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 doing 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. This is Part 2.
* * *
I meet many people who think of humanitarian work as a “calling.” Maybe they’re called by God. Maybe they feel guilty for having been born into wealth. Maybe they want to “give something back.” Very often they see the life of a humanitarian as a series of sacrifices that they somehow feel compelled to make.
I’ll be very direct: I find this logic quite troubling. First, in my experience, these are the ones least likely to be honest about their other motivations (adventure, deep conversations with refugees, etc.). Second, they’re typically the least open to the conversation about what “good aid” is. Why? Because to them this is all (or at least primarily) about them and their sacrifices.
In its basic form, sacrifice is making a trade-off: You sacrifice this in order to get that. You love Big Macs, but don’t eat them – you sacrifice – in order to stay in shape.
But sacrifice is also much more than simple trade-off. The language of “sacrifice” or “calling” imply moral high ground. Ascetics are called live lives of chastity, poverty and obedience – they sacrifice – in order to secure a better afterlife. Parents remind their grown children of sacrifices made in years past in the attempt to avoid nursing homes. For all of its apparent virtue, in human relationships “sacrifice” very often boils down to attempts at control and manipulation. Making sacrifices is a way to accrue social capital. In the humanitarian world it often looks like this:
“I would have been totally justified in staying here in suburbia and living a comfortable life, but I’m making the sacrifice of moving to Costa Rica where things are tougher, just so that I can help the poor and make the world better.”
Making the humanitarian sacrifice makes you better than those who do not. They’re staying home and getting rich off of other people’s misery; You’re taking a low salary (or maybe no salary) and living a life of deprivation for the greater good. Using the language of sacrifice to describe aid work implies that you are somehow entitled to something from those who did not make similar sacrifices. Maybe respect. Maybe appreciation. Maybe a raise. Maybe a break on your check-in luggage fees.
And I can think of few things that are more detrimental than thinking of humanitarian aid work as a “sacrifice.” Few things set the tone for an imbalanced power dynamic between you and “the poor” you say you want to help; few things are more bald attempts at manipulation of your donors and constituents and even colleagues than thinking of your work as a sacrifice.
Further, few things will set you up for disillusionment and burn-out and bitterness in the future. If humanitarian work is choice you’re making out of a sense of “being called” to “sacrifice”, I can promise that one day you will regret that choice.
* * * * *
You can’t have everything. Making tough choices between two or more things that you really want is simply the reality of being an adult.
I like the way that Meg describes the thought processes around her choice to stay in Battambang.
“…but when I looked critically at how I was trying to make decisions, I didn’t like what I saw. When I moved to Battambang, it wasn’t as a career move, I came because I loved Battambang, I loved my friends here, and I saw an opportunity to join the community for some very cool projects.”
I may have made a different choice myself, but there’s an honesty in her description of thinking through exactly what she wants to spend her days doing (not “wearing heels”, apparently :) ). And if I were to give you all, dear students, advice on this point it would be to do as Meg has done (although I don’t mean move to Battambang, necessarily):
Make your decision to pursue humanitarian work based on what you actually want to do. As in, what kinds of activities do you actually want to spend your days doing?
Understand that you cannot have it all, and not because humanitarian work equals a life of deprivation, but because this is simply the way that life is. You most likely not be able to have a humanitarian career and also park a Ferrari in the garage of your summer home in the Hamptons. You have to choose one. Make the most informed choice you can. And understand that it is, in fact, a choice, not a sacrifice.
Let this be your response to the disdainful critics and the doe-eyed enthusiasts alike.