservative. But aren’t we allowing the membership to dictate policies that only add to the prevailing climate of prejudice against LGBTQ people? The UN needs to lead by example and adopt truly inclusive policies that really do assist its gay employees.”
I’ll end this section with the touching and very personal words from one soul willing to share. Certainly many aid workers sacrifice, but perhaps LGBTQ+ bear an additional layer of psychological pain.
“Intimacy is the biggest hurdle. Imagine going for months without any expression of a deep part of your personhood. It is isolating and safe spaces are definitely needed.”
More details from a happily married gay woman
One veteran development worker took the time to address the questions in the survey with a bit more detail.
“The degree to which the aid and development industry is accepting of LGBTQ+ people is a tricky question, and the answer has an individual and an institutional level.
Let me explain part of the complexity. Although the organisation I am familiar with includes in their staff rules that everybody should embrace diversity, not discriminate, and respect each others differences. At least officially there is a safe space created for everybody to be who they are, so technically, the industry -or at least my organisation- is quite open and welcoming to every kind of person really.
But the reality is that these same organisations have offices in many countries where there is State-sponsored homophobia – so de facto, LGBTQ+ people (or at least myself) are excluding themselves from employment opportunities by fear of being harassed, threatened, or even jailed (this happened to someone in Senegal, because they were gay). If one wants to progress in their career, try something new, get other experiences, it might be difficult to rotate if you identify as LGBTQ+.
Last year I contemplated a post in Nairobi. Knowing that Kenya criminalises homosexuality and that social climate might be hostile regarding this issue, I had to ask myself if I wanted to put my wife in such environment, and most importantly our child. So we considered living apart (i.e. in different countries), moving in Nairobi with a gay male couple (to pass as two straight couples), living in a high-security bubble, only interact with like-minded expats —we seriously considered even the craziest options.
I have no trouble in serving in countries that have laws that I am against, but will I put my family at risk for sheer career progression? I am not able to take that step. I am lucky enough to be based in a European capital, and I get to work in countries where I could never dream of living in with my family.
What I have become to realise is that when I was a more junior professional, I tended to avoid social situations from colleagues, especially colleagues that I could not have ‘checked’ if they were open or not on social issues. Not so much because I would fear their reaction, but mainly I guess because I would not want to deal with the awkwardness of having to explain. Once, I introduced my wife as ‘my wife’ to a colleague and right there, in front of us, she literally replied “what do you mean?” That was awkward.
Now, older? Wiser? That I am positioned in a more senior position? In another country? I feel that I do not owe anything to anyone and that I do not have to deal with their reaction, basically.
In my office, everybody knows I am gay: peers, supervisors, interns, etc. It’s a relatively small office where we are all very social, so from the start it was a no brainer for me to be transparent about my personal life—and I felt very free about it. At my HQ, also, as soon as discussions become personal, I am absolutely open about being gay. I take it for granted that if someone asks about my intimate life, they are able to deal with any reality that it might entail. If not, too bad for them.
By contrast the reality is that when I work with my clients, outside of my organization, I am absolutely mute on my spousal situation. The great thing in having a child, is that I can redirect any discussion (or just focus on) things about children. That’s my joker. And I don’t need to lie.
What I try to do is to position myself as an ally to anyone who is not ‘conforming’. There was a colleague in one of our small country offices that I thought was gay – others were teasing him about not being married, and I could feel that he was not so comfortable with the teasing so I supported him not to be wishing to marry (quoting my grandma: “don’t get married!”) and made a case about living one’s own life etc. Then a few months later, colleagues were still teasing him about not being married, and then he said he had found someone but that this person ‘did not fully meet his family expectations’ or that it was something like ‘socially impossible’… and I was like “I knew it!”… but what happened next is that he basically declared he was in love with me. And then I was like ‘this is soooooo wrong, if he only knew’!
I don’t really feel threatened or marginalized, in the field than when back at HQ but I do feel in the closet with my clients, and totally free with my peers, colleagues, supervisors, etc. In fact, one thing I find very comforting is the fact that my office peers with whom I am open (out of the closet) are very sensible and sensitive to potential threaths to me when we travel together — when discussions fall into very heteronormative issues or when I am asked about my “husband”, colleagues do not hesitate to tag with me in adding more nuance, or even to help me protect my cover. I find this unspoken alliance very sweet!
What could the industry do to change for the better the work experience for those who are LGTBQ+? Perhaps there is a distinction to make between single, couple, family LGBT situations. Single people can deal with their lives themselves, perhaps. For couples, there might be a need for the employers to facilitate or help with employment of the partner… but for families, I really do not know what would be a workable solution. The only concrete thing I could see the industry doing is to lobby on government to abolish discriminatory legislation, so at least people can feel safe, or at least not threatened by law.
Being gay absolutely limits your posting/ employment opportunities when you have a family. If I were single, I would probably be ok to take a few years of potentially dry spell, or try something new:)
But when you are not alone, the professional benefits have to be weighted by the living conditions on your family, and that is not easy. I am happy because I get to travel frequently to work with my clients, while being posted in an open city, but I do see the limitations on my career.”
Others in the closet?
As a final note I’ll mention that as part of this research process I interviewed a number of aid and development workers who live in a parallel closet, namely those who are atheists. In particular, many non-believers who happen to work for faith based organizations feel compelled to play the game of ‘passing’ with their colleagues and superiors, remaining ‘closeted’ atheists, as it were. That there are laws against nonbelievers in some countries and that the lives of ‘out’ atheists are in danger -as is the case in Bangladesh- cannot be ignored, especially given the fact that there are likely more atheists in the aid sector than there are LGBTQ+. A final take home point here is that we need all to work toward a world where there is tolerance for all and that a ‘you be you’ attitude is more globally accepted by individuals, organizations and governments.
I am not holding my breath on that happening anytime soon, though.
Responding to Terrain
Along with (as of this writing) 2,623 others, I have signed the “United Nations, International Organisations, World Governments – Protect Aid Workers Now!” petition. In response to the events at Terrain in South Sudan, the aid community came together in many virtual fora, perhaps most dramatically so in the Facebook group “Fifty Shades of Aid.” One outcome of those responses is the petition.
The discussions in that group continues to be a rich mixture of passion, compassion, insight and measured analysis of not just the events near Juba but others like it all over the humanitarian space.
If you have not done so, sign the petition. Now.
In the preface to Aid Worker Voices I offer the thought that, collectively, aid workers are the conscience of our growing global consciousness. That this segment of humanity needs to be heard from and listened to is indeed the premise of my book. Most immediately, though, the issue is the protection of the humanitarian space.
A couple years ago I wrote the short piece below, sadly more relevant now. It is pointed at a mainstream American audience, so take that into account as you read. Share with me if you have any thoughts or feedback.
Supporting those on the front lines of support
By Tom Arcaro – email@example.com
Spin the globe in the last decade and disasters pop up like so many ugly weeds: the tsunami in Sri Lanka, the earthquake in Haiti, the famine in the Horn of Africa. Now we are faced with a massive humanitarian crisis in Syria where multitudes of children and innocents -“collateral damage” in a civil war – seek refuge in makeshift camps.
All of these events evoked strong emotion and then an outpouring of financial support. Americans, compelled by a basic sense of common humanity, give a great deal to organizations that care for victims of humanitarian crises. Indeed, various estimates put the dollar figure given by Americans at more than $300 billion per year.
Humanitarian aid workers use our donations to provide frontline care to millions of our world’s most desperate populations and, critically, connect those of us who donate money to those who are suffering in the countless ragged encampments on the borders of disaster zones. Their job is as risky as it is critical.
Estimates are that last year alone, 272 aid workers were victims of violence, including 91 kidnappings, 115 injuries and 66 deaths. These numbers from the Humanitarian Outcomes international consulting group do not include the additional psychological trauma that can lead to depression, anxiety, post traumatic stress syndrome, and, yes, even suicide.
Aid workers put themselves in harm’s way every day – look no further than the seven people from the Red Cross/Red Crescent just kidnapped in Syria – and for that, for being our point of contact and the human expression of our financial and material donations, we owe them our thanks.
Here’s how we should show our respect for the job they do in our name:
First, we must begin by seeking to understand more deeply the complexities of these humanitarian crises. We need to have an insatiable desire to know the world around us, far outside of our comfort zone of the United States. Spend 15 minutes each day reading international news, and be sure to check out foreign news sources. I recommend the BBC or Al-Jazeera, both of which give perspectives you won’t find in the American press.
Second, we need to understand that some giving can be toxic, especially if it is done paternalistically, in a way that is culturally inappropriate, or inefficiently. We must vet on a regular basis any aid organization to which we donate. Some organizations are not much more than well-run scams, doing little to actually make a positive impact as they promise. We should give, but ever mindfully.
Third, by understanding more deeply, we can avoid giving inappropriate or unnecessary material items known in the humanitarian aid world as “stuff we don’t need.” Examples are many and can be found when looking at the history of the response to the earthquake in Haiti where crates of expired medicines sat on the tarmac of the airport for weeks.
Finally, and most importantly, we can support aid workers – and thus help them better serve those caught in the humanitarian crisis – by not remaining neutral in the face of extremism.
The international medical organization Doctors Without Borders, also known by its French acronym MSF, withdrew this summer from Somalia when it concluded that its workers could no longer be assured of safety. Unfortunately, the new normal in the humanitarian aid world is that in some locations local political factions or religious fundamentalist groups can basically abuse aid resources for political purposes, manipulate humanitarian space, and even directly target aid workers in violent attacks, more or less with total impunity.
This threat to the sanctity of humanitarian space is made possible by the inaction of those who consider themselves moderates, both here and abroad.
We must be more aggressive in our challenge to extremists – both political and religious – and show an aggressive intolerance toward, well, intolerance.
Our points of contact, the humanitarian aid workers now on the ground in hot spots around the globe, need all of us to be more mindful in our giving, our knowing and our responsibility to help regain the sanctity of the humanitarian space.
Cover for Aid Worker Voices
And here’s a version of the the cover, still a work in progress. Cover photograph by J.
You do you
Our survey respondents were overwhelmingly female -71%- and they had a lot to say on all topics. Below Becca, a 36 year old expat aid worker, currently living in the US but -no new story here- a frequent traveler to Southeast Asia and west Africa. Her career story reflects many themes that appeared in our data:
- She entered the sector very early post-university, not quite knowing what was ahead.
- Though she has seen some of the worst conditions -think Ebola response in Guinea- she maintains a deep commitment to what she does.
- Her deployment record is lengthy, varied, and seemingly never-ending.
- She is challenged by the countless times non-sector people have questioned her job, motives, life choices and even the meaning of her life’s work.
Before we get to her thoughts, a personal aside. I too have trouble with communicating what I do and why I do it up to and including putting together this book. When I have nothing to gain -in terms of extrinsic rewards- why devote so much time and effort? How will this help to pay the bills? The push back is sometimes subtle, but it is there, making the time when I can burrow down into this work all the more valuable to me.
But, now on to Becca. Below she shares her story as it relates to personal relationships, both current and prospective. A single, post-30 year old woman, she is embroiled in an internal clash between her moral, humanistic calling to be of service to others and her very human urge to engage in long-term mate bonding. We know from research on the topic of happiness that both making meaningful impact upon our world and close family relationships are essential factors. Her dilemma is that, though she has good relations with her family or orientation she lacks even the beginning of a family of procreation.
What’s a girl to do? Here’s Becca’s thoughts:
Becca, aid worker
“Are you married?” “Do you have kids?” “Are you in a relationship?” “Have you met anyone?”
These questions can bring any woman over a certain age to their knees, but when you’re an aid worker, they often lead to additional questions and comments which can be downright debilitating.
“Well, would you like to be married?” “How do you expect to meet someone if you’re always traveling?” “You work such long hours; it must be difficult to meet someone.” “Honey – I really want a grandchild – don’t you think it’s time to settle down?”
And with every “no”, the final comment is usually something along the lines of “Well, at least you get to travel such exotic locations – I’d give anything to see what you’ve seen”. The grass-is-always-greener syndrome.
If “Aid Workers Anonymous” was a thing, I’d start each meeting with – “Hi, my name is Becca, and I’m 36 years old, female, unmarried, and don’t have children”, in an effort to address the elephant in the room straightaway and not give others the chance to ask the dreaded litany of questions.
Because in the United States, a woman over thirty that is career-oriented, unmarried, and without kids is almost sacrilegious. Our media touts stories either applauding or lamenting the ability for women to “have it all” … but what does that mean when you’re an aid worker? Does having it all have to include kids and a husband and the white picket fence and a dog named Spud and giving up the international travel and life experiences you’re having in the field?
Of course not – in fact, that stereotype doesn’t have to exist for women in any profession, though – as I’m starting to sound like I’m standing on a soapbox – I’ll stick with what I know and describe my experience as an aid worker and how it’s impacted my relationships – past, present, and future goals.
I literally fell into the aid worker role. I’d been working in Charleston, South Carolina for a year, hating my job working in the very upper-crust, blue-blood preservation world (turns out I’m neither upper-crust nor blue-blood), and responded to an advertisement to get back into the project management world through an organization largely funded by the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID). I stopped in Chapel Hill, NC for the interview on my way home for Thanksgiving, was awarded the job on the spot, and the rest is history.
That was more than 10 years ago, and I’ve had a million opportunities since then. I’ve traveled extensively throughout sub-Saharan Africa supporting a malaria prevention program; I lived in Hanoi, Vietnam for 14 months supporting an HIV prevention program focusing on key at-risk populations (men who have sex with men, drug users, and sex workers; as my mentor would say – “sex and drugs and rock ‘n roll”); I’ve been to Bangkok and Jakarta more times than I can count; and was lucky enough to spend a full month touring the Caribbean on an HIV/Human Resources for Health (HRH) project. I’m currently based in Wilmington, North Carolina, am managing 2 staff, four international projects (2 each in Guinea and Thailand), and am pretty content in my job. Every day isn’t rainbows and unicorns and the travel can be wearing, BUT … overall, I’m content.
While my career is in a pretty good place, I’d say my relationship life is … meh. I have great friends and a supportive family, but … I’m the only one in my group of friends that is unmarried and without kids. I’m currently single (and ready to mingle, fellas!), but tend to work a godawful number of hours in a week, travel frequently, and spend any free time I carve out sleeping, or binge watching Netflix, or traveling domestically to see friends and family, or hanging out with my dog. I’ve recently realized that I live for my job, as opposed to the other – “normal” – way around.
Most of the time, I’m perfectly content – I recently bought a house, have some disposable income to play with, and get to travel the world. But sometimes – like during a recent anniversary party celebrating two of the best friends a girl could ask for; or after spending 3 weeks with best friends made in Hanoi and my godson – it gets a bit lonely. And then I look at my life and think – “Shit. I’m 36 years old. Yes, I get to travel the world, and yes, I love what I do, but … is this all there is?”
Going into the field is always a treat as a single woman as well. I find that, globally, folks have NO PROBLEM asking how old you are, if you’re married, if you’d like to be married, if you have kids, if you’d like to have kids, and commenting generally on anything from your hair color to your weight to your clothes in relation to why you’re single and don’t yet have kids.
Translation – people can (unknowingly) be rude. And those rude comments can be hell.
I didn’t make a conscious choice to “give up” one dream (the husband, babies, white picket fence, and all that) when I became an aid worker. I also FIRMLY believe that that the two don’t have to be mutually exclusive … you can ABSOLUTELY be an aid worker, follow your dream, travel the world, and still have a family.
I do think that the United States is a bit harsher in terms of timelines and reminders of a woman’s biological clock. I never felt old or any pressure to procreate when I was living in Hanoi … women around me – single AND married – were in their 40’s and just either having or adopting their first child. My best friend from Hanoi used to constantly tell me, “Becca, you’re 34 years old … why in the world do you think it’s over for you” when I would lament the fact that I wanted a husband and wanted kids (I can get a bit whiny, truth be told).
But on the flip side of that, it felt like my family and friends who thought my Hanoi stint was just a blip … “surely, she’ll return to the real world and settle down and start that family she’s always talking about”.
Coming home from Hanoi was eye opening, and not just related to the husband/baby pressure … I’d been away 14 months and my entire world had changed. I’d experienced and seen things that my family and friends never would. I’d been put through the ringer by my company and the donor, and lived to tell the tale. I made friendships that I was convinced (and have been proven right) would become some of the most important in my world.
But I was expected to fit right back into the “Becca” mold I’d previously inhabited. I should forget about Hanoi, go right back to work, and FIND A HUSBAND SO I CAN FINALLY HAVE THE BABIES I’VE ALWAYS WANTED.
Oof – just thinking back to that time is exhausting.
Sitting here writing this, I’ve just come off of a 2-month period where I’ve been to Guinea for 2 weeks, Bangkok for 3, and spent 2 weeks with friends that traveled from the UK for their first-ever visit to America. I’ve put a moratorium on work travel for the foreseeable future, and think it’s time to start focusing on me and meeting those relationship goals I do have … I would like to meet someone, and I would like to have children one day … and half the battle of even TRYING to meet someone is having the time to do so – to go on dates and decide if you’re a match. When you’re traveling all the time, it’s really hard to make that a priority. So I’ve drawn a line in the sand with my job, and am ready to turn the focus back to me.
Will it work? Who knows. But ya gotta try, right???
I don’t know if I’ve got any great wisdom to share or true conclusions to be drawn, but I think it’s important for aid worker women to know a few things:
- There is NOTHING wrong with you because you’ve chosen a life in aid work as opposed to a more “traditional” job (but even as I write that, I think “what does that even mean?”).
- Being an aid worker does not preclude you from having a husband and babies (if you so desire).
- NOT having a husband and babies is TOTALLY cool too!
- Being “of a certain age” should not provoke knowing head nods and slight grimaces when you tell people how old you are and that you’re single. Those people are assholes.
- Aid work is about passion … if you love what you do and are fortunate enough to have the husband and babies too – more power to you. If the other half of the equation hasn’t come along just yet … relax … you’re still doing amazing work for the world and should feel proud of that!
In other words …
You do you … and tell any naysayers to go fuck themselves.
The malady of infiniteness
I suspect that many aid worker’s can relate to Becca’s story and will nod that ‘the struggle is real.’ This tension between the moral and mating callings within the heart is timeless and certainly not restricted to females, and, as Becca points out, there are no easy solutions. The sociologist Emile Durkheim told us long ago that we are destined to wrestle with the ‘malady of infiniteness’, with social possibilities being many and life paths being limited. Being human means to be constantly battling contradictions; we are a species who can frequently imagine and desire more than our finite lives can provide.
And so it is with most everyone, including SWF aid workers.