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 newbie.
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.
* * *
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, essentially they fervently want to 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 alone counts for very little. Those who want to play professional basketball, for example, learn very soon that while desire and relentless pursuit are 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. You may not care for Simon Cowell’s pointedly cantankerous, raw style of critique, but the man very clearly knows what makes a good singer a good singer. And if you don’t want to take it from him, go ahead – spend the money to release your own CD, and see what happens. 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 recordings by artists 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 and indignant and self-righteous and self-victimizing people get 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 (one example). 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 third-world community 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. And further, in my experience, the very best case scenario is that after a few years they might eventually come around to learning exactly the same lessons that “the 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 who to call “chi” as opposed to “ba” is not at all the same thing as being able to work effectively in the local context.
I dunno. Maybe aid is harder than it looks? Maybe aid needs to be done by professionals?
* * *
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.
Good for that country. I know for a fact they’ve got at least one good program officer.