“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?
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 respondents 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.”
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
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.”
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 “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.