Many of your have written to me to ask why I got into humanitarian work, and why I continue. Not how – that’s another series of posts – but why? Don’t I get depressed? How can I spend my days thinking about the seamy underbellies of all the worst places in the world and remain at all normal? Here’s your answer:
The “why” of why I got into humanitarian work is easy: It was coincidence, an accident. I was in the right place at the right time. There was an opening that matched my meager skills and it beat the hell out of both returning to suburban North America and continuing to teach English (which is what I’d spent the previous year doing).
I was unusually fortunate. There was an older, experienced aid worker who took the time to talk to me about indicators and what the difference between good program design and bad program design were and the importance of local participation in every phase of project cycle management (although we didn’t have the term “PCM” back then). It made sense. The pieces all fit, even if in retrospect my understanding was painfully simplistic. It felt good to be “doing good.” And it was fun as heck, traveling aroundSoutheast Asiabecoming something that I didn’t even know the name for at the time: an aid worker.
That was in 1991 and I have not looked back since then.
The “why” of why I stay in humanitarian work is a bit harder. I’m older, now, and more cynical. I’ve seen the dark side of the Aid Industry up close. There’s certainly plenty to dislike, even to loathe about being here. So why do I stay?
If not aid, then what? I’m deep enough into my career now that switching to another line of work would be risky. What else would I do? My entire professional life has been spent here. Where would I go? How would I make a living? I think my dreams of being a famous guitarist in a heavy metal band are pretty much never gonna come true. So that’s out. “You can check out any time you like, but you can never leave.” That’s certainly one powerful incentive for staying. I’ve thought about changing careers many times – for about 20 seconds. At the end of the day I cannot imagine doing anything else.
I enjoy it. There. I’ve said it. I make my living thinking about human suffering and trying to put in place measures that will reduce it or alleviate it. Measures that we all know, from the get-go, will never be enough. And yet, in a probably perverse way, I enjoy it. I enjoy the work. I enjoy the crazy, quirky people (aid workers) I work with. I like going new places and meeting new people. I work with some amazing local colleagues in a number of countries. I like them very much as people, and I also like the diversity of my diverse range of friends in its own right. And yeah, I enjoy the rush of deploying. I enjoy the chaos and texture and intensity of the first month of a disaster response. I enjoy the complexity and challenge of transitioning from relief to recovery in month six of a disaster response. I’m not saying that every minute of every day is awesome. This path has taken me through some very dark times, both personally and professionally, and there are absolutely moments when I wonder what the hell I’ve wasted my life on. But on balance I enjoy it.
I still believe. I’m not blind to the paradoxes and internal contradictions and inconsistency and straight-up dumbassery of the Aid Industry. I get it. There’s a lot that’s wrong and in desperate need of redress. There are some glaring issues which, barring a massive shift in thinking globally within the sector, will probably never be really resolved. The tortured and absurdly power-charged ménage à trois between aid providers, aid recipients and aid donors, for example. Or the extreme glut of incompetent practitioners in the sector, both formal and informal. It’s possible to become deeply cynical and disillusioned, and many days I succumb to this temptation. And yet, I also see the positive day-to-day. I see how what we do as humanitarian practitioners matters. And by “matters”, I mean specifically that we do make life better for survivors of disaster, conflict and extreme poverty. No, of course it’s not enough. But for all of the messed up-ness, my honest opinion is that there’s more good than bad happening here. No, I can’t prove it – it’s an opinion. But it’s why I stay on.
You asked why I stay in aid.
Now you know.