Are we going about things in the right way….? I think so, but read this…
I began collaborating with J about a year ago after we I read one of his books “(Missionary, Mercenary, Mystic, Misfit”) and posted a note about it on Facebook. Katie Swift (nee Strickland, Class of 2010) messaged me saying she might know the mysterious ‘J’ and, long story short, he and I are collaborating (along with Dr. Youssef Osman) on a screenplay about there lives of humanitarian aid workers and also on some research into aid and development workers around the world. I was a beta reader for J’s latest book “Letters I Have Written Never Meaning to Send” and poured through it always for an eyes toward assessing and making our Periclean Scholars program better. Although we do have the Periclean Pledge that I remain proud of, I am on a constant quest to always deepen and improve what we do. In that spirit, read the below and let me know what you think. Finally, I strongly recommend that all Pericleans (current and alumni) read J’s books linked above.
Some time ago, on the steps of a dusty teamhouse in a foreign country that had just been slammed by a huge disaster, I sat and listened to a young woman with tears in her voice wonder aloud whether it had been a mistake to come. She was educated, articulate, and obviously intelligent. She’d put in a few years at HQ, worked her way up through the programs department supporting a small portfolio of small-ish programs in the field. She’d been to a few places, and while she was not the kind of battle-scarred aid worker that you often meet in responses like that one, neither was she a totally inexperienced first-timer.
I remember very clearly what she said (of disaster response work): “I’ve wanted this for so long… and now I’m here… and it’s just so hard.”
She was right. Aid work is hard. Often in ways you don’t expect. And it’s not for everyone.
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I understand that many people have a very intense need to believe that they can, without special training or any specific knowledge, without guidance or experience of any kind, go and do aid, do disaster relief, do development. Although few express it in these terms, they basically believe that what qualifies them is simply their desire to “make the world a better place.”
It’s an illogical perspective when you think about it. I mean, there are plenty of analogous real-world examples of situations where desire—even desire coupled with intense passion—counts for very little. Those who want to play professional basketball, learn very soon that while desire and relentless pursuit are naturally part of it, their actual performance on the court is what matters to scouts and recruiters. The music industry is similarly brutally honest about who “has it” and who doesn’t. And the same applies to most any career or professional endeavor. Coffee shops are full of baristas who didn’t quite pass the bar exam, high schools across America are full of P.E. teachers who didn’t make the NFL draft, and the $1.99 bin at Walmart is full of CD by bands who thought they rocked, but as it turns out, didn’t. Any career or life path or vocation requires dedication at some level, requires the possession of specific knowledge, and requires the mastery of certain skills. In the United States, at least, if someone wants to be a junior accountant in an even marginally reputable company, he or she needs to have an accounting degree.
And yet, I am repeatedly amazed at how irate, indignant, self-righteous, and self-victimizing many people become at the suggestion that exactly the same should apply in the humanitarian aid world. Frankly, I am astounded at the amount of pushback on the suggestion that a Masters Degree should be a minimum for aid practitioners. Otherwise logical, intelligent people—people who would probably agree without hesitation that physicians need to have specific education and pass some kind of minimum-standards certification before they are allowed to diagnose and treat even one single patient—seem to think that it’s okay to blithely go off and start an NGO or project in some poor community in a developing country where they then spend the next months or years sort of trial-and-error-ing their way through people’s lives.
Such a perspective, in my view, can really only come from either stunning naïveté or bald arrogance.
Harsh? I don’t think so.
In my experience, the vast majority of the time these people simply do not want to hear that perhaps they should do/have done things differently, or that—very frankly—the world does not need yet another small start-up NGO. Most of the time, the very best case scenario is that after a few years they may eventually come around to learning exactly the same lessons that the so-called establishment has known for decades. Lessons like: you can’t exist without overhead (even if you don’t call it overhead); accountability costs money and requires organizational bandwidth; Or, knowing when to remove your shoes, which parts of your body to cover, or being able to stutter a few phrases in the local language are not at all the same thing as being able to work effectively in the local context.
Aid and development are harder than they look. They need to be done by professionals.
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I Skype-chatted with the young woman from the teamhouse just the other day. I know that that response was hard on her, but she did stick it out. She’s doing great now. From what I hear, she’s in another country with a high-profile disaster response going on, doing her job confidently and well. Her education and experience matter, and despite a few dark days, she has not lost her passion.
Good for that country. I know for a fact they’ve got at least one good program officer.