Aid worker voices in the classroom

Posted on: May 22, 2019 | By: Tom Arcaro | Filed under: General posts on the humanitarian aid industry

Aid worker voices in the classroom

Our semester ends
As a career academic it is my deep privilege to touch the lives of countless bright undergraduates. My goal in every class is to not just share knowledge but more so to pass on the flame of passion for knowing more about the world in which we live.  For many years I have taken inspiration from Mahmood Mamdani, author of Saviors and Survivors. In the beginning pages he says,

“In contrast to those who suggest that we act as soon as the whistle blows, I suggest that, even before the whistle blows, we ceaselessly try to know the world in which we live — and act. Even if we must act on imperfect knowledge, we must never act as if knowing is no longer relevant. ”

I put Mamdani’s words prominently at the beginning of all my course syllabi and, throughout each semester, I try my best to engage my students to live these words.

Again this spring I taught a course titled “Being and Becoming a Global Citizen” and, as aways, we began with a detailed critique of the ‘global citizen’ trope.  In our journey to better understand the humanitarian ecosystem, the central focus of the course, we also probed the idea of the ‘humanitarian imperative’, getting into much debate and discussion, very prominently including the storied Dunant versus Nightingale quandary.

My many years of research into the sector has brought me in contact with some amazing humanitarians, so in my effort to bring our course material to life I invited several as guests to class via Skype. Each speaker made time in their busy days -typically 30-45 minutes- to offer their insights and respond to questions from the class. To each speaker our class owes a deep debt of gratitude, and though all guests received ‘thank you’ emails from my class, there is no way to repay adequately what we received. Our commitment is to honor their gifts by holding close what was learned from each.  Several members of the class are considering careers in the humanitarian sector (one has an internship with the IRC this summer), and so hearing from ‘real’ humanitarians afforded deep, sobering insights.

We had five speakers this term and some of what each had to offer is described below.


Calling in from the UK: A militaristic, neo-liberal agenda
On a social media site I came across this comment by a young woman from Israel named Liat,

“And I am asking – should we continue as aid workers ignoring the war economy that our governments are part of? With all respect to “neutrality” (which relates to the countries we work in, and not our own countries, or correct me if you think I’m wrong), when will we start talking about war economies? How long will this militaristic, neo-liberal agenda keep controlling the field of humanitarianism?”

After reaching out to Liat I learned that she had worked as a humanitarian (‘in the field’) for a few years and now taking a break to further her education at the London School of Economics (LSE), staring down at the sector from 35,000 feet.

And thus her question in the comment above.

After contact and conversation, she accepted an invitation to speak to class, and we learned more about her comment, framing part of our talk using background lecture and reading material about global capitalism/neoliberalism as it relates to the humanitarian sector.  One student, in her ‘thank you’ note to our guest wrote,

“Thank you so much for taking time out of your day to talk with us about such a serious, important, and complex topic as humanitarian work and it’s connection to the global military and political economy. It particularly struck me when you mentioned that the countries that provide the most aid are also the ones that provide the most weapons. Put another way, the West funds, in one way or another, both bombs and band-aids, destruction and development, which is sobering to realize. However, like you said, it is important to understand this context to get a realistic perspective and not give into pessimism. Again, thank you for your time and I wish you well in your studies!”

Indeed, as we traveled through the course the sense of pessimism about global affairs in general and the state of the humanitarian response specifically was at times hard to avoid.  Liat was adamant, though, that my students not dwell on the negative and stay the course with their undergraduate enthusiasm and optimism.

But remaining optimistic is a challenge.  My students were struck when Liat passed on her observations that when she was in South Sudan it was sometimes “…cheaper to buy a weapon than food” and that all too frequently SGBV, including rape, is used as a purposeful act of war.


Calling in from Jordan: The iron cage of rationality
Our second guest was a repeat from a year ago when I last taught this course. Lillie, a self described “Jersey girl working in Jordan” captured beautifully in a poem a concept from sociologist Max Weber. Her visit to class allowed her to recall what led her to write the poem, and my students listened closely.

The iron cage of rationality, in short, observes that not being able to make that which is real measurable we tend to make that which is measurable real. Humanitarians everywhere experience the reality that the numbers on spreadsheets represent flesh and blood people whose pain is sometimes ‘brutalized with an algorithm.’

Elsewhere on this blog in a post titled “The tension between the humanitarian bureaucracy and the humanitarian mission” I parse out this idea in detail, including Lillie’s poem in full.

Throughout the remainder of the semester we constantly referred back to this chronic tension, and the students referenced Lillie’s visit to our class frequently.  For my part I attempted to leverage this learning moment to reinforce material related to understanding how bureaucracies work…and don’t.

Calling in from Afghanistan: Logistics coordinators save lives
Arranging these Skype visits involved much coordination, and all involved challenging time zone issues, none more so than when Tawhidul called in late at night (8.5 hour time difference) from Kabul.

I have known Tawhidul, a Bangladeshi national who works for MSF, for almost a year now and have had many conversations with him about his experiences as a humanitarian. I have written two posts about Tawhidul that you can find here and here.

As a logistics coordinator, Tawhidul had many stories to tell about challenges he has had getting supplies from source to target location. He charmed -and informed- the class by detailing a situation in South Sudan where his team had to use donkeys to transport some medical supplies. No worry that, but where in the budget do you put the food purchased for these beasts of burden? In the line item for ‘fuel’, of course. He also mentioned several other examples ranging from using camels to get supplies over a mountain pass in Yemen to securing space on commercial airliners getting supplies to Afghanistan.

From Tawhidul we learned how any INGO is a team of many parts, each mutually dependent upon the other. Also, and more importantly, we learned that lives depend upon how well the logistics coordinator does his/her job; each member of the team having a critical role.


Calling in from Mozambique: An author and humanitarian?  Yup.
The semester would not be complete without a visit from my long time collaborator and friend, the veteran humanitarian whose non be guerre is J, aka Evil Genius. Impressive to the class was that J Skyped in from Mozambique where he is currently part of his organization’s response to cyclones Idai and Kenneth.

In addition to all of the common readings for the class, each student was required to select a humanitarian sector related book from a long list that I have compiled. Four of the students chose books by J (Honor Among Thieves, HUMAN, Cross-Border, and Letters Left Unsent) and did mini-presentations, relating book content to course topics. As the author, J was able to answer their questions about the characters, story lines, and also about the process of writing itself which J described as one of the ways he processes his experiences as a career humanitarian. He explained that through fiction the reader is put in a position of having to interpret and, he hopes, this reading provokes thought and reflection that might not come from scouring only academic, non-fiction accounts.

One of J’s books that was read by all of my students was Missionary, Mercenary, Mystic, Misfit, and along with reading my post discussing this book, the students learned about what sociologist Erving Goffman calls the ‘moral career’.  Both with J and with several of our other guests we talked about stages of self identity each went through during their careers as humanitarians.

Our class had read and talked about the stages of response to natural disasters, and having a report from someone on site provided them with rich additional insight and detail. We learned that at one point there were as many as 600-700 INGOs from around the globe present in Mozambique, and we discussed the massive coordination challenges these numbers represent and how the cluster system is one response to this challenge.

Calling in from France: Ethical dilemmas, White Savior complex, and PTSD

I met ‘C’ after she emailed me having reading my book Aid Worker Voices and wanting to thank me for making her feel ‘normal’ (as in her experiences, emotions, and overall situation were somewhat typical of the humanitarians in my study). In a long conversation we talked about her deployments in the DRC, CAR, Afghanistan, and Myanmar.

What particularly struck me was how she described the ethnical dilemma she experienced while working with Rohingyan IDPs in Myanmar.  She used the very apt analogy that the aid sector was ‘playing checkers while the Myanmar government was playing three dimensional chess, using the sector for its own very long term goals. She noted that from her view she was helping to facilitate an apartheid situation, only doing long term harm to the Rohingya.  I felt the presence of Nightingale’s ghost as we spoke.

We stayed in contact after that first conversation, me telling her about my class and she talking about her life just now between deployments. When she asked if she could be a guest in my class I quickly said yes.  The last couple class meetings of the semester were devoted to James Dawes’ That the World May Know, and having her share her stories from the field, especially as they related to out class content, seemed timely.

In a future post I will write in more detail about her visit to class, but here are the questions she and I agreed we might want to touch upon:

  • What ethical dilemmas that you have faced?
  • How has your race, gender, or global North status impacted your life as a humanitarian?
  • Why did you become a humanitarian
  • Do you ‘enjoy’ what you do?
  • What is the psychological/emotional impact of your work?
  • Where do you see your career heading?

We talked for over 45 minutes, covering all of the questions above and more, the students asking a range of very incisive questions reflecting the learning they had accomplished over the semester.

Here is what one student wrote,

“Finally, one of the biggest takeaways from the course is the idea that both racism and sexism are ‘baked into’ our national and global social systems. Dr. Arcaro said this in the beginning of class and he has consistently reminded us of it throughout. One of the best examples of this is the GBV that is perpetrated by humanitarian aid workers themselves. When OXFAM had a huge scandal surrounding its workers sexually exploiting the affected community, their humanity and imperfection became abundantly clear: Aid workers are PEOPLE. People come with baggage, preconceived understandings, hangups, misogynistic leanings, and racist worldviews. The fact that the media portrays humanitarian aid workers as all angels does a disservice to the sector and its beneficiaries. C spoke briefly about this as well when addressing the White Savior Complex. When I asked her what she believed could be done to fix it or solve this issue, she gave one of the best responses I could think of. She basically said that since we are never going to get over the racist and sexist ideologies that have been socially constructed from neoliberal agendas for years, what we have to do is be overly thoughtful and aware of our privilege at all times. She described small, simple fixes such as actually listening to the affected community first before writing proposals to donors (which she conceded is not always possible). But also adjusting to the needs of the community and being flexible instead of forcing Western ideals of what is right and wrong on them, which aids in the disintegration of their culture.

When asked about being a female in this sector she noted both the positives and negatives, both examples coming from her time in Afghanistan. As a female she was culturally restricted from looking at men in the eye, learning to focus on their shoulder even while talking about very serious topics that, in her home culture of the US, would demand eye to eye contact.  As a positive, she noted that, unlike her male counterparts, she was invited to the homes of her national staff co-workers, able to share meals and meet their families on a very informal basis. I found her observation that she was functionally a ‘third gender’ while in Afghanistan to be particularly striking.

Near the end of our conversation one student asked about gender differences in how PTSD was dealt with in the sector. [As a point of context, earlier in our conversation one student disclosed her own journey dealing with mental health issues.]  C responded by disclosing that she had been diagnosed with PTSD and was currently in treatment. It is a gross understatement to say that this was a significant moment for both C and the class, and we were moved by how even more ‘real’ the conversation had become.  As I mentioned above, I’ll write more detail in a later post.

Five guests, five faces that I hope will stay with my students 
The semester has ended, but if their final exam essays are any indication my students gained enormously from our Skype sessions. Here are the words from one,

“I did not realize the impact that going into aid work can have no matter who you are. C talking to us rather candidly about that provided more insight than I could have ever hoped for. In January I imagined aid workers as either these super human beings that could do anything or

these stereotypical white people going into the field just for the pictures with the little black and brown people. But, talking to all these different aid workers (J, Tawhid, C) really put a little perspective on the field. For one, not everything is hands on work like in the case of Tawhid. People have to crunch numbers, order supplies, and be the driving forces from behind the scenes. And there are some people that have to see the atrocities that happen on the field like the three narrators of  Emergency Sex. People like C and Heidi are still dealing with the impact of their aid work in the forms of depression or PTSD. Aid work is not pretty. In all, the biggest change has been learning that humanitarian aid is not as cut and dry as I previously thought.”

Another student noted,

“Our in-class Skype guests were super important in the process of understanding the course curriculum. The sociological topics we study in this class are so uniquely “human” that it requires an injection of the human experience being told first hand in order to fully grasp the breadth of each key concept.  Skyping with humanitarian aid workers allowed for a more fluid, collaborative & interactive class setting and allowed us to ask questions to humanitarian aid workers who were currently in the field, one working in the supply chain facet of the aid sector, and one even taking time off the heal from the psychological effects of working in the aid sector. It was so importantly supplemental to understanding the key concepts of the course.” 

Thank you again to all five of our guests.  Each contribution was deeply appreciated and made an impact.

If you have any comments or questions, please reach out to me via email.

Post Script
Thanks to my students this semester for joining me in this journey of discovery and for asking great questions all semester.

Tom Arcaro

Tom Arcaro is a professor of sociology at Elon University. He has been researching and studying the humanitarian aid and development ecosystem for nearly two decades and in 2016 published 'Aid Worker Voices'. He recently published his second and third books related to the humanitarians sector with 'Confronting Toxic Othering' published in 2021 and 'Dispatches from the Margins of the Humanitarian Sector' in 2022. A revised second edition of 'Confronting Toxic Othering' is now available from Kendall Hunt Publishers

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