I know you’re reading. I know that some of you have instructors who make you comment on aid blogs as part of your class work. And so I’m going do a short series of posts just for you. I’m going to take this opportunity to share with you some of the things that no one ever told me in grad school.
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I love seeing you guys in my comment thread. But I’m getting the vibe that no one has had a straight conversation with you yet about motivations.
Someday soon, you’ll want to ask yourself why it is that you want to go into humanitarian work (and I mean “humanitarian work” generally, to include disaster response, community development, international development… everything from internships with small start-up “local NGOs”, to full-time consulting, to working for USAID or JICA or DFID, to wearing a UN name-badge in Geneva or Rome.).
You’ll want to ask yourself why, and you’ll want to be as incisively honest in your response to yourself as possible. Why is this so important? Because right now most of you are not being totally honest about the “why.” If I’m not mistaken, most of you right now are thinking, “(well duh) I make the world a better place.” You want to “help people”, you want to “address issues of poverty”, you want to “bring dramatic change to a broken aid system”… Not that these are bad things to want, and maybe you even believe yourself. But let’s be very clear: these are not the only reasons you’re interested in humanitarian work.
“What else could there possibly be?”, I can hear you all ask.
Well, for starters, let’s assume you (also) want the life that you perceive the aid work life to be. You want to travel, maybe to a particular country or region (you’ve always felt drawn to, say, Lesotho), maybe anywhere, or maybe everywhere. You want to see places in the news, like Darfur or Kabul. Maybe you want to be on the news yourself. You want to experience the genteel poverty of NGO expatriate life in places like Harare or Amman or Phnom Penh. You want to get to the place where you can complain about hating airports and airplanes and having so many frequent flyer miles that you’ll never be able to spend them all before they expire. You want to be a scruffy jet-setter. You want adventure. I sure as heck did.
In addition, you don’t just want to help the poor, you want to meet them (and not as a tourist). You want to be the only foreigner in the room, or maybe you want to be the one who goes back and makes your community a better place than it currently is. You want to have emotionally draining conversations with child soldiers, earthquake survivors, or victims of torture. You want to ride the local busses with the farmers and their chickens. You want to sit with the elders and drink down three cups of tea while talking about “civil society” or why they should value education for girls. You want your Facebook friends and skype contacts and twitter followers to be people from all around the world. You want the warm fuzzy feeling of being “accepted” by a host culture. You want the almost mystical experience of those a-ha moments out in the field when something clicks and you suddenly “get it”, and you can see in the eyes of your local colleagues that they get that you get it, and at least for a few minutes you’re all one happy humankind family. I did.
Moving along – let me guess – you want to make a difference. Not only that, but you want to somehow be recognized for having made a difference. Maybe by your employer. Maybe by beneficiaries of the innovative and sustainable and paradigm-changing programs that you’ll plan and implement. Maybe by your local staff or local partners. Fair enough: so did I. Looking back on a career in humanitarian work thus far, my fondest memories are of times when things went well and that was recognized and appreciated by those the programs were meant to help. Maybe you daydream about coming back “home” after months or years abroad, trendily quirky/edgy after all that time immersed in another cultural context, disabusing your family and friends of their ethnocentric preconceptions about aid and what it takes to really “help the poor.” Maybe you’ll become a well-known author, thinker or speaker (or all three) on international humanitarian issues.
And let me be clear once again:
These also are not bad things to want. Many of them represent the bits of my job that I still enjoy the most. Some people want to work on Wall St. or start a restaurant or fix cars. You want the life of an aid worker as you perceive it. All good and well, but let’s be honest with ourselves: while those things are not bad, they are all more about you (or me) than they are about “empowering local women” or “making aid more equitable” or “addressing root causes of poverty.”
They are not bad things to want. But wanting them without acknowledging that you want them – or worse, trying to front like you’re nothing but pure and righteous altruism – first, leads to comments on my blog like this one (dear teacher – your student gets an ‘F’ from me this time). Second, and far more important, failing to acknowledge a full range of motivations sets one up for the deepest kind of disillusionment down the road. There’s always a discrepancy between what you think it’s going to be like, and what it turns out to actually be like. This is true of any endeavor. But I think that in the humanitarian sector there’s additional danger due to the fact that this is all supposed to ultimately be about accomplishing some good in the world, and the immense emotional pressure that this puts on humanitarian workers.
Someone very smart once said to me that “the reasons why you stay married are usually different from the reasons why you got married.” And very much like marriage, humanitarian work is one of those things that has good days and not so good days. Some days the cold, harsh realities of what it would take to affect meaningful change, whether towards one of the many problems we claim to want to fix or towards the supposed brokenness of the aid system loom very large and seem impossibly daunting. If you get to that point understanding this reality, still somehow believing that, really, the only reason you’re doing any of this humanitarian thing is to “empower the poor”, you will become cynical, disillusioned, depressed.
As with marriage, the things that motivate us to stick with humanitarian work are often not the same ones that motivated us to get into humanitarian work in the first place. And if when those dark days come – and they will – you cannot articulate for yourself reasons for sticking with it other than “all I’ve ever wanted was to help the poor”, you will find yourself contemplating divorce.