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.