Aid Worker Voices

Aid workers as parents

“Ultimately it’s a culture change, not just a policy change.”

–Lucy, founder of


Aid workers as parents

How does that work?
A small but significant subset within our survey population -21%- were aid workers who have one or more children. Being an aid worker can be a complex, demanding and all-comsuming occupation.  The fact that many aid workers are also parents -a complex, demanding and all-comsuming job- brings up many questions.  Here are just a few.

  • In a sector characterized by international travel and frequent deployments how can an aid worker be
    a parent?
  • How does the parenting role differ between males and females, and what are the problems unique toScreenshot 2016-06-23 21.39.02 each and those that are common to both?
  • More generally, how do aid workers deal with their part in the family ecosystem of which they are enmeshed either by choice or necessity?
  • What are the leave policies of the big box aid organizations and smaller NGO’s and how can the maternity/paternity leave policies of these organizations become more progressive?

All big questions, these.

To get deeper insight into how to address these questions (and more) I was fortunate to talk with the founder of a new but rapidly growing group called “AidMamas.”  Some members meet in person, in Google hangouts, on Facebook and most recently members have begun blogging. Topics of conversation tend to focus on the struggles of juggling the role of parent with that of aid worker.  Though most members are women, men are welcomed to the group and help serve to expand the conversation to family life in general.

The founder, Lucy, is a young mother, now more on the edges development work. She has embraced the challenge of bringing together -at least virtually- other men and women like herself and facilitating ‘frank and full conversation about being a parent and working in the international aid and development sector.’

What follows are anecdotes and observations from our conversations.

Maternity/paternity leave policies
This is not the proper place to call out any specific ‘big box’ aid or development organization, but I think that a safe generalization to make is maternity and paternity leave policies are overall very weak throughout the sector.  One young female aid worker put a harsh point on the situation.

“You have a choice: come back to work after 3-6 weeks of unpaid leave practically still bleeding post childbirth, find someone to watch your poor infant who is still physically attached to you, or lose your job.”

The irony of this statement is even more rich when you know that this particular development worker is the primary bread winner in her family -in development terms a female headed household– going back in the field.

Lucy points out that, “If you examine the parental leave policies of many organisations, paternity leave (if it exists at all) still lags woefully far behind maternity leave (if it exists at all).  Maternity leave that is long enough to both enable women to maintain job security and adequately provide that early nutrition source that the sector so strongly supports for beneficiaries without demanding acrobatic feats of logistical planning and awkward office encounters, is rare. Support transitioning back to work is patchy at best across the sector.”

maternityIn a more perfect world where the best interests of both children and the family were made top priority, the option of both maternity and/or paternity leave would be standard and provisions for at least 6 months of breast feeding not only provided but aggressively encouraged. What is keeping the sector -and the West in general and the US more specifically- from this model is the steamroller which is capitalism.  The pervasive logic is ‘no work, no pay’, simple as that.

But perhaps this logic is flawed.

When women make the choice not to come back to work immediately -or in many cases not at all- because of childcare issues, their practical experience and institutional memory is lost; the human capital and expertise that is wasted by losing these women is considerable.  Think of it this way:  much like setting fire to a warehouse full of blankets or food losing these women is a waste of valuable human resources.  The questions about the overall values in the sector and who determines those values is in play here in a very important way.  The management of human resources within the sector is critical; this is not ‘just a women’s issue’ but rather impacts the efficacy of the entire sector.

Can you be a parent and an aid worker?  Yes, but this role juggling feat could be made whole lot easier with more progressive sector-wide policies.

Is cred gendered?
In terms of self concept, many aid workers endure what might be called the ” imposter syndrome.”  Are those who work in aid more ‘legit’ than those doing development work?  Does working in a conflict zone give you a more respected seat at the table?  To the point of this post, can an aid worker who is also an active parent -a breast feeding mom, for example- ever compare with a single male (or female) who can jump to the front of the line for any deployment?  Given that, yes, women bear children and in the best case scenario can have the support and freedom to choose to breast feed their children for an extended period the answer is yes, cred is gendered.

Yeah, so what?

Diminishing the contribution of the majority of aid workers who choose to be breeders and family members is not only counterproductive but also a textbook example of sexism. The question is how to address the situation.  In Lucy’s words, “Ultimately it’s a culture change, not just a policy change.”

This is not a woman’s issue but an issue of family relationships.  Most aid workers have mothers, fathers and siblings and all to a certain degree are part of a family ‘ecosystem’ that, when they are away, is compromised and must adapt. Yes, maternity leaves should be standard, but more broadly the fact that all aid workers have family lives must also be taken into account not just within HR policies but more broadly as a cultural issue.

A cultural universal
That this most basic form of role conflict has existed for parents for all of modern history all over the world is a basic anthropological fact.  Beyond parenting duties, women have always worked though frequently in a seamless fashion in and around the home, close to the children.  Fetching water and fire wood, tending gardens, running small entrepreneurial enterprises; these examples are played out everywhere in the world.  The iteration of role conflict that groups like AidMamas is addressing is where the mother works ‘outside the home’ in a formally paid position.


© 2016 AidMamas Lucy O’Donoghue, Photo Credit: Claire Whiting

Can the global culture change to being less paternalistic and more family-friendly?  Not in the short run, to be sure.  The efforts of the many internet-based groups bringing together like minded and situated individuals is a move in the right direction.  Not to put too fine a neo-Marxist point on it but the fostering a class consciousness must proceed revolutionary changes in culture, and so the efforts of groups like AidMamas is a small through critical step in the right direction.

One small warning for these groups is to avoid the creation of a self-serving echo chamber of ideas and dialogue.  Affirmation and sharing are good but is best tempered by sobriety that comes from always seeking to relate all micro-issues to the broader humanistic goal of maximizing all human potential.

Summing up the above Lucy puts it thusly:

“Take a closer look under the ‘hood’ of the sector and examine in your own organisation, how well do we support those female-headed households – both among those we’re working to assist, and among the staff? If we don’t know how to support the female-headed households among our staff, how well are we really supporting the female-headed households in local communities?  We need to get it right from the inside out.”

Many thanks again to Lucy of AidMamas for sharing her insights.

The fact that our survey was not completed by the many women and men who left the sector because of the issues discussed above  is ironic, and I wonder what those voices would have said.  If you are one of those folks, please contact me if you would be willing to share your comments or have anything you would like to add.





Tom Arcaro

Tom Arcaro

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

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Oh ye of little faith

“I swear, if I hear “pray for peace” once more, I may actually lose it.”

–male expat aid worker

Oh ye of little faith

Faith based NGO’s
Faith-based aid organizations are now and have always been a major factor in the sector. Collectively these organizations continue and refine a trend -most especially among the Christian religions- that has gone on for centuries and, historically, is indeed an integral dimension of colonization. These organizations range from the  ‘big box’ globally influential mega-NGOs to the classic ‘MONGO’ or My Own NGO based in a specific church.  The larger organizations tend to avoid overt proselytization while the smaller ones less so, some being almost aggressively pushing their faith messages.

Screenshot 2016-06-17 05.52.00

Q17 asked simply, “Which best describes the humanitarian aid work organization with which you are (or were) most recently affiliated?”  Of our respondents, 17% indicated they were affiliated with faith based organization.

Given the nature of what some aid workers experience in the field, especially in those locations that have undergone what an anthropologist might call ‘cultural disintegration’ i.e., conflict zones, what do aid workers have to say?  How do they address the sometimes massive gap between the lofty messages of religion and the realities they witness?



Venting from an aid worker
Here is what an aid worker deployed in a post-conflict environment ranted to me over Skype a few days ago:

So, there’s this place where my employer built houses, a mosque, latrines, etc. for a small community of IDPs. Classic relief infrastructure. Was a worthwhile project. At each corner, there is an elevated guard booth for UN soldiers to stand guard at night to protect them. It’s been great-ish for the past 9 months.

Last week, the UN peace-keeping mission in-country decided it was time to stop posting guards. So the booths have been empty at night.

The very next evening, the local community came and stole the metal doors off the latrines. So now no one can poop in privacy.

What kind of asshole steals the bathroom door from IDPs?

Anyway, we concluded the visit and walked out. 50 meters away sat the chief of the local police and the local religious leader. They were all anxious to pump my hand. “Thank you, [my employer]… let’s pray for peace.”

Or, you could just stop stealing from IDPs.

Taking time to share one more time this aid worker went on.

Sorry, but I gotta vent. Here’s another….

Apparently, taking a machete and murdering people against whom one had a grudge of some kind, or to whom one owed money, and then tossing the corpse down a well was so widespread (and continues, to some extent) that it has negatively moved the needle on clean water access nation-wide.

Call me ethnocentric. But this does not seem complicated.


But everyone’s all, “pray for peace.”

I swear, if I hear “pray for peace” once more, I may actually lose it.

Pray for peace?
Both of the anecdotes above illustrate the deep and perhaps pervasive hypocrisy that exists in much of the world
regarding faith and religion.  Go to church on Sunday, cut up or steal from people the rest of the week. Appearing religious for show only perhaps, or,cynically, to apply a smokescreen covering essentially immoral actions.

In my conversation with this aid worker I responded to his comment “Call me ethnocentric” by offering,  “NOT ethnocentric. Warped values are warped values universally.”

The view that says culture forms us completely, the Standard Social Science Model (SSSM) as described by Leda Cosmides & John Tooby in their essay Evolutionary Psychology: A Primer , is wrong. We are not born, as Steven Pinker points out in The Blank Slate with a formless blob of a brain but rather with myriad and complex modules that with timely stimulation comprise our “human nature”  individually and collectively.  We are a moral animal from the inside out; morals come from our primate and pre-primate past, enhanced by further evolution and our expanding frontal cortex.  There is right and wrong, at base.

That said, we are a species prone to contradictions because we have seemingly competing modules in our brains.  Anthropologist Miles Richardson poetically summarized it long ago.  Listen to his words:

“Blind, senseless, uncaring nature produced us. She cast us out of the primate troop, by cursing us with the ability to imagine God and thereby making us one of the most successful species, and certainly the most lonely. Being human is not to be a passive reader of blueprints, it is not to be a puppet on a string of norms, but it is to be man the hero, fighting to make sense of what nature has accomplished with us, the creation of a paradox: a species who can dream of eternal life but who must die, a species who preaches peace but who is more effective at waging war, a species who can imagine perfect beauty but whose shit stinks like all the rest.” (emphasis added)

The importance of this insight for aid workers is clear:  it is NOT ethnocentric to view machete killings and rape as a tool religionof war or dominance as cultural practices to be accepted. You do NOT have to adopt a convoluted ‘cultural relativity’ perspective I-must-see-things-from-their-perspective regarding all cultural practices you see.  The third position -the one between ethnocentrism and blind acceptance of the cultural relativity- is the one embraced by the Universal Declaration of Human Rights adopted in 1948.  This third position says there are exactly that, universal and transcendent human rights the violation of which is wrong.

As I have written elsewhere, I do believe that morality is woven into our being as humans and that we do know the difference between right and wrong.  The problem is that, as we have been told many times by anthropologists and writers, oftentimes ‘things fall apart’ and cultures can all too commonly foster dysfunctional and, yes, immoral behavior.

A central part of the cannon in the sociology of religion is Emile Durkheim’s The Elementary Forms of Religious Life in which he points out that religions evolved as a mechanism serving to externalize and to give voice to our moralities and in so doing function as a controlling and cohesive force in society.  That aid workers frequently hear the refrain “let’s pray for peace” among those with which they work in the field (and at home) is to be expected…as is the feeling that this refrain can be excruciatingly hollow and hypocritical.

From Kenneth Burke's "Dialectician's Prayer"

From Kenneth Burke’s “Dialectician’s Prayer”

Grappling with the frequently massive gaps between the ‘is’ and the ‘ought’ is an occupational hazard among aid workers.  The sector as a whole can be seen as our global community’s effort to bridge that gap and confront head on the contradictions inherent in our species.


I think it will be a long time until “how things are and how we say things are, are one.”  And so it goes.


As always let me know if you have feedback, comments or something to add.



Tom Arcaro

Tom Arcaro

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

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Using the Interwebs: networking and blogging sites hosted by or geared to aid and development workers

[Note:  an extended and edited version of this post will become part of the introductory chapter to Aid Worker Voices.]

Using the Interwebs:  networking and blogging sites hosted by or geared to aid and development workers

googleImpact of the Internet
Of the many functions of the Internet there is no doubt that it has made developing lines of communication between like-minded persons fairly routine.  Not long after the beginning of the Internet there were “bulletin boards” were people could post comments and have others respond, and this basic pattern has remained, becoming more sophisticated and far reaching over time.

With some searching you can find niche webs sites, blogs, Facebook pages for nearly any interest imaginable, many of them functioning as places for those who share the same views to meet, exchange information and generally connect on various levels.

Indeed, it has become routine for US Peace Corp volunteers to blog about their experiences, some of which showing depth and maturity, others perhaps being quite banal.

Aid and development workers were fairly early adopters of these vehicles of communication and there are hundreds (thousands?) of blogs, etc. written by and for aid and development workers.  The co-founder of this blog, AidWorkerVoices, the mysterious J, among the earliest and most active.

Examples include
Below is a sampling of web locations where you can find sites hosted by or geared to aid and development workers. Given the huge number of sites added every week a truly comprehensive and up to date list would be impossible.  We are indeed a species that thrives on communication.

Blogs and web sites:

The Tiny Spark podcast site

News sites:

Facebook pages

[Many of the sites mentioned above also haver Facebook pages associated with them, some open to everyone and others membership by request from page administrator.]

If you have a favorite site that I should add to the lists above, let me know.  Lucy from AidMamas (above) gave me a heads-up on “Development blogs you should read” that may be worth a look.

Positive use of the Internet
The examples above are just a tiny portion of sites out there.  All serve to affirm, inform, amuse and facilitate networking of all manner and, in some cases, to amplify snarkiness in an echo-chamber fashion. I believe that the sector is well served by these means of communication; the impact is a net positive. As humans we all have a strong need to feel that we are not alone in our experiences, emotions, perceptions and struggles, and on the whole these sites serve in affirming same.  A sector that knows itself better can function more efficiently, one might assert. That said, the various moments of ‘vetting’ can get quite snarky at times and can contribute to self defeating cynicism in some cases.

You will notice in the list above a very northern/Western/expat bias that represents the privileges held by aid and development workers from those parts of the world.  You’ll note that with only one exception all of the sites are in English, further indication of a skewed list. I am particularly interested in how local aid workers network and otherwise communicate and commiserate, though I am sure there is no ‘one size fits all’ answer. One question I pose is how can this technology be used to be more inclusive and hence useful for all.  Suggestions?

A note on technological determinism
What does the future hold for communication within the aid sector and for the men and women who toil every day in cubicles, the ‘field’ and across the globe who want to hear and be heard by their far-flung colleagues?

Time travel to 30 years ago and then imagine explaining Skype, FaceTime, Facebook and Google to the average person.  Hard or even impossible, right?  The rate of technological innovation is increasingly fast; the next thirty years will bring many more innovations and changes than the last thirty did.  You and I are literally unable to image what the future will bring in terms of various technological innovations.

determinismWhen he first imagined his networking tool Mark Zuckerberg had no idea as to the long term social and cultural impact that Facebook would have. History is full of examples of similar technologies the inventors of which also had no idea of the changes that would come from their ideas and actions. The social impacts of technological changes are staggeringly complex and impossible to accurately foresee. This is the idea of technological determinism.

We can only hope that the changes to come will have a net positive impact on the aid sector and the rest of humanity, hence the usage of the word ‘determinism.’  Let us enjoy the ever expanding blogosphere and Twitterverse and continue to offer insight, succor and support to each other.

Comic relief as a critical element
Just as my colleague and silver back sector veteran J has found an eager audience for his aid worker fiction lately (HUMAN, and the series of books starring Mary-Anne), anthropologists have done the same almostLaura-Bohannan-Return-to-Laughter from the very beginning.  I am reminded of the classic anthropological novel published under the name Eleanor Smith Bowen written by Laura Bohannan in the mid 1950’s.  Though this novel is mainly about the intersection of two cultures -something all aid workers know something about- in the last part of the book she illustrates beautifully words from Shakespeare’s King Lear, namely “The worst returns to laughter…” and from there she gets her title.  After a devastating epidemic comes through her fieldwork community (in Nigeria among the Tiv) she describes how they quickly return to being able to laugh at the situation, putting voice to the age-old truism that the difference between tragedy and comedy is the passage of time, and that healing from trauma is most quickly done by the social bonding (and re-bonding) that comes from laughing together.

And perhaps for some (most?) aid workers, social media and the Internet allow for just that, bonding with their peers through smirks, giggles and outrageous belly-laughs.  A very human need, that.

Finally, for those those U2/Bono fans out there you might take a look at this if you haven’t already.  Wait for it.

As always, please contact me with comment, question or snark.

Tom Arcaro

Tom Arcaro

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

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Smiles came across her face as she was reading

Note:  This is a beginning to the preface to Aid Worker Voices.

Smiles came across her face as she was reading

I have spent the last week or so traveling with a few students and colleagues from our university.  We are here doing our school’s version of ‘engaged learning’ which in our case ends up being a fairly thoughtful version of development-lite.  Having listened to the students and to my colleagues meeting and talking with community partners -in this case organized by Habitat for Humanity-International, Zambia- I can say with conviction that our whole party clearly understands that development work is infinitely messy, complicated on many political, cultural and interpersonal levels, almost necessarily moves at a glacial pace and, at the end of the day, you can never be certain that intended changes have ended up a net positive, all factors considered.

As a layover break between my work in Zambia and Namibia we are now in Livingstone.  On our secondIMG_9526 night here I met a young female aid worker on R&R and, soon, the ritual surface chatting melted into a deep conversation about aid and development work and the frustrations thereof.  Not long into that part of the conversation I invited her to look at what I was working on -this blog.  She spend a good deal of time reading through many of the posts, spending the most time on “How do you explain your job to non-sector people?”.

Smiles came across her face as she was reading.

For any writer, or at least for me, the most fulfilling moment possible is when you know someone has read your work and felt something.  In this case the ‘thing’ felt was a deep sensation of being connected to other aid workers expressing the same sentiments she had felt at various times.

This is why J and I did this research and why I have put together this blog:  to have aid worker voices heard, shared and, for context, analyzed and commented upon.

Research ethics?
Reflecting on the ‘why’ of this research I am reminded of a book I read as an anthropology grad student many years ago called Through Navaho Eyes by John Worth and Sol Adair.  Their research involved giving film equipment to various groups and asking them to ‘make a short movie’, their premise being that films have language and are a window into the filmmaker’s culture and weltanschauung.  

navaho eyesAlthough their research was prior to the days when IRB approval was sought, before beginning with any new group Worth and Adair routinely met with the community leaders to explain the research and to get permission to proceed.  When they went to a Navaho reservation, explained the process, and then asked the chief for permission he took a long moment to first ask, “Will it hurt the sheep?”

Worth and Adair, knowing the Navaho herded sheep, were only a bit surprised by the question and quickly answered in a respectful manner saying ‘no’, the filming process most certainly will not hurt the sheep.

The chief took their answer and bowed his head in thought, finally raising his head with a second question, “Will it help the sheep?”

Again, though a bit more surprised this time thinking they had already answered the sheep question, Worth and Adair assured the chief that the sheep would not be impacted at all by the filming; it would not ‘help the sheep.’

The chief took this answer, bowing his head again for what seemed to Worth and Adair a very long time, finally raising his head and asking, “Then why do it?”


And, not inconsequentially, the same can be asked of all development work.

I tell this sheep story to my sociology students before having them do research projects to introduce the topic of ethics.  I also remind myself of this story every time I feel the need to ‘generate some data’ about a topic.

So, why study aid and development workers?  One short answer is that smiles came across her face as she was reading this blog.  And those smiles were good.

As always, please contact me with comment, question or snark.


Tom Arcaro

Tom Arcaro

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

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A theory-wonkish excursus

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

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

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

A theory-wonkish excursus

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Said one aid worker,

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

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

Yes, more to come….

Please do contact me with your feedback or critique.

Tom Arcaro

Tom Arcaro

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

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

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

“I definitely understand why dating within the aid worker population is appealing. Conversations with laymen are hard. I think I only try once in a while, usually when I’m unusually overwhelmed or frustrated and it kind of comes pouring out. But it’s exhausting, because you realize how many words you need to use just to catch the person up on why something is as vexing as it is. It’s such an intricate environment.”

– female HQ worker

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

– female expat worker

“As long as I return alive, that’s all she cares about. Fine by me. It’s better she does not know.”

– male HQ worker

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

The topic of this post is, in the end perhaps, efforts at mental hygiene as aid workers grapple with living out complex professional roles while at the same time attempting to have ‘normal’ social and family lives.

Below I focus on the questions 33-38 on our survey which asked respondents about the challenge of explaining the nature of their job to those around them, namely friends, lovers, family and children in their lives.  The 1048 total narrative responses were fascinating to wade through.  While many were short and minimally responsive, there were countless comments that shed useful and nuanced light onto our research questions about how aid worker’s explain their jobs.

Explaining your job
Aid workers have a job frequently misunderstood by the general public; stereotypes abound, some positive, others not so much. How many times have you heard, “Thank you for all you do!” “Wow, you get to travel to exotic places!”  or “Oh, you are one of those arrogant bastards trying to export Western lifestyle in all parts of the globe.”?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“None of my family or friends back home have ever done aid work before and many rarely travel overseas. Thus most of them don’t seem to be able to understand why I work overseas in one of the most violent and stressful contexts. This lack of understanding often creates a gap which makes it hard for them to contextualize the work and lifestyle in country. Sometimes this means they avoid asking too many questions.”

Parents, siblings, in-laws
Q33 asked, “Which statement below best describes your ability to explain to non-aid worker non-significant other adult family members the nature of your job?”  Rising above the awkward wording in the question were 426 respondents offering some  comment regarding difficulty explaining their job to parents, siblings, in-laws and others close to them.  I’ll preface this section by pointing out that there was a subtle but, I feel, telling difference in how men and women responded.  The results below indicate that women tend to have a much more trouble than men explaining their job.  The differences highlighted in blue are statistically significant.

Screenshot 2016-04-27 13.46.35

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

Difficulty of explaining depends on the audience and on what job you have
In looking for themes in the narrative responses it was clear that the level of difficulty and frustration with communicating about the job was directly correlated with (1) the nature of the aid/development work being done and (2) the level of education and/or cross-cultural literacy of the people the aid worker was trying to communicate with.  These first two illustrate clearly that explaining the job is clearly not “one size fits all.”

  • “It’s too complicated to get through the layers of assumptions, stereotypes and cliches; most of my family seem to think i’m on a vastly extended gap year, in a comic relief sort of way. They don’t know the kind of money and resources i oversee or the complexities of the work. I think too if i described to them what i actually work with, they wouldn’t be able to hear it as it is hard to think about directly. For some of them, the response is ‘well, you chose it’ if i mention any difficulties. For others, there’s almost a resentment connected to ‘oh you’re so worthy’ which i don’t completely understand. A couple of my close family know what i actually do to a greater degree and are proud of me. Mostly i think people start with an assumption that they know what it is and it’s too hard and too boring to get into why it’s not that. In addition, my technical area of violence against women is not something people generally want to think about or talk about too much – and there are also a lot of assumptions about this too.”  -41-45 yo female HQ worker
  • “This depends on the person. In general, I try to gloss over the bad stuff and just focus on the good stuff. Or if I talk about the bad stuff I complain about the food or not having any personal space and I leave out the dead babies unless someone asks a direct question.”  -31-35 yo female HQ worker

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“My father created the heavens and the earth. Not a sparrow falls that he does not see. He gifted all mankind with the gift of free will. Nonetheless it is still impossible to explain participatory appraisal methods without devolving into debates about PFIM and the like in the time between now and judgement day.”

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

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

Significant others
Q35 looked at sharing with life partners and lovers asking, “Which statement below best describes your ability to explain to non-aid worker significant other the nature of your job?”  Though many reported having the luxury of their partner also being an aid worker or in a similar job, many offered comments illustrating a range of understanding and acceptance.  Of note is the fact that many used this comment space to point out that they were without a significant other.  This respondent, methinks, speaks for many:

“Um, what if I don’t have a “significant other.” You bastards. Didn’t think of that did you? When I was dating aid workers (which happens) I didn’t have any trouble explaining ‘what I did’ but the relationships were so dysfunctional that explaining our jobs in tidy sentences was the least of our problems. I dream of dating somebody who knows nothing about what I do…” – male HQ worker

On the dating front, I saw this comment frequently in various wordings, “Since becoming an aid worker I have only dated aid workers, diplomats, military, or related. They all get it. I can’t really imagine having a significant other who has not been in such a sector.”  – female expat aid worker

Screenshot 2015-10-05 12.23.33

This respondent represents the views of many aid workers:  

“Part of being an aid worker is not really understanding what ‘significant other’ means – or only dating in the sector – both of which being equally confusing. in the sector, it’s hard to detach from work – and it’s a relationship (vacationship or locationship) built around coordinating R&Rs and understanding each other’s acronyms. outside the sector it depends on how much of an interest he takes in my work – hopefully a good amount, but not always the case. more often than not it remains a mystery.”  – female expat aid worker

These next posts illustrate a common “holding back” theme.

“My on again off again boyfriend thinks I do this job for the ego boost (I try to explain that I spend a fair amount of time hating myself and trying to un-see what I’ve seen). He wants me to quit…”  –

“My partner worries about my exposure to danger, so I censor most of what I do.” — 31-35 yo male expat aid worker

And finally for comic (?) relief, here is the response given by AidWorkerJesus, “I’m not allowed to comment about my significant other, despite the allegations in certain racier pages of the non-canonical gospels.”

Q37  drilled into the task of explaining the job to children asking, “Which statement below best describes your ability to explain to non-adult family members the nature of your job?”  There were many who felt that it was impossible and/or inappropriate but also many who felt that children could sometimes understand more easily than adults in part because they were free of preconceptions.

Screenshot 2015-10-05 12.23.49

The five posts below illustrate a common thread I have noticed throughout the narrative data.  Aid workers are very sensitive to the fact that what they do is frequently misunderstood and reframed improperly in ethnocentric/Westerncentric terms.

  • “Nieces/Nephews understand that I travel a lot to help people. I focus more on natural disasters (earthquakes, cyclones etc) to avoid explaining complex conflict (i.e. CAR) and to discourage sub-Saharan African bias.” – female HQ worker
  • “Out of fear of instilling a “help the people with charity” mentality in my younger relatives, I just try to emphasize that people help themselves more than I help anyone.”  -female HQ worker
  • “Way too complicated. “Helping poor people in Africa” is about all my teenage nephews could compute, and I refuse to talk about my job in that way.” – female expat aid worker
  • “Not sure they’re interested. I also don’t care to glamourise this work in case they feel it’s something that can get into through voluntourism.”  – female expat aid worker
  • “It’s easiest when I describe to people that we help governments in developing countries to support their Ministries in e.g. Health and Education perform better, collect data, deliver services, etc. Family can relate to Government Ministires doing real and important and complicated work. That way, it’s not about pencils and goats and they can undertand this isn’t little charity projects – it’s professional work and yes third world countries have functioning States like you do.” – female HQ worker

This next statement captures the same sentiment and expands on the ongoing challenge of aid workers to frame the social reality of their world in the most accurate and unbiased manner possible.  Part of the task involves understanding and then working to change the ‘mental models’ of others.

“There are different mental models that we all have regarding interpretations of aid work and I find it difficult to relate to others’ mental models or bring people into my mental models. This prevents meaningful discussions or prevents moving past surface level conversations. This is exasperated by increased levels of idealism amongst youth that I find difficult to relate to.”  – female expat aid worker

Other comments illustrate that some kids can understand more than some might think though some may not be ready for deeper appreciation.

taking to child“It’s easier to explain to kids that things are complicate because they haven’t yet formed opinions. They can manage complexity better than many adults.”  – female expat aid worker

“I think that when my niece, and inshallah my own kids, are older (10?12?) I will start to have some of those conversations. For the moment, at age 5, it’s all about Disney princesses. Maybe we should write to Disney and get them to make a film about aid work!”  – female expat aid worker

“The easiest is to whip out my phone and say, ‘yeah look at the photo of that elephant, I took that. Now check this photo of a starving kid, I took that too, now eat your veggies.'”  – male expat aid worker

The last respondent I’ll highlight raises a very critical question about who can handle the full truth.  Most parents struggle with the issue of how long to preserve the age of innocence, and no parents are in a tougher situation than those like the woman below.

“I work a lot on gender violence issues and have a real difficulty addressing this with my children, especially with my daughter. I don’t want her to be aware of how dire the discrimination of women can be. I don’t want it to affect her identity.” – female expat aid worker

Concluding thoughts
One takeaway from this section of the survey is that being an aid worker is complicated, both the actual job be perhaps even morecompartmentalize so sharing of the details of the job.  Sharing the life and death intensity, the stark, raw reality of some of what is experienced can feel wrong at times, putting some memories into words can seem incomplete.  No description regardless of the verbal skills of the aid worker can do full justice to the complex nuances of sights, sounds, smells, and emotional highs and lows.  In the words of one respondent,  “You would have to experience the fear and hopelessness first hand to get the whole picture.”

Another respondent noted, “That is one of the main problems we have. After being away for years your mentality, values and personality changes. You disconnect from your old habitual community and then it is difficult to communicate as we ended up on two different planets: usually I am not interested what they tell me because the topics they touch are not interesting to me and other way round.”  -36-40 yo male expat aid worker

Transforming an experience with innumerable dimensions into words -necessarily a linear description- means destroying -and hence disrespecting- some of the content.  There are some details which cannot and perhaps should not be shared with outsiders.  You had to be there or, at least, have been somewhere similar, and that means with those who you’ve lived with in the team house or other aid workers, in the same ‘compartment.’

As a final though,  I was struck, yet again, by the thought and care put into many responses. If you are one of those 1010 who responded to our survey, thanks again.  You continue to  help us shed light on your world.

As always, contact me with feedback on this or any post.



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

  • When the situation calls for it, how do aid workers explain their job to friends, lovers, family and children in their lives?
  • Is the need to explain based mainly on affective/emotional needs or are there purely instrumental reasons for disclosing?red
  • To what degree do the preconceptions people have about the aid work sector impact the ability to explain their job?
  • To what degree is the aid work job too complicated to explain effectively?
  • To what degree does the nature of aid work impact the tendency for aid workers to compartmentalize their lives?
Tom Arcaro

Tom Arcaro

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

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Why do aid workers leave this line of work?

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

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

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

Why do aid workers leave this line of work?

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

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

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

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

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

Screenshot 2016-04-18 08.35.24

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

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

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

Screenshot 2016-04-20 13.45.26


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

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

Listen to these voices.

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

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

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

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

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

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

And now this one, even more personal.

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Now for some other themes from the data.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

As always, please contact me with questions or comments.

Tom Arcaro

Tom Arcaro

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Screenshot 2016-04-18 08.35.24


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Screenshot 2016-04-15 10.30.43


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Mostly underqualified people given too much responsibility.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

As always, please contact me with questions or comments.

Tom Arcaro

Tom Arcaro

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

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More than blog posts

Cover design coming soon.  Beta version of Aid Worker Voices out by 15 July.

More than blog posts

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

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

Screenshot 2016-05-14 18.16.22

Please contact me if you have any feedback or suggestions.

Tom Arcaro

Tom Arcaro

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

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

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

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

-female expat aid worker

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

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

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

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

One female aid worker summed up her feelings this way.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Screenshot 2016-04-11 09.42.04


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And final words from the dark side?

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tom Arcaro

Tom Arcaro

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

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