What I learned from putting together Aid Worker Voices

Posted on: October 13, 2016 | By: Tom Arcaro | Filed under: Aid Worker Voices book

What I learned from putting together Aid Worker Voices

Aid Worker Voices was published back in September, 2016 and since then I have been busy extending the research with more in-depth interviews with local aid workers and other posts based on more thought and research about a wide variety of topics. Look soon for update posts about local aid workers here in North Carolina, what is it like to be a LGBQI+ aid worker, and some thoughts about the sector overall.

On the margins
I am an academic that studies and teaches about aid and development and founded a program with a global development focus,awv-ecover and this puts me decidedly only on the fringes of “the humanitarian aid and development industry.”  What I have learned from working with J (aka Evil Genius) on our survey, writing dozens of posts about the data and, finally, putting together Aid Worker Voices is that though I have a lot to learn, my overall experience and my sociology background have provided tools for meaningful comment.

Among others, Thomas Kuhn argues that sometimes the most insightful observations about any field are made by outsiders. Though I am sober enough to know I have not arrived at any profound conclusions about the sector, I do hope that my book adds some useful insights.

The conscience of our global community
I wrote in the preface that collectively workers in the aid and development sector are the conscience of our global community and as such deserve our support and as such merit a deeper and more intense study by both insiders and outsiders.  Insofar as there is a ‘global community’, aid workers are its most empathetic and informed representation.

In scouring the academic literature about this topic I found some good resources, for example Silke Roth’s The Paradoxes of Aid Work, the Fecher and Hindman edited book The Anthropology of Professionals in International Development, and Adventures in Aidland: Inside the Everyday Lives of Development Workers edited by David Mosse. Though these books are very solid and there is growing academic interest in this filed, I did not find large scale, coordinated and focused emphasis that I think this topic demands.  My hope is that Aid Worker Voices makes a useful contribution to this growing body of literature, bit more so that the sector continues to do more navel gazing, lint and all.

Take aways from the survey?
I was very surprised and pleased at the amount of time, thought, and passion many respondents put into completing the survey.  This shows me at least two things.  First, aid workers cared enough to take the time to share their thoughts and emotions and, secondly the survey provided a cathartic moment for many, an opportunity to step outside of their normal routine and be elevated to 35,000 feet for a moment and reflect on the big picture of their life in the sector and broad, related issues.

Many views on the future of aid and development were thoughtful -and critical- especially regarding the overall global structure of aid.  Selective perception it may be, but I found very good support for a sober and decidedly anti-neoliberal stance regarding how complicit we (“Westerners”) are in terms of supporting the conditions that make aid and development work necessary.  Climate change related disasters will increase, all caused by an blind and consumeristic “developed” world, wars continue in large part in reaction to Western imperialism both past and present, and global poverty is due in no small measure to rampant neoliberalism. This respondent represents many:

“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.”

Many aid workers though very critical of smaller ’boutique’ NGO’s, saw the need for more flexible response allowed for by smaller aid and development entities. Their comments on this topic and several others -corruption, getting fired in the sector, the future of aid and development- presented ample evidence that this industry, like all others, suffers from the inherent and inexorable impact of bureaucratization.  Though efforts like those yielding the Core Humanitarian Standards indicate that there can be productive sector-wide coordination, cooperation, and communication responses to several survey questions underlined a high level of frustration among aid workers.

My main take away from the results is that the voices of aid workers are passionate, funny, snarky, and for most part on point.  Many of them have useful thoughts about the way forward for the sector and need to be listened to be those in positions to impact policy.

I will continue exploring and reporting on the inhabitants of “Aidland” in hope that my contributions will add to the growing body of knowledge about -and by- this “conscience of our global community.”

Comments or thoughts?  Contact me.


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 edition of 'Confronting Toxic Othering' will be out later in 2023.

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