Aid Worker Voices

More than blog posts

More than blog posts

What you will encounter on this blog is very ‘unblog-like’ in that most posts are not your typical 4-6 minute read. The end goal of this project is to give voice to aid workers in a book-length treatment of the results from a 60 item survey that 1010 aid workers world-wide responded to in 2014-2015.  Many of the posts (or combinations thereof) will become chapters in this book after being further edited, vetted and otherwise made ready for prime time.  Though there is much data through which I need to sift, the plan is to have a beta version of Aid Worker Voices:  Survey results and commentary ready some time early this summer.  Go to this post for a more detailed description of the project methodology and purposes.

Here is the poster I presented with my research student.  This outlines a bit of where the final project will go.

Screenshot 2016-05-14 18.16.22

Please contact me if you have any feedback or suggestions.

Tom Arcaro

Tom Arcaro

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

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A theory-wonkish excursus

[Note:  this short note is intended as more background for the Castles in the Sand post.]

“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.”
–Max Weber

 “…until we recognize how dependent we are on the oppression and marginalization of others for our own betterment and benefit (i.e. access to cheap disposable goods, foreign foods and fresh imports, temporary foreign workers to fill low-income job vacancies, etc…), humanitarian aid work is just another cog in this bullshit machinery.”

A theory-wonkish excursus

The view from 35,000 feet
Encountering C W Mills’ The Sociological Imagination early in my career provided me with a critical set of conceptual tools.  Though the book offers much more, what I emphasis to my students is that the sociological imagination urges us to take the long view both geographically and historically, thus demanding a ‘the global is an interwoven social system the current state of which can only be properly viewed using a keen sense of world history’ perspective.  Mix Max Weber and his pathbreaking work on the inexorable stranglehold on humanity by capitalism and bureaucratic organization into that framework and that begins to explain the quotation above.

Understanding why the World Humanitarian Summit is destined to ‘fail’ begins here.

That Karl Marx and Charles Darwin were contemporaries is well known, their intellectual and professional paths crossing in the UK, at least to the extent that Marx sent Darwin a copy of Das Kapital (that Darwin wrote back and thanked him for).  I mention these two monumental figures because each is responsible for first articulating the two driving algorithms of our world, Darwin, evolution and Marx, of course, capitalism.

Just as Theodosius Dobzhansky argues that “nothing in biology makes sense except in the light of evolution” I would offer that nothing makes sense in the world of economics except in the light of capitalism.  To go further, I would point out that Marx’ full-on version of economic determinism -that all aspects of modern culture are driven by the logic of capital (does the phrase “follow the money” come to mind?)- merits a serious look even more so in 2016 than when he first began to formulate it in the mid Reagan Thatcher1800’s.  This Guardian article by George Monbiot does a great job of explaining the ideology of neoliberalism and provides deep insight into the massive economic and political forces that control our entire global social system. This system includes within it, of course, the three parts of the humanitarian aid system, namely (1)  aid organizations that get funding from (2) donors (be they individuals, governments, the UN, foundations or whatever) and (3) those who are the object of these efforts.

Side note:  The irony that Henri Dunant experienced Solferino the same year On the Origin of Species was published -1859- is not lost on me.  While Marx and Darwin were giving voice to the major forces determining our life on this planet for his part Dunant was doing the same for our inner urges to respond to those in need though his book A Memory of Solferino.

A third person of note in this context, one of our contemporaries, provided us with a bridge between the biological and the social and must be mentioned.  In the last pages of his 1976 book The Selfish Gene Richard Dawkins coins the term ‘meme’ and defined it as a “unit of cultural transmission.”   Other thinkers, notably Daniel Dennett in the US and Susan Blackmore in the UK have done much to extend Dawkins’ concept of the meme, Dennett pointing out that the process of evolution is substrate neutral and can/does include memes and Blackmore offering an extended discussion of the concept of ‘memeplexes’ by noting that just as human bodies are complexes of genes, social entities can be seen as complexes of memes (the Catholic Church being one of her main examples).

Let’s now consider Marx’ observation that “The ruling ideas of each age have ever been the ideas of its ruling class.”  Biological evolution is fundamentally Darwinian in nature (survival of the fittest and all that) whereas memetic evolution is partly Darwinian but also has an even bigger element of Lamarckianism (acquired characteristics can be passed on to others).   Stated differently, the vectors of communication for genes are limited (sex, anyone?) and change takes place over many, many generations while the vectors for spreading memes are increasing -and increasingly rapid- due in large part to technological change in how we communicate.  The spreading of memes can be virtually instantaneous via, for example, YouTube and Twitter. Critical to note is that those most heavily influencing the flow of information, i.e., the spreading of memes, are those, typically, with money and power, i.e., “the ruling class.”Marx

Non-linear systems
As I have pointed out elsewhere, human life on this planet can only be fully understood as being part of multiple nonlinear systems.  In her 2013 article “Nonlinear Systems Theory, Feminism, and Postprocessualism” Suzanne M. Spencer-Wood does an excellent job in probing and explaining this perspective, doing a very solid job in weaving in a discussion of the impact that human agency has on chaotic and nonlinear systems.

Genetic and memetic evolution are impacted now by (an in turn impact) economic and cultural evolution.  The bottom line is that engineering cultural change is extraordinarily complicated and that our efforts at “development” -despite our best intentions- can never yield predictable long term results and may in fact lead to negative impacts.  Perhaps more distressingly, our short term specific (tsunami, for example) relief efforts are also injecting influences that inexorably will have unanticipated and unpredictable results both locally and in the global social system as a whole.

As one aid worker put it “Compared to the money being invested, we’re doing a pretty poor job of getting anywhere. A lot of misguided approaches or self-interested approaches or inappropriate interventions or I could go on and on. Why do we know that poverty is not simple or linear, yet still implement interventions as if it is? We need to get better. We need to be smarter, think more critically.”

To understand the humanitarian aid sector you have to acknowledge that it is part of larger social and even biological systems.  No part -even you, MSF- is disconnected from any other.  Input into the system, however small or positively intentioned, at any one point can and does impact the rest of the system.  A “fix” at one point can never be in isolation from the rest of the larger sociocultural system.

Said one aid worker,

“I think humanitarian aid work operates within a system that is built on inequality – we won’t see large scale change happen in the lives of people, in terms of long term development, until we start to challenge the structures and systems that result in this inequity in the first place. And the heart of those institutions is within North America and Europe – until we recognize how dependent we are on the oppression and marginalization of others for our own betterment and benefit (i.e. access to cheap disposable goods, foreign foods and fresh imports, temporary foreign workers to fill low-income job vacancies, etc…), humanitarian aid work is just another cog in this bullshit machinery.” (emphasis added)

So, yes, the message that I heard from many aid workers about the future of the aid sector about the larger forces impacting the sector (e.g., neoliberal economic policies) are spot on.  See this deep critique of the sector along these lines from aid workers  and this post in particular for aid worker voices on the future of the sector.

Yes, more to come….

Please do contact me with your feedback or critique.

Tom Arcaro

Tom Arcaro

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

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How do you explain your job to non-sector people?

How do you explain your job to non-sector people?

“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.”

– female HQ worker

“Entirely depends on the person, and their previous knowledge level and the degree of real interest.”

– 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.”

– male HQ worker

With whom do you share details about your life as an aid worker?  Under what circumstances? At what level of detail?  How do you simultaneously honor the intense privacy -yours and others- of your field experiences and at the same time your deep need to share fully with intimates ‘back home’?  What do you tell and what do you hold back?  How do you deal with the inevitable need to put into separate compartments the roles that you play at work and at home?

The topic of this post is, in the end perhaps, efforts at mental hygiene as aid workers grapple with living out complex professional roles while at the same time attempting to have ‘normal’ social and family 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 useful and nuanced light onto our research questions about how aid worker’s explain their jobs.

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!”  or “Oh, you are one of those arrogant bastards trying to export Western lifestyle in all parts of the globe.”?

But is this situation unique to aid workers?  Likely not.  Here is what a couple respondents pointed out.

“Its impossible to really understand without having the context. There are things my friends try explain to me about their lives that I have equally no context for – and is equally difficult. So I see the same issue on both sides.”

“I would never expect people to be as well-educated on all the various aspects of aid work — including all the criticism, rather than the “do-gooder” stereotype, which makes me uncomfortable. Just like they would never expect me to understand the ins and outs of their professions. It’s just that their professions may not be as controversial or receive so much media attention. Specifically, I work on a very awkward area of maternal health — women with obstetric fistula leak urine and sometimes feces from their vagina. It’s not dinner conversation (which is part of the reason it’s so marginalized even within global health circles — people don’t want to talk about it because it’s embarrassing). So I usually say only very generally what I do and try to be very gracious when people talk about “all the good work being done in Africa” or whatever. I’ll only go more in-depth if I can gauge a genuine interest that they want to hear more of the real stuff.”

This next aid worker gives an example that I can personally relate to as a university professor whose own spouse continues to ask “What are you doing when you are not teaching a class?”

“It could also be interesting to compare these answers to those from people doing other kinds of jobs. I guess complex work is always difficult to explain. I guess many people *think* they know, for instance, what a professor does, but many would be surprised to learn how little time is actually spent teaching or doing research as opposed to other tasks such as writing grant proposals, acting as editor or reviewer for some journal, organising conferences, responding to emails, etc. What makes aid work different is that many of the existing stereotypes and preconceptions have a negative connotation (white saviour, proselytism, exporting Western democracy /capitalism…). This means that aid workers who want to explain their jobs need to dismantle prejudice, whereas the professor from my previous example can honourably get away with “yes I do teach undergraduate classes among other things”. Also, ‘aid worker’ is terribly generic and lumps together the war surgeon (something not too difficult to explain, albeit extremely difficult to do) with the fundraising or the monitoring and evaluation officer (less easy to explain).” 

Fair enough.  The cultural and social worlds we inhabit often are very different one from another and we all often make the mistake of assuming a sharing of understanding where that is not the case.  Getting into the details of any occupation can be a rabbit hole of nuance and complexity, but perhaps aid workers have it a bit more difficult because of the added layer of shifting contexts.  Indeed, aid workers are occupationally different from most jobs in that they frequently must transition from one cultural content to another.

But why would you want to explain your job?  The answer is simple: we are a social species and our mental health and happiness are in large part dependent upon having family and friends with which we can express and share emotions.  The natural urge to share one’s life with intimates is stressed by the aid worker’s job.  The voice below is describing a situation where, I suspect, unwanted barriers are being created.

“None of my family or friends back home have ever done aid work before and many rarely travel overseas. Thus most of them don’t seem to be able to understand why I work overseas in one of the most violent and stressful contexts. This lack of understanding often creates a gap which makes it hard for them to contextualize the work and lifestyle in country. Sometimes this means they avoid asking too many 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 a much more trouble than men explaining their job.  The differences highlighted in blue are statistically significant.

Screenshot 2016-04-27 13.46.35

That the quantitative male and female responses differed is evident, but having poured through the narrative responses -first female then male the- ‘why’ lingers unanswered in my mind; no clear thematic differences are evident in the narrative responses.

Difficulty of explaining depends on the audience and on what job you have
In looking for themes in the narrative responses it was clear that the level of difficulty and frustration with communicating about the job was directly correlated with (1) the nature of the aid/development work being done and (2) the level of education and/or cross-cultural literacy of the people the aid worker was trying to communicate with.  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

If the family/friends back home have similar experiences or are otherwise cross-culture savvy, explaining the job can be easier.

“The difficult is more on the technical side as I come from a family that includes development workers, although not humanitarian aid workers, so the motivation is not difficult to explain nor is the sacrifice on family time, personal safety, material comforts.”

“My family has tried a lot to understand what I do. My parents even took a SPHERE training course and get often ask me if I am keeping up with standards when I am on the field. They also understand the Faith component of my motivation to work. But it’s the relationships and the tension, the raw side of the responses that people don’t understand. They don’t have the frame of references to understand the extreme pain, poverty and insecurity seen on the field. But they try and I love my family and friends for that.”

If your job is in medicine or communications explaining is pretty straightforward.

“Since I work in field communications, it’s not as difficult to explain that I help in the process of obtaining stories of the people who benefit from our programmatic work. If I need to explain the development models in more depth, that could be harder depending on who I’m speaking to and their level of interest and comprehension, but I’ve done it long enough now that it’s quite second nature.”

Persistent misconceptions and oversimplifications
There were many responses voicing a frustration that despite best efforts otherwise misconceptions and oversimplifications, most framing the work as simplistic and/or charity, persisted.  Others marginalized the work by reframing the mission of the sector, as in this first example.

“My adult family members question the difference between development work and the invasion of Afghanistan, feeling both are western imperialism – one just happens to be at gun point.”

The next few are typical in describing the entrenched stereotypes of aid workers.

  • “For years, I basically said, ‘no, I do not hand out bowls of soup.”
  • “I have difficulty explaining that I am not a white savior protecting the orphans of Africa from dreaded disease and war.”
  • “I am a funding policy adviser. My role is to advise donors and advocate for best funding practise on behalf of a membership organisation of international NGOs. My mother thinks I rattle tins at supermarkets to get coins to give to starving Ethiopians.”
  • “‘So you dig well for Africans, right?’… ‘No, darling brother, I am a fundraiser. I work at a desk and deal with bureaucrats all day’… ‘Cool. So how many wells did you dig this year?’… and repeat.”
  • “I’m not a nun. I don’t distribute soap.”

These next few voices, I am sure, speak for many. I love the ‘bridge-building imagery in the third one.

“I’m tired of the whole, “oh you’re in charity work?” the platitudes about helping the needy, and the inevitable insta-generalizations about people from the place I’d most recently traveled to.”

“It is all but impossible to explain that aid isn’t always good and that the UN can’t solve shit. We’re not heroes and most of us are career bureaucrats just like any other work. But people hear “Africa” and know I must have saved thousands of starving babies, even if I don’t work for a nutritional program.”

“It’s a long bridge to build from where I work to “every day” life in the US. It takes time, which sometimes people don’t have, but people seem genuinely interested and listen. That’s all I can ask. Sometimes I get bizarre and bigoted questions, but as you know Americans are generally clueless about the world.”

Many specific jobs just don’t translate well, so some aid workers resorted to comparing the job to something with which the family member might have some referent.

“First of all it is very difficult explaining the difference between charity and aid/development and especially when it comes to long term community development. Non-aid workers do not really grasp all the theories that go behind why or how we do things. Second of all, my work is strategy and M&E and so am not really a front-line staff so that makes it even more difficult. I sometimes try to compare it to “auditing” but even that is not even close to what I do.”

The accumulated frustration of trying to explain the job generates various responses.  The first example provides with a nice visual.

“They don’t really get it, so I keep it simple. They think I am in Africa working with kids. Its a lot more complex than that, but taking time to explain details would be enough to make me want to jam a fork in my eye.”

Are you a spy?
There were many interesting themes but one that I thought was both amusing and telling is that more than a few mentioned that their family or friends suspected that they might be doing something other than aid or development work, namely that they were secretly CIA.  These suspicions are legacies of the Cold War, but they also point out the questioning cloud that can hang over this line of work.

  • “Lots of people in my family though I worked for the CIA! All they knew was that I travelled a lot to weird places. It got easier to explain once I started working for an organization that was more focused, and and only one major, relatively specific purpose in mind, rather than some of the large development orgs that do just about anything and everything.”
  • “My job these days is fairly straightforward. My previous job (involving democracy development) was nearly impossible to describe and my family all thought I was a spy. Humanitarian aid work is far more straightforward.” 
  • “They often think that I am, in fact, a spy.”


Selective telling:  choosing not to share exactly what you do
In some cases aid workers choose not to share job related details.  In sociology we call this ‘selective telling,’ and the most common reason found within our responses for this less-than-complete descriptions was, essentially, that some details are too stark, intimate and private, only to be shared with those who have seen the same.  Here are some examples.

“The humanitarian aid worker experience is very hard to describe to others. Field work operates at such a constantly high level of intensity that even normal seeming activities become something else, which is nearly impossible to explain. The challenges and tragedies aren’t even worth explaining, because they are based in a completely unrelatable framework.”

“I am generally able to articulate what I do in practical terms but perhaps not to explain the emotional impact on myself – particularly in terms of what I see, the environments within which I operate and how they change me as a person.”

Selective telling might be a defense mechanism to avoid controversy or conflict.

“There’s a catch-22 in aidland – if you tell the outside any of what we fear/doubt on the inside, the field gets undermined… who wants to give their aid dollars to someone who’s not entirely sure what it does, or whether it’s aid itself (and the relief it provides from pressure for systemic change) that is a fundamental part of the problem?”

And, finally, showing the social grace to preserve civility and maximize useful understanding is another reason for selective telling as voiced so well by this next female aid worker.

“Other than that, I just wanted to add that I am one of those people who refrain from sharing too many details of her work: just too complicated to explain, and most of the times I’d rather avoid ruining a nice evening out by starting a debate on, say, the root causes of corruption or the role of country X in the Syrian conflict. What usually works is if I find ways to relate my experience to what the other person does: e.g. I explain that I write grants to people who are familiar, say, with research grants (even though grant-writing is usually just a small part of my duties), or I talk about procurement and subcontracting to someone who deals with these issues in their company, etc.”

The Lord
And, for comic relief -or not-, we had a response from AidWorkerJesus.  I personally have a bit of doubt about this “free will” thing. See here.

“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.”

Before leaving this section I’ll share a response that got my attention.  In response to this obviously angry person I’ll gently say, “Yes, I do care to understand.”

“They don’t understand and probably don’t care to. AND, btw, neither do you, for asking such a fatuous, facile, fucking stupid question.”

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…” – 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.”  – female expat aid worker

Screenshot 2015-10-05 12.23.33

This respondent 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.”  – 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.” – 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.”  -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.” – 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.”  – 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.” – female HQ worker

This next statement captures the same sentiment and expands on the ongoing challenge of aid workers to frame the social reality of 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.”  – 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.”  – 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!”  – 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.'”  – 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.” – 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 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.



Post script
Here are some questions that went though my mind as looked at the many hundreds of narrative responses to our three open-ended questions asking about how people explain their job to those outside of the sector:

  • 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?
Tom Arcaro

Tom Arcaro

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

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Why do aid workers leave this line of work?

“Don’t believe this should be long career.”
-female expat  aid worker

“I think that the aid sector would ultimately benefit from a HR base that has a wider variety of experiences. I don’t think staying in the sector my whole career is healthy for the sector or for my intellectual development.”
-male HQ aid worker

“I feel that I will always be connected to this line of work in one way or another. If it is not working internationally as an ex pat, then I will most likely be working locally for various NGOs in my home country or city. If not that, then I see myself pursuing a PhD where the topic of research will be related to humanitarian work.”
-female expat aid worker

Why do aid workers leave this line of work?

In my last post you read many aid worker voices about the topic of getting fired.  As we learned from the data, the perception is that getting fired in the literal sense happens very infrequently and getting “let go” -as in not having a contract renewed-  is more common.  That said, the humanitarian aid and development sector has a fluid work force, in general, and staff come and go for all manner of reasons.

Our survey included four questions attempting to drill down into what these reasons might be.

In Q44 we asked “Many (most?) humanitarian aid workers will ultimately become ex-humanitarian aid workers. Which below do you think is the *most* common reason why humanitarian aid workers choose to leave this line of work?” and then in Q45 we followed up with an open ended question asking the respondent to give their thoughts as to “why humanitarian aid workers will ultimately become ex-humanitarian aid workers.”

Q46 was a forced choice format asking “Many (most?) humanitarian aid workers will ultimately become ex-humanitarian aid workers. Excluding the unlikely and tragic possibility that you will die in service, if you do so by choice which below do you think will be *your* reason for leaving this line of work?”  and the results are below.  In an additional follow up question Q47 we asked “Please use this space to elaborate on your answer to the above question asking about your reason for leaving this line of work?”

Here again (this was included in the last post) are the data for Q44.  Given that the respondents represent varying levels of longevity on the industry, many with just a few years, the responses below are based mostly on impressions.  The forced choice responses we offered are not necessarily mutually exclusive and so the qualitative data from the follow up questions yields our best source for the ‘real’ reasons people might leave the sector.  Analysis and comment on the two open ended questions is below.

Screenshot 2016-04-18 08.35.24

Data from Q46 -“Many (most?) humanitarian aid workers will ultimately become ex-humanitarian aid workers. Excluding the unlikely and tragic possibility that you will die in service, if you do so by choice which below do you think will be *your* reason for leaving this line of work?”- below are presented in a table format to emphasize the difference between those that identified as male as compared top those identifying as female.  As you can see, the same forced choices were used but now, breaking down for gender, we see something interesting.  Those numbers in pale blue indicate statistical significance, and five of the six choices fall into this category, raising the question about why female aid workers feel differently about why they or others might eventually leave the sector.  We can discount the “Termination (get fired)” answer, but the others are worth a look.  In words, here is what we see below:

  • Males are significantly more likely to see themselves as ‘lifers’, retiring as aid workers.
  • Females are significantly more likely to think they’ll leave because of “disillusionment’ of some sort.
  • Males are significantly more likely to think they will leave to pursue another career outside the sector.
  • Females are significantly more likely to indicate they have “other reasons”.

That’s the ‘what’.  The ‘why’ lies within the narrative responses.

Screenshot 2016-04-20 13.45.26


Thoughtful responses related to disillusionment
Many key points are made by the four respondents below perhaps the most important of which is the generalization -borne out by the responses to Q31 (discussed here)- that a majority of people enter and stay in the sector for humanitarian-related reasons; they care about others.  When the choice to leave the sector is considered, the reason is not that they no longer care but rather that life priorities have altered. Many feel that they can live out their impulse to make a difference in other ways.

changeThe second comment makes an interesting point about career trajectories.  She makes an argument with which I do not disagree, namely that the sector can be inherently frustrating for many reasons, one of which is the incompetence or lack of compassion by those in high-level position.  Several additional key reasons include (1) the gap between what needs to be accomplished and what is accomplished is often pretty wide, and the understanding of that gap gets clearer the longer one stays in the sector, (2) massive, large scale change is impossible through the sector alone; macro level economic and political change must come first,  and (3) though more related to development work than to aid work, there is a creeping sense that the very raison ‘d etre of the industry may be flawed and that, writ large, effective and sustainable change can only come from within.

Listen to these voices.

As to why she might leave the sector this woman speaks of the disillusionment with her situation and by inference perhaps the entire sector, affirming my point above.

“For myself it will be the risk and the growing appreciation that change must come from within, working recently in South Sudan I realised the fragility of the human condition and how ultimately pointless all this development is if the conditions and structures are not in place to maintain peace from the grassroots.”  

This next woman reflects along the same line though even more cynical.

“It is questionable if we are doing any good, a lot of what we do as expats could be better done by local staff. We take a lot of money out of local economies and distort them with how much we are willing to pay for goods and services. In places like Cambodia, I question if we are doing more good than harm.”

Next an honest, insightful big picture look at the issue.

“This is a sector filled with people who need to believe in their work and believe that they are accomplishing something (not necessarily “saving the world”, but at least doing something productive and that they feel is worthwhile). by nature, i think this is therefore a group more prone to disillusionment than other others (bankers, lawyers, whatever). no doubt, the aid world is deeply flawed, but people working in fields where they don’t need so badly to believe their work is worthwhile and being done well are less likely to get fed up and leave. as well-intentioned, experienced aid workers get too frustrated/burnt out to remain in their chosen career, it also means that a lot of the people who stay and move up the management chain are those who either don’t care about the problems or aren’t willing to address them because they have too much to lose. this creates further disillusionment with people who want to do their jobs well. burn-out is certainly also an issue, but there are an awful lot of burnt-out aid workers who keep working in aid whether or not it’s good for them or anyone else.”

And now this one, even more personal.

“I think it’s often a combination of many things and i can see this coming for myself – wanting more stability, being soul-tired of being ‘foreign’, being tired of the same conversations, over and over (all those ‘lessons learned’ being left in a folder on a shelf somewhere), needing to earn more money, not illusiuonswanting to be old in the field, wanting more balance in life so that work is not so all-consuming, becoming more cynical. More positively, one of the things that i love about this work is that everyone has dreams and ideas about what else they would like to do – usually it’s still something connected to making the world a better place, but i love that no-one thinks this is it and there aren’t other possibilities as well, one day. I don’t see this in non-humanitarian industries – it tends to be a rare and notable thing when people retrain and do something different and i love it that we generally have other ideas too.”


Where to if not the aid sector?
Over and over again in the hundreds of written responses I found statements affirming that aid workers are “different” as a group and that they do want to live what they consider to be meaningful and humanitarian-focused lives, many sounding like this woman, “And transition into domestic social justice work.”  

Many permutations of this same sentiment came out in the data, some offering the thought that they could remain positive agents of social change near home and others indicating that the sector was shifting in ways that would take them home regardless.  Here are a few that voice a sense that the sector may be changing toward the private sector.

  • “I think the humanitarian sector is valuable and needed but I also think private sector will ultimately be the catalyst of growth.”
  • “CSR is the way forward.”
  • “I think I will always be involved in development, one way or the other. Development isn’t only about working for an NGO, but can come from private sector or other means.”

Aid workers, like workers in any industry, regularly at least consider career moves as a matter of course; we all think ahead to the ‘next step.’  To what extent is this sector different than others?   Perhaps some clues can be found below.

Family and relationships a big factor
Many -both males and females- gave relationship related reasons why they will leave the sector.  This first one from a female expat speaks, I think for many.

“Eventually i will want to have a dog, and i’ll have to pursue a more conventional job in my home country for this. also, my partner will want to go home.”

Here are a few more representing this general sentiment, the last I feel confident will resonate with many females.

  • “In order to start a family of my own and to be closer to support my aging parents.”
  • “It would probably be for family reason and i will pursue another job that fits better the needs of my family.”
  • ” [I] will want to settle and have children at some point and also do not want to become one of the insane and bitter people who have spent too long in the field!”
  • “If I continue to get told that having a child is difficult in finding positions other than HQ I will quit trying at some point. Idealism doesnt put food on the table.”
  • “I don’t know yet, but this game isn’t much one for settling down and having a family. As chicks, we get to a certain age where the biological clock ticks pretty loudly and we have to weigh up our options of a steady job or moving on. We shall see.”
  • “I want to actually live in the same city as my husband for a few years before we have kids… his line of work doesn’t exactly bring him to conflict-affected areas.”
  • “I’ve got a partner and dreams of seeing a garden through an entire season; it’s hard to imagine getting lucky enough to get a secure enough aid job that I can also have a stable home life in my city of choice. This is one of the “second wave feminist” Lean In problems, but I hate to say I am totally facing it.”

Finally, continuing the feminist note, this woman felt the need to end her note demonstratively.

“If you are a woman, you often have to leave to have a family. the humanitarian and emergency sector is entirely unforgiving to those (especially women) who choose to have kids. accompanied missions are hard to come by, you dont get them in tough places, and the work hours and travel needed prohibit family life. a woman can be a mother but she has to choose a different kind of job (i.e. a desk job in HQ) or if lucky an accompanied mission. OR she leaves. I am very lucky to currently have a stable job in an accompanied position working on humanaitarian projects. This allowed me to have a baby. However, I am under NO illusion that my career prospects have considerably narrowed, and i will have to fight for the next accompanied mission. Or just give it up. Although I am flexible and do travel away from my family for some time, I refuse to choose a job that another aid worker can do, in place of my child. Its a young persons game, or a single persons game, and for the reason above, in the long term, it tends to be a MANS game.”

Now for some other themes from the data.

Money and career options
These next few reflect numerous themes in the data, though I include them specifically to represent the mention of low pay that was echoed by many.

“I guess I hope I find a balance in life. I think Aid work is not the end all. It doesn’t pay enough, and there are people close to home that need help as well. And then there is family and friends. Finally Aid work is evolving and the line between the private sector and development is changing. I would like to think I will evolve as well and find a place where my skills and experience can be used before I get shot or burn out.”

“Money is a big concern. I spent most of my 20’s making less than half of what my college friends are making doing non-aid work. If I am interested in having a family, this will be a big issue for me. I have already begun looking at options in management consulting and defense contracting… no reason but money to do those things, but I’m not sure how I could transition to any other fields at this point.”

cash“I am interested mainly in marketing and PR which is what I’m currently doing for my organisation. But if a more interesting or lucrative opportunity were to arise in another field, I would probably take it.”

The mention above that “the line between the private sector and development is changing” is interesting and reflects a good bit what I presented in this post discussing aid workers views on the future of humanitarian aid.

The wear and tear on body and soul of being an (expat) aid worker
Some jobs in the sector -maybe most?- take a heavy toll, and that toll is tolerated by many for long periods of time, I conjecture, because most view this array of experiences and emotions as ‘#firstworldproblems’ and just make an effort to just ‘suck it up.’  But these efforts can fail over time and eventually lead to considering a career change.

“I am so fucking tired of the constant heckling, jeering, staring, groping, and living in fear. Every day I experience a moment during which I could easily die. I’m incredibly isolated. I’m unhealthy. I’m ready to be happy and healthy and surrounded by people who love me in a place where I fit in.”

“Having already experienced burnout in this field, I”m carefully on watch for it happening again and working against that. If it every starts to head down that path again, I will leave. I will not compromise myself or those close to me in such a way again.”

“Wanting to have light 24 hours a day, safe clean water, no need to have house security measures, good health services, usage of functional public transport, fully stocked Supermarkets and just being one more person on the street, not having the “Expat” label on my back.”

Not even imagining a career change.
Though the prompt asked respondents to image what might lead them to become “ex-humanitarian aid workers” many were not ready to even consider this option.  The responses below indicate the range of reasons.

  • “I love everything about this job (I am 28 and single!) and I suspect over the years the nature of work will change but I will stay in this sector.”
  • “I like my line of work, I like change every few years, my family is on board and we enjoy this (privileged) lifestyle. We find the schools are superior than those at home (except for the ones we’d have to pay through the nose for). We enjoy the travel, meeting other cultures, living in amazing places…instead of visiting them for just a week.”
  • “Can’t see myself back in a normal job, or back living in the West. Lack of money is not a problem – mostly.”
  • “I would hope to make it to retirement but am not so unrealistic to think I can keeping working like this for another 20 years. Will probably negotiate a job at headquarters with limited travel in the next 5-10 years and hope the pension matures to something that will keep me warm and fed anytime thereafter.”

Concluding thoughts?
I continue to be struck at the forthrightness and thoughtfulness represented in what aid workers wrote.  Here are a few to end this section, each waxing philosophical on the nature of the their lives and work.

“I have already pretty much lost faith in the humanitarian system, and don’t feel ethically good accepting most of the job opportunities available to me. They mostly seem like they may potentially put me in a situation where I would have to exploit a community for the sake of a donor, and I am just not okimages
with that and don’t even want to be put in the position to do such a thing. So I may have to look for a job in another field where I can make my money wit
h less moral ambiguity and then do my own ‘development work’ on my own time and my own dime.”

“Even though I say I am pragmatic, I am also increasingly weary and just disappointed in our industry for not being *better*. I am more often disappointed these days than inspired and think our industry is on a path toward self-destruction if we don’t get our acts together. There are many more players today who want “in” on the development project, and we stodgy INGOs seem to resent that we don’t have a corner on the market anymore. I think the age of the “big INGO” is increasingly going to be challenged by actors that are younger, bolder, more nimble and lean, innovative, etc., and at some point I will probably want to jump ship rather than go down with it.”

This next one points to the fact that many aid workers are in relationships and career choices are negotiated dance with partners, family and so on.

“I do think people face a personal crisis or moment of choice, career wise or life-wise. For me I think what I like about the job (living new places, working for an organization I – with some caveats, but fundamentally – believe in) can be achieved in not-humanitarian work, more general development work and the like. I want to keep living abroad and working for international institutions, maybe that means more humanitarian work, maybe it means something else. I have a partner with the same goals, which helps a lot – but it also means maybe my choices will be dictated by his next job.”

Yeah, one’s journey through life is complicated and impacts by many forces, some under our control and others not so much.  That the aid worker’s journey may life trajectory is more complicated than some seems to be too be very apparent from the voices reported above.

As always, please contact me with questions or comments.

Tom Arcaro

Tom Arcaro

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

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You’re fired! Not a phrase heard often in the sector

You’re fired!  Not a phrase heard often in the sector

“We do need to become more effective and efficient at what we do…. and get better at firing well-meaning people who are not competent at their work….”
— male HQ worker

“Ha ha. I work for the UN. Nobody gets fired.”
 –not-to-be-identified respondent

“I have worked with too many colleagues – senior managers included – who were not qualified for the jobs they were hired to do. I wish the development and aid industry would take on a more private sector approach when staff clearly are not performing in their jobs – despite coaching, training, investment etc. It makes me angry that public funds from taxpayers or donors are wasted.”
— female local aid worker

“Fired? Really? Does this happen? I wish more would be fired, the incompetence in this sector is one of the reasons I will probably lose confidence in the system.”
— female HQ worker

“My position does allow me a line of sight to the HR processes in some of the terminations at my org. All of those reasons explain why people I know of were fired: those that were promoted too high too fast and aren’t competent in their current roles are often “downsized”, those who chronically bump heads with their superiors are often “downsized” (whether personality clashes or differences of philosophy), and I’ve seen an (otherwise) good employee drive drunk once using the company vehicle (and then lie about it!) “resign” in the middle of the investigation. In my org, at least, many more employees are “downsized” or during a “restructure” their job description changes, and they’re asked to reapply and don’t get it. Not too many are outright fired (due to legal liability that would open us up to). Others simply don’t have their contracts renewed when they expire.”
–not-to-be-identified respondent

Where we’re headed
Below I both present more data -mostly qualitative- and also offer some analysis, comment and opinion regarding getting fired -or not- in the aid worker world.  First, validating the title of this posts, here’s what our respondents noted in Q44.  That tiny slice of the pie chart below represents the .52% -less than one percent- getting fired. [Note:  I’ll look at the other reasons mentioned below elsewhere on this blog.]

Screenshot 2016-04-18 08.35.24


Some thoughts on the ‘big picture’
Gross generalization:  this sector’s work-force profile is the way it is because of the nature of the work and the unique -and recent- exponential growth in both the size the number of aid entities in the last 20 years.

For present purposes we can go with the most basic taxonomy:  there for-profit and not-for-profit organizational entities.  In general, in the for-profit sector there is very little patience for incompetence and, given chronically high under and unemployment factors, -that is, it is a buyers market- it is understood that lack of performance will get you fired. The bottom line is the bottom line. An important related factor is that measuring output/performance is, at base, very simple in the for-profit world; again, the bottom line is the bottom line.

In direct relation to the difficulty of firedquantifying performance -measuring with some fidelity the value-added of someone’s activities on the job- the nature of the firing process gets more complicated.

In the non-profit world the deliverables tend to be inherently more nuanced, difficult to quantify and frequently are, and are intended to be, long term results.  Yes, some tasks are easier than others onto which attach metrics, but there are so many tasks the outcome of which is (1) long term/beyond the contract period of the worker, (2) interconnected with myriad other factors that make it difficult to discern clear linear cause-and-effect impact, and (3) are part of a team effort that make individual contribution hard to parse out.

The not-for-profit world includes many organizations such as in the humanitarian aid world but also, for example, higher education. As an academic I am keenly aware of the promotion and tenure process and know well the battles that are fought over what “counts” toward same.  Indeed, in my world, unfortunately, not being able to make that which is real measurable we tend to make that which is measurable real.  Translation:  publish or perish because you can’t measure service and “good teaching.”

The nature of the humanitarian aid world
There will always be those who feel they belong in the humanitarian aid world in whatever role because they feel compelled to “help”.  I stand by my assertion that this is a basic human need; we are wired to feel empathy (mirror neurons, anyone?). As one respondent put it, “There will always be disasters, there will always be poverty and there will always be some people who feel impelled to try and make a difference.”

Given the questions we asked there is no way to tell if our respondents associated with at any specific aid organization -with the major exception knowing that 6.5% of our respondents work “somewhere in the UN System”- but my guess is that very few if any were with MSF.  The MSF reputation in the aid world was clearly elevated -and affirmed?- in 1999 when they received the Nobel Peace Prize, and my sense is that though they coordinate with other organizations on important matters (e..g., cluster meetings) there is a clear demarcation between “us” and other aid organizations.  On a smaller scale, in Haiti Partners in Health might be seen in a similar light.

The reason I am pointing this out is that I believe that what these two organizations have established is what the rest of the industry appears to lack, namely higher than typical entry and renewal standards for all associates.  These two, MSF and PIH,  are outliers in that both are medical and health-focused niche agencies. They’ve focused on specific sectors (medicine, community health) that are quite technical and for which the standards of qualification are well-established and globally regulated, and so firing someone for incompetence (malpractice in the medical world) would be relatively straightforward for both.  That said, management of HR is not without its challenges, as they have significant turnover rates as well.  That a look here for specific research comment on this topic.

There is a non-existent -or at the very best, weak culture of firing in the sector within many organizations.  As evidenced by our respondents comments, that this should change is without question.  But how do you create and sustain a “culture of firing?” Perhaps you start at the source of the problem.  Organizations are systems, and systems can only function as well as their weakest component. As one aid industry insider put it, “fear of adverse public opinion drives ass-covering HR policy and process.”

Reasons why people do not get fired
A reading of all the narrative responses yields the following observations. People do not get fired because (1) a warm body that can function minimally is better than an empty desk; something is better than nothing (“Lots of people think their very presence is valuable, because poor people need all the help they can get or something.”, (2) metrics for performance are unclear and hard to measure, (3) it is much easier to just let a contract run out and not renew, i.e., passive firing (said one respondent, “Honestly, it can be hard to be fired. Many people simply don’t have their contracts renewed.”), and (4) the firing process can be time  consuming and, ultimately, more trouble than it is worth for the supervisor.  Another reason suggested by a long-time industry insider is the extreme risk-averse nature of NGOs, especially established household charities is the underlying cause of so much: they’re very afraid of litigation, especially litigation that gets dragged out into the public, paints them in a poor light, and costs them donors.  The necessity of  kowtowing to the needs and expectations of donors is indeed a common frustration among aid workers.

Some data
Q48 asked “Some humanitarian aid workers leave because they are fired. Which below do you think is the most common reason humanitarian aid workers are fired?”  Here are the data:

Screenshot 2016-04-15 10.30.43


Reasons for firing someone are rarely simple.  That 65% of the respondents answered “Some combination of the above” seems logical and telling.  Though our survey respondents guessed that less than 1% of people leave the sector because they are fired, I find it interesting that 366 respondents took there time to offer narrative thoughts on Q49 “Please use the space below to elaborate on the question above concerning what you think is the most common reason humanitarian aid workers are fired?  Most, though, did use that space to vent about why people were not fired.

Aid worker voices on (the lack of) firing in the aid sector
A robust number of respondents -372- chose to complete the open-ended question Q49:  “Please use the space below to elaborate on the question above concerning what you think is the most common reason humanitarian aid workers are fired?”  Here are some of their responses, most illustrating the reasons I listed above.

This first one hits on a dominant theme in the responses, namely that the structure of the sector can make personnel issues complicated and easy to ignore and/or deal with ineffectively.

“I don’t think nearly enough aid workers get fired for chronic incompetence. If it was up to me there’d be more of it. The problem with people on 3, 6, 12 month contracts is people are too busy / not good enough at management to performance appraise, and tend to just let people’s contracts lapse, or let them move on – no one reference checks properly, or does informal checks, and it means genuinely dreadful aid workers get employed again and again. This does real damage to the NGO sector. The UN is probably worse by the experience I have had of those agencies – so well paid, and benefits so good that complacent, disenfranchised people stay in jobs otherwise their kids would have to come out of boarding school/they’d have to give up that holiday house and the enormous DSRs. It’s dispiriting. I’m sorry if that doesnt quite answer your question, but I have not really seen many people fired. The only one was a bad judgement on security brought on by incompetence and inexperience. Sometimes also people are promoted way too quickly and lack any depth of knowledge on a context which can lead to some very naive decision making.” –female expat aid worker

The several responses below point to a major theme, namely that there is (a perception of) a great deal of incompetence in the sector, and it is tolerated or at least not dealt with head on.

  • “Incompetence generally doesn’t get people fired on its own (not unless it results in some really major fuck up), but incompetence coupled with interpersonal issues with a superior is definitely going to put someone at real risk of losing their job. Interpersonal issues really come to prominence in shared housing.” female  expat aid worker
  • “Unfortunately, incompetence is more rarely the cause of losing your job as a humanitarian worker, than politics around principles, opinions or personality differences within the team (not necessarily a superior).”  female  expat aid worker
  • Chronic incompetence is the least likely reason….”   male HQ aid worker
  • “I think it’s incredibly difficult to fire people in this field and most who are fired are for issues to do with supervisors. Not incompetence. That’s usually encouraged or promoted (seriously..).”  female
  • “Honestly, not enough aid workers are fired. I have seen seriously incompetent workers go from one agency to another because apparently nobody EVER gives a bad reference – even if a guy is a barely functioning alcoholic that regularly uses prostitutes and goes around in the NGO t-shirt!”
  • “Man, if people got fired from humanitarian aid jobs because of chronic incompetence, the industry would be a better place. I think most people get fired out of a combination of interpersonal issues with superiors or funders, combined with a sense that they’re not quite what the organization needs.”  male in regional office
  • “It really has to be chronic, chronic incompetence as the sector seems to recycle poorly performing workers all the time.” non-white female  expat aid worker
  • “Incompetence plagues this sector. Many people get jobs through personal connections with little or no relevant experience. Training is generally poor and opportunities to learn come from other people with academic and developing world experience only. We need more people transitioning from senior private sector roles ideally to up-skill the development labour force.” female expat aid worker

These next two highlight the perception that even when the situation calls for it, firing just does not happen.

“Unfortunately, it is not for reasons for which firing should occur (eg. sexual misconduct, abuse of minors, fraud) but for failing to successfully navigate relationships with a boss. I have never been fired, by the way, but seen many occasions where it unjustly occurred, or unjustly did not occur.”  female expat aid worker

“I would guess that the most common reasons would be interpersonal issues and a difference of opinion. Aid workers have strong personalities and strong opinions…and sometimes superiors have plenty of pride. A moment of bad judgement could also lead to being fired.”  female  expat aid worker

This next one points to an issue about lateral moves after being fired.  Why this happens is a critical question.

“The question is whether the fired get re-hired in the industry. Which – the only thing I did not anticipate or expect -happens so frigging commonly in intl. agencies.”

This next sentiment is critical as well, and points to the all-too-frequent “field promotion” phenomena.

“Mostly underqualified people given too much responsibility.”

This extended comment is from a (female) industry insider and affirms the point I make above about the “weakest link within any system/organization” problem.

“I often argue that Human Resources is one of the weakest departments in most aid organisations. Most, if not all, of my consultancy assignment came from personal relationships. I think I am fairly good at doing my job, but was I really the best candidate for those positions? There is no way to know.  This is true for most – if not all – of my colleagues, and I am yet to meet anyone who got the job after applying to an open vacancy.

The problem is that it is not just excellent people who keep being offered dozens of assignments. Some of these people who are hired again and again are so blatantly incompetent, they should stop working in the aid sector, period. Others are just not the right person for the job. Posting people with limited English knowledge to English-speaking countries? Check. Asking an anger-prone, no-bullshit type of person to suddenly master the art of diplomacy? Check. These people might have been great in another context, but they are out of place now. Bear in mind I am talking mostly of people on short-term contracts: the issue is not really about firing them, but about not offering them new assignments after a dismal performance. And even in cases of staff on permanent contracts, it should not be too difficult to imagine a way to prevent them from being given roles for which they lack basic skills. 

One of the problems, in my view, is that HR departments often deal only with the bureaucratic aspects of hiring staff. They send you the contract, they make sure you fill in and sign all the right forms and attach a recent medical certificate, and that’s about it. Hiring decisions are actually made by managers who do not necessarily have the skills, mindset and training to spot the best candidates. Another issue is why aren’t performance evaluations taken into consideration? I guess that either hiring managers don’t bother reading them, or supervisors fail to disclose their staff members’ failures.”

This male aid worker affirms the above and underlines some additional points related to staffing in a fluid and demanding sector.

“I’ve seen the reason for termination given as incompetence, but that was never the reason in reality. And incompetent people in all positions tend to get passed around unless they’re really bad (can only thing of one that eventually got permanently sideline, but it took lots and lots of drama creation from their side, so maybe it was more the interpersonal issues). The reality is, in most specific situations this industry needs warm bodies and a pulse is worth more than an appropriate technical background. Plus there are a lot of really, really maladjusted folks kicking around this industry. Normally shocking incompetence usual goes under the radar or can be excuse by ever-present extenuating circumstances. Sometimes doing a performance evaluation or reference check would just take too much time out people’s busy schedules. It’s very common for people to get no reference check at all, or a reference check is used as a reason to exclude someone. Considering the kind of environments people are expected to work together in, I’m surprised that even pure self-interest doesn’t lead to more due diligence.”

On another note, there are, at the end of the day, many reasons why an aid worker might engage in aberrant behavior that may or may not lead to being fired.  That this line of work can be emotionally and physically brutal at times is a fact.  As one aid worker pointed out,

“It [aid work] is a field where there is little work-life balance and the cumulative stress over the years leads to many of the things listed above. International aid folks are known to be pretty eccentric, traumatized, unbalanced, and needing for mental health support. All these things make it more likely that they will make bad choices which lead to being fired.”

The data indicate that people do, rarely, get fired because of gross inappropriate behavior, to be sure, but it appears that personality clashes, especially with superiors, is a more common reason.

I was a bit surprised how strong the “incompetence does not get you fired” thread was throughout the 372 responses, but there you go.  Having said that, as I look at other sectors both for-profit and not-for-profit one can find similar dynamics at play.  Despite Donald Trump’s popularization of the phrase, “You’re fired!” in many sectors it is just not that common.  In the US at least, people are forced out, leave as they see the writing on the wall, get transferred, downsized, “made redundant” in all manner of creative ways, etc. -all the reasons permutations mentioned above in our aid worker data- in lieu of getting the proverbial “pink slip.”

Is the aid sector really all that different?  Certainly we do not have the data for any conclusion along that line but I offer the conjecture that any exceptionality is a matter of degree, not of kind.


Human Resource officers take note
Aid workers are frustrated by many aspects of their employment, especially when it comes to working with and dealing with the consequent actions of incompetent co-workers.  This is certainly evidenced in the data from Q’s 48 and 49 and, of course, cannot come as a huge surprise to anyone in the sector.  For me the take home from a HR perspective from the above includes at least considering these action points:

  • Let proven competence relevant to positions drive hiring decisions.
  • Have more extensive exit interviewing of all employees (make it a condition of final pay if necessary) and use those data effectively to make hiring and care-and-feeding policy decisions.
  • Do not promote beyond credentialed expertise; sometimes nothing is better than an incompetent something.HR
  • Consider more extensive psychological/personality testing of potential hires.
  • Make more public and obvious rubrics/expectations for performance. There must be open and transparent terms of reference and standards of performance.
  • Use every new hire, lateral move or promotion as an opportunity to move your organization in a positive direction, especially regarding weeding out the marginal and those who fail to grasp and hold true to the core missions of not just your organization but to those the aid sector in general.
  • Network with your HR counterparts across the sector to work toward more standardization of hiring criteria.
  • Make knowledge transfer a major priority by demanding overlapping deployments.
  • Start in the interview process by messaging a more demonstrative “culture of firing” (as mentioned above) and reinforce this rhetoric with action.

And, finally, this last one from an industry insider who prefaced this suggestion with “…JD/TORs/SOWs are usually very badly written; HR risk-averse, cover-your-ass procedure makes it very difficult and process-intensive to outright fire someone.”

  • Grow a pair: lose the hyper risk-aversion. If someone underperforms or is incompetent, document it, fire them, and move on.

A warning of a coming demographic change
The work force in the US and in much of the rest of the Western world is aging, and this demographic shift will have an impact on the aid sector in the not too distant future.  This can be seen as good news.  Organizational cultures with low staff turnover are slow to change, but those with rapid turnover can use this dynamic to bring about desired cultural change.  Another post will have to be devoted to that topic, but, in short, this can be seen as a moment of crisis for the aid sector.  We have all heard the trope that the Chinese character for crisis is the combination of danger and opportunity, and perhaps now is a time for the entire sector to devote some time looking into the future and planning for how to be more robust, effective and, at the very least, find a way to weed out the incompetent.  There is too much at stake to do less.

This parting thought by one respondent sums up much of the above and offers a glimmer of hope for the future.

“There is no clear route into the sector to ensure the best of the best are employed and given opportunities. Its is essentially a cowboy industry where people are employed because of friends or for soft skills, or because of many years experience which does not necessarily equate to brilliance. As the sector slowly by slowly becomes more professional, incompetency is more noticeable and less tolerated.”

As always, please contact me with questions or comments.

Tom Arcaro

Tom Arcaro

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

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What do you like -or not like- about being an aid worker?

“I don’t like that people see what aid workers do as “charity” work. I am not a socialite here for the feel good factor. People don’t actually acknowledge that this field is a “real” career.”

“Sometimes you wonder what the hell you’re doing, and why. Sometimes I think that aid is categorically harmful and we should all pack up and go home. Other days I don’t feel like this.”

-female expat aid worker

“Hate the feeling of inequality, being patronising, being seen as the rich white girl, etc. But like the feeling of being somewhere that matters. And meeting people – the basic human interaction with people across the world – love that.”

“Urban cholera outbreak – I am secretly excited. I know it’s wrong but it’s what I do and I’m good at it. Aid workers are macabre like that.”

What do you like -or not like- about being an aid worker?

Cathartic moment
In the middle of the survey were two questions included to provide data for us and a cathartic moment for those offering their input.   Q30 asked “In general, how much do you like what you do as a humanitarian aid worker?” and Q31 invited the respondents to “Use the space below to elaborate on what do or do not catharsislike about being a humanitarian aid worker. An illustrative anecdote will be useful, perhaps.”  That over half  (433) of those who responded to the closed ended question (816)  took the time to follow up with elaboration and example is evidence of a need for the cathartic function of these specific questions and perhaps the survey as a whole.

One female aid worker summed up her feelings this way.

“This has been a very interesting and thought-provoking process for me. I realise that I have become more cynical in some ways and at the same time more hopeful. Even with middle-age bearing down on me like a drunken uncle at a wedding, I’m still with Elvis – “what’s so funny about peace love and understanding?” and still idealistic enough to believe that it is not only possible to change the world but that the point is never to give up trying.”

Another noted, “This is a great survey. The questions really dig into the issues and doubts at least I as an expat aid worker face.”

This one sums up the feelings of many caught in the immediacy of the now, I think.

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

The results on these two questions are rich with thoughtful perspectives regarding the aid sector in general but more dramatically with a insights about how aid workers feel about their jobs and their lives doing this kind of work.

First the quantitative data
Reading all 433 narrative responses after seeing the numbers below was a bit of a disconnect as you’ll see below.  The numbers suggest that, on the whole, our respondents like what they do, with 57% indicating “to a great extent” and another 44% at least a moderate extent.  If my math is correct, that means an overwhelming majority -97%- of those responding to our survey like what they do.  That said, “liking” and “being snarky/critical/cynical about” are not mutually exclusive.

Screenshot 2016-04-11 09.42.04


What do aid workers like about being in the sector?
Given the quantitative data results above, I expected to read volumes of glowing anecdotes about being an aid worker.  There were many, indeed, though many of the voices included both positive and negative and sometimes these were the same things, as in this comment.

“The change and variety is something I like and don’t like at the same time. It keeps things interesting and sometimes exciting but having to adapt frequently gets tiring. I like meeting new and different people. I like seeing new places. I get to talk about things I like. I don’t like being away from immediate family and friends.”

This next one critiqued the word ‘like’ in our question and captures the sentiment of many with her words about how the job makes her feel.

“People ask whether I ‘enjoy’ or ‘like’ what I do. I always find that a very hard question to answer. Enjoy? No, not really. It can drive me crazy at times, but it’s what makes me feel most alive. There’s a depth of experience not often found in a ‘normal’ job in the UK. The things I don’t like would be similar in any role, e.g. dealing with difficult colleagues.”

I love the phrase “niche parts of the human experience” in this next one.

“What I like most about being an HAW is that I find the work I am able to be a part of extremely meaningful and compelling. I have the privilege to bear witness to and affect change to some niche parts of the human experience. I find one of the most difficult parts of the job to be coping with the stress and the feeling of disassociation.”

This next respondent makes an interesting distinction between being and doing.

“It’s not that I like being an aid worker. I like to do things that utilize the skill sets and strengths I have — being adaptable, empathetic, culturally sensitive, organized, and analytical. I like to engage issues that I feel passionate about. I like work that reflects my own values. Aid work allows me to do all of that.”

I found that many did not like what the sector did in terms of their personal life yet felt good about the contributions they were making.  Here is a perfect example:

“I like knowing that I make a difference in people’s lives and that I’ve prevented suffering. I like being amongst like-minded people. I like that I don’t have to get a mortgage and do the same mind numbing work in an office in the same place every day. I don’t like that I can’t keep cats as pets and that relationships are always complicated by work and distance.”

These next two highlight the satisfaction that comes from the simple act of connecting with other people.

“At the end of the day, I love analyzing large social problems and trying to identify ways to solve them, in community with other people. I appreciate the human connection that is involved in my job, and the relationships across boundaries that can be developed.”

“It is the small moments for me that I like. Getting national staff recognised or promoted in an organisation. Giving a tarpaulin to an old lady who has lost her roof. Taking a football to a group of children and playing with them. That moment when someone comes to you and says ‘Thank you for coming. Nobody else has.’ Accepting a mango from someone who is so poor they don’t even have a shirt, because they insist they get to show their appreciation somehow. Watching a group of young men build a bridge with materials your project provided, and having them laugh at you when you join in and can’t even move a full wheelbarrow. Any positive interaction with national staff and beneficiaries. And randomly bumping into a colleague at an airport bar and discussing the most recent locations of common friends and then detailing your latest gastrointestinal mishaps and tropical diseases.”

This one touched me as I read it, and I still am at a loss as to how to respond.

“It depends on the day and/or hour. Example: In the morning I am trekking through the mountains to visit a classroom and train our M&E officers. In the evenings, I am sitting alone in a mud-walled compound eating the same beans I have eaten for the last 3 weeks and silently sobbing myself to sleep.”

As with other sections on the survey, this question brought out a thoughtfulness that is striking.  This one represents many that mention liking “making a difference,” travel adventures and the challenges they face in their jobs, how their work is misunderstood, “good” aid versus “bad” aid, and finally, the frustration of dealing with donors.

“I like the feeling of making some sort of difference in people’s lives. I like that I am constantly exposed to new adventures and new challenges. I like that I’ve gotten the opportunity to live and travel in all sorts of places most Americans have never heard of. This was a career change for me about 6 years ago, differencegetting away from the corporate world, and I think it was the best thing I could have done for myself. I don’t like the fact that everyone assumes I’m an English teacher when they hear I work abroad. I don’t like that some organizations seem to be doing more harm than good and even though I don’t work for them, I’m still lumped together with their aid workers. I don’t like the way some aid is forced to be based on donor interests and not necessarily what’s best for the community.”

Many talk about the joy of specific accomplishments and small ‘victories.’  Here’s a detailed comment that illustrates just that.

“I like meeting with the direct recipients of our work (we work on repairing obstetric fistulas, a very specific facet of maternal health). I like getting a better understanding of the environments in which they live and learning a bit about their lives, rather than reading all the worst-case scenarios we’re inundated with in the media. These are real people with real smiles, real problems, real senses of humor. I especially like candid conversations with the surgeons we work with and with the “local” aid workers we partner with. Nothing ever goes quite as planned, and it’s usually the conversations over a beer or in a quiet, un-planned moment that give you the best information.”

What don’t aid workers like about being in the sector?
Many talked about frustrations dealing with bureaucracies and especially with donors.   Here are some representative examples, the three showing an awareness of a fundamental truism regarding bureaucracies, namely that there is an inverse relationship between size and flexibility.

“I absolutely DETEST the fact that we are called upon to feed the machine of HQ (media and comms) and that our size has now brought us to the point of creaky inefficiency instead of speedy lifesaving responses.”

“I do not like the bureaucracy and lack of innovation and creativity that seems to be hard to implement at many of the larger organizations that fund most of aid (e.g. UN agencies, USAID, etc.). I also do not like how, try as we might, the people we aim to help still seem to be lost and forgotten in the conversation. For example, if a community health worker or short-term volunteer is paid $5 a day to help us, is that really improving the person’s livelihood, or are we just using them to achieve our project’s goals?”

“Sometimes it [aid work] is incredibly rewarding, but it can also be incredibly frustrating, particularly when one is stymied by bureaucratic inertia/ineptitude that prevents being able to respond effectively.”

“Frustrating amounts of bureaucracy, poor communication, etc. lead to a decrease in the quality of services provided to targeted populations. This is frustrating.”

These next two are especially critical of and frustrated by donors.

“I am frustrated by donors who push an agenda — a checklist — with no recognition of the limitations faced by the beneficiaries.”

“I dislike dealing with funders who try to control projects with extremely narrow parameters and don’t understand how the projects often have to adapt to accommodate shifts in contexts; but I especially dislike funders who say crap like ‘I want to come see the poor knocked up teenage mothers’. First, keep your damn money, Second: No; they are not animals in a zoo; and Third: Seriously? I am so over this post-2015 malarkey: it is such a waste of resources and energy; especially when every development agenda that has been formulated since the 1970s is *still* unfinished…”

“My work on the ground with people who need and appreciate any support they can get is very rewarding. At the same time I hate the amount of bureaucracy I have to deal with and the competition between different aid organizations. Sometimes it is also sad, that projects are failing for different reasons.’

There are many who refer to a frustration for knowing their efforts could be more effective but that there is in invariably a gap between the is and the ought, the ways things are and the way things could/should be in a perfect world.  This woman is one of many who show a keen understanding of the bigger picture but are challenged by the fact that the reality that we live in a world dominated by political forces and maddeningly inflexible bureaucracies.

“I work with great, intelligent and committed people but development work is bureaucratic and frustratingly political while pretending it is apolitical. It is complex and messy but politicians want it to be quick and ‘results-oriented’ in unrealistic timelines. It often tinkers with things rather than asking difficult questions about wealth and poverty; have and have nots or asking if we need to fundamentally rethink how we have imagined our world.”

This veteran male aid worker sums up perfectly what many voiced in different words.

“The gap between the narrative the aid industry tells about itself, and the reality.”


And now for the snark
Below are some representative comments, the first few adding to the reputation of aid workers being, well, snarky.  

“No brainer. The politics in it. Shocking. Laughable levels of discrimination. The blindness to privilege, power and responsibility. Do I like my day-to-day work? Hell no! I am in HQ. Far removed from most things remotely interesting and bang in the middle of the BS that characterizes intl. dev. Plus everythingsnark_warning I do is beyond my control. I fight battles that I have already lost in a war that is never-ending.”

The comment above underscored what I have found as a theme throughout all of the data, namely that there is a frustration with control over the outcome of one’s efforts and the sense that as an individual the aid worker  is ‘only’ part of a bureaucracy within a sector dominated by even larger, intertwined bureaucracies which are in turn impacted by political, economic and historical forces beyond anyone’s control.  These next two comments are same sentiment, different wordings.

“The mind-numbing, soul-numbing, stifling layers of bureaucracy. The pretense of it all. The hypocrisy and peddling lies. Everyone pretending to care when everyone is really around the table to please their paymaster (direct boss or donor) at the end of the day. The matrices and RBM word smithing. Needing to fill out multiple and contradictory bureaucratic reports to address every donor demand ever made over the years. Being a cog and not really being able to have a personal say. Losing yourself and independence to the collective. Perfunctory tasks and meetings. Turf wars. At least in private sector there is a handsome pay-off, but in our work it’s all the more pathetic bc it’s not worth it – it’s just petty egos. Also the pretense behind the New Snarky Aid Narrative that portrays the white western aid worker as a clown vs. the wise local. That’s bullshit too. Locals/nationals are not off the hook in any way – they don’t get carte blanche and auto-cred. They come with their own class and racial baggage internally too. No one is innocent here. No one gets a free pass.”

The last couple sentences above are particularly on point, methinks.

“not like: being shout at by hierarchical superiors. being a threat to their incompetence. lacking tools to work. feeling a cog in the machine, or a lemon to be pressed till exhaustion before being thrown to the rubbish bin. The arrogance that makes the sector think they can save the world, and without professional competence. The lack of privacy, being always “a child” . Living with colleagues. Abuses that would get someone fired in the private sector here can get land them a better position. I like: discovering new realities, learning about humans and their ways of living, coping, leaning from others.”

“I do not like telling people what to do with their lives, even if only by implication. Moreover, I don’t like the sanctimony and hypocrisy inherent in an industry that’s ostensibly about “service to the poor” (and other such self-congratulatory rhetoric) but in fact serves primarily to support comfortable lifestyles for people from rich countries who want to feel like they’re doing something more meaningful than their investment banker classmates.”

And final words from the dark side?

“I like the cultural context, specifically related to nutrition and feeding practices. But sometimes everything just seems like a well intentioned clusterfuck.”

“It’s a job, at the end of the day. I’m in it for me – we all are. I just hope others benefit from my selfishness, to a higher extent than if I was in another job.”

“Aid work still has a dark side – winning over donors and competing over space. Every new disaster is like the moon-gotta get that flag up 1st. Can’t we just get along while getting work done?!?”


Of the 433 written responses to this question several stuck out in terms of the breadth, depth and thoughtfulness of what they write.  This first one,  I think, does the best at summarizing the complexities regarding how aid workers feel about their jobs and lives.  Her “likes” are rich and complex.

“I like the complexity and power of the issues I face in my work. I know its potential to have a real impact on people’s lives and I strive to see that realised in my work. I also find it stimulating in various ways that resonate for me – issues at the heart of humanity, aspects of spirituality (although I’m not religious), intellectually stimulating, understanding different cultures, religions, histories, etc. I have met some truly remarkable people. All of this has indelibly changed who I am.

Her “dislikes” strike deeply, and I am touched and saddened as I read…

“I don’t like the politics of the work – dealing with people who care more about their careers and reputations than doing good work. I wouldn’t call it frustration with bureaucracy, it’s frustration with pettiness, apathy and cowardice. At the worse end of the scale, I have met and worked with some of the worst people I’ve ever known. They have been corrupt, spying for government, sexually exploiting staff and community members. But typically it’s just working with people who refuse to take risks to improve responses because they are more concerned with their own career goals. As most of my work requires coordination and consensus-building, these people can make it impossible to do good quality work. And they’re not a small minority, unfortunately.”

This next one tips more toward the “dislike” in making some good points reflecting the general frustrations of many.

“I like to interact with local staff, and try to position myself as a friendly channel for feedback and information to senior management. I enjoy helping them find training opportunities and teaching them whatever I can. I enjoy designing projects and talking to local partners about their ideas. I enjoy interacting with my colleagues and finding our way around challenges. I do not like cluster coordination meetings, UN workshops, UN turf wars over things like CERF allocations, leadership who are fixated on competition with other agencies and who are jealously protective of information rather than being collaborative and open. I do not like the bullshitting and manipulation of facts that is involved in the reporting process. I really hate the ‘re-coding’ of massive amounts of funding as projects come to an end; and equally the rapid, massive purchases that can occur in order to spend an underspent budget. I don’t like the constrained timelines for longer-term development projects (social change in 18 months? really?), the fact that donors refuse to provide funds for training of staff, or the patronising attitude of iNGOs and UN towards local NGOs.”

One main point made above is that social change -and that is what development work is in essence- cannot be rushed.  I would hazard that most in the development world would say ‘amen’ to her point.

Finally, this last one is a sideways comment on aid work, critiquing the fundamental nature of the sector and arguing what most of us know already, that, in the end, change comes from within the community.

“I don’t consider myself a humanitarian aid worker (so the question above is a bit awkward). I really didn’t like what I did in a traditional humanitarian organization – it was so disconnected from any sort of reality I could grasp, even though I was “in the field” every day. So I quit and began to work with a much smaller group, doing development work at a much smaller scale in [section of city], where I was living at the time and had a connection to. This was so much more grounding and rewarding because when things went well, I actually felt it in my everyday life, and when things went wrong, I also felt it. Being connected to your work in that way is so much healthier than the “humanitarian” work I was doing before, because these places only existed during the working day and we were really not connected to the consequences. But when I worked in and with communities that I had developed relationships with, I understood how long change takes and how much it has to be owned and driven by people like my neighbors, and it helped me lose the sense of needing to be in control that so many humanitarians have (hence why many of them get stressed and smoke lots of cigarettes). Now, my work is less “sexy” and “exciting” than it was in the “humanitarian days”, but it’s so much more real.”

Last thought
What I see in toto as I read all of these responses is, above all else, the words of those who care deeply about what they do and about those with which they work.  They enjoy living their convictions and thus endure the frustrations inherent in their jobs.

As always, please contact me with questions or comments. @tarcaro on Twitter.

Tom Arcaro

Tom Arcaro

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

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Aid worker voices on the future of humanitarian aid

“I really hope it will have more impact on the lives of more and more people. But nowadays it is more and more linked with political and economic agendas of the “powerful” countires so it is loosing its credibility. The use of the army also to bring humanitarian relief is it complicating and confusing people about what humanitarian work is.”
–(46+yo female expat aid worker)

“We are like the frontier doctors– right now we are “bloodletting” and have no clue how to help people, although we may accidentally have a positive effect. But, our efforts will enable future generations to learn from our mistakes– at least we are doing something!”

“Aid is getting smarter. Vast improvements have been made in just 10 years.” 

“The field is becoming increasingly theoretical and ego-driven. Skills that actually save lives are being drowned out by debates on buzzwords.”

Aid worker voices on the future of humanitarian aid

Yes, all of the voices above need amplification, clarification and discussion.  We’ll get to that.

First, some numbers
Q59 and Q60 ended the survey by asking about the overall direction of humanitarian aid work, offering three response choices then a space for further comment.  The modal response  at 64% was “Humanitarian aid work is having and will continue to have a moderate positive impact on the lives of more and more people.”    26% indicted “a significant positive impact” and 10% reported “minimal impact.”  Not overly positive, that.  And so we end with some aid worker voices on our future, some of which are flip and humorous, some sober. But all are thoughtful in various measure.

Here are the data overall.

Screenshot 2016-04-06 15.42.28

Here are the data broken down by gender, with females clustered slightly more toward the “moderate” response and males inflating the numbers on both extremes, “significant” and “minimal.”  [For data wonks in the crowd, these differences were significant at the p = .05 level.]  Looking at just the “significant” numbers it appears that females are much less confident than males. One wonders why this is so, and I have poured through the narrative responses trying to answer that question but have failed to arrive at any  firm conclusion.

Screenshot 2016-03-17 13.38.31


When I compared the results from those who identified as primarily relief workers as opposed to those doing development work the differences were, I think predictable.  Relief workers -nearly a third of them- indicated “significant” as compared to only 23% of the development workers, and only 8% -as compared to almost 11% of the development workers indicated “minimal.”

Screenshot 2016-03-17 13.50.11

That the overall numbers are so high -90% of the respondents indicating a moderate or more level of impact- is not reflected in many of the narrative responses discussed below.


Many themes emerged from the 311 respondents who took the time to address the question about the future of the sector.  Below I highlight these themes and provide some representative responses, starting out with examples of those who were both optimistic and those less so.

Those “less so” optimistic about the future
This aid worker first starts by making a legitimate point about our survey question in that our wording forced a choice among “significant” “moderate” or “minimal” impact on peoples lives and the inference was that the impact would be some degree of positive.    Indeed, that is exactly what I had in mind when writing the question.  Here’s what she said:

“Wow. There’s an obvious selection missing above. It is not that far-fetched to suggest that a NEGATIVE impact is the net. When taken in sum, aid policies based on “structural adjustments”, as well as aid dependent on political/military alliances could very well tilt into negative territory, notwithstanding mosquito nets and REMs. Macro aid profoundly affects culture and government. Until aid is withdrawn as a military, political, and cultural weapon, supporting those who swear allegiance to free markets and multinational interests (and then run off with half of the aid money) my bet would be on a grim future for aid as a force for good. Poor nations are crippled by debt while multinationals cart away natural resources and the resulting profits. There will be no net good from aid until it is decoupled. If corruption is endemic to [the country where I now work], the same corruption is endemic to most macro aid.”

This writer clearly embraced a big picture view of the sector.  The use of the word “weapon” is particularly sharp and helps make her comment a good articulation of the anti-neoliberal/neocolonial perspective held by many in our sample.  Please take a look at this post for more extensive comment about the specific issue of corruption, but in short what is being argued above is that the entire system needs a major -and I think likely impossible- shift in both structure and function of the entire aid industry.  In late 2001 when then US Secretary of State Colin Powell called the work of NGO’s a force multiplier he laid bare the fact that the core humanitarian principles of neutrality, impartiality and independence have in fact been compromised and that the fourth principle of humanity is perhaps additional ‘collateral damage’.

This next post contains many of the same points as the one above and also voices a frequently made distinction between aid and development, with aid for crises having a net positive impact and more long terms efforts being an overall negative.

“I think emergency relief work has the best impact – particularly when responding to an acute crisis in a somewhat stable country where specific expertise and materials are needed to bolster the national response. At the other end is development work in chronically unstable and corrupt countries where I think humanitarian aid work probably does more harm than good and ultimately helps build and solidify a permanent upper class of wealthy elites who pay lip service to the UN while using vaccine money to build themselves swimming pools and send their children to university in Europe.”

This third example voices a frustration with the level of intelligence and adaptability the sector shows.

“Compared to the money being invested, we’re doing a pretty poor job of getting anywhere. A lot of misguided approaches or self-interested approaches or inappropriate interventions or I could go on and on. Why do we know that poverty is not simple or linear, yet still implement interventions as if it is? We need to get better. We need to be smarter, think more critically.”

Critiquing more the HR dimension of the future, this next aid worker voice echoes a theme I have read over and over throughout this research, namely that with regard to expat workers in general there needs to be a better system that takes into account energy levels, family considerations and the big picture issues of knowledge transfer and continuity of efforts.  Her comment is a restatement of the one above in that there is a suggestion that we need to “work smarter, not harder.”

“The biggest issue is that they do not get staff into the sector when they are young enough. There should be a push to make vocational way of entering the sector at a younger age to get the “best years” of the staff. i.e. 21-30 when they are more willing to sacrifice their personal lives for their work. Then there needs to be better ways of dealing with staff after 30 when they need a quieter life of their families, but they are often at the peak of their knowledge and what they could contribute to the sector yet seem to begin drifting away from it by then.”

Finally, we have this pessimistic diagnosis “The field is becoming increasingly theoretical and ego-driven. Skills that actually save lives are being drowned out by debates on buzzwords.”


And those who were more positive about the future
Positive and optimistic responses were less common among the 311 responses, and generally came with qualifications.  Here are a few examples.

“I think humanitarian aid will have a positive impact on more people because disasters will become more frequent. I think humanitarian aid needs to become much more focused and effective to cope with this, and there are serious obstacles to overcome, but I think humanity will continue to support those in need and humanitarian interventions will keep gradually improving. I think the common perception that humanitarian interventions have not improved over the years is wrong, although the pace of change and the retention of institutional knowledge and learning is poor”.

This first one is referencing disaster relief efforts and says, yes, we’re getting better and just in time because there will be more in the future.

This next one is positive in the sense that it points out a fact of humanity, that there will always be those who want to help.  Indeed, properly channeling that energy is the issue since we know very clearly that good intentions are absolutely not always directed in a mindful and progressive manner.

“Humanitarian work will always be needed and always be there as long as there will be man-made and natural disasters. Just its “purity” may be different. It certainly is becoming less pure and self-less, but there will always be people in need and always those wanting to help.”

This next example is perhaps the most optimistic of them all, arguing that the “trajectory is changing.”

“If you asked me 10 years ago, I’d say, ‘cut and run, everyone’, but the trajectory is changing. As I’ve said [numerous] times now, the key is solid evaluation and this is definitely becoming apparent to many organizationss. Also the increasing corporate influence is positive I think – its a tough change for NGOs but it will force them to act more efficiently and think more about results / gain, versus, ‘how do we get more money so we can keep throwing it at things and then produce a glossy pamphlet with this smiling child on it, to get more money’.”

This air worker argues that the sector is improving at least in terms of evaluation and that this is spurned on by corporate influence.

Finally, this one is a counterpoint to the neoliberal critiques and squarely takes sides in the Sachs vs Easterly squabble.  Not to rain on anyone’s parade, but what she says below could be seen as innocent.

“I believe the statistics of the impact of aid work can prove that humanity as a whole is improving due to reduced health issues, an increase of education and micro-enterprise enabling people to break out of the cycle of poverty. I think Bill and Melinda Gates really captured this well in their recent annual letter, for instance.”

Is the humanitarian aid sector making positive changes and does the future look bright or bleak?  The discussion continues.

Aid is not the same as development
There is a big difference between the relief/disaster response and development work, to be sure, and this difference is highlighted in the responses to the penultimate question on our survey, Q60 “Please use the space below to elaborate on your views about the future of humanitarian aid work.”  It is clear to me now that if we had separated out relief/disaster response and development work in our questions the responses may have been even more telling.  That said, as I have argued elsewhere on this blog, the binary distinction between relief/disaster response and development is, at best, problematic and ‘pure’ examples of either are likely dramatically outnumbered by those that are a mix.

Here are a couple good examples of how a few aid workers felt about this differentiation.

  • “Distinction between humanitarian and development work should be made. Humanitarian [aid] will continue to serve its purpose, especially for those places where the states are unable to provide relief themselves. Development work – I have no clear idea on the impact it has, and whether it’s mostly positive or negative.”
  • “There is really no comparing relief and development…”

Marx 101
As a sociologist  I was somewhat struck by the number of respondents that expressed an understanding of and a concern about the forces of capitalism that seem to be at play vis-s-vis all things international, especially aid work. As I wrote in the earlier posts, the unfolding algorithm of capitalism is as inexorable as that of biological evolution.  But there you go.

  • “Humanitarian work is going the way of the dinosaur or jersey’s free of logos … soon enough, it will all be green-washing by some corporation to make themselves or others feel good about how the help people. The end-of-history is starting to subsume humanitarian work; eg., capitalism is dollar-for-dollar far larger than any aid agency, even in the poorest areas.”
  • “Probably will go commercialized for profit and things will go much worse. But this isn’t humanitarian aid work – that is business. The non-profit category defines the truth of humanitarian work. All the rest is business – which is also really important, but different.”

For much more on this theme go here.

We did ask one question that is somewhat related.  As you can see below, there was no agreement on the overall impact on the increasing levels of corporate influence on humanitarian aid efforts, but only 29% of our respondents thought that the overall impact was positive, leaving the remainder, 71% indicating either negligible of even negative overall impact.

Screenshot 2016-03-17 14.35.48

Here is a one voice specifically on this topic.

“There will be more participants from corporate or other non traditional actors in HAW in future, the traditional humanitarian sector needs to prepare for this and develop ways of working to ensure that the standards we hold ourselves to are accepted and utilised by other actors. I believe there will always be a need for humanitarian actors with expertise in particular areas, but that these agencies should be comprised of expert staff from the local area – who understand the capacity of local players, government and find a way to amplify what they are capable of doing.”

What this aid worker had to say about increasing corporate (and other non-traditional) influence is critical, I think, as the sector adapts to a changing global environment.  That the sector has worked hard to establish core humanitarian standards is progress but unless there is effective messaging about such standards to these external but growing influences the value of this work will not be maximized.  Specifically, there needs to be a commonly accepted set of standards for all aid and development work.  Getting from where we are to that goal is, indeed, a challenge of significant magnitude.

“There will be more participants from corporate or other non traditional actors in HAW in future, the traditional humanitarian sector needs to prepare for this and develop ways of working to ensure that the standards we hold ourselves to are accepted and utilised by other actors. I believe there will always be a need for humanitarian actors with expertise in particular areas, but that these agencies should be comprised of expert staff from the local area – who understand the capacity of local players, government and find a way to amplify what they are capable of doing.”

The future impact of the sector and what we are learning
Some respondents address the hubris embedded in the assumption that we know what we are doing most of the time.  Here’s what one woman said, “We are like the frontier doctors– right now we are “bloodletting” and have no clue how to help people, although we may accidentally have a positive effect. But, our efforts will enable future generations to learn from our mistakes– at least we are doing something!”  

Our respondents, I think, on the whole agree with this observation; none would shout from the rafters “We have solved the problems related to delivering aid and development assistance!” Most would say the fact that we are learning is important, but that knowledge transfer both within generations of aid workers and from one generation of workers to the next does not happen as effectively as it should.

Another, also somewhat cynical and summary noted, “I do NOT believe that development work has a longer term positive impact, and I generally do NOT agree with development programmes.”

Professionalizing the sector is important but problematic
That there is more need for further professionalization of the sector is a given.  How to get there from here is the big question.

  • “I think we need further professionalisation and streamlining, especially for work in increasing numbers of middle income countries. More focus on disaster prevention and mitigation is required.”
  • “The professionalization of humanitarian work is/was a good attempt at improving technical competence, but it doesn’t seem to have translated much in improved responses. Lessons learned are not learned. Same incompetent people who responded once will respond again.”
  • “It’s going to have to get more professional. Unfortunately I think it will continue to be a desirable line of work, which will see lots of people willing to work for free just to get the chance to work for very little money. I think mistakes will be learnt from the major humanitarian crises and how we respond, but there are always new mistakes to make.”

The comments above compliment those described in my post about aid worker views on smaller “ma and pa” aid organizations, the so-called MONGOs (MyOwnNGO).  Stressing adherence to the Core Humanitarian Standards throughout the aid sector is one positive step in this direction.

Unknown.2Some final thoughts on the future of the sector
The future, if we are sober, is murky at best, and the sense that I got from many respondents is that though there will always be need, meeting those needs in a meaningful, efficient manner -both in terms of immediate aid and long term development- is not a certainty.

“I did not like your choices. A key challenge for humanitarian actors is a very narrow donor base (US+N/W Europe) which is vulnerable to budget cuts. We are also entering a new time where most people live in middle income countries, and their governments have greater capacity. In many cases our business model is no longer so relevant. ‘Humanitarian’ work has really ballooned in scope and volume during the last 15 years, in part to get around Paris Declaration-type principles and circumvent host country governments. I think this will have to be scaled back. We are also all very confused what ‘humanitarian’ is – is it defined by the funding source (donor country emergency funding) or is it the type of work (temporary and unplanned)? Much if not most work funded by donors through emergency envelopes is really quite routine and planned, but this modality allows less recipient government scrutiny and coordination – for better or worse.”

What can be concluded from the above and my previous two posts (here and here) regarding what aid workers thought about the future?  Said one,

“For better or worse, aid work needs to continue. Self assessment in the sector, like this survey and other data sharing and transparency measures, need to continue and expand. This is especially true for funders making decisions on programming that may or may not address the real demands and needs.”

Aid workers are a thoughtful bunch who care deeply about what they do and the larger context within which they function, at least those who took the time to respond to our survey certainly seem that way to me.  Whether or not one believes there is hope for the future with regard to aid and development workbarbancourt depends upon perspective and level of sobriety, methinks.

Pass the Barbancourt, please.

As always, please contact me with questions or comments. @tarcaro on Twitter.

Tom Arcaro

Tom Arcaro

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

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Acute on chronic squared: more on the future of humanitarian aid

“Unfortunately the world is going to see more disasters in the future, particularly natural disasters related to climate change.”

Acute on chronic squared:  more on the future of humanitarian aid

[Note:  I am working on a long post (chapter) on this topic, but I wanted to get this out separately.]

Below I continue presenting and commenting on the 311 comments make by our survey respondents in answer to Q60 about the “future of humanitarian aid.”  See here for my previous post.


In Haiti After the Earthquake Paul Farmer describes this 2010 event as “acute on chronic.”  Certainly this description could be used to describe other natural disasters in areas that have a history of marginalization including the 2004 Indian Ocean earthquake and tsunami, numerous Afghanistan-Pakistan earthquakes in the last 20 years,  and the 2013 Typhoon Haiyan that hit the Philippines. The list goes on.

A contrasting example of acute not-on-chronic would be the 2011 earthquake and tsunami that hit Japan.

That climate change is impacting the world in significant ways is not in question, and all predictions point to increased weather related events that are both more frequent and intense.  Here is how one of our respondents put it.

“While I think there are positive responses to the world’s humanitarian crisis, the bigger choices will negate much of work (ie – failure to sign climate treaties; reduce emissions; etc). There will be positive gains at moderate levels, but unless the inequity of the world and the depletion of it’s resources is typhoonaddressed seriously, the problems will only continue to grow.”

Another voice here, though I would argue that the line between ‘humanitarian work’ and development is unclear at best.

“Humanitarian work, more than development, will always have an important place in the world. Climate change will ensure a lot of difficult times ahead, making large-scale humanitarian deployment a necessity.”

The reality of climate change means job security for those who work humanitarian aid, especially those who respond to disasters like typhoons, floods and blizzards.  But what this also means is that there will be increased need for responses to the slow motion natural disasters like chronic, prolonged or unusually extreme drought.  Food insecurity will be more common in places where previously it may have never been an issue.

The perfect storm will be when there is acute on chronic squared, that is, when for example an earthquake hits a nation where there is chronic poverty exasperated by food insecurity brought on by increasingly inconsistent or ineffectual rains.

That development work can or should be done to help nations prepare for the likelihood of increased weather-related disasters is an open question according to some aid workers.  Here is one comment that touches on this challenge.

“I think humanitarian aid will have a positive impact on more people because disasters will become more frequent. I think humanitarian aid needs to become much more focussed and effective to cope with this, and there are serious obstacles to overcome, but I think humanity will continue to support those in need and humanitarian interventions will keep gradually improving.” 

Simply put, the aid industry -relief or development focused- cannot and will not ‘work itself out of a job.’  From my perspective and based on listening to the aid workers voices, in order to minimize the impact of ‘acute on chronic squared’ events development work will need to be increasingly proactive and thus inevitably contribute even further to the blur between aid and development work.

The ‘what’ in terms of the future may be getting clearer,  but the ‘how’ of addressing this future most definitely is not.

Contact me if you have comments, snarky or otherwise. @tarcaro on Twitter.


Tom Arcaro

Tom Arcaro

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

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Big picture critique of the aid sector

“We are band-aids born of affluent guilt and survive almost entirely on the donated profits of unjust privilege and power.”

“WTO, WB and IMF policies and corrupt/ignorant/criminal national elites matters million times more any humanitarian program implemented by NGOs.”  

Some thoughts as I continue reading, sorting and making sense of  aid worker voices on the future of humanitarian aid

[Note:  I am working on a long post (chapter) on this topic, but I wanted to get this out separately.]

So, I have been reading through -in many cases re-reading and re-reading…- the 311 narrative responses to the “future of humanitarian aid work” (Q60) on our aid worker survey and I am struck over and over again with the depth of thought put into some of the responses.  Though there were many who responded from a short term or narrow view, many were clearly of the ‘35,000 foot’ and long term perspective.

One theme that I see very clearly is a healthy neo-Marxist/anti neoliberal assessment of the ‘big picture” relative to not only the aid industry but our entire international community. Many echoed the oft quoted sentiments of former UNHCR chief Sadako Ogata.  “There are no humanitarian solutions to humanitarian problems,” said Ogata, explaining that in the many emergencies she oversaw at UNHCR, humanitarian relief in itself was not enough because the problems were caused by political factors.

Here are a few examples.

“The big picture is that developed world is fucking [the] developing world over so that anyone in Europe and America can buy a T shirt and an iPhone. Without more political and economic engagement of developed countries things will remain fucked up in the developing countries (debt, corruption, zero accountability). I hope with growing awareness citizens in developed countries will pressure their authorities more, but I’m a hopeless optimist.”

And then this one, with just a bit less salt:

“I think humanitarian aid work operates within a system that is built on inequality – we won’t see large scale change happen in the lives of people, in terms of long term development, until we start to challenge the structures and systems that result in this inequity in the first place. And the heart of those institutions is within North America and Europe – until we recognize how dependent we are on the oppression and marginalization of others for our own betterment and benefit (i.e. access to cheap disposable goods, foreign foods and fresh imports, temporary foreign workers to fill low-income job vacancies, etc…), humanitarian aid work is just another cog in this bullshit machinery.”

And then this:

“We are doing nothing to change the power structures that generate the social problems we try to fix. We are band-aids born of affluent guilt and survive almost entirely on the donated profits of unjust privilege and power. Unfortunately, such views are seen as too radical to be productive and those conversations are rarely engaged with.”

What I see in all three above meshes well with what I wrote in my previous post discussing the long term impact of humanitarian actions, namely that aid does not exist in a vacuum but rather is part of an extremely complex array of non-linear algorithms over which we have little -or no- long term control.

That neoliberal and myopically pro-capitalistic economic policies remain dominant in our world seems to Marxmany to be quite self evident, and arguably these policies impact, well, every aspect of social life on this planet.  The respondents above articulate that quite well. They also make the point that there will always be a need for humanitarian aid because the dominant global powers insure inequalities and marginalization.

So, where to go from here? One answer might come from a social thinker from the past who’s ideas may be relevant today, “Philosophers have hitherto only interpreted the world in various ways; the point is to change it.”  This line, in fact, is his epitaph engraved in stone at Highgate cemetery.

More realistically (?) we can all ceaselessly work on shorter term goals of major importance.  One positive path is captured by this respondent, arguing for continued professionalization of the sector.

“The sector is professionalizing but still has a way to go. It is a complex sector to work in and would benefit from a more recognizable professional accreditation system to ensure recruitment of people into the sector is merit and competency based and to dispel the notion that this is an unskilled or vulnerable sector populated by idealistic adventure-seekers.”

Echoing a sentiment I have referenced previously, namely that ‘the problem of the poor is not the problem, the problem is the rich’, this next respondent encourages a paradigmatic shift by the affluent nations that can only be brought on by educational work.  Though I admire the optimism, I am not holding my breath on this one.

“I think the evidence base continues to show significant impact and improvements in many places. The big challenge is ensuring the complexity of systemic injustice changes the way the wealthy nations live so that aid doesn’t become a bandaid over deeper problems. For example, if people don’t live justly (ethical shopping, investment, simple, enviro friendly, peace building) in the west then we are not really addressing the underlying systemic issues. We need to move from a simple ‘give money to this poor child’ mentality to a social justice/change the way we all live mentality.  Thus increasing importance of educational work rather than just slick marketing and challenges the sector to tell the complex story of change…”

This one, more cynical but perhaps at the same time more accurate, sums up a big part of the battle.

“WTO, WB and IMF policies and corrupt/ignorant/criminal national elites matters million times more any humanitarian program implemented by NGOs.”  

To put it in the vernacular, draining the swamp is the only long term solution, and in this case ‘the swamp’ is only getting more entrenched.  This respondent makes the same point using what I think is a good analogy.

“Humanitarian aid work is more and more like firefighters. We are not the ones in charge of pursuing those causing the fire to stop them, we just jump from one emergency to the other, and that will not change things for good.”

That there is meaningful work to be done we can all agree.  What that work is and how to best do it is the question that must remain at the forefront all our strategic planning for the future.

And yes, more to come.

Contact me if you have comments, snarky or otherwise. @tarcaro on Twitter.

Tom Arcaro

Tom Arcaro

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

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Castles in the sand? Responding as we must, but…

“When you are 20, you want to change the world but you accept that it’s going to take maybe five years. When you are 25, you decide you just don’t want to make the world any worse through your profession, buying choices, politics etc. When you get to 30+, you realise ‘Fucking hell, it’s way more complicated than anyone can possibly get their head around’.”
–30something female expat aid worker

 “I don’t think we can change the world – just make it a bit better for a few individuals.”
–40something female HQ worker

Castles in the sand?  Responding as we must, but…

Castles in the sand 1.0
This is not an easy post to write in large part because I am the director of a program the purpose of which is to work with cohorts of students as they learn how to make sustainable change around the world through meaningful global partnerships, i.e., development work. It is also not easy because I remain unconvinced of my own arguments.

First, two opposing viewpoints, one from a founder of sociology and other other from a politician with a flair for rhetoric and, not coincidentally, the founder of the Peace Corps.

“. . . numerous survivals of the anthropocentric bias still remain and here [in sociology], as elsewhere, they bar the way to science. It dis-pleases man to renounce the unlimited power over the social order he has so long attributed to himself; and on the other hand, it seems to him that, if collective forces really exist, he is necessarily obliged to submit to them without being able to modify them. This makes him inclined to deny their existence. In vain have repeated experiences taught him that this omnipotence, the illusion of which he com- placently entertains, has always been a cause of weakness in him; that his power over things really began only when he recognized that they have a nature of their own, and resigned himself to learning this nature from them. Rejected by all other sciences, this deplorable prejudice stubbornly maintains itself in sociology. Nothing is more urgent than to liberate our science from it, and this is the principal purpose of our efforts.” — Emile Durkheim (quoted in “Man’s Control Over Civilization,  An Anthropocentric Illusion“, pg. 330, The Science of Culture)

“Our problems are manmade–therefore, they can be solved by man. And man can be as big as he wants. No problem of human destiny is beyond human beings. Man’s reason and spirit have often solved the seemingly unsolvable–and we believe they can do it again.” –– John F. Kennedy, Commencement Address at American University, June 10, 1963

The Durkheim statement warns of the anthropocentric illusion of ‘man’s control over civilization’ and, in contrast, Kennedy says we are masters of our fate and can mold the social world as we desire if we have the political will and resources.

So who is right?

castle in the sandWhat of the anthropocentric illusion?
We must continue to build castles in the sand -act on our conviction that we can change the world- because, as Leslie White told us long ago, we must.  This is part of what being human means.  As one aid worker put it, “There will always be disasters, there will always be poverty and there will always be some people who feel impelled to try and make a difference.”

To be more direct, we must ‘fight the fight’ of responding to the myriad hot spots of human suffering and injustice around the globe be they in Biafra then or Syria right now.  To do less is against not just our better nature, it is against our very human nature.  One prototype model for this type of response is Herni Dunant (he of the killing fields at Solerfino), but there were many before him and since that personified this inevitable playing out of our basic human nature.

One aid worker put it this way:

“If I didn’t believe the above [that aid and development work are making a net positive change overall]  I couldn’t continue working doing what we do. Someone I recently spoke with suggested that the world would be better if no aid was given anywhere to anyone, and whilst I agree that it is often a hindrance to development and helps certain negative situation perpetuate (war, etc), I found myself passionately defending it, as I truly believe that we have a moral obligation to help others in need of support, whether that is at home or overseas.” (emphasis added)

Evolutionary psychologists have reinforced my argument by providing evidence for a fairness module in our brain that, combined with an evolutionary tendency -most would say imperative- for empathy and, more generally stated, morality, we must respond to the suffering of others, especially that which we feel has been unfairly meted out either by natural disaster or human action (or inaction, if that is the case).

What Durkheim in the above quotation offers to us is a view some may argue is dismal at best and at worst a self-fulfilling-prophecy that will doom us to inaction or alternatively raw, selfish hedonism.  But those arguments fly in the face of what we know about human nature.  We must act as we are:  a moral animal.

So, what does all this have to do with what our survey respondents said about the future of humanitarian aid?  Here they are in the aggregate in response to Q59, Which statement below best describes your views about the overall direction of humanitarian aid work:

Screenshot 2016-03-03 15.43.07

Even accounting for the design-challenged wording of the response choices offered, there is a visible, and I would argue both significant and sober, minority of respondents (10.16%) who might agree more with Durkheim than with Kennedy.

Why are they even in this field of work, you might ask, if they feel their efforts will have “minimal impact” on the lives of people?  This is a good question, but one answer might be what I have pointed out above:  it is who we are as humans.  Many human traits appear in populations (for example, height) as a normal curve, most (68% in a true ‘normal’ curve) appearing within one standard deviation from the norm.  But there are always those who are two and even three standard deviations from the norm on both ends.  Humanitarian aid workers may be one manifestation of the natural distribution of the innate human need to seek fairness, show empathy and act, well, humanely.  They exist clustered more on one end of the normal curve and, perhaps, spend their days responding to the actions of those who cluster at the other end of the continuum.

As a short aside I might present the thought that of the nearly 64% who responded “moderate positive impact” there are many who ticked that middle response box as a nod to their self-preservational need to view their work as meaningful.  Were they to dig deeper I offer that it is possible many would have come to the “dark side” and joined the those who were perhaps more realistic.  As an aside, I wonder how their sentiment would sound to those that provide money to support their efforts to make “moderate positive impact.”

Here are a few responses to the open ended  follow up question asking for respondents to elaborate on their views about the future of humanitarian aid work.

“This is specific to humanitarian work (emergency response, chronic humanitarian contexts). I do NOT believe that development work has a longer term positive impact, and I generally do NOT agree with development programmes.”

This first one represents many respondents who made a distinction between emergency response and development work.  Indeed, as one respondent put it, “There is really no comparing relief and development…”  While many felt that the former was necessary and doing positive action, the later not so much.  This next one made me smile and was a good summary of this sentiment.

“Aid work is a bandaid. Bandaids are good! Transformative structural change is better.”

This next respondent hits my above points directly, we can’t let people die that can be saved (Dunant’s ghost appears…).

“As much as I believe that in the long terms humanitarian aid might have a detrimental impact (dependence on aid), I do believe that too many lives would be lost without aid in specific situations. We do need to keep working on linking humanitarian aid to real development.”

Elsewhere I discuss the semantic landline that is differentiating between ‘aid’ and ‘development’, but I am haunted by Leslie White and Emile Durkheim.  A bandaid is, indeed a bandaid and the beneficiary of that bandaid likely feels grateful having avoided bleeding to death, though I am not convinced that is always the case.

A question arises in my mind. In the case of famine relief can there be any other response than to provide food?  Of course not, or so says my Westerncentric and hence anthropocentric mind.  But is that the most culturally appropriate answer?  In part the answer to that question depends upon your point of reference, of course, but that is exactly my point.


Castles in the sand 2.0  What are we accomplishing after all?
So, more aid worker voices to move our journey down this path a bit further.

“I don’t think the goal of the development industry should be to eradicate poverty, disease, or save lives – it should be to reduce the barriers that keep people from making informed choices about how to live their lives, be they economic, political, social/cultural, or whatever. Our industry suffers from a persistent messiah complex that, despite its earnest efforts, it can’t seem to shake. It is dehumanizing, destructive, and patronizing. Idealism drives burn out, of the “compassion fatigue” variety. Pragmatism makes it easier to let things go when they don’t work.   

–30something female expat aid worker respondent w/ 10+ years experience

“There’s a reason all this professional jargon exists. It obfuscates the fact that at the end of the day most aid work doesn’t do much of anything.”

–mid 30’s male expat aid worker with 5+ years experience

“Something an old man told me in West Africa struck me. We were at a big conference on sanitation, and the guy stood up and said ’20 years ago I was at a similar conference where we discussed exactly the same issues, with exact same solutions. Now 20 years later we are still discussing the same things.'”

–mid 30’s female  HQ worker


Having recently finished Nina Munk’s book The Idealist:  Jeffery Sachs and the Quest to End Poverty (2013) I have a few thoughts on which I’d like to expand.

I’ll start by saying that Jefferey Sachs got it right, finally.  “It is what it is,” he says in last pages of the book in response to Munk’s hard questions about difficulties encountered related to the Millennium Villages Project.  The realization that he finally comes to -or reawakens to- is that everything is connected to everything else environmentally, politically and perhaps most importantly, economically both locally and globally.  He says exactly that to Munk at the end off the book, “For a long time, I wanted to simplify the problems by putting aside the rich world’s issues and so forth and focusing on extreme poverty.  But it’s all interconnected.”  I am reminded of the statement from the anthropologist Miles Richardson who said, “…the problem of the poor is not the problem, the problem is the rich.”  Much truth lies in that statement, and we now have an global Occupy movement that that is shining a bright light onto this reality.

The Sachs team’s 147 page  Millennium Villages Handbook used in the select villages in Africa reported on by Munk and elsewhere was, in a very real sense, the guide to put into place the prescription he expounds in his The End of Poverty (2005), his vision -some say promise- to eradicate extreme poverty by the year 2025.

The Millennium Villages Project did the world a great, sobering favor in that it gave perhaps our (i.e.,more specifically, the Western, ‘scientific’) world’s best shot at trying to solve the problem of the poor and came up, predictably, short.  Not because we didn’t try hard enough, but because the assumption is failed.

Certainly if we were listening to history we should have learned this lesson many times over.  In his Doing Bad by Doing Good: Why Humanitarian Action Fails Christopher Coyne outlines in good detail the failed Kajaki dam project in the Helmand Valley Province in Afghanastan, calling it a “planners problem.”  His alternative, a rehash of William Easterly’s arguing points in The White Man’s Burden:  Why the West’s Efforts to Aid the Rest have Done So Much Ill and So Little Good (2006), is the so-called  ‘constrained approach’, not much more than a repackaging of Easterly’s ‘seekers’ idea. Both argue this general ‘bottom-up’ approach will have a better chance of success making lasting change.  

Coyne argues perhaps the obvious, i.e., that knowledge of the local culture is imperative for development work.  He posits, correctly I believe, that “…[we need to appreciate] endogenous rules because existing rules place a constraint on efforts to design and implement what are perceived to be potentially superior formal rules” and further that “…attempting to impose formal rules that are at odds with underlying informal rules is akin too banging a square peg into a round hole–it can be done, but only with significant force and collateral damage.”  Agreed.  But we’re still in the weeds here talking about how to engineer sand castles.

Both Easterly and Coyne find support from Dead Aid: Why Aid Is Not Working and How There Is a Better Way for Africa (2009) by Dambisa Moyo and of course Easterly continues to beat the same drum in his recent offering The Tyranny of Experts:  Economists, Dictators, and the Forgotten Rights of the Poor (2014).  

Easterly, for his part, argues very articulately for the position that by encouraging the rich and simultaneous exploration by many creative people -poor people-  for useful and effective solutions to human problems we will all be the better for it.  For my money, the Easterly/Coyne/Moyo (et al) arguments sound way too close to the neoliberal rhetoric washing around for the last several decades arguing that the poor just need to be given their rights and respect and they will solve the problem themselves or, rather, the forces of the market will make this happen and the efforts of the rich and newly rich(er) will ‘trickle down’ like so much sweet rain.

The Invisible Hand, in my view, tends to slap the poor and pat the back of the rich.  Just sayin’.

Thus, the thesis statement for this post lies here:  our globalized social world comprises one massive complex system – that, if I understand Kurt Godel, Emile Durkheim and Leslie White at all, cannot be meaningfully and permanently changed as a system by purposeful human behavior.  Humanity is perhaps the most defining nonlinear system of them all.  In short, very subtle, trivial appearing inputs can cause large unpredictable effects in both the short and most definitely in the longer term. Icing to the cake, we are also part of the complex ecosystem of the planet, also most definitely a nonlinear system.  This is increasing so as the world gets more interconnected and complex and the the rate of social change, especially driven by technology, goes dizzyingly faster and faster.  As one aid worker put it, “Compared to the money being invested, we’re doing a pretty poor job of getting anywhere. A lot of misguided approaches or self-interested approaches or inappropriate interventions or I could go on and on. Why do we know that poverty is not simple or linear, yet still implement interventions as if it is? We need to get better. We need to be smarter, think more critically (emphasis added).”

We are not in charge of hownonlinear the future will unfold, nor can we ever be.  As aid and development work veteran Michael Hobbes put it “Maybe the problem isn’t that international development doesn’t work. It’s that it can’t.”  He chimes on on the above mentioned Millennium Development Goals here (spoiler:  he thinks they’re bullshit).

Is there something/someone else at the driver’s seat?  No, I will not go all InshAllah on you here:  the future is not in Allah’s hands nor any other God or gods hands, however much we would like to believe that.  If there were a loving God she would not allow the absolute horror that visits upon billions every day, especially the bottom 2 billion that are the focus of much aid and development work.  That’s my opinion.

It is what it is.  Our global community is an unfolding of what may be best described as a set of  incomprehensibly numerous and complex algorithms perhaps the two most important of which are biological evolution and capitalism.  The future will become what it becomes not because of what we -or those like Sachs, Gates, Easterly, Soros and others- want it to become but rather in spite of what we what we would like it to become.

To be clear, these fine folks, Easterly, Sachs and the rest are all basing their actions and arguments on one very flawed and hubristic anthropocentric assumption, namely that we are in control of how the global culture unfolds.

There are those who will point to the many human interventions over the centuries that appear to affirm the human capacity to control our civilization.  My counter to these examples is that, yes, you can -and as I noted almost ad naseum, we must-  build castles in the sand, and some of these castles will be magnificent indeed.  But nonetheless these are more testaments to human will than true ‘directing the unfolding of human history’ moments.

In the final pages of Munk’s book she talks about the challenging social and economic changes occurring all over Africa that raise a very important question about the efficacy of the MDV’s project, namely would much of the change that happened in the target pinkervillages occur even despite the massive intervention?  The answer, quite likely, is yes. That is, change in spite, not because.

I find good support for my position in Steven Pinker’s 2011 book The Better Angels of Our Nature: Why Violence Has Declined in which he details the very counterintuitive argument that humanity is getting less violent over the centuries.

I disagree with what one respondent said when reflecting on the future of humanitarian aid.  She said, “Human beings, we are not good.”  Humanity is getting more humane in some ways as social institutions slowly evolve to tamp down our more violent tendencies and see ourselves more and more as one humanity.  Sociologist G.H. Mead encouraged us to look forward to a time when we would have all humanity as our reference group, our ‘generalized other’ not just those in our immediate clan.

Can we impact this or that specific life with our actions?  Of course. In fact that is what aid and development workers do every day of every year all over the world. Is that impact scalable, the kind that can ‘end poverty’?  That indeed is the question I am attempting to address.  I would say ‘yes’ in the short term we can create that appearance, but on a global scale not so much.

The problem of the poor will always be with us, I am afraid.

That’s my story and I’m sticking to it.


Ending thoughts on “eradicating extreme poverty by 2015”
Art, as sociologist Georg Simmel pointed out long ago, allows us to make observations about the world in creative, entertaining, and non-linear ways that are sometimes closer to the truth than we dare come with ‘scientific’ thought.  Movies, for example, can sometimes allow us to face realities otherwise too stark to otherwise voice.  The scenes below nod to Durkheim, I think.

Network“There are no nations. There are no peoples. There are no Russians. There are no Arabs. There are no third worlds. There is no West. There is only one holistic system of systems, one vast and immane, interwoven, interacting, multivariate, multinational dominion of dollars. … It is the international system of currency which determines the totality of life on this planet. That is the natural order of things today.”

Jensen lectures poor Howard Beale further…

“There is no America. There is no democracy. There is only IBM, and ITT, and AT&T, and DuPont, Dow, Union Carbide, and Exxon. Those are the nations of the world today. What do you think the Russians talk about in their councils of state, Karl Marx? They get out their linear programming charts, statistical decision theories, minimax solutions, and compute the price-cost probabilities of their transactions and investments, just like we do. We no longer live in a world of nations and ideologies, Mr. Beale. The world is a college of corporations, inexorably determined by the immutable bylaws of business.” 

I am not entirely sure Arthur Jensen/Peter Finch got it wrong back in 1976 in Network when describing the nature of global capitalism.  No one is in control of how this algorithm plays out, though some learn how to benefit disproportionally.

Jensen uses phrases like “natural order of things” and “immutable bylaws” to describe the world, in effect citing Durkheim.  Can we ever reach our goal to “eradicate extreme poverty” at any point in the future?  Perhaps not. Though to be clear, I do think that poverty may someday, possibly, be eliminated in our world but that it will not be mindfully engineered by the likes of Gates and Sachs, et al, but rather happen as an organic product of the many dynamic systems at play, that is not because of human agency rather despite it.

With that,  I now turn next to examining in more detail the aid worker voices on the topic of their idealism and future of humanitarian aid.

[To be continued]

As always, reach out to me with your comments, feedback or snark by clicking here.

Tom Arcaro

Tom Arcaro

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

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