I know you’re reading. I know that some of you have instructors who make you read 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 3.
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About 15 years ago I worked quite closely with a guy whose career was flagging. Everyone knew it. He’d started out strong, back in the day, when two of the key qualifications were English as a first language and the stamina to not miss work even while in the throes of amoebic dysentery (or any one of a myriad other equally indelicate illnesses). But the world had changed and he had not kept pace. Maybe he shared an unpopular opinion too stridently and/or too publicly, fought the wrong fights, or bet on the wrong political alliances. Maybe he thought the distinguished service of his early years would be remembered a decade later.
He went from being a short-listed internal candidate for a senior administrative position, at one point, to a succession of lateral moves and incremental demotions. He was shuffled around into increasingly irrelevant roles where, we were all officially informed, someone with his “depth of experience” would be better able to “add operational value.” Everyone knew what was going on. It was painful to watch. It became awkward to work with him.
Although he and I have not had the same logo on our namecards for nearly 10 years, I do keep tabs on him. I know that he retired not long ago, a white-haired old man with grown children. He retired from an essentially junior position, still wondering what it was exactly that he may have done wrong.
He was an adult. Surely he could have seen what was happening and taken charge of his own destiny. He could have sent his CV around and at least been seriously considered for more senior, certainly more interesting positions in another aid organization. However he did not. And in the end it was his choice.
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Not long ago I got word that yet another colleague has finalized divorce proceedings. This person is a veteran of several “big” disaster responses: Kosovo, Darfur, Tsunamiland… He was married for most of those. Now he’s not.
In theory, at least, no one had to tell him what he was potentially in for. There was ample precedent in his own immediate circle – he wouldn’t have had to have looked very far to see what could happen. No one should have had to tell him that while theoretically marriage could possibly survive the kind of deployment schedule he was on, we all already know on the basis of having seen the same scenario play out time and time again that this was not the most likely outcome.
Who knows exactly what it was that made it all unravel? Time apart for any reason and under the most benign circumstances takes its’ toll on a relationship. Whether for the one staying at home or the one going “to the field”, the first year of rapid onset disaster deployment or field work where the needs of “the poor” come first is romantic. The second is a labor of love. After that it becomes an unwelcome chore that builds resentments on both sides of the relationship.
My friend started his career in aid work knowing full well that he was signing up for weeks, sometimes months away from home, stuck in the pressure-cooker of disaster response operations where it can very often feel in the moment as if the rules have changed or don’t apply (see also this). Large disaster zones are notorious as places where things run badly amuck in the personal lives of the aid workers who inhabit them.
But even beyond what may or may not have transpired during lonely evenings back home or in at the ill-reputed team house parties, I think the larger issue is that my friend was allowed to set himself up for personal failure.
Surely he knew what was happening. He could have taken a leave of absence or even just resigned to go home and sort things out. It would probably not have affected his hire-worthiness down the road, and at a personal level no one in the agency or the responses he was on would have thought any less of him for it. In fact, some would have applauded him. But he didn’t take time off or quit.
He was a big boy who made his own choices. I’m not saying they were all the wrong choices. But every choice has consequences, and he’s now dealing with the results of his.
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Many people idealize aid work. Not the tasks so much (although those, too), but the industry “community”, the supposed sense that we’re all in this together after the same things, the mistaken notion that we’re all well-looked after because aid workers are all good people with nothing but love for all humanity.
But it is important for you understand that just like almost any other endeavor in life, humanitarian aid will take everything you have and give you nothing back if you let it. Like the rest of the world, the aid world is an unfair one where a single ill-considered email message might be held against you for life, but where your contribution, no matter how significant, is simply seen as “doing your job” and might very well be completely forgotten before even the next internal re-structuring. You need to understand that no one will stop you from self-destructing personally or professional, so long as your expense reports are done properly. You need to understand that, just like in the rest of the world, people with less skill and maybe even experience than you will be promoted past you or get perks that you think you deserve more than them for no apparent reason.
Understand that this work will take as much as you have to give it. It will let you chose to work rather than spend time with your family. It will let you chose to deploy rather than to work on your relationships. It will let you spend your hard-earned pittance on therapy or medical bills not covered by insurance. You will not get a gold watch when you retire, and there will be no memorial for you when you die.
This is not cynicism. It is simply the way the world, including the aid world, works.
Nor is this a list of reasons why you should not chose the life of an aid worker. I have, and pretty much all of my friends have, too.
Just, buyer beware.