Aid Worker Voices

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

And now more on the survey results…

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

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

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

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

Here is one narrative example to illustrate:

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

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

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

Screenshot 2015-08-28 17.07.59


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

Screenshot 2015-08-28 17.08.38


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

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

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

You can sense the frustration in these next three:

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


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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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




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Deepening The Data With More Voices: Invitation for in-depth interviews

Deepening the data with more voices

Where you might come in
We are entering the next phase of our AidWorkVoices project and again need your help, this time from a few of you who want or may be wiling to share your stories.

One of the most interesting nuggets to come from the survey data thus far are the thoughts you’ve had about identity.  In the post “You are as you are seen” many of our respondents–you–wrestled with exactly that: how you are seen by those around you matters on many levels. Many of you believe that the way you are seen (for example:  young, white, attractive Western female) has an impact on your overall effectiveness.  A second impact is that on the self concept of the aid worker: how she or he feels about her or himself.

Our goal at this particular stage is to deepen the data with more in-depth voices speaking about identity management both in the ‘field’ and in other locations, including at home, and throughout the aid industry. We especially want to hear from aid workers whose ‘at home’ identity (what Goffman would call ‘back stage’) may at times present a challenge.Goffman

We’re specifically working here with the concept of “master status” in sociology. There are two general categories of master status: Those that are disclosed as soon as people see you, such as skin color, sex (probably), age (possibly), and some kinds of physical disability or special-ability; And those that can remain disclosed with some effort, for example religion (or lack thereof), sexuality, and relationship/marital status.

Who would we like to talk to?
We are interested in more in-depth interviews with aid workers that may have faced and/or currently face workplace challenges related to “how they are seen.” Basically, we want to talk to any aid or development worker in a setting where your sex, sexual orientation, marital status, gender, race, ethnicity, nationality, local/non-local designation, age, religion, worldview, or other identity status somehow shapes your ability to be effective. Some examples include (but of course are not limited to):

  • Jewish aid workers in predominantly Muslim locations, or vice versa.
  • Atheist aid workers working in faith-based organizations and/or in locations where devotion to some religion is expected (Bangladesh comes to mind, based on recent news coverage).
  • Non-heterosexual aid workers in, well, most anywhere.
  • Red-headed aid workers (or those with some other  exceptional physical attribute.  Any 2 meter+ aid workers?)
  • Differently-abled aid workers (sight/hearing impaired, ambulatory challenges, etc.)
  • Medication dependent aid workers (e.g., insulin dependent).

You get the idea…..

interviewSpecifically we want to arrange open-ended interviews (via phone, Skype or otherwise) with aid workers who deal with identity management issues such as the above.  If you are interested and/or have questions please send a message to me (Arcaro) with details of how you would prefer to be contacted.

We expect that interviews will take approximately 30 minutes. While we may need to interact with you as yourself in the context of an interview, we promise to maintain your anonymity in any publication or other external reference to your interview.

The big picture
We are now entering a very intense phase of analyzing and writing about all of the survey results, both quantitative and qualitative. In addition to making regular (weekly) posts to this blog we are in the midst of outlining a book-length treatment of all the results.  Our hope is that we have a beta-version draft out by late fall.

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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


For starters:

“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.”
–36+yo 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.”
–36+yo 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 different 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 gettin’ fired in the aid worker world.

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 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. A 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 the nature of the firing process gets more complicated. Hence in the non-profit world the deliverables may be inherently more nuanced and non-quantifiable.  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 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.  Their 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 “play well with others” on important matters there is a clear demarcation between “us” and other aid organizations.  On a smaller scale, in Haiti Partners in Health can 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 very high entry and renewal standards for all associates.

There is a non-existent -or at the very best, weak culture of firing in the sector in 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?”

That is, how do you close the wide gap between what we say standards are and actual behavior?

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 hiring process can be time  consuming and, ultimately, more trouble than it is worth for the supervisor.

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 responses:

Screenshot 2014-08-26 15.25.17

A robust number of respondents -341- 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.

  • “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 – noone 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 was was , a bad judgement on security brought on by incompetence and inexperience. Sometimes also people are promoted way too quickly and
    Word cloud of all responses.

    Word cloud of all responses.

    lack any depth of knowledge on a context which can lead to some very naive decision making.” female 31yo+ expat aid worker

  • “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 26yo+ 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 26+ expat aid worker
  • Chronic incompetence is the least likely reason….”  36yo+ 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..).” 31yo+ female working in the UN system
  • “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.”  36yo+ 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 26yo+ expat aid worker
  • “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.” 41+yo 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 26yo+ 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.” 31+ female expat aid worker

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 341 respondents, 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 action points:

  • do more and better background screening of any new hires, especially those who are making lateral moves
  • 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 somethingHR
  • consider more extensive psychological/personality testing of potential hires
  • make more public and obvious rubrics/expectations for 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 the aid sector
  • network with your HR counterparts across the sector to work toward more standardization of hiring criterion and
  • perhaps most importantly, start in the interview process creating a more demonstrative “culture of firing” (as mentioned above) and reinforce this rhetoric with action

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.

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

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Aid worker voices on the future of humanitarian aid

Aid worker voices on the future of humanitarian aid

I will use the prompt of last weeks’s  World Humanitarian Day to share a few gems from our survey data.

Background reading
First, some background.  I did comment on what our respondents felt about the future of humanitarian aid in broad strokes here  and here, going a bit off-script with less survey data analysis and more personal/sociologically informed observation.  While I was skimming through the posts I shared this as well.


Click on image to enlarge.

Click on image to enlarge.

Many themes have emerged from the 279 respondents who took the time to address the question about the future of the sector.  Below I highlight some of these themes and provide some representative responses.

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 would have been even more telling.  Here are a couple good examples of this differentiation and some of the issues involved.

  • “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.”
  • “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.”
  • “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 linked above, 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.”

The impact of the sector
I love this first comment in large part because it addresses the hubris embedded in the assumption that we know what we are doing most of the time.

  • “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!”
  • “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
That there is more need for 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 crisis and how we respond, but there are always new mistakes to make.”

Unknown.2Future 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.”
  • “The field is becoming increasingly theoretical and ego-driven. Skills that actually save lives are being drowned out by debates on buzzwords.”

More to come
There is so much more to report from the data but for now I’ll just close by saying I felt an overall sense of frustration and cynicism among many of the respondents.  The future of humanitarian aid is in whose hands?  Quite a big question, that.

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

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Aid worker views about MONGOs (My Own NGO): mostly negative

“I think that if every overly bright, well-dressed 20something would just get together and co-run the skinny jeans appreciation society in their respective countries, the rest of us could put all that money and press to actual use.”
20 something female, HQ aid worker w/5+ experience

Aid worker views about MONGOs (My Own NGO):  mostly negative

The recent kidnapping of two young Italian women in Syria (see here) underscores the fact that being an aid worker comes with risks. ThereUnknown may be something specifically about this particular episode that merits a deeper understanding, and a start might be to examine aid worker voices about the kind of organization to which these young women were associated, namely a very small, new, self-started NGO.

What kinds of organizations are best suited to doing aid work?  Does size matter? How do our survey respondents feel about smaller humanitarian aid entities and what are some of the positives and negatives from their perspective?  These are some questions that I examine below using our survey respondents views to illustrate and, hopefully, provide a deeper perspective.

To date we have have 429  (of 896) people respond to our open-ended question regarding MONGO’s.  Here is the prompt for Q58:  “What is your general view of so-called MONGOs (My Own NGO) or other smaller humanitarian aid work entities?”

I went though every response and tagged each as  “positive” , “neutral” or “negative,” and the results indicate clearly that MONGO’s have a mixed and mostly negative image among aid workers.  Here are the results of my tagging, and as you can see the “negatives” outnumbered the “positives” nearly four to one:

  • Overall positive:  11%
  • Neutral/mixed:   46%
  • Negative:           43%

The short of it
The vast majority of respondents had a very negative view of MONGO’s, with “negatives” outnumbering “positives” by almost four to one and most of the responses that I tagged “neutral” pointing out that there were both positives and negatives to be argued, stressing the negatives of those organizations which are not “done right.”

As many of the “neutral” responses pointed out, correctly, MONGO’s are not a monolithic whole.  The differentiating variables are many, but some of the most important appear to be:

  • Type and motivation of leadership
  • Western primarily US and UK) originated and based vs locally/community organizations
  • Degree of focus/breadth of mission
  • Level of overall professionalism
  • Whether or not aid or development focused
  • Ability to make sustainable change/scalability

Many of the “neutral” responses leaned negative but qualified their answer tended to say, in short, some MONGO’s can be great/effective if the leadership is good, there is a narrow, defined focus and they are run professionally.  MONGO’s that score high on all the variables above can have many positives:

  • Flexible; can change/modify very quickly
  • Have generally low overhead
  • Can have very creative responses to niche conditions

Perhaps one of the more astute observations made by one respondent was that, after all, this is the way all aid organizations started (see Red Cross, MSF, etc.).

The list of negatives the appear in both “negative” and “neutral” responses is long and damning, and I invite you to read the sections below for some great examples.

  • Lack of professionalism
  • Lack of standardization
  • “White savior complex”
  • Just adding to noise and confusion for beneficiaries, donors and the aid industry

    Screenshot 2014-08-17 12.42.47

    Word cloud of all responses

  • Poor/misguided mission
  • Ego-driven leadership
  • Just reinventing the wheel
  • Inefficient
  • Do harm in some cases
  • Self-serving
  • No accountability
  • Prone to corruption
  • Thinly disguised proselytization
  • Overall give aid section a bad reputation

Many respondents touched on a current debate voiced succinctly in the comment made by an experienced female aid worker, namely:  “Humanitarian aid is a profession not a hobby.”

In short, MONGOs: not so good except in rare cases.

A thought from my sociological perspective:  I believe that it is human nature to have empathy toward others and to want to help somehow when one sees other’s in need.  Indeed, that is what prompted Henri Dunant to do what he did in response to the wounded at Solerfino and later help establish one of the very first humanitarian aid organizations, the Red Cross. The urge to create MONGOs is there.  What to do with how individuals act on it is the question we must explore.

Below I present representative responses from each of the three groupings.


  • “Great! I love the small initiatives, but I’d qualify it since it depends a lot on the origins, agency of the organization and what they’re up to (since many depend on assumptions we give them that we say works, when it very well might be ivory-tower driven). We can’t work with them because of rules from up top, but generally, I think they do our work better than we do.”
  • “Have limited reach but have the potential to be better with adaptation, better at identifying nuances to local development, and may be better at small scale development.”
  • “Can be useful if service providers in niches. But no way to partner with at scale.”
  • “Some are quite nimble and do good local work and focus very effectively on social justice. However they can lead to too much Screenshot 2014-08-17 13.30.54fragmentation and some serve the egos of their founders too much.”
  • “Often the smaller ones achieve more with fewer overheads and admin costs.”
  • “Some can grow to be great organisations as long as they learn from their mistakes and have clear leadership which understands the complexities of the isssues they are dealing with.”
  • “There is plenty work to be done, problems, issues to be adressed. Plenty spaces for MONGOs. And it is good as well to have a variety of organization.”
  • “Some made the critical differentiation between local and Western/Us based organizations.”
  • “If they are local NGOs/CBOs, they can make very good work because they can understand and address the very local issues and problems. Creating an NGO in the US to do fantasy projects to rescue poor dying African children is ridiculous.”

Some respondents just had no opinion, some gave both sides, some qualify in very insightful ways (spelling, grammar, and syntax left as-written):

  • “Cant write all off with one brush. if they are filling an actual gap that can be a good thing. the big boy ngos are not necessarily flexible or nimble so small can be good. however the ones that show up without a clue are making things worse.”
  • “They can be frustrating in the sense that they rarely coordinate “with the big kids” – i.e. they tend to go off on their own and don’t connect or feed into the broader humanitarian system. However, if working in partnership, they can be helpful when working in isolated locations since they are sometimes the only ones willing to go and do work in tough places… especially National NGOs.”
  • “(chuckle… I think I’m running a sort of MONGO at present, but we try not to act like it!) It varies, some can do good work if they have a specific niche that they can fill, often as a sub to a larger organization. Others are of questionable competence and can have anScreenshot 2014-08-17 13.28.44 outsized regard of their own importance. If not well-focused (“I’m here and want to help!) they tend to be ineffective.”
  • “Specialized NGOs in particular sectors or communities or nations are only successful, effective and good when run by individuals who understand humanitarian principles and values and ways of working; those run by enterprising individuals or those who have money and “care” tend to make situations worse for everyone, including the people they are trying to help.”
  • “Impossible to generalize. Yes, I tend to roll my eyes. But there are some that are really good, a lot better at responding to local needs than the large INGOs. There are a lot that are bad. But even a bad MONGO is probably not going to do a lot of harm (in a global sense). I could say the same about large NGOs. Some are good, lots are bad. MONGOs have a similar track record.”
  • “Some are great and because they have very little resources they find innovative ways of delivering services. Others are terrible and completely undermine what the international aid community has aimed to achieved e.g. Standardisation, principles, good practices, do no harm, etc.”
  • “I think it depends on the experience and motivation of the person behind the NGO. If the person either has a background in development, or makes and effort to learn – and has the backing of the local community they seek to assist, then it can be a good thing. However, I think too many of these groups think ‘NGOs are doing it wrong, so I can’t learn anything from them’. Yes, there are many things wrong with the NGO system that can be improved. But the development system has also learned a lot of lessons the hard way that all NGOs can benefit from.”
  • “There is some truth to all sides of this debate.”
  • “Find it very interesting and thing there is definitely a place for them in the sector as the more established and larger INGOs start to move toward professionalisation and expansion processes that often make them more inefficient and less receptive to and understanding of needs on the ground. there is generally a fairly condescending and negative attitude of INGO and NGO to MONGO which is highly questionable given that none of us are exactly perfect…”
  • “Usually no harm, little large-scale impact but nice to see people trying to help people. I don’t feel the condescending outrage about this stuff that many of my peers do. If missionaries from Kansas want to hold AIDS babies for 8 weeks, as long as no one is interfering with treatment and care, and local communities don’t mind, why not?”
  • “This is extremely complex. People don’t give unconditionally, even if they think they do. Some people will only contribute if they can maximise their own opportunities for self actualisation. MONGOs are not generally the most efficient way to give aid. They also often result in aid that is sub-standard. However, some people will only contribute to a response when they do it largely themselves. This is, to a certain extent, their right, as long as they meet agreed standards. Small NGOs also have the capacity to be very nimble and innovative, this shouldn’t be stifled. Essentially there are both good and bad aspects and I don’t have the time or energy to write the thesis that one could on this topic!”
  • “Great in for small-scale community work in development settings. Horrible in large-scale relief/emergency settings.”
  • “I think MONGOs like small businesses begin when the larger NGOs or companies don’t listen to a good idea. Of course there is that bit of hubris in being able to say back home I have my own NGO. I think a more realistic term would be “my own short term project” like most start ups unless they are bought out (or funded) by a larger organization they won’t last long. I think any large INGO would be wise to create a space for ideas and innovation in programming to be heard from all members of staff not only the grants and program development people. This would help the INGO to grow and develop better programs while keeping their staff from quitting to start their MONGOs.”
  • “I feel they can still have a good impact if managers/staff are extremely talented and have a clear idea of their mission, vision and goals. Otherwise, funds would be better used within bigger orgs.”
  • “I don’t think it’s possible to clump them together. Some represent true citizen action and real empowerment within people’s own communities and within their own contexts. Others are purely ego trips that do more harm than good. The key is to understand the difference and support the potentially transformative ones that could potential become bigger players.”
  • “Get the skill set and capability to work for an NGO before going MONGO on us. And being 19 and reading Kristoff doesn’t count. Some small NGO’s are agile and well managed and if they have the resources they can help, but there is a challenge in coordination and doubling of efforts.”
  • “They’re like hipsters: super easy to mock. But maybe just maybe we should reserve our mockery for the enormous for-profit development firms that regularly generate batshit clusterfucks on a scale no MONGO –not even a celebrity-run MONGO– could ever match. That girl who runs a one-person NGO teaching yoga to ex-combatants? She’s fun at parties and has no money. Let’s talk about Chemonics. Snarking on MONGOs is fun, but let’s be honest with ourselves: it’s not serious.”
  • “I think if they want to work to address to a particular problem in a particular place where no one else is working then it can be a good thing. if it’s just ‘water in africa’ probably best to use people already doing that.”

It has been argued that the aid industry has three parts:  the beneficiaries, the donors and the aid workers (you!), and what the data shows is that MONGO’s create concerns about all three of these prongs.  Many of you felt that these smaller organizations harmed the entire industry for a variety of reasons. Other major issues included incompetence, corruption, ineffectiveness, poor preparation and questionable intent.  Here are some examples of what you said illustrating the many negative views, some of which are very critical and offer no reason for the reactions, but others offering a bit of depth in their critiques:

  • “Small NGO is a waste of financial and human resources. It also create confusion among the beneficiaries and the donors.”
  • “It is inline with the online age of personal world wide connection. MONGO’s are generally more efficient with their resources but lack the resources to demonstrate that they are effective. It is easy for a MONGO to fail which also brings down the reputation of the industry”.
  • “Most people I’ve met conducting this type of work are hardcore idealists who genuinely want to make a difference. However, they lack the realism and practical skills to further the organization from the backyard-project level. In fact, most of the time these are conducted by expats who are not always accepted by the local community, and they think good will is enough to make a change, but it evidently isn’t. It takes extraordinary beneficiaries to meet them halfway, but most of the beneficiaries just don’t care about that white person’s crazy idea, they’re too busy living their lives within their context, and the initiative will die out before it has any sort of measurable impact. The remaining MONGOs I’ve encountered are people stealing money and justifying it through creative financing.”
  • “More prone to corruption, less likely to have strong mechanisms to ensure transparency and accountability, more likely to rely on unrestricted funding from private donors (which exacerbates the first two challenges), less likely to have any genuinely collaborative/democratic internal decision making processes.”
  • “In my experience, some are really fantastic, but others are at best laughable and at worst causing harm. Those I have seen that are most effective is when the organization is truly community-based and is founded and run locally with a specific focus. Those founded by well-intentioned white people who “just couldn’t stand to see the suffering” are the worst.”
  • “When they originate from the West: hate them. I’m sorry, but we dont need another church group flying out to country X to build another goddamn orphanage. If it’s a local organization supporting their own community thsn I’m all for it.”
  • “MONGOs are wasteful because the majority of one’s I know are incapable of recognizing that they are reinventing the wheel. They don’t even know the next NGO down the road, and repeat efforts. Guatemala has tons of NGOs and many of them serve the same populations. There is a lot of serving the same populations over and over again with the same services. They often refuse to collaborate. The worse are international tiny NGOs that have no clue how things work in country. They execute things badly and are very often uninformed of government policies and interventions in the field they work in.”
  • “I would like to sponsor an anti-NGO proliferation treaty. There are too many NGOs, lacking coordination, going after less funding, and all claiming to have the best solution, so they’re less willing to learn.”
  • “Noise. Their mistakes are blown up into ‘sector problems.’ They ruin it for the larger entities. Charity is not humanitarian work.”
  • “Well, they are called MONGOs for a reason – b/c the focus is on “my own” and not the work they are doing. This is exactly the type of stuff aid organizations are training political parties about – to be about the stakholder articulated needs and not your cult of personality.”
  • “Can’t stop them as some people are impelled to do something when they see a disaster or crisis. However, they are sometimes symptomatic of the lack of trust people have in the larger humanitarian organisations. We need to be better at explaining and justifying our overheads, added value and the economy of scale we can provide particularly in the big disasters. We absolutely have to do this in conflict arenas to reduce the number of people risking their lives going off in a small van with bit of clothing and a few medicines.”mongo_1350076255_600x275
  • “In Nepal, there are more than 30,000 registered local NGOs. Many of these are MoNGOs set up by idealistic foreigners with little technical knowledge and who lack familiarity with the Nepal context. These agencies poorly coordinate with other actors and often work outside the government systems. They often provide donated goods which are of low quality (e.g. Expired meds) and are not purchased on the local markets, thereby undercutting local businesses.”
  • “Ugh. Don’t get me started. Unless they are LNGOs in which case, good on ya if you are making a small, clearly planned impact in your own community.”
  • “KILL THEM ALL. Seriously, can we start weeding out the stupid and ineffectual?”
  • “Generally, I am highly critical and skeptical of USA-based MONGOs (I like this term!) as they generally have little background, experience, or understanding of the communities they’re trying to assist. I also generally take issue with the “at least we’re doing something!” attitude that is rampant among smaller NGOs and their supporters. I have a more positive view of fledgling local NGOs, in general.”
  • “They are petty indulgences normally of middle class white people who want to help someone and feel better about there privilege.”
  • “They should be banned, typically unprofessional, often distort markets, mostly don’t know what they are doing, often doing harm.”


So, what is the take-home from all of the above?  One thing clear is that aid worker professionals have a generally negative view of MONGO’s, but I am assuming most of the people reading this post would say that’s not a new insight (though we do now have some data supporting this commonly held perspective).  That said, what does the general public know about these opinions? If they were more informed about much of the above listed downsides of MONGO’s would they be more cautious about their support and perhaps support the “big box” organizations more?

As for the two Italian young women who remain missing in Syria, and while I wish the best for them, I harbor the thought that in a more well informed world–where aid worker voices are made more public and prominent- this situation might never have happened.

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

Posted in Aid Industry Analysis, Tom | Tagged , , , , | Leave a comment

You are as you are seen: race/ethnicity/cultural identity

Written in response to Q7:  “Why does it have to be white as point of reference?”



You are as you are seen:  race/ethnicity/cultural identity

Branding is for all of us
Branding is important.  Indeed, organizations spend a great deal of time, effort and money to “get their name out there” and to have their logo be recognized as something desirable or positive.  The vast majority of all social entities -be they for-profits, political parties, social clubs or, indeed, non-for-profit humanitarian aid  organizations- worry about public relations and will make efforts to “spin” what is known about them using social media, press releases, advertising and a myriad of other techniques.

You and I do this as well constantly albeit not always consciously.  Sociologist Irving Goffman‘s work on impression management remains part of the canon, and IMHO his 1959 book The Presentation of Self in Everyday Life could be useful reading for aid workers at any stage of their career.

One of the key insights that I gained from reading Abu-Sada’s (ed.) In the Eyes of Others is that though an NGO -in this case MSF- may go to great lengths to brand themselves, people on the receiving end of aid tend to see the “crisis caravan” as a monolithic Western entity.  All of us, though we may try to “brand” ourselves as our own unique person (“I am truly wonderful! — in a complex and nuanced kind of way, of course”) find that sometimes we are not seen as who we think we are but more so a generic category like “female”, “white”, “young person”, “Western”.  And, yes, that does describe our modal survey recipient.

Indeed, in many situations despite our efforts to manage our identity, we find that we are as we are seen: “female”, “white”, “young person”, “Western”.

Screenshot 2014-07-29 11.08.34

The race question
When writing the “race” question for our survey  we wanted to get at the tremendous depth and complexity of this part of one’s self concept and in the end decided a more or less direct approach.  Q6 asked “Which below best describes you?” giving only “white” and “non-white” as the only possible choices.  That was the bait.  Respondents Q7 asked “Please use the space below to (1) react to the inappropriateness of the choices in the question above and (2) describe how you identify yourself based on common cultural-linguistic, ethnic, racial, tribal, national or other categories.”

To date there have been 837 people answer the “race” question (Q6) and 474 (57%) giving at least some narrative comment in Q7.  The bait worked, and in numerous instances the respondents were insightful, articulate, poignant and often hilariously funny.  As is the case when nuance is used, some did not appreciate our attempt.

Some thoughtful examples to start
These first two examples hit well on both parts of Q7, with the first one well worth a close read, methinks:

“(1) I think the choices in the question reflect the notion that aid workers can be classified in just two categories: white (either North American or European, expats with higher salaries and more leadership positions than locals) and non-white (the locals from whichever developing country the organization is established, working alongside the white leaders, doing most of the grunt work on a lower salary. Much like the Lone Ranger’s Tonto, if that’s not too rude of an analogy). Is this notion inappropriate/politically incorrect? Perhaps. Is it false? I don’t think rpiflierso. They’re simply caused by the resulting power dynamics in a context where whites are generally better prepared to handle the global networking required for the growth and expansion of an organization, and the non-whites/locals, who are better prepared to conduct all the field work without wreaking culture-shock havoc on the beneficiaries. (2) As for myself… I always say I have a nationality crisis. I was born to a Nicaraguan mother and an Iranian father. I have dual Nicaraguan/Canadian citizenship, and spent most of my childhood and adolescence between countries in a culture-neutral household (because of the cultural differences between my parents, my home life never mirrored the culture of the outside world, wherever we may have been living at the time), so I grew up as more of a cultural observer rather than replicating any of it. Physically, I’m ambiguous, people can never place where I’m from. I think and express myself more naturally in English, but I write all my “romantic, thought-out masterpieces” (I’m one of those frustrated writer people) in Spanish, I also speak French and I read and write Farsi (although the vocabulary has long been locked up in my brain, having fallen out of use when I was three years old). The only place where I don’t feel completely external to the culture around me is in an office full of converging personalities from all over the world where the dominating atmosphere is “tolerance”, not some unspoken attitude pattern that everyone seems to know except for me. And this is not because it sounds so “Oh, I’m a citizen of the world, y’know?”, but because everyone is just as awkward and culturally-misplaced as I am. But, for practical purposes, I am Nicaraguan in Nicaragua, and Canadian everywhere else (less visa issues).”

“1.a. i find interesting the number of choices (and the choices themselves) for Q#4 and Q#6 – i would be interested to hear why they were developed in this way. 1.b. I am not sure i find the relevance of the options under Q6, unless the goal is to determine a trend in the history of international development/humanitarian aid. if this is the case, it would be useful to see if the % of white humanitarian workers from traditional main donor countries has shifted in favor of non-traditional or non-donor countries. in addition, I think most people would not identify themselves as white or non-white (even if they were white) – not to mention that this implies that white would be the point of reference. 2. I am caucasian, but most beneficiaries I worked with were surprised/ disappointed I was not American, Candian or British. By name and accent I have been identified as: Italian, Indian, Pakistani, Mexican, Spanish, Russian, Arab, Turkish, Ukrainian, Polish. i find it less important to identify myself by standard ethnic categories when we live in such a mixed world, especially in a job where it’s more important how you adapt to the culture/ethnic group you work in, rather than the one you come from.”

To the point
And then we have the pithy:

“Outraged at above question, passed on outrage to the office, before seeing this question. Identify as White, British.”

Some appeared to dislike the question and judged:  “(1) This is racism and sexualism. (2) World inhabitant.” and others just the opposite: “I love this question but (predictably) fit into the categories above.”

These examples made me smile, though all for different reasons.  The last one hits what was a common point made by many, i.e., whether we like it or not, color matters.

  • 1. inappropriate response to inappropriate question. 2. I identify myself and others based on a complex correlation of the amount of stamps, number of passports held and whether or not a person uses a mac.
  • I had to check with my colleagues about what my answer should be. I have a white skin, but the definition of white in survey usually is caucasian white, which I am not. I am Lebanese first then an Arab.
  • 1) I get it, most expats are white, f*ck us for caring 2) Yooper
  • I’m not sure “white” appropriately captures the whiteness of a white Canadian woman working in development. You should have used “pasty”.
  • HA! I was wondering why that was so horribly stated. Points for humor. I am American, white, English-speaking, blue-collar-rust-belt SES, yet ultimately over-privileged in the grand scheme.
  • White but not Anglo-Saxon. No post-colonial guilt trip.images.1
  • 1) Sadly reflects the world view in many cases. 2) Why can’t we all just have two boxes: human and non-human?
  • I’m really white. White, middle class American. Blonde, even.
  • Not surprised — when we’re “in the field” we are often self-identified as being either white or non-white. It’s icky, it feels wrong, and yet, there it is. Skin color tells half your story for you before you’ve even opened your mouth.

Perhaps missed the point

  • 1) only albinos would consider themselves ‘white’ in my opinion. 2) I am me. I accept me. Just the same as I accept all those not me. Colour is irrelevant.
  • The world thank god is not so black and white.
  • Appropriate or not, skin color simply does not provide any meaningful data. Despite its limitations, a regional identity would be more significant here. In my case, my identification as a European suffices for this survey.
  • This description works for me as I am white bread, but if I had to identify as non-white as my only option I would not be very happy! It is like colonizer or colonized. Possibly we could look at a description of pigmentally challenged vs not pigmantly challenged? But seriously I have never understood the value in these types of questions…


Thought provoking
There were many responses that underlined the main point I am making in this post.  Here is one that hits that perfectly:  “Those choices were very inappropriate. Yet, I am still white. It is not so much that to me, this is my most distinguishable feature, but living in Africa, it somehow seems to be so to others.”  Where you are in the world -your social context- has a big influence on how you are seen.  The following examples restate that point in various ways and illustrate the sad fact, again, that color matters.

  • I’ve noticed that in the African country where I work, everyone who is not ethically African (black) is “white.” So I’m not sure how this question plays out with say ethnic Indian Africans?
  • I think that there’s absolutely a place for this question, provided that we’re given the opportunity to react. Perhaps the question is halfway there, and you should be asking how we identify versus how we’re perceived. This probably comes from my time prior to entering the aid sector, when I worked with Indigenous Australian communities, and was familiar with extensive debates regarding whether you were ‘black enough’- I worked with a number of Indigenous Australians who appeared outwardly ‘white’ but identified strongly with their Indigenous heritage. So while these people were absolutely Indigenous, they were often treated as ‘white outsiders’ who had no place making policy decisions or managing community programs. It’s a complicated issue, but it’s often perceived as (pardon the horrendous pun) black and white. So maybe the question comes from this perspective and is appropriate in that sense. I would be really interested in hearing the discussion that took place around this question some day! As for me, I’m a white Australian of German and Namibian heritage. I was raised speaking English and some German. Aside from the cultural-linguistic/ethnic/etc business, I also identify as a queer woman.
  • It sets up a dichotomy and forces one to choose between two categories that don’t best describe an individual. There are many more adjectives that I would use to describe me. It sets up a world view which I have to deal with on a daily basis but would like to see us move beyond.
  • It would be best if it didn’t matter, but it usually does, and it’s most often the distinction above that does matter. you can’t list every race, every selection will be inappropriate to someone… I’m European.
  • It’s pretty blunt. It’s certainly imbalanced and biased to see a global minority written down as a majority, and other majority generalised as a “other” group. Many expat aid workers are white, and are defined as such by each other and local populations (whether ethnically white or not), so the options reflect conversations you hear but it’s stark to see written down.
  • In terms of how whiteness tends to inform differential treatment of and reactions to aid workers by both their organisations and the populations they serve, this split may be depressingly appropriate.

“White” and “non-white” differences
There was a slightly higher percentage (66%) of “non-white” respondents that chose to respond to Q7 than “white” (53%), indicating that this was a slightly more important question for those that self-identified as “non-white.”  What I have found in these “non-white” responses are the same patterns as in the “white” responses, mostly that identity is both incredibly nuanced and at the same time quite binary.  This one sums it up well:

“I am Filipino-American. Colleagues in the Philippines treat me as a local/national with a foreign passport. I have similar experience in other countries within South East Asia. In West and East Africa, I am often perceived as Chinese. In the Middle East, my ethnicity is often associated with hired domestic help. I am extremely proud of my ethnic background and cultural heritage but there have been times in the field when I wanted to look like the typical expat aid worker – 6 feet tall, blond and very white. The color of one’s skin shouldn’t matter especially in this line of work, but who are we kidding?”

Here are the “word clouds” from both. Quite obvious which is which.

Screenshot 2014-07-31 07.28.20


Screenshot 2014-07-31 07.28.50




















Aid worker voices regarding identity
Many respondents used this open-ended question to riff and reflect on their identity, and I was a bit surprised at the range of identifiers that were used beyond the obvious country/region of birth, etc..  “Atheist” was not uncommon as was “queer“.  Many used the opportunity to express a sense of global citizenship  (“Global citizen of Georgian origin.”) and/or anti-or a-nationalism.  One respondent simply wrote “nomad.”  Those who were comfortable as seeing themselves as fitting neatly into a category (e.g., German or ‘Murican) were one large group, but a roughly equal number went into some detail about how what they saw themselves as was quite complicated (as seen in many examples above).

What, if anything, can be concluded from the responses to Q6 and Q7?  Aid workers in general have a sense of humor but more importantly most have an in depth and critical sense of identity -both who they are and who they are seen as.  Most recognize the reality of white bias both within and outside of the aid industry and many struggle with the “race” question on many levels.  Those with more stamps in their passport will recognize the fact that “white” or “non-white” matters a great deal in some parts of the world (much of Africa) and less so in others. I will hazard that seasoned aid workers manage their identity as much as they are able in order to maximize their effectiveness (and/or personal safety) in various situations and locations, accenting or downplaying gender, race, SES, or other status markers so as to get by successfully in various contexts. But despite our very best efforts and intentions we are as we are seen by others much of the time.

As always, contact me with questions or comments.



A question:  What does it matter how you see yourself or even how others see you -that is, what is happening in the minds of people- as long as the job gets done?  Perhaps the more important question is to what extent does your sense of self and how others see you in the field impact what you do, what gets done?

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Female aid and development workers: how is gender a factor in their work?

Female aid and development workers:  how is gender a factor in their work?

I have previously written two posts having to do with the male-female differences in our survey responses.  Check here and here for these posts.  I turn now to the results from on specific question about the impact of gender.

A question
Which of these four factors is the most important in influencing how we see ourselves and how others perceive and react to us:  race/ethnicity/cultural status, social class/relative wealth and power, gender or age?

Certainly every one of these factors is critically important for all of us no matter where we are in the world or what our occupation might be.  Indeed, that is a basic truism in the social sciences. Though Max Weber was referring more narrowly to wealth and power when he first used the term, his concept of “life chances” can be usefully applied more generally to all four of these factors. Each can and frequently does play into how we go through our lives and our work days, that is, what “life chances” we enjoy -or don’t enjoy- depending upon where we are vis-a-vis these four major social variables.  Which factor is the most important for an individual can change quickly, even moment by moment as we transition from one social setting to the next, for example getting off a plane to a deployment faced with immediate and dramatic cultural shifts.  In short, all four factors are critical, and various combinations can lead alternately to open or closed doors.

This comment from a young, white, male expat aid worker sums this point up nicely:

“In Muslim countries, being a male makes a lot of things easier, even though in West Africa you are generally perceived as white before being perceived as a man or a woman. The only disadvantages in being a Male in some unstable countries are that it makes you more of a target for ‘extremist/hostile’ groups in some contexts.”

That one’s perceived gender can influence how a person is responded to is the focus below, and by presenting a good number of representative narrative responses from our survey I hope to shed light on the deeper contextual nuances of perceived gender identity.

As a related note, how you feel about yourself is influenced by how you believe others are seeing you and how they are evaluating -judging-what they see.  Perhaps that is part of the allure of being an aid worker: “How wonderful you are to help other people!”  Though the “looking-glass self” can have that positive side, when the way you perceived by others is negative (“When two thousand years old you are, see how many times a week you are accused of being ‘too male, too pale, stale.'” stated one male respondent to our survey).  

To go one step further, looking through the lens of sociologist Irving Goffman’s concept of “impression management it seems true that when we are at home and/or in our cubicle environment we are able to use myriad props, cues and affectations to enhance -or mute- any or all of our gender, race, age or class statuses.  We are in control somewhat of how we are seen by others and can manipulate -albeit most times unconsciously- the looking-glass effect somewhat.  By stark contrast while in the field there are times when we have very little control over how are are perceived.  One important interpersonal skill any aid worker must have is the ability to imagine what people in an array of contexts see when they look at them and then act in accordance with that knowledge.

Some results
Below are our results to the question related to gender being a factor for aid or development workers.  I am a bit surprised that nearly a third -30%- Screenshot 2014-07-22 18.00.29of the respondents indicated their gender was not a factor at all in their work.  When broken down by male compared to female the percentages differ in what I would consider a predictable manner with females lower at 28% compared to 35% for males. I can understand that a male might not be habituated to thinking in terms of gender, but for well of a fourth of the females to report gender not a factor sounds, well, a bit odd, especially as I look more closely at the other numbers and read through some of the comments that were offered in the open-ended followup question (Q41).

What we do see very clearly in the data below is that that by a very wide margin gender is a more negative factor for females than for males, with 40% of the females indicating that their gender was a negative factor compared to only 8% of the males indicating the same.

Q 40:  To what extent has your gender been a factor in your humanitarian aid work experience?

Screenshot 2014-07-22 09.29.57


Combined responses:Screenshot 2014-07-22 09.49.20


Qualitative data
Among the 284 (thank you all!) women that provided a response in the followup open ended question (Q41) several themes and patterns emerge.

Gender impacts both relationships with colleagues in the aid worker industry and those with the non-aid workers (both aid/support beneficiaries and non-beneficiary community members) in both negative and positive ways. Below are examples.

  • “It’s been creeping up on me … I never thought it is an issue but over the years I did notice that it is. Either with project clients and sometimes with colleagues.” (30+yo female expat aid worker)
  • “I would say the positive aspects outweigh the negative. As a woman, I have been able to work with women and children in communities more closely than if I was a man. I also feel blessed to have close female friends in this field and we try to support and nurture each other as much as possible. I have not witnessed men bonding in this way. However, I have experienced sexism and harassment quite a bit in the course of my work. In some countries the harassment was significant and carried with it the threat of violence. On a couple of occasions I have not received jobs due to my gender. I have also experienced female bullying.” (41+y0 female expat aid worker)

This next one gets pretty specific and expresses anger that I suspect may generate some head nods among the women reading this post.

“Because white women like me can still be viewed negatively, dismissed, ignored, by other white men – yes, really. So, a white woman in a senior position in Africa? Tough. African men ignore me routinely, especially if I am in the company of a male colleague, I may as well not be there sometimes. Only when they realise they need me to get to the money, do they talk to me. By then it is too late. Enough assholes in aid work, I am not supporting those who do not acknowledge a white woman.”  (31+yo female expat air worker)

The next two examples highlight the nuance of gender impact.

  • “My answer will change based on the day. It is definitely a large factor but in some instances it is positive and in others it is negative. I deal regularly with sexist rules and comments made by other expat staff members who I am sure do not even realize what they are saying or doing (e.g. no you cannot ride a bike, no you cannot drive a car. you are too emotional you must not be able to cope with stress. no you cannot attend this meeting with us, etc. etc.) When dealing with locals I have found that being a woman is often a positive as people seemScreenshot 2014-07-22 18.02.25 to open up and trust women more than men and are more likely to feel they must take care of a woman, therefore offering me more access to people’s homes to be able to talk to them.” (41+y0 female expat aid worker)
  • Being a woman can be exceedingly difficult, especially in conflict zones where I’m working with mostly men. All of the decisions are based on a 2-dimensional perspective. It takes a lot of explaining to bring about a holistic approach and/or incorporate the lives of women in planning. Sometimes, as an expat woman, I’m considered androgynous and given the same access as a male. But that can also be isolating, depending on the context since I end up in the male category and have to fight to speak to a woman or plan things that factor in women’s lives. Sometimes, I’m a critical bridge between the women/vulnerable and decision makers, a “voice” for women when they’re kept out of the process. That can also be a burden if decision makers are expecting you to be the voice for millions of women.  (40+yo female expat aid worker)


Addition thoughts
Here are some additional responses:

  • This was a challenging question. While I don’t feel I have ever been discriminated against for being female in my job, there are certain implications. In my organization, the majority of staff at HQ are actually female – so I am at a slight disadvantage were I to try and work at HQ. In the field it is different – there are some perceptions by male coworkers that some deployment areas are ‘too dangerous’ for women so this can limit your movement.
  • I have experienced sexual harassment from “locals” and staff alike too many times to count. I have at times felt like a liability to male staff when confronted with armed groups who use the threat of rape and kidnap of females as pressure to get what they want. I also believe my gender has enabled me to connect with children despite language barriers and open conversations that may not have happened otherwise.
  • Sometimes positive (interviewing female participants) and other times more dangerous.
  • In my organization, “rank and file” staff at HQ level are dominated by young women, whereas senior managers and leadership continue to be dominated by men. This is changing, but still observable. In the HQ setting, being a driven female was positive because my motivation was rewarded with opportunities. In the field, the overwhelming majority of “rank and file” staff (local nationals) are men, as well as heads of local organizations and government, and often fairly traditional. This made being a senior leader challenging at times, as I had to work harder to earn respect from my male counterparts.
  • The only issue that my gender has caused is that it was a factor in deciding whether or not to go to work in Afghanistan. That’s the only time it has influenced any decision I’ve made.
  • Being a woman can sometimes help in communication and negotiation
  • I think as a woman, there are still issues in respecting me in some cases, likely. I think my age (I’m still young compared to most local colleagues) has probably been a bigger factor than my gender though.
  • In a lot of countries being a woman means working ten times harder than men just to be taken seriously (even by your own colleagues). And I have been in situations when me being a woman put me in more physical danger.
  • More risk associated with being alone/out Sometimes I get the sense that people don’t take what I’m saying as seriously, and I noticed they’ll look to or defer to the man in the group, even if I’m the one in the position to answer/position of authority.
  • When I am able to work directly with poor or marginalized women in visual storytelling processes, my gender creates a more open and safe environment for them. As such, I always ask for a female translator, if needed, when working with women.
  • It’s been difficult in two ways: 1. There is certainly an “old boys network” in my work context. My bosses are more likely to listen to other male workers’ opinions, especially on academic or theoretical topics. 2. Being a woman in a Central American context is frustrating on a daily level (catcalls, threats to security) which I think decreases my productivity.

A take-home thought
Being a female aid worker is, in sum, not the same as being a male aid worker in many, many ways.  The quantitative results from our main question highlighted the fact that one’s gender is more of a negative factor for women. The qualitative data produced the insight that though there are negatives and positives of being a female when working with colleagues as well as with clients and locals, the negatives working with colleagues were much more commonly cited than the negatives when working with clients or locals.  Indeed, what I am reading is that in terms of doing her job, being a female was not infrequently a distinct advantage.

What is the take-home point from all of the above?  Aid and development organizations recruiting and hoping to retain qualified females need to be constantly aware of the impact of gender and ceaselessly work to minimize the negatives in whatever ways they can. They should begin by hearing the voices of the women already in their ranks and using their insights and growth to support those who come behind them, both males and females.

In my next post I’ll drill deeper into the impact of all of the social variables on the lives of aid workers.  We are as others see us, like it or not.

Thoughts, questions or comments?  Reach me via email.


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So, about last week…

So, last week The Guardian online ran an article in the Global Development Professionals Network section, in which the authors sort of rambled on about the importance of discussing the sex lives of humanitarians. Yes, you read that right. A research fellow and an adviser at the Institute of Development Studies (IDS) want to have a little chat about aid worker sex lives–that is, our sex lives.

On the outside chance that you missed their arousing discussion, check it out.

Yeah, yeah. Aid worker notoriety vis-a-vis all things sexual is legendary. I don’t think there’s any other aspect of the aid worker experience that is more commonly or gleefully portrayed in pop culture remakes of our allegedly exciting lives than our sexuality. From the apocryphal Emergency Sex, to the far-fetched tale of a UK housewive-turned-UNICEF warrior for the poor, to any one of several flaccid attempts to capture the aid worker experience as prime-time television drama, we see very quickly that the common denominator ain’t the Sphere standards for emergency WASH or an obsession with humanitarian accountability. My own first (and by far most commercially successful) furtive fumble down the path of humanitarian fiction shamelessly capitalized on the mythical hyper-sexualization of expat aid workers. Heck,even The Guardian’s own blush-worthy moment on the subject of aid worker sex life indiscretion seems to confirm exactly what everyone already thinks, and so we’ll forgive @IDS_UK for prematurely… er… raising the flag just a little too high on this one. Because, see, if you look at what actual aid workers are saying in the Aid Worker Survey, it would seem that we’re not really as busy getting busy as everyone seems to want to believe.

Let’s look at the results so far from Question 26: Which response below best describes your coping mechanisms (coping with stress, coping with burnout, coping with loss of idealism)? 

Q26 responses (combined female & male)

Q26 responses (combined female & male)

[The response choices (paraphrased) are: I don’t experience burnout; Physical release (yoga, running…); Self medication (alcohol…); Finding strength in one’s faith; “Emergency Sex”; and Reading & writing about the humanitarian experience.]

I’ll skip straight to the spoiler: “Emergency Sex” scored dead last at 3.4% and 4.4% of female and male respondents, respectively.

The majority of all respondents (41% of females, and 40% of males) chose “Physical release“–yoga, running, or some kind of physical exercise as their primary stress release or coping mechanism. The remaining categories ranked as “Self Medication” (23% Female, 21% male), “Minimal Stress” (13% female, 18% male), “Reading/writing about the humanitarian experience” (12.8% female, 7.8 male), and “Strength from faith” (5.5% female, 8.5% male).

You can look at this breakdown in many ways. But for now, from a staff care perspective (and writing as a manager and frequent leader in field operations), I find the prevalence of “self medication” the most troubling in this lineup. In response to The Guardian’s hand-wringing, I’ll simply point out that according to our data thus far, it seems that more aid workers pray as a coping mechanism than engage in sexual activity.

Q26 responses in table form (combined female & male)

Q26 responses in table form (combined female & male)

This is the only question in the Aid Worker Survey which addresses or gives the option of sex, specifically, and so for sure we’re assuming a potential link between work or context-related stress and aid worker libido. Although the writers from IDS cover a wide range of aid worker sex related worries in their article (not just sex as stress release), on the basis of only the response data from Q26, it is reasonable to ask whether this really ought to be the first thing HR (or security, apparently) worries about.

It’s also worth taking another look at some of the other data, too, though, with a view to the IDS’s angst about our sex lives. Q12 “Which best describes your relationship status?”, for example. The choices under Q26 are: Single and dating; Single and not dating; In a relationship. Here’s how it shakes out.

Response to Q12 (disaggregated by sex)

Response to Q12 (disaggregated by sex)

For the moment let’s assume that “single and dating” and “in a relationship” sort of hang together. In this context something like 68% of females and 83% of males are in some kind of relationship. No, I’m not naively assuming that dating or being in a relationship rules one out from participation in the alleged sexual misbehavior. Anyone can have a bad deployment, or just an evening of drunken (likely, according to Q26…) indiscretion, and of course there are those who are serially unfaithful. But based purely on personal observation as a long-term aid worker, it is my opinion that relationship status does make a difference. For all of their sometimes rough edges, aid workers are usually people of some kind of principle. Moreover, in my real job as a supervisor and frequent mentor to young newbs, I can tell you that there is no issue which comes up as frequently as relationships, specifically the desire for a relationship. When aid workers are in relationships–even relationships with challenges–the gravitational pull is toward doing everything possible to make those relationships work.

The ins and outs of aid worker sex lives will surely make interesting reading (to some). But that it’s something we must absolutely worry about now… well that’s a bit of a claim.

By hardly the second sentence into The Guardian’s article (written by those two researchers from IDS):

“…your day-to-day management challenges also included arguments over what time your colleagues could watch porn in the common room, and negotiating how staff could get to and from a brothel. Yet it is often a reality of the job and it is time we talked about it.”

Where to start? How about here: In a prior post, my research partner on this project described the “typical” aid worker, based on the results of this survey to-date. Once more with the spoiler: it’s a single, 30-something female. You can read the numbers in different ways (and we’ll eventually make raw data available in full), but basically the proportion of the single, 30-something women is above two-thirds of the total.

Based on the simple proportion of women to men in the industry overall, along with what we know from other sources about the propensity of men versus women when it comes to behaviors like paying for sex or consuming pornography, the statement above feels like a bit of overblown hand-wringing.

Also, I just have to say: in 23 years of continuous aid work, including quality time in some of the more notorious team houses in some of the more notorious responses, I have never (not once to-date) heard of aid workers watching porn in the common room. Nor have I ever heard of anyone ever needing the permission of the security manager before sleeping with someone from another other organization (see the caption under the photograph in the original article). And these days I usually supervise the security manager.

* * * * *

Surely some of the issues raised by The Guardian matter. The power dynamics involved and the potential for exploitation when aid workers become involved with local people while deployed (especially if they become involved with beneficiaries or disaster survivors) is terribly serious and worth larger, honest discussion. But a call for more discussion of aid workers’ sex lives (scintillating as that all might seem) needs to be grounded in some actual data, and framed in ways which correspond to real issues, rather than over-the-top, made-for-TV stereotypes.

* * * * *

Think I’m wrong? Sound off on in the comments thread below this post, or on my Facebook page, here.

Want to take the Aid Worker Survey yourself? (of course you do) Do it!

Take the Aid Worker Survey in Arabic.

Take the Aid Worker Survey in Spanish.


J. is a full-time professional humanitarian worker with more than twenty years of experience in the aid industry. He currently holds a real aid world day job at a real humanitarian organization as a senior disaster response manager. In a previous blogosphere life J. wrote a blog about aid work called Tales From the Hood, and was half owner/curator of the uber-awesome Stuff Expat Aid Workers Like.These days he occasionally blogs about serious topics at AidSpeak ( J. has written several books, including the world's first humanitarian romance novel, Disastrous Passion, and a non-fiction book entitled Letters Left Unsent. Follow J. on Twitter @evilgeniuspubs

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Skimming off the top (part 3)

Skimming off the top (part 3)

In Part 1 and Part 2 of this current series of posts I presented some data and insights on the first two-thirds of the survey questions.  This final part brings the ‘skimming’ to a close and my next posts will drill deeper into the factors of gender and race/ethnicity and also into the changes in levels of idealism reported by aid and development workers.


fieldQ51 and Q52 asked about the relationship between the “field” and “home office” with Q53 allowing for narrative responses to the questions.  Q51 asked in general about the degree to which the field and home office are in sync regarding important matters like priorities and processes, and Q52 made it more specific asking about this relationship in the organization with with they were working.

The numbers were striking similar in both with the mode (by far, about 62%) being the response “The field and home office are sometimes in sync regarding important matters like priorities and processes.”

Below are some illustrative comments, some of which providing good indication as to why 38% said that they were “rarely in sync”.  I find it interesting that the word count on this open ended question was one of the highest in the entire survey; many people had lots to say about this topic.

  •  “F@$&@ng HQ” we have all heard that in the field. I think a big problem is depersonalization. HQ becomes a machine not a person and vice versa. People would be a lot nicer if they there was a clear face behind the email. Technology had helped communication move forward in incredible ways but it has also created a perverse form of bullying and consequence-less communication. (I might have invented that word sorry). As a whole it isn’t as bad as it is made out to be. They are running multi million dollar organizations after all. But as a field worker I wish the media and events team came and experienced the field before they started b&@&hing :)”  (26+yo male expat aid worker)
  • “In a dream world the home office would have a clue what is happening in the field and the field team would manage expectations successfully. However, good orgs would trust that their field staff is working and they would also send their home office staff to collaborate and get a clue about life and expectations outside the western world/the cushy home base in a major African city. People who are not in the field (or who haven’t been in the field for more than 2+ years) should not dictate processes to people doing the work day in and day out in the field.” (31+yo female expat aid worker)
  • “There is often a large disconnect between the two and while field offices are more intent on doing, HQ’s can often be more intent on process – usually implementing systems which are time heavy and not that useful for the field. Field offices can see HQ management/advisors as pestering, and HQ’s can see field staff as renegades. However, having one good liaison officer between the two can make all the difference, ensuring better relationships and better outcomes for both.” (35+yo female working in HQ)


Corruption.  Big topic there, and also one where respondents had much to say.  Q53 asked  “To what degree do you have to deal with corruption within the organization with which you are affiliated?” and Q54 “To what degree do you have to deal with corruption within the region you work?” and the modal response to both was “I have to deal with corruption within my [organization/region] occasionally.”  Yes, that is vague, but in a previous post I drilled into the data and presented some narrative responses.


Q55 asked  “How would you characterize the overall inter-agency coordination and cooperation among the humanitarian aid agencies with which you are familiar?” and though the most common answer was “Inter-agency coordination and cooperation are moderately high; occasion problems.” (44%) the next highest (at 42%) was “Inter-agency coordination and cooperation are low; frequent problems.”  In retrospect this is clearly one of the questions that should have allowed for a narrative response. The stress caused by low inter-agency coordination and cooperation is likely at the root of both loss of idealism and general levels of burn out among aid and development workers.  This question merits additional research to be sure.


Although most  (39%) respondents answered “Increasing levels of corporate influence are having negligible impact on the effectiveness of humanitarian aid efforts” for Q56 the remaining 61% was nearly evenly divided among those who selected “overall positive impact”  (29%) and those that chose “overall negative impact” (32%). No matter the perception is on this particular question I think that the trend is clear and irreversible:  there will be increasing levels of corporate influence in the aid and development industry into the future.


I will be making an entire post on the reaction to Q56 related to MONGO’s (“What is your general view of so-called MONGOs (My Own NGO) or other smaller humanitarian aid work entities?”), but just to give you a preview here are a couple comments, the first two of which are very, ah, critical and the third maybe a bit more representative.

  • “I think that if every overly bright, well-dressed 20something would just get together and co-run the skinny jeans appreciation society in their respective countries, the rest of us could put all that money and press to actual use.” (26+yo female working in HQ)
  • “Mongos are started by young, green, idealistic expats. Often funded by daddy and his friends, MONGOs are a faster, easier way to humanitarian glory than throwing yourself into the large and comptetitive sea of humanitarian mongorecruitment.” (35yo+ female expat aid worker)
  • “I think MONGOs like small businesses begin when the larger NGOs or companies don’t listen to a good idea. Of course there is that bit of hubris in being able to say back home I have my own NGO. I think a more realistic term would be “my own short term project” like most start ups unless they are bought out (or funded) by a larger organization they won’t last long. I think any large INGO would be wise to create a space for ideas and innovation in programming to be heard from all members of staff not only the grants and program development people. This would help the INGO to grow and develop better programs while keeping their staff from quitting to start their MONGOs.” (26+yo male expat aid worker)



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 66% was “Humanitarian aid work is having and will continue to have a moderate positive impact on the lives of more and more people.”  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, methinks.

  • “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.” (36+yo male HQ worker)
  • “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!” (31+yo female expat aid worker)


So, that’s a bit of skimming done.  On to deeper drilling.  Email me if you have questions or comments.

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Skimming off the top (part 2)

Skimming off the top (part 2)

In my last post I began ‘skimming off the top’ of the data, highlighting what are the common/modal responses to most questions.  As promised here’s part 2 covering more of the questions.


Questions 33-38 all focused on a what I believe is a constant -though evolving- issue for most aid workers, namely how to communicate what they do to those most important to them:  their significant others, children, family and friends. We all have a basic need to be understood by those around us, and the closer that person is to us, the more important that need.  All aid and development workers tend to compartmentalize to a greater or lesser extent just to get by, but the coping mechanism of separating the ‘job me’ and the ‘relationship me’ is inherently disingenuous and potentially a red flag in any relationship.  Being in a primary group with someone means that by definition you share your emotional lives, and that clearly would include what happens to you at work.

Q33 asked about the difficulty in explaining to non-aid worker non-significant other adult family members the nature of the work being done in aid and development.  By a small margin, the modal response was “I have some difficulty explaining my job, but it can be done” (38%) with a close second  (37%) saying “I have some difficulty explaining my job, and can only articulate a general sense of what I do.”

These responses illustrate some complexities and differing perspectives:

  • “Family at home don’t have a reference frame for what it means to live in the places I do. They lose interest very quickly when I try to discuss my job, so I keep it general and very light.” (31+yo male expat aid worker)
  • “Tried and failed to come up with the elevator pitch, failed to come up with the 5 minute pitch even. Have boiled it down to just “economics” [which] means very little and no one asks follow up questions.”  (30yo female expat aid worker)
  • 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.” (31+yo male HQ worker)

This last response raises a host of issues related to the complexities of not just explaining one’s job but also the risk of having to communicatingdefend it as well.  This is an issue well worth further examination and explication.

Q35 asked, “Which statement below best describes your ability to explain to your significant other the nature of your job?” and by far the most common response was “I have some difficulty explaining my job, but it can be done.”  The results of this question were confounded by the fact that many aid workers reported not having a significant other and/or their significant other also works in the same or very similar field.

Here are a couple illustrative narrative responses, the second one containing a gem of insight about aid workers in general:

  • “The significant other also has a high-stress job and is quite smart – so I make comparisons. Plus, he’s actually interested so it helps.” (31+yo female HQ worker)
  • “My husband is not an aid worker but is a human rights advocate and has worked in the sector for some years before he became an academic. He still doesn’t understand nuts-and-bolts things about my job but he understands the big moving pieces and it helps tremendously to talk with him at a more philosophical level; in some ways easier than talking with other aid workers – we are an idiosynchratic bunch with lots of competing motivations.” (35+ yo female expat aid worker)

Q’s 37 & 38 focused on explaining the work the respondent dies to children in their lives (“non-adult family members) with a somewhat predictable -but none the less distressing- majority indicating that “I don’t even try to explain my job.”

This 35+ yo female expat aid worker, though certainly not representative of many in her same situation makes a wonderful point.

“My children (5 and 7) think my job is to work on a computer. During my last field posting, I took them to project sites from time to time which helped them connect the dots. But interestingly, through their eyes they did not see the poverty or the “despair” that NGOs like to market to their constituents – they played with other children, ran around together, they connected in a human way that we “aid workers” often fail to do.”

Though the work carries with it some liabilities, the overwhelming majority (80%!) respondents to Q39 said that if someone close to them (a child or mentee) wanted to become a humanitarian aid worker they would you encourage him/her to do so with some qualifications.  So, what I take from that is although it is tough work -emotionally, intellectually and physically- most aid and development workers would recommend this ‘line of work.”  Indeed.

For more information on the questions above (and others) I present some quantitative data and offer comment relevant to male-female differences in a previous post.


The next four questions, Q40-43, each merit a detailed examination.  The two key  questions were “To what extent has your gender been a factor in your humanitarian aid work experience?” and “To what extent has your race/ethnicity/cultural identify been a factor in your humanitarian aid work experience?”  Please look for future posts on these in the near future. In a reversal to the sprint of “skimming off the top” here are all responses:

“To what extent has your gender been a factor in your humanitarian aid work experience?”

Screen Shot 2014-06-16 at 3.22.19 PM


“To what extent has your race/ethnicity/cultural identify been a factor in your humanitarian aid work experience?”

Screen Shot 2014-06-16 at 3.24.37 PMYou’ll have to return to the blog later for some of the narrative responses.  They are full of insight and contain good doses of humor.


Why do aid workers become ex-aid workers (Q44)?  By a small margin, the modal answer was “Burn out: cumulative stress of the job, personal crisis related to on-the-job experiences, etc. become too much to continue.”

Here’s one of many articulate responses:

I don’t think that burn out is the right term but it is hard to both stay authentic to the mission /stay proximal to the problem and also have influence on the big picture (which happens often away from the problem) and also have a safe environment to create and maintain some kind of stable family/community be that a spouse/children or some other kind of modern family. (36+yo female  HQ worker)

pros consWhen asked what they thought their reason would be for leaving this kind of work  (Q46), the modal response was “Leave the aid sector entirely to pursue a career in another field.” Again, here is just one of many, many thoughtful and articulate responses, this one from a 30+yo female expat aid worker:

“Probably a combination of factors – disillusionment, search for something more stable where I could have a network of friends/family/community, tiredness of endless new beginnings, all of which will probably require pursuing career in another field.”

Questions 47-49 continue the line of questioning about aid workers leaving the industry and will be treated in depth in a later post.


So, lots to consider above.  In the next post I’ll complete the “skimming” with Part 3.  In the meantime, let me know if you have questions or comments.  I can be reached here.


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