Is any harm being done?

I’ve learned the hard way over the years that anyone who dares to speak up against amateur do-gooder, voluntourism in any significant way can expect a flood of response, usually emotional, often angry, sometimes even downright vitriolic and personal. It’s not too surprising, really. No one wants to be told that they shouldn’t have collected the shoes for orphans in Haiti, that they shouldn’t have gone to build the school in Zambia, or that their three weeks or three months in Cambodia probably didn’t help anyone very much. For every example of clear and obvious bad aid, there are tens of hypothetical examples in the comments thread of situations where the volunteers could make a contribution, where the shoes would really help, or where three months in Cambodia just might make poverty history.

The amount of cultural and probably psychological packaging around this issue—the notion that just anyone can and should go elsewhere to “help” or “make a difference”—is truly immense. Many, including me in the past, have written about some of this cultural packaging before in different ways, what drives it, what makes it so hard to get past. I won’t try to rehash those arguments here, because when you filter out the angry, reactive noise, the essential question which remains is, “is any harm really being done?”

“So I volunteered in Burma for a year, during which I was mostly ineffective, but I learned a lot and surely that’s worth something… so seriously, was there any actual harm there?” Or, “Yeah, we send our youth group to Mexico every year to build community centers… sure, maybe we’re not reducing the rate of malnutrition or incidence of TB… but it’s a great experience for our youth. What’s the harm?” Or, “Okay, people needed clothing, we sent used clothing… what’s the real harm?”

When doctors mess up, patients die. When pilots mess up, planes crash. When athletes mess up, they lose the competition. When soldiers mess up, they destroy the wrong targets. But when aid workers mess up, is any harm really being done?


Volunteers in Haiti, earthquake + 10 days. Any harm being done? (photo by J.)

One’s tolerance for bad aid, and by extension one’s level of pushback on the notion that aid is in fact a profession which should be practiced only by qualified professionals, ultimately comes down to how much harm one believes possible should things go wrong. It comes back to how we answer in our own minds this question, “is any harm really being done?” If you see the stakes in all of this as very low—that is, say you get it totally wrong, and still nothing bad really happens; no harm, no foul—then you’re more likely to bristle at the suggestion that all the volunteers should just stay home, that the #socent innovators should not start another charity, or that the men’s prayer group should not collect shoes for orphans in Bangladesh.

Obviously this question is made all the more difficult to answer by the fact that changes within communities happen more slowly. Planes crash in minutes. Patients die, perhaps instantaneously. But when aid programmes go wrong it could take years for the effects to be evident in the target population. Attribution is similarly tough to pin down. Autopsies and flight recorders very often help narrow down what went wrong on the operating table or flight deck, but even in the obvious, highly visible aid debacles of recent memory (Rwanda/Goma in the mid-1990s, for example) it is almost impossible to link what went wrong back to a specific action taken by a specific organization, let alone an individual aid worker. So, for example, some white girl goes to Tanzania and fails to build a library… Lame? For sure. Any real harm done? Feels inconclusive…


For me, the key to clarity on this issue—the question of, “is any harm really being done?”—is in understanding that if properly planned, well-implemented aid can help, then the opposite is also true: poorly planned, badly executed aid can cause actual, lasting harm. Despite some very marked contrasts between medicine and aid, the ethical imperatives involved are nearly identical between the two. And if it is possible to cause harm to those we say we’re all about helping, then the obvious follow-on is that we have a direct and specific ethical obligation to do aid in ways which do not cause harm.

Everyone wants to believe that what they do under the banner of “aid” or “helping” or “giving back” or a hundred other variations of these themes does actually make a difference, a real difference. But if we want to boast that what we do does affect people’s lives for real in the real world, for the better, then we have no option but to also accept the possibility of affecting their lives for real, in the real world, for the worse. And then we must further accept the responsibility—call it ethical, call it moral, if you like—of being as certain as we can possibly be that what we do does in fact affect lives for the better, not worse.

And finally, that being certain requires that one know what one is doing in the first place. Being as certain as possible requires that one understand the difference between good aid and bad aid. I don’t care who you are, what your title is, what your salary is, whether you’re in your role of helping for one day or twenty years; it doesn’t matter that aid is not formally regulated and that no matter how badly you might screw up almost certainly no beneficiary will ever sue you. It is absolutely not enough to simply want to help. You have to know how. You have to know how whether you aspire to the personal title of humanitarian; whether you’re an entire organization, supposedly established and respected, still tied to a 20-year old paradigm which doesn’t work; whether you’re a donor who sends $20. No one gets off the ethical hook, here.


One last point. Many have asked why I bang on about this. Aren’t I just overblowing it all to a ridiculous degree? (Again, these questions essentially ask, “Is any harm really being done?”).  Consider that the American Medical Association describes reporting impaired, incompetent, or unethical colleagues as part of the code of ethics for physicians. Assuming for the sake of argument a similar set of ethics for those whose actions affect entire communities and demographics (aid and development workers), my question: why aren’t more professional aid workers banging on about it?

Just saying.

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Possibly related:

Once more, from the top…

So, The Guardian (@GuardianGDP) put up a crowd-sourced article of pro-tips for volunteers to get noticed in the aid industry. I got into a Twitter conversation about the usefulness (or not) of volunteers in general. I’ve written and argued about this more than almost any other aid-related topic in the past two decades. I keep forgetting that there are still people around who see volunteers going to international locations where they can practice “helping” as anything other than an abysmal idea.


Okay. Let me break it down one more time.

Let’s not split semantic hairs. I don’t care what the title, designation, or salary package is. I’m against untrained, unqualified people dropping in for a few days/weeks/months to have an adventure or have a “good experience” while making some nebulous contribution to some alleged greater good.

Aid and development are professions, not hobbies. It takes specific knowledge, skill and experience to get this right. Aid is hard and complicated–getting it right is tough, even for professionals. If the point is helping for real, then leave that helping to those who know what they’re doing. The continued fixation on volunteers (or unqualified people with some other title traipsing around the field) speaks to a fundamental lack of respect for aid and development as actual professions.

  • Pro-tip: Take your own argument in favor of volunteers going to Ghana/Cambodia/Uganda/wherever,  search/replace “local gynecological clinic”, and see if the argument still works.

Yes, but the local people really liked our volunteers! This is a common one. Local people the world over are hospitable nice to outsiders. Just because volunteer aid workers won’t get sued for malpractice or driven from the field in the dead of night by angry villagers with torches and pitchforks doesn’t mean they are either effective or appreciated. You have to get past the smiles and look at the evidence of what gets accomplished for real. The continued fixation on volunteers as cultural ambassadors and that being somehow linked to efficacy reflects the reality that in most cases beneficiaries simply cannot say “no.”

  • Pro-tip: Mentally turn the tables–imagine the situation reversed, and volunteers from the country you’re talking about sending volunteers to, coming to your community to do the things you’re talking about sending volunteers to do. See how that sits. Would you be grateful? Indulgent? If you could say ‘no’, would you?

Don’t volunteers do some good? Sure–you can find examples of volunteers not causing massive system failure. But then, ‘not causing massive system failure’ is hardly the same thing as ‘effective.’ Just because people in other places are “poor” and appear to “have nothing” doesn’t mean that giving them just anything at all is good because it’s better than nothing. I think that this argument mostly comes down to one’s internal (and probably subconscious) calculations around how high the stakes are–that is, how bad does it get if things go wrong? Say a volunteer goes to a rural community in Nicaragua to help build a school. What’s the worst that could happen?

  • Pro-tip: This is the wrong question. This is solutions-in-search-of-problems thingking. We need to ask, what’s needed? And then base our response on the best answer.

But they mean well… Very similar to the above argument.

  • Pro-tip: Picture yourself in the dentist’s chair, having your teeth being drilled by someone who has not had any dental training, but who means very well. Surely, he/she must be accomplishing some good…

But surely there is something volunteers can do? Grunt labor, maybe? The dirty work? In more than two decades of humanitarian aid and development work, I cannot recall a single real-world instance where it really made more sense to bring international volunteers than to simply hire local people.

  •  Pro-tip: Imagine yourself as the survivor of a large disaster. Your house is gone, you have no assets, and no work–no option of working to make money to rebuild. Three neighborhoods away there’s an INGO paying the local residents to do clean-up, etc. But in your neighborhood there are a bunch of international volunteers doing the clean-up around you. They don’t speak your language, but you can see them laughing, having a great time. They eat three meals per day, but you eat only one. How do you feel?

But it’s such a good experience for them… It opens their world. So, basically, in your view it’s okay to use poor people in other places as props for your good experience.

  • Pro-tip: Don’t ever use this argument. Ever.

What about volunteering at local food banks? I see local volunteerism as the heart and soul of sustainable community development. My issue is with sending unqualified people to other countries to muck about “helping.”

What about teaching English? Teaching is probably the only other profession that is as open to random well-intended but otherwise unqualified interlopers as aid and development. If you have some actual qualification to teach, then teach.

  • Pro-tip: See response + pro-tip to “Don’t volunteers do some good?


Book Promotion: Letters Left Unsent

Once more with feeling.

After far too much ado, my book is live again. There were copyright issues with my original title (long and very 70’s rock nerdy story), and in the end I simply changed it. The new title: Letters Left Unsent.


“Letters  Left Unsent is one of few authentic accounts describing exactly what aid work ‘feels’ like – from the inside. Aid work aspirants will find it eye-opening. Those in aid work will appreciate that J has finally put words to so many aspects of our experience that we find elusive or difficult.”

- Kelsey Hoppe, Editor/Author, Chasing Misery


Letters Left Unsent is a work of non-fiction, mostly but not totally, comprised of edited and revised blog posts from my old blog, Tales From The Hood. It’s not quite memoir-I don’t just sort of recount the chronology of my life in the humanitarian industry. There are plenty of stories and anecdotes from over two decades of aid and development work, but the goal is not to impress you all with the wild experiences I’ve had in far-flung hellholes of the world.

The point, rather, is to share my own–I guess you could call it a journey–to find balance and maybe meaning in the life of a humanitarian. There’s a lot out there about how to do aid work, but there’s precious little out there about how to be an aid worker. Letters Left Unsent is my own contribution toward filling that void.

Letters Left Unsent adds significantly to post-modern writing about ‘development’ – it is an eclectic mix, blog-style, but with a narrative; biographical, but so much bigger; self-reflective, but without Western indulgences; insightful, but without the morality of ‘telling it all'; and passionate, but without romantic defense or cynical dismissal.
The narrative resembles some of the key challenges that humanitarian work poses to those who engage with good intentions and the right skills: Very often there is no ‘story’ about that girl in a camp and we will not know what happened to her and her family and all of the sudden we are at a fun leaving party for a colleague the next evening-aid work simply isn’t that much more special, larger than life or useful in understanding ourselves, our problems or the dynamics of the consumerist world and J.’s writing is a very honest reflection of that.”

-Tobias Denskus, Aidnography

The intended audience is primarily college/university students hoping for a career in the aid world, along with anyone else who for whatever reason dreams of being a humanitarian. My beta group included several university professors or instructors, and their feed-back has been very positive.

You can buy the ebook on Amazon. Here’s the US link (although I’ve enabled sales across the entire Amazon universe).

Watch my Twitter feed and Facebook page for further promotion around the blogosphere over the next few weeks.

From now through 30 August, 2014, I also offer the following promotions.

For bloggers: I will provide a free PDF version of Letters Left Unsent to the first 20 bloggers who ask, in exchange for the promise of a written review on your blog. You’re all on the honor system, here.

Interested? Drop an email to talesfromethehood@gmail… with some variation of “Letters – blog review” in the message header, and your blog URL somewhere in the message. Your review doesn’t have to be positive, just honest. If you let me know when, or just before your review goes lives, I’ll Facebook, tweet, etc., and hopefully drive a bit more traffic to your site.

For instructors and teachers: I will provide a free non-DRM PDF version of Letters Left Unsent to anyone who asks, in exchange for your promise to use it in your classroom. I’ll provide written permission to distribute the electronic version to your students at no additional cost. Again, we’re on the honor system, here.

Interested? Drop an email to talesfromethehood@gmail… Include some verifiable description of who you are, where you teach, what class(es) you’ll use the book in, etc. For instructors/teachers, I will also make myself available for interview or guest-speaking to your class. Once more, email if this is of interest.


What’s next? Look for a print version of Letters Left Unsent at some point over the summer, a study guide to accompany it in the classroom, and of course the next installment in my humanitarian fiction series, entitled Honor Among Thieves sometime before the end of this year!

It’s a Crappy World

This started out as one post. Then it became three. Then four. Now it’s one, again. Late-night riffing that may inadvertently be the outline of a book someday. Or at least a sweet PowerPoint presentation.

Five aid worker-centric things that keep a crappy world crappy.

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I. The inequality dilemma

It’s an inequitable world. Crappiness is not evenly distributed. Some places in the world are crappier than others; some people have more than others.

Helping others is good. It is good, appropriate for those in less crappy places to help those in more crappy places. It is good, appropriate for those who have more to help those who have less.

  • Helping others reduces the amount of inequity in the world.
  • Helping others erodes the distinction between those who help and those who receive.
  • There is a point beyond which eroding the distinction between those who help and those who receive is no longer in the best interests of those who help.

 Helping others may feel good, but it is ultimately against the self-interest of those who do the helping because they directly benefit from inequality in the world. This is a major part of why we have such a difficult time articulating what the end result of aid should be.

At its core, the inequality dilemma comes back to why you think the poor are poor, the oppressed oppressed, victims victims. Which, in turn, colors your views on why aid is necessary, why you think that helping others is good, and what you think aid can or should accomplish. And this, then, colors every single other thought you will ever have about the “why” or the “how” of aid.


II. The ‘donor’ / ‘doer’ mystery

Helping others takes effort. Some has to do it. It doesn’t just happen by itself. Someone has to physically go somewhere (even if it’s just across the room) to do the helping.

Helping others costs. Helping requires resources. Helping others always involves a resource transaction.

Some prefer to help others directly through physical activity; some prefer to help others by providing resources necessary for the transaction.

  • At some point the Aid Industry solidified distinction between providers (donors) and doers (NGOs, aid workers…).
  • One party pays for aid; another party implements it.
  • Donor sacrifices are laudable and bring real world benefits (a picture of a goat, a tax write-off); aid worker sacrifices are inconsequential.

The donor / doer mystery is the basis for The Menage e Trois and lies at the root of humanitarian accountability and aid effectiveness concerns. Donors, from The Gates Foundation, to USAID and DFID, and all the way down to church members in Missouri who send $20 are are never accountable to anyone but themselves.

The notion that one entity pays for aid while another implements it is at the heart of the widespread belief (although not necessarily said in as many words) of aid NGO/ aid worker culpability for all that’s wrong with aid…

The donor / doer mystery underlies aid worker angst with CSR, and CSR and GIK, and it also underlies amateur do-gooder frustration with aid worker snark.


III. The understanding/persuasion disconnect

Those who receive help have the right to say what they need. Allegedly.

Those who do the paying are entitled to say what they’ll pay for. It’s their money – they can spend it as they please.

Those who do the helping directly are obligated to make sure that help given matches what’s truly needed. There is a crucial implicit dual responsibility: understand actual needs, which in turn requires judgment, data and analysis; and persuade those paying to be willing to pay for the right things.

  • The understanding / persuasion disconnect = the programs/ marketing divide.
  • A huge amount of the success of aid depends on the doers correctly understanding the needs.
  • A huge amount of the success of aid depend on providers being willing to pay for actual needs.

The understanding /persuasion disconnect is the actualization of humanitarian accountability and aid effectiveness. It pits aid NGOs and aid workers irretrievably against both donors and beneficiaries, and it puts the responsibility for good aid happening solely on the shoulders of aid workers.


IV. The transparency / impact non-sequitur

Those who receive help have to right to know what’s been paid in order to help them, and for what.

Those who do the paying are entitled to know what has been done with what they paid. They’re essentially the customers, and as such they’re ‘always right.’

Those who do the helping are obligated to be transparent about how resources have been used, and to explain to either side why use might have fallen short of expectations.

  • We commonly assume a direct linkage between transparency and impact or effectiveness. In fact, there is no such linkage.
Photo by J., at a famous and widely celebrated refugee camp, somewhere in the Middle East...

Photo by J., at a famous and widely celebrated refugee camp, somewhere in the Middle East…

V. The paradox of portrayal

 Those who receive help have the right to be part of the process and also the right to dignity – the right to not be perceived or portrayed as “helpless victims” or “passive recipients.”

Those who do the paying are entitled to be recognized for having done so, including being identified to those who receive help made possible by their paying. Everything from sponsors corresponding with “their” sponsored children, up to USAID stickers on vehicles.

Those who do the helping are obligated to ensure the rights of both sides.

  •  We increasingly struggle to find concise, precise language to describe beneficiaries, and at the same time increasingly devote more time and attention to donor branding.
  • Aid providers (NGOs, aid workers) increasingly either assume the negative aspects of the identity of a ‘donor’, or else intentionally self-identify as “local” and become more or less invisible.

Those who receive help have the right for that help to actually be effective: It has to make their world less crappy.

Those who do the paying are entitled to receive confirmation that what they paid for was effective.


Not every post gets a neat, tidy, wrap-up ending.


It recently occurred to me that:

- Soldiers and police officers get medals for valor and heroism.
– Athletes get medals for winning competitions.
– Writers and journalists get Pulitzers.
– Academics, thinkers of deep thoughts, scientists, and sometimes politicians get Nobel Peace prizes.
– Actors/Actresses, and film industry peeps get Oscars, Emmys, and Golden Globe awards.
– Singers/musicians and music industry peeps get Grammys.

But what do aid workers get?

Pins for organizational loyalty.

I’m sure many of us could go on to list many other professions where the rank and file go in and get it done, day after day, largely unacknowledged, let alone lauded or awarded. Teachers and parents, especially single parents, for example. Or bus drivers. Or construction workers. And many, many others.

Yes, the world is certainly unfair in the way that it bestows wealth and acclaim on those who are really good, say, at tossing a ball through a net, or who manage to get their lines (written by others) right in one out of 20 takes and who stay fit with the help of personal trainers and nutritionists. While ignoring or perhaps demeaning outright those who form the foundation of our collective civilization and culture. Aid workers are hardly the most marginalized or forgotten in the great, global organogram of who matters in the minds of those who apparently matter in the world.

Moreover, the vast majority of the aid workers I know would be terribly uncomfortable receiving a medal or trophy. In an imaginary aid world equivalent of The Oscars, I can picture my colleagues and friends, in their cargo pants and Beer Lao T-shirts, shuffling up to receive a little statue of Henri Dunant for “Best Logistician” or “outstanding performance as WASH cluster lead”, and babbling awkwardly about how they don’t deserve it. Most aid workers I know, whether in the field or hunkered down in the cubicles of HQ, would far rather celebrate the occasional, incremental wins by sharing a few rounds with close colleagues at the expat bar or watering hole of choice. I don’t think that many of us are in it for the acclaim or the money.

But nevertheless, it bothers me.

It bothers me that when you Google “humanitarian awards” you get pictures of Ben Affleck or Angelina Jolie. It bothers me that we cannot articulate, even to ourselves, what excellence—what award-worthy humanitarian practice looks like. It bothers me that the closest we seem to be able to come is a recognition of loyalty to a particular organization: a pin or certificate, more or less every five years, which doesn’t say much except that the recipient was neither fired nor had the wherewithal to leave.

Chasing Misery (a book review)

If you’ve been following my other projects over the past year/months, you know that I’m very much about gaining better understanding of and then explaining to those who apparently matter, this group of people we call “aid workers.” We’re understudied, usually mis-represented, too-frequently both lauded and also blamed for the wrong things. Beyond a few, frequently cringe-inducing memoirs, the voices of aid workers themselves are largely absent from the majority of current writing, analysis, critique, and other representation of the aid industry.

Depending on which numbers you choose to read and how you choose to read them, females–women–account for anywhere from one-half to two-thirds of the aid industry workforce. This means that if we are to understand the global community of people we call aid workers, we inevitably need to look specifically at the experiences of the women who go out to the front lines (including the front lines of Geneva, Brussels, DC, and NYC) to carry out relief and development work.

Chasing Misery: an anthology of essays by women in humanitarian responses is the first book that I’m aware of which shares the experience of aid work from a uniquely female perspective. As the title suggests, it’s a collection of essays and photographs, of and about aid work, by women who are aid workers.

Pageflex Persona [document: PRS0000026_00020]


This is not some dry 35,000 ft. theory debate, or boring digression into the weeds of statistical regressions. No, Chasing Misery is an engaging read that keeps you turning pages.  The chapters are short and readable, the writing is visceral and emotive. The images are strong, sometimes gritty.

I knew many of the official answers as to why it was broken—
lack of budget allocation at the national and provincial levels,
poor incentives for female doctors to stay in this remote area,
abysmal management, supervision and recognition of health staff,
low education and nutritional status of pregnant women—but
I couldn’t get my heart to understand why, with a multi-million
dollar healthcare project, there wasn’t more care for those babies,
more options for those mothers.

p. 107

Chasing Misery is not a book to read if you need a happy ending where all the grateful beneficiaries bow slightly and say ‘thank you’ before returning home, content with their bag of CSB and bottle of vegetable oil. Chasing Misery summarily dispatches the myth that aid is some romantic, soft-focus international adventure. It’s not the end-all-be-all, of course, but then it’s obvious that it’s not intended to be. Chasing Misery is an invaluable early addition to the much too small, but thankfully growing, body of writing and perspective out there by actual aid workers.

It has been years now since I last set foot in the sands of Darfur,
but the condition remains with me still. In books, in friends, in the
far corners of life, I have continued my search for the ‘why’. And I
have yet to find it.
The condition is hard to shake. Surely, there must be some
explanation. So I continue to go around and around in the
maddening cycle of my humanitarian hamster wheel of questioning,
and of all the countless sources.

p. 239


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You can find Chasing Misery online at the following places:

 Chasing Misery is available for purchase as a paperback (,, or as an ebook (

Surviving the life

This is a re-post, with some revisions, of a post that originally appeared here.

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One thing that’s too-rarely mentioned in the heated debate about how to fix aid is how to fix or at least take care of us, the humanitarian workers. I’m not sure why that is. Maybe we feel guilty worrying about ourselves while surrounded by those who we perceive to have things far worse than us. Maybe we don’t feel that we deserve help ourselves when that help is paid for by donor resources. Maybe we revel in our own personal fables of strength and stamina. Maybe we think we have to figure it all out on our own. Or maybe we’re just too busy to stop for a minute and just think about what we’re doing (with our lives). 

For what it’s worth, here are three survival tips. I don’t claim that these are the end-all, be-all. There is plenty of good advice out there. But here are three things that you can do or begin immediately to increase your chances of survival in the crazy aid world:

Be yourself: It sounds really basic, but as you probably know already, aid workers can be some of the biggest poseurs on the planet. You know how it is: whether you’re preparing your CV for another job interview or sitting in the teamhouse quaffing beers with a bunch of aid workers who don’t know you at all, there’s always the temptation to Botox your own narrative. We all succumb at different times to the temptation to make it seem like we’ve had experience that we haven’t really had. An eleven-week deployment becomes 3 months, becomes “half a year” (including prep before and detox after…). Admin assistant to the VP who led the life-saving workshop becomes “executive assistant”, becomes “I co-facilitated the workshop…” And before you know it you’ve become someone you’re not, trying to live up to a manufactured past, and hoping no one blows your cover.

Take the easy way out of this situation by never getting into it. Be yourself. Don’t front. Don’t B.S. your colleagues. Don’t try to make yourself out to be more than you are. You don’t have to self-deprecate or affect a lack of confidence.

But just be yourself. You’ll live longer.

Stay healthy: You know what to do. Eat right. Exercise. Get enough sleep. Don’t drink too much. Don’t smoke. We know how it is: things get crazy in the field (and at HQ, too). When you’re on lock-down you can’t exactly go running out around the neighborhood for fitness. And using the one treadmill in the teamhouse isn’t really an attractive option when it’s in the room where everyone else sits and watches TV while smoking. Maybe you’re in a country where it’s all but impossible to find something to eat other than simple carbohydrates cooked in deep fat. Or maybe it’s just that between the grants that have to be written and the evaluation reports that have to be submitted and the field visits that have to be conducted, combined with spouse/partner/child/parent drama sucking you in from a thousand miles away, you’re too emotionally exhausted for much more than a bottle of something and a few cigarettes before crashing for the night.

Find ways to stay healthy. If you have to spend extra per diem on healthy food, do it. If you have to learn yoga and practice it in your room in order to stay fit, do it. If you need join a 12-step program in order to quit drinking or smoking, do it. If you need to declare yourself “sick” for the weekend to just sleep, do it. This is your life you’re talking about here. Save it.

Have an exit strategy: There’s a growing body of information out there (including some in this blog) about how to get in to the aid industry. But almost no one talks to aid workers about leaving. So here you go: decide now how you want your career in aid or development to end. If you plan to do this through retirement, that’s fine. Just decide now, because otherwise you will wake up one day wondering where the hell the last 12 years went…

I don’t mean to sound harsh or negative, but it has to be said: the aid world will take as much of you as you’re willing to part with, and give you precious little in return beyond a career-worth of awesome Facebook status updates. The aid world will cheerfully give you another contract and send you on another hardship deployment, all the while watching you crash and burn financially, professionally, personally. If you let it, that is.

Think now about what kinds of things would cause you to up and walk away so that you don’t spend half of your career disillusioned but unable to articulate why you’re still here/there. Think now about when, in the seasons of life cycle, you plan to hand in your aid worker credentials and switch over to running your own coffee shop (or whatever). After a life of sacrifice on behalf of the poor it may feel crass to do so, but plan now for your financial post-aid-work future and take steps to ensure it.

Aid work can be extremely rewarding and even (dare I say it?) fun. But you need to know how you plan to leave. Have an exit strategy.


I’ll be the heretic and just say straight out that I didn’t love the Al Jazeera The Stream show on something about expat aid workers and INGOs. Okay, I’ll back up and say that I normally like The Stream. I like the format, I think Malika Bilal (@mmbilal) hosts well. I like Al Jazeera’s frequent focus on international aid and development things. And to their credit, they did reach out to @ShotgunShack and me, initially to participate (but to their not credit, the producers wouldn’t roll with us because we’re pseudonymous). My reasons for not loving it did not have anything to do with Al Jazeera, necessarily.

I didn’t love it, because it was a somewhat predictable array of commenters, saying what felt to me like the Highly Predictable Things (the HPTs): Theme and variations on Locals know everything, foreigners know nothing, aid is another kind of colonialism. Yadda yadda. Yadda. It’s a song and dance that we’re all quite familiar with by now. I most enjoyed the quiet irony of the fact that the springboard for an entire discussion about foreign aid organizations and foreign aid workers apparently failing to “get it”, was a television show (“The Samaritans”), that lampoons INGOs and expat aid workers, written and produced by people who by their own rather cheerful admission have never worked for an NGO…

At least Christopher Guest actually learned to play guitar when he lampooned heavy metal music in This Is Spinal Tap.

I know this will be hugely unpopular in some corners of the aid and development world, but it is time to speak plainly: We need to move past the supposed opposing tensions of “local” and “expat.” It is an outmoded way of thinking about what we do, and it leads to totally unhelpful arguments about how we do it.

Yes, I know. We can all recite examples, both ancient and recent, where local knowledge, wisdom, know-how, whatever was what was needed to address the issue or solve the problem. And we can also all (or at least those of us who have been around a bit) think of examples of exactly the opposite. To espouse either one solely is to be naïve about the realities of the real world, now.

By the same token, I think we can all recall examples of times where highly qualified local people took menial positions, compared to–or perhaps even supervised by–expats who were in every way their junior. That is something for which those of us in the aid industry should (and among those with whom I am close, do) feel acutely ashamed, and make daily effort to redress. Yet at the same time, I can also think of examples of the exact opposite. Examples of times where conscious decisions were made to advertise and recruit good, prestigious, well-compensated positions as “local”, only to have those same positions lie vacant, month after month, the much-touted local capacity not pitching up for whatever reason. Platitudes about what should be done are easy to voice. Doing what should be done, and making happen what should be made to happen, are tough in the real world.

Speaking to aid industry insiders of all stripes, now: If want to turn it up to “11”—that is, if we want to take our game to the next level—we have got to stop fixating on who is from or not from someplace. We have got to expel this emotional blockage about expats versus locals. We have got to begin from the assumption that both have contributions to make, every bit as much as both have limitations and blind spots. We—all of us, expat and local alike—have got to let go of antiquated notions of what an expat is, how he or she looks. An expat aid worker in today’s world can be from anywhere. And she or he might have been a local aid worker, only last week. It’s about gaps and capacities, not what logo is one someone’s passport. We have got to get past the opposing tensions of “one size fits all”, and “no size fits us.”

No, it will not be easy. Different salary and benefits packages is an explosive issue, and one which I do not see an easy way around. We just have to muscle through, in good faith, equally honest about benefits as about costs. Whose voice matters, and the extent to which we privilege local or outside, or vice versa, will also be potentially explosive, and never resolved globally. It’s highly contextual. Working through these intensely cerebral and also intensely emotional issues, finding resolve, then the context changes, and we have to work through them all, laboriously, again—this is fundamental to the commitment that being an aid worker requires, more so, even, than willingness to eat strange food, endure harsh climates or illnesses, or work in the face of the threat of violence. This is what makes aid work difficult. If you think of aid work as a calling, then this is the call. Anyone can learn to behave properly in checkpoints, remember to take their Malarone every day, or use radio call signs. But comparatively few have the ability to navigate the wilds of culture and ethnicity and emotion. But this is the requirement for aid workers, regardless of where they sit, their origin, or color.

This is “11.”

Why Expats?

It’s not really possible to think for very long about the problems inherent in seeing the aid world through a “the field”, versus “everywhere else that’s not the field” lens, without at some point also having an honest conversation about expats. The whole notion of there being this place called “the field” as the place where aid supposedly happens, to the exclusion of pretty much anything else that goes on anywhere else, is intrinsically tied to the idea of expats; specifically, the idea or the belief that the aid endeavor somehow needs expats at all.

It’s an explosive topic. I’m not sure I know of a better way to make tempers flare at the project site or in a team house than to suggest either of the opposite ends of the possible spectrum on this is issue.

The idea that somehow there is an inherent and specific need for a foreigner—me, perhaps, or maybe you—to go to another country to do something to help the local people there is seductive and intoxicating. It feels natural and logical. There is obvious need. We can see it. There is a deficit of response. No one else is stepping up (or at least not enough are)—ergo, I have a role to play in implementing a solution. For Americans, at least (and probably plenty of others), the ideas that “you can be special”, and that you, armed with nothing more than a can-do attitude and a passion for change, “can make a difference”, are all but mainlined to us in utero. For all of our emotional attention to all things “local” (empowering, facilitating, capacity-building, and on, and on), and despite occasional expressions to the contrary, I have yet to meet an aid or development worker who truly questions her or his relevance and potential contribution to relief aid or poverty reduction. Of course I’m relevant. Of course we’re relevant. Of course we have something to add. And once you agree that you’re relevant and have a contribution to make in general, it is only a very small logical step to the belief that you’re specifically relevant over there, in “The Field”, if you will.

The idea that aid (including development, relief, and poverty-reduction programmes) is a thing which at some level requires a foreigner, an expat, to leave here and go there to do is one of the Great Unquestioned Assumptions of the aid industry as we currently know it. Openly doubt the need for expats, and you can expect a stream of self-righteous, self-preservationist, maybe technocratic, and surely emotional reaction.

Paradoxically, this emotional need for and/or to be expats runs directly against the grain of aid and development doctrine that local knowledge, local wisdom, above all local people are already sufficient raw material to solve their own problems. This also–the intrinsic, superseding-all-things-external quality of “local”–is seductive and intoxicating. It feels like a self-evident truth. We want it to be true. I don’t think I can think of another single element of aid industry thinking that gets more lip-service than the importance of local. No article of faith in the Church of Aid is drummed into our skulls with more fervent regularity, from our first 101 class on global citizenship, clear on through to retirement, than, well, you know, local. It feels ethnocentric to question it even in the silence of our own heads. And just like real doctrine in a real religion, anyone foolish to speak up with an opinion to the contrary, may be granted an initial period of grace, but will eventually be cast as a heretic.

The Church of Aid doesn’t burn its heretics at the stake (thankfully), but make no mistake: the stink of “ethnocentric”—of questioning too loudly or for too long the omnipotent value of everything “local”—is not easily shed, and carries with it some sometimes harsh real-world consequences.

The facts and our own eyes tell us that neither of these doctrines is true. There are plenty of concrete examples of times and places where all things local, in fact, were not sufficient. Moreover, if you want to participate in this industry, in my opinion you have to, at some stage, come to the place where you make peace with the reality that your job is somehow about causing change to happen—which inherently implies a value judgment. Something in or about a local context somewhere, has to change.

By the same token, we can all recite examples of instances, some of them famous, where outside “assistance” made things worse. Many have written, repeatedly, about how deeply wanting to help, and embarking on a course of action intended to help, in no way predetermine help actually happening. It is factually inaccurate to think that foreigners—expats—somehow add value by definition.

And perhaps the larger point is really that no matter your perspective on the expats versus local issue, there is plenty of evidence out there, both historical and as recent as last week, to support your position. Just as there is evidence out there to support the opposing position.

So where does that leave us? In my opinion it leaves us at the beginning of what will almost certainly be a difficult, emotional, and also absolutely necessary conversation. Of course I cannot claim to know all the outcomes or revelations along the way. But from where I sit right now, the following feel, well, self-evident:

(For goodness sake) We have to talk about it: We have to talk about this tension between the need for expats and the value of all things local. We cannot afford to leave un-discussed our attitudes, beliefs, values, and assumptions about both of these opposing doctrines. We have to find ways to talk about these things that are productive. We need to find ways and forums for talking about these things other than (equally) either attacking those who see it differently, or finding justification to revel in ethnocentrism (speaking to both sides on this). Both sides have to be willing to give—neither is 100% correct. There are exceptions to both. As Aid Leap so aptly put it in reference to “evidence”, so here, too, we all need to come to the conversation assuming the good faith of the other.

No one-size-fits-all. I do not see an in-principle universal stance on this issue. There are times when “local” is absolutely the only path that makes sense. There are times when bringing in a foreigner really, truly is the best option. There are instance where local very obviously has to change. There are cases where there is no conceivable good reason to send an expat. It’s case-by-case. We have to use both factual knowledge and also wisdom. We’re looking for guiding principles, but not universal statements.

We have to recognize the reality that aid is an interconnected, global enterprise. We can no longer isolate what happens in a village in Mozambique (or wherever) from what happens in a conference room in Brussels (or wherever). They’re interconnected, and not just in some sort of nebulous “we are the world” way, but often and increasingly literally. As in, there’s an open Skype chat or Google Hangout happening between the two. Discussion about the relative contributions of people from there and  people not from there, and where they are all located geographically as they make their respective contributions, has to happen in the context of this understanding.

We have to separate thinking of individuals from thinking about systems and structures. To me, this is basic. As individuals, we are not the structures that we’re part of.

We have to separate the expat experience from the expat contribution. I loved my own experience of being an expat in this place called the field. It was fun and exotic. I was special. I got all sorts of formal and informal perks, just by virtue of being foreign. I had all the classic epiphanies, the moving conversations, the realizations. I felt close to the action. Felt like I was “actually doing it”, while all my colleagues in HQ just “supported” the real work that I was doing. There is no question that I benefited, at least professionally, from “The Field.”

And more than anything else, the tenor of reactions against “The Field” seemed to beat this same drum. People clearly enjoy being in the field, wherever that is. But that all as may be, it is simply far past time to have an open conversation about actual contribution. I realize this is difficult for expats. Our own relevance comes naturally to us. The field is good for us, but are we good for the field?

We have to find ways to articulate the need for change in ways that do work, but that also do not unnecessarily demean or disrespect. This is the classic post-postmodern aid industry conundrum. Regardless of where we’re from and where we’re looking, we see things that have very obviously have to change. Yet out of some too-vaguely defined sense of “respect culture and custom”, we don’t speak up or act. Or we speak up or act only partially. Tom Paulson had a great piece on exactly this issue, here. This is a major part of what I was getting at, a long time ago, here.

This is in no way license to be ethnocentric. The preferred option, obviously, is for strong leaders to speak up and enable action within their own communities (whether we’re talking about Afghanistan or New Jersey). But this is not always feasible or even possible. We need to get our heads around how to think and talk about what we do in those kinds of situations.

The Myth of “The Field”

Many thanks to my friends over at for publishing the original version of this post, a few hours ago: Read the original!

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The myth of “the field”

A few months ago I wrote a little rant about “the field.” Continuing that train of thought, now…

There are few fixtures of the aid industry which hold as much mystique and show as much staying power as the concept and romance of “the field.” No other grail is so fervently sought among the bright-eyed, hopeful students and newbies as the field. The field, they believe, is where the action is, where they’re actually doing it, whatever “it” is. The harder or more exotic the field location, the better. Cubicles and conferences room in, say DC, are a necessary evil to be put up with until such time as one can escape to the field. There is no aspect of a young aid professional’s experience so frequently inflated or over-stated on resumes or at happy hour as time in the field. “Nearly one year” is always better than ten and a half months, and so on.

By the same token, there is no other trump card played with more authority and self-assurance, whether to put upstart newbs in their places or to establish one’s own silverback status, as years in the field. Years in Kabul or Huambo or San Salvador (and, for reasons I fail to grasp in 2014, Cambodia) make you a hardcore, front-line badass who makes things happen. Years in Brussels or Singapore or DC (the latter, at least as dangerous as Phnom Penh) makes you a pansy cubicle-farmer who goes to a lot of meetings and writes papers that no one in the field will ever read.

Some of you will call me an aid world heretic for this, but it’s got to be said: It’s time to recognize that “the field” is a relic from a previous era in aid history. Like VHS tapes and personal CD players, “the field” is an artifact left over from a time when white guys in khakis and untucked shirts (or maybe white women in sexy, black tanktops) left someplace comfortable and civilized to go someplace difficult and dangerous, where they would do aid to beneficiaries.

dressed for action in “the field”

I can think of few aspects of the culture of the aid industry which are more counterproductive to what we say we’re trying to accomplish, than to keep alive this notion of this mythical place called “the field.”

The reality of the aid industry today is that it no longer (if it ever did) conforms to a field/everywhere else way of thinking. It is far too common, even now in 2014, to think and say that there’s this place called the field where aid actually happens, and then there’s everywhere else—HQ, maybe—where other things get discussed or done, but what does not happen in the field is not really aid.

It’s time to recognize that this is just plain incorrect. Make fun, if you will, of what goes on in well-lit UN conference rooms in Geneva, or at the global HQs in Washington, DC, Oxford, New York or Singapore (I certainly have and sometimes still do). But it’s important to understand that those things are not just “support” or “fundraising.” They may not be particularly Facebook- or edgy memoir-worthy, but the workshops, meetings, strategy sessions in the humanitarian capitals are every bit as much aid work as are running cholera clinics in Port-au-Prince, getting a truckload of non-food items across the Acekele border crossing, or being the accountability officer in Goma.

More specifically, to see the field as the place where aid really happens, as compared to everywhere else, is to also miss a basic reality that the decisions which truly make the most difference are not made in this alleged place called the field. Implementation and technical teams at or very near the point of delivery need to be staffed by competent practitioners, and they need to be well-led, of course. It’s important to have solid people there. But look at what gets decided where:

At the project site, or at the country office you get to decide things like the training schedule for the nurse/midwives. Or maybe you get to decide on the wording of the questions in the household survey instrument. You get to decide which trucking company to go with for next month’s shelter kit delivery. Those are all important, of course, and they must be decided well.

But in the everywhere else, you decide or participate in decisions about where the funding goes. This region gets 2/3, that region gets 1/3. You decide which countries get funding. You decide what sectors get prioritized. These places, more than those. These people, not those. Maternal Child Health, but not harm reduction. At the project site, you basically implement the decisions made by those who are elsewhere. When I was a country director (during my own years in this alleged place called the field), I tried repeatedly to articulate and implement a strategy which focused on particular sectors in particular parts of the country where I worked (Vietnam). But at the end of the day, aid industry Darwinism took over and I implemented the grants I could win—which were not necessarily in my sectors or geographic areas of preference. I might have been on the so-called front lines, but the real decisions about where and who and what had been made elsewhere.

To use another example, in the early weeks of the Haiti earthquake response, World Food Programme (WFP) provided nearly 50 metric tonnes of food for earthquake survivors. The decision to make this amount of food available was made in Rome. The decision about how the food was to be divided up was made—well—globally, via email and internet, by the heads of relief and food programming of the various INGO partners (several INGOs did the distribution for WFP). The decisions about targeting (they targeted women on behalf of households) and ration size (50 kg. bags) were made by WFP with some input from NGOs, again more or less globally.

In the end, the relief operations teams in “the field” got to decide things like how to divide the tonnage and territory among themselves, where the distribution sites would be, exactly, and to some extent their own individual modes of beneficiary registration. I was in Port-au-Prince at this time, working for one of the INGOs tasked with distributing that WFP food, and I remember that period very well as a time of crazy ‘round-the-clock work. But in the end, we were implementing decisions made by others who, in some cases were thousands of miles away.

Beyond the basic, structural realities of the aid industry, there is also a deeper, darker problem perpetuated by the field versus everywhere else thinking. Our continued fixation with the field crystalizes residual, essentially ethnocentric notions about those who need help, and about those who do the helping. No matter how much lip service and maybe even real effort we devote to valuing all things “local”, to local capacity building, or local empowerment, to trying to break down the divide(s) between expats and non-expats, we re-cement the divide between “us” and “them” every time we refer to the place where aid supposedly happens as the field.

Speaking to the empowered, globally-minded Westerners now, we might say that we want Ugandans or Indonesians or Bolivians or whomever else to be empowered owners of their own development, but every time we refer to where they are as “the field”, we underscore our perhaps unconscious views that they are undeveloped, while we are, well, developed. By continually invoking this notion of the field we reinforce the very divides we say we want to bridge; we further solidify the very inequities we insist we want to eradicate. Inevitably “the field” becomes an even more deeply entrenched separation between “us” and “them”, whether the “them” is those we claim our projects and programs help, our local colleagues with whom we like to say we’re so close, or our colleagues hunched over desks in nice offices, writing the grants which keep our salaries flowing, and the position papers which (hopefully) keep our employing agencies credible.

Yes, the field sounds exciting. The field sounds romantic. Set in UN cubicles of New York or Geneva, Emergency Sex would hardly be worth reading (although I think it’s safe to say that more or less the same shenanigans go on there, too). But set in the field, it feels like a furtive peek through the locker-room door into a world that seems both exotic and foreboding. But the romance and the exotic factor of the field are chimera. The number of places in the world where you truly cannot get good internet or a cappuccino become fewer and farther between by the day. And in this context, the field becomes a huge distraction.

I can’t say I have the answer to the question of, “if not the field, then what?” I do know that how we think and speak (or write) about aid matters. I prefer to think about what I do and how that fits into the overall picture more than the where I do it. How does what I do today fit into the grand scheme of aid somehow making it into the hands of those who need it most? How does what I do today contribute to improved efficiency and effectiveness of the machine intended to make the world better? It’s not about the where: I know people living in places which, if I was to name them, would make anyone’s list of places in “the field”, but who cannot articulate a straight line of logic between what they spend their days doing and the amount of poverty in the world becoming somehow less.

And so, if I could be indulged to deliver one bit of unsolicited advice, it would be simply this: Understand and be honest about your motivations—the “why” matters. Find your spot in the overall scheme of what needs to be done.

But stop fixating on the where. There is no field.

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