The world of humanitarian aid will eat your soul if you let it.
Stick with this job, in this industry long enough, and you will see not just the good, the bad, and the ugly, but also the very bad, the really awful, and the grotesque. It is possible to spend your days consumed by the abundant and very real wrong here. It is possible to become deeply cynical about the realities of what could be done but isn’t; by the realities of what actually happens in the field versus what is said in fundraising and PR materials; by the discrepancies between what pictures seem to portray and what you see and hear as you walk through the refugee camp. Not to mention that fact that it is difficult, largely thankless, and very often dangerous work.
I’ve written about all of these repeatedly on this blog:
These are all present realities in the aid world. And for me, the essence of staying sane in the aid world comes down to how successfully one maintains the balance of perspective between what is and what is possible.
If we fail to gain or allow ourselves to lose our grip on the reality of what is – the incredibly, depressingly ugly brokenness, messed-up UN and INGO idiocy of the aid system – we will become complacent and ultimately ineffective as change agents inside a system that very clearly has to change. We’ll be in a space of heady naïveté where it’s all good because we all mean well and just that alone makes all the little brown babies gain weight and the villagers all smile and say ‘thank you’ and they don’t seem to mind that our overhead calculation is wack. Unpleasant as it sometimes is, we have to stay connected with the facts of a ramshackle and frequently dysfunctional aid system.
On the other hand, if we lose our vision for what is possible, based on an honest understanding of past success – and there are successes: despite its dysfunction and at times questionable motives, the aid system as we know it has accomplished a great deal of very real good – we also become ineffective. If we lose sight of what is possible, we can become deeply and irretrievably cynical. We’ll be in a space where not only is it all bad, but where there’s no point in even trying to make it better. The aid workers I know personally who spend too long in this space become depressed, maybe leave the industry. Some commit suicide. Some abuse substances. Some live with mental health issues. It’s not a good place to be.
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I swear, some days all I do is argue with people dumber than me. Some days all I do is explain, yet again, the most basic of basic principles of good aid to people who, for reasons I am not able to fathom, seem patently incapable of getting it. Some days the weight of a dysfunctional system feels very heavy. Some days the dark spectre of “what is” threatens to consume what is “possible.”
The hardest part of this job is not seeing awful things in the field. It’s not repeatedly witnessing the suffering of others and being able to offer little as a remedy, dealing with corrupt district officials, getting sick, or spending too long away from one’s family too often (hard as those things truly can be). The hardest part of this job is simply dealing with the crushing weight of a system that fundamentally lacks real incentives for getting right what it claims as its core purpose. Similarly, the most dangerous part of this job is not armed militants or bad drivers or blood parasites. No, the most dangerous part of this job is the humanitarian world itself: it will eat your soul if you let it.
Some days it is about just getting through the day. Some days it comes down to a conscious decision to invoke – almost as an act of faith – the “what is possible”, in order to cope with the “what is.” Some days it’s about identifying spheres of influence, focusing my efforts in those places where I know I can make a difference, and letting the others go. Some days I have to consciously reassess where I fit into the big picture and adjust accordingly my expectations of what I can feasibly contribute. Some days it’s about finding that Zen place. Some days it takes a conscious act of will to stay.