Perceptions, Realities?

Posted on: March 2, 2014 | By: J. | Filed under: Aid Worker Voices book

Perceptions, Realities?

Our survey of aid workers (read:  anyone who’s ever somehow been part of the aid industry, ever) has been live for about one week, now. We’re seeing some interesting patterns begin to emerge out of the quantitative portions, and we’re getting some really interesting responses from you in the open-ended boxes. Thank you, and please keep those responses coming!

One piece of the picture of who you are (and me, too. I’m an aid worker), which I find particularly interesting, is what’s starting to emerge from multiple-choice questions #44 and #46, and “elaborate your thoughts” open-ended answer boxes which accompany them both. In their entirety, these two questions read:

Question 44: Many (most?) humanitarian aid workers will ultimately become ex-humanitarian aid workers. Excluding those few -but tragic- that will die in service, which below do you think is the *most* common reason why humanitarian aid workers choose to leave this line of work?

Question 46: 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?

So, basically, why do you think most people leave the aid industry? And then why do you think you will eventually leave?

Bear in mind that we’re not anywhere near closing the survey, so this obviously preliminary analysis could (and very possibly will) change before we’re all done. But one week in, here’s how you answered (screenshots directly from Survey Monkey):

Responses to why *others* leave the aid sector
Responses to why *others* are likely to leave the aid sector


responses to why *you* are likely to leave the aid sector.

responses to why *you* are likely to leave the aid sector.


My quick read-outs:

Retirement & Leave the Sector: It looks as if it’s fairly common to assume is that you will all eventually retire. There appear to be similarly strong assumptions around simply leaving the sector, say, for work in another industry. My (again, very initial) takeaway here is that this probably points to the reality that we increasingly see work in the aid sector as exactly that: work.

Maybe we work somewhere in the aid industry until we retire. This assumes that we will retire, which assumes some sort of retirement planning, which in turn assumes we’re somehow compensated enough to enable an actual retirement. There will come a time when we say, “okay, I’m done. I going to stop making the world better, and just play golf…”

Leaving the sector, while pretty broad and encompassing, also suggests that many of us see this all as “just another job.” Other studies have shown that it is common for people to shift industries several times over the course of an adult working lifetime. The aid industry is one of those industries, like many others, that people increasingly cycle through, as one option among many.

Termination: It was very interesting to see that almost none of you view termination (being fired) as much of a possibility, either for others (0.34%), or for yourselves (o.69%). Many elaborated this in the open-ended box following question #48 (“what do you think is the most common reason humanitarian workers are fired?”). In the words of one respondent, simply:

“Overall, I think you have to try pretty hard to get fired.”

Yep. This rings true, based on my experience. Outright termination is fairly rare.

Burnout & Disillusionment: The most interesting for me, personally, were the results that came out of Burnout and Disillusionment. Look at the tables above. Almost as many of you see disillusionment as almost as common a reason as retirement for others to leave the aid industry.

Tabulating views on “others” versus “you” were interesting as well. Based on results so far, many of you see others as more likely to leave because of disillusionment than you, yourself (others, 19.32%; self, 16.96%). This contrast is even more marked if we look at “burnout.” More of you chose burnout as the reason for others leaving the sector than any other option (27.8%), but “termination” was the only option with fewer choices than burnout as the reason why you would likely leave (9.69%).

My read: Basically we see others as burnt-out and disillusioned, or at least highly at-risk, while we still see ourselves as less so, or perhaps somehow immune. What does it mean? I’m not sure—still pondering. There’s a level at which it feels as if many of us have a generally negative view of our sector, yet remain basically optimistic (or maybe wishful) ourselves.


What do you think? We’d love to hear your thoughts in the comments thread below this post. You can also tweet to @tarcaro and @talesfromthhood with the hashtag #humsurvey. Be sure to follow my own snapshots of the #humsurvey results and discuss me and other respondents in more or less real time over on my Facebook page.

And of course, be sure to get as many as possible of your aid industry friends to take the survey.


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

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