“Am I done yet?”
–36-40 yo female HQ worker
“I finally feel like I fit somewhere.”
–36-40yo female expat aid worker
“Did you have an advisor look this over before you created it?”
–18-25yo male expat aid worker
Voices of thanks and snark
Yes, we’re done. Almost.
The only appropriate end to this exploration of aid worker voices must come from the aid workers themselves. Here are their -and my- parting shots.
Our final question on the survey, Q61, asked “Please use the space below to share your feelings about any of the above questions.”
Yes, at the end of a very long survey containing 61 questions and including 23 open-ended “add your comments” questions, nearly 1 in 5 (18%) intrepid souls felt called to put in their last thoughts. To each of these aid workers I say “Thanks!”
Many, in fact, literally shared their feelings with comments like
- “I feel all my cynicism and bitterness coming up :-)”
- “It has been good to write these down and share my thoughts-thanks!”
- “This is a depressing quiz.”
- “It has been helpful to reflect and a safe place to write about some of my anger.”
Indeed, that the survey provided a “safe place to write about some of [her] anger” speaks to the core purpose of this book [blog], that is to provide a place to amplify aid worker voices.
This one from a 31-35yo female HQ worker I think captured the feelings of many when she wrote,
“Good questions. Necessary questions. I apologize if I used it as an opportunity to vent. It felt good. And I should probably say that if you’d caught me on a different day, I may have been slightly more optimistic. But I guess the roller-coaster aspect of the job is what we all know.”
That she took responding to the survey as an “opportunity to vent” is one of the main reasons that we kept the survey ‘live’ for so long (14 months). We made the survey public never having a clear plan for how long it would remain available; we had no compelling methodological logic driving this choice, rather the decision was based on the positive cathartic function the survey appeared to be serving for many. Here is another blush from a 31-35yo female expat aid worker:
“Very interesting survey and I appreciate the chance to share my views – it is surprising how little time (and few opportunities) one has to actually *think* about things in the busyness of the day-to-day. I wish your survey results could be shared in an open forum (not only virtual) where significant players can be present and honestly reflect for a moment.”
Many of the 181 respondents that took the time to write on this final question -41%, in fact. Of these many commented on how interesting it was to answer the questions and many said they’d be very interested to read the final results. Dozens of people write just to say “thanks.”
Here are a few representative examples:
- “Interesting and thanks for doing it.”
- “Just would like to say that I think it’s great that you’re doing this work and gathering this info. Wishing you the best of luck with your project.”
- “This has been a useful exercise in self-reflection. Good luck!”
One young female HQ aid worker went so far as to talk about how she might use some of the questions as a point of departure for workplace discussions.
“I’ve asked a few of these questions to some of my closer peers- the ones who I feel are on the same page as me, and will partake in a good rant over lunch. But going through this and how important these questions are, for better understanding ourselves and each other, I’m feeling more confident in posing some of these to others. Who knows- maybe even some of those internally-focused, ladder-climbing types just need to be challenged and made to revisit these issues. I may give it a go (albeit in a situation that I can escape quicker than a sit-down lunch).
Reflections on a career
Some took the opportunity to reflect on their career and aspects of the sector as a whole. One pattern in the responses was clear: many felt that working in the humanitarian aid sector was a meaningful career choice, especially as an alternative to working in the for-profit sector.
I was touched when I read this response below from a young aid worker. His passion and conviction are evident, and I believe his assessment of and motivations for being in the sector are shared by many.
“I think it is easy to see aid workers as a little hedonistic. I think this is true. They can be, and many are. There is definitely a certain something that makes us all tick. But, deep down, something this survey might reveal, they all have very strong motivations for getting into the sector. You see a lot of them talking about work all the time, but not so many talking about their motivations. Many can seem cold to everything, but I think that is a coping mechanism. People get into the sector because they care, and they will always care, they just get a little hardened. It is easy to see this in the way an aid worker will slag off every NGO under the sun to their same-sector colleagues – but in the midst of non-aid workers, they would defend the sector to the death! I do this job because I care. I care because I feel politically driven by the wealth divide the world suffers under. I feel undeserving of the education I have received for free and think everyone should be entitled to the same, and the same opportunities. At the same time, the burning political motivations inside me stop me from being able to work in a normal sector. I can not physically motivate myself to work for the purpose of making someone else rich. I do not believe in the capitalist system. If I’m not working to directly assist people, I do not work. So, as much as it is a sacrifice to work in this sector, sacrificing money, relationships, stability, friends. It is also a selfish decision. I want to do this work as I get to closely fulfil my ideals, it keeps me motivated, I get to travel, I get to help people, and I don’t have to be a ‘slave to the system’!” –26-30yo male expat aid worker
This next one ends in a quite sober fashion. With very personal words this young woman describes the stages of self-reflection many aid workers go through and uses this moment to vent about the differences between the intense life the “field” and contradiction of working in HQ.
“I have been working for the past 5 years in this field, in a variety of locations, such as HQ, refugee camps, field offices, and have experienced different levels of cooperation between humanitarian actors. It seems to me that the bigger the crisis, the brighter the spotlight, and the less inclined people are to work together because they want to shine. Also, my opinion is that humanitarian workers go completely mad, because they see so many things – good and bad – that they have to cope with in their own ways. At one point it becomes much less about the people you are helping because you are very consumed with what is happening with your own self. Also, the fact that you get sniped, stoned, spat on, raped and so on while doing humanitarian work doesn’t help keep up idealism. You ask yourself “why am I doing this” more and more often and when you finally get out of it and make it to HQ you feel so removed from the work and start thinking that you work for a multinational for-profit. And then you get bogged down by the salary, benefits and think you deserve it all because you spent time in the field. Just to sum it up, I think I’ll be leaving this field soon, because you’re of no use to anyone, if you’re cynical and burnt out.” –26-30yo female expat aid worker
Though our respondents were from all age groups there was a definite concentration in the younger ages. The voice below from a legit silverback speaks to the fulfillment sensed by some in the sector.
“Overall, my “midlife crisis” going into aid work was a good decision for my wife and me. It was a whole new career of over 20 years that gave me a new perspective on the world. I would not have traded those 20 years for anything. In semi-retirement I continue to do aid work.” –66-70yo male expat aid worker
This next voices the frustration of trying to explain the work.
“I think humanitarian work is tough and confusing and those outside of it definitely don’t get it and those within it barely get it. It’s both good and bad like everything else and though I’m leaving soon, my feelings haven’t changed much. Yes, I’m skeptical, but I still believe that working for an NGO is better than working for a corporate entity; my work has more of a chance to do good rather than to help a shareholder. I will probably come back to humanitarian work in some form, but first there are personal projects that I have to do and pursue self-employment options outside of humanitarianism.” –36-40yo male based in HQ
Let the snark begin
Although the tenor of most responses was positive or neutral, there were more than a few (14, to be exact) that felt moved to provide direct, negative feedback, some of which is well taken; the survey questions were not perfectly worded by any means. There were unfortunate question and response wordings, missed
opportunities for easier coding and analysis, perhaps some important topics inadvertently left out, and even an overall tone that could have been more thoughtful or focused. To be clear, I think that much can be learned from those who cared enough to be critical.
A few were just a tad bit patronizing and not very helpful (and yes, I do notice that these all come from males).
- “Did you have an advisor look this over before you created it?” –18-25yo male expat aid worker
- “Poorly worded questions, focus on humanitarian without defining what that is. Subjective responses will be useless in determining and findings when compiled.” -50-55yo male expat aid worker
- “You should work on some of the questions. -36-40 male expat aid worker
One middle aged (white) male HQ worker commented very thoughtfully (“seriously, who designed this survey?”) on the wording of many questions and in one case pointed out a flaw common in many surveys, especially those like this one asking about people’s perceptions and opinions. With a survey taken at one point in time what you get is more snapshot than moving picture. Listen to how he puts this:
“Every answer here needs to be contextualized in the transition I am undergoing: I have been working for a donor, and have just transitioned to working for a [African] non-profit. This transition was spurred by positively hating working for a donor (initially I was thrilled). Only time will tell if I end up hating this as much!”
He ended his contribution as a respondent with this:
“Hire a survey designer: 1/4 of these questions were really lousy and would have benefit [sic] from some sharpening up.”
I agree with this next one, though he is vague as to what he means by “bias about humanitarian work.”
“There seem to be a bias about humanitarian work in general in the questions asked. The rising trend is that corporations, investment and development will solve all the problem. Good if it does but so far injustice and exploitation are growing. There are more hungry people in middle income Countries than in Low Income Countries. Therefore wealth does not solve all problems, injustice remains and more has to be done about it.”
A few stressed an issue with the conflation of “humanitarian aid work” versus development activities, none better stated that this:
“I am concerned about your use of language. To me ‘humanitarian aid work’ is a subset of the aid agenda (which deals with humanitarian crises – droughts, famines, etc.). While I have done ‘humanitarian’ work before. My country position is almost exclusively ‘development’ whereby I word with countries to implement systems and change aimed at improving the well being of people over the long term…” -36-40yo female expat aid worker
Concluding thoughts on the sector
“Related to the questions about explaining the job to people outside the industry, what is nearly impossible to explain is your personal emotional and intellectual response to new situations or the general seriousness of the situations faced: you experience completely new feelings that cause completely unexpected understandings of the world that are very difficult to really completely explain to non-aid workers.” –41-45yo male expat aid worker
Knowing that others hear and, better yet, share or at least can understand feelings and perceptions about the live to which you have devoted yourself is meaningful psychologically. The respondent quoted above -and all of the many hundreds in the preceding chapters- have now had their voices heard and shared. I for one will count that as a net positive toward the goal of creating a more just world for all.
My hope is that in this book I have accomplished the modest goal of effectively presenting and making sense of the aid worker voices that were gifted to me by those who took the time to take our survey. Countless person-hours were spent by 1010 self-identified “aid workers ” finding on line and then choosing to complete our survey. Many wrote narrative answers to all of the open-ended questions, sometimes pouring out their hearts and sharing intimate thoughts. My driving logic as I went through the responses was to with fidelity present a summary of all that was said, the good, the bad and the ungrammatical.
My commentary and analysis was just that, analysis of what I heard in all those voices and my modest attempt to use a sociological framework to make sense of it all. That, and a bit of commentary from my perch on the margins of development work, though having been exposed to this kind of work for the last 25 years and directing an academic program engaged in development work and, beginning in 2015, using the Core Humanitarian Standards as part of our syllabi.
Though respondent opinions and observations at times clashed and contradicted, in one sense you can describe this book as an effort to employ crowdsourcing to understand the aid sector. Certainly no one would expect all opinions to be the same since the respondents were diverse in age, gender, racial/ethnic/cultural identity, experiences, and place of employment. But given the depth of thought many put into their responses, taken as a whole I believe that what has been presented captures a great deal of truth about the sector.
And, one more time, a massive THANK YOU to all who participated.
“Aid work is part of the wider economic ecosystem. I think we are not really better or worse than anyone else – just a different organ in the body of humanity.” –36-40yo female HQ worker
I have no doubt that those represented in this book are mostly expat aid workers from the global north. Perhaps a more accurate title might have been “Expat aid worker voices.” Fair enough. That said, this book should be best viewed as an exploratory beginning, one that raises some questions and that can light the path for similar work.
Next steps include inviting everyone who reads this book to remain in the conversation and to encourage others to joint. To be heard is to be acknowledged and affirmed, and it is my belief that as the sector gets to know itself better -and the larger social ecosystem of which it is a part- it will be more whole and humane.
Please contact me if you have any thoughts, feedback or parting shots.