This started out as a longer essay. Maybe a short book. Now it’s just some random notes. Maybe I’ll finish this book and publish it. Until then, this post.


Expressions of kindness (doing nice things) is not the same thing as helping. Helping is not the same thing as fixing or solving problems.

Expressions of kindness feel good for a moment. They are things like holding open the door for the old guy with the walker, or giving the pregnant woman your seat on the subway. They’re things like volunteering at the homeless shelter, or giving $5 to the homeless person at the stop light. An expression of kindness is my daughter, at the age of 8, making me pancakes (and turning the kitchen into a disaster zone!).

In the international space, expressions of kindness are things like collecting bicycles for Zambia or going to build a school in Mexico. Forget for the moment the very real negative effects: International kindness is volunteering at an orphanage, or collecting clothes to take to Haiti.

Recipients of kindness are very often genuinely grateful. They often smile and say “thank you.” “Yes, thank you, grandma, for that ugly-ass sweater. I know you meant well…” Very often kindness is as much about the doer as the recipient.

Being kind is a good thing in your individual day-to-day life. But as professional humanitarians we need to move beyond simple kindness.


Helping is different. Helping is when you use resources tactically to improve a situation. If giving the pregnant woman your seat once is kindness, then giving her something that guarantees she’ll have a seat every time she rides the subway is helping. Giving her six months’ worth of taxi fare, for example. Helping is when parents help their grown children pay off student debt.

The majority of well-planned, well-executed aid work fall into the helping category. We use resources tactically to improve the situation of people affected by conflict, disaster, and extreme poverty. Or we should.

Being helped doesn’t always feel like kindness. An addict whose family and friends stage an intervention might be wildly pissed off, and rehab might be miserable. Making my son plough through his pre-algebra homework isn’t fun for either of us. And he might feel it monumentally unkind that I don’t simply tell him the answer. But that wouldn’t be really helping him, would it?

Using resources tactically means making choices. Sometimes difficult choices. Resources are limited, and you can’t do everything. It’s also important to understand the difference between helping and problem-solving. Helping is not a panacea.


Solving problems is making them go away. Full stop. Solving problems requires the strategic application of resources over a sustained period of time, at scale, and in a way that addresses all or many aspects of context. Recycling at the household level is a good thing, but it won’t reverse climate change – that would take a lot of people recycling plus do a lot of other things, too.

Solving problems may not feel like kindness either. There is no path toward reversing climate change that does not involve all of us consuming less, and no one wants that. There is no path toward peace in DR Congo without addressing the issue of conflict minerals, which then means all of use use less or different communications technology – yes, even the technology that I use to write and publish this post. Eradicating malaria or tuberculosis means prioritizing efforts to do those things at the expense of other issues – someone will almost certainly die of typhoid or meningitis in the meantime, and the reasonable response will be, “but what about me?” (or “them?”). Solving world hunger will mean reducing the profit margins of some pretty powerful global corporations, and reducing the disparity between the “haves” and the “have nots” – an idea that many in the “haves” category find distasteful. For the “have nots” to have more, the “haves” may need to have less.

Humanitarian aid and development won’t solve any problems. The tsunamis, the earthquake in Haiti, the war in Syria, and all the other disasters and humanitarian crises you’ve ever heard of highlight a vast array of problems that the humanitarian system can never hope to solve. Let’s not confuse helping with problem-solving.

And let’s stay clear, to on the purpose of the humanitarian system, as well as of the individual NGOs, INGOs, UN agencies, and donors that comprise it: Our purpose is helping. We don’t solve anything.

Hopefully we do help.

Are you good at your job?

In November of this year (2016) I released a mini-poll entitled “Are you good at your (aid industry) job?” It was partially my own continued train of thought from this post: Represent. I wanted to see how others – you – see them/yourselves around this question of whether just anyone can do this humanitarian aid and development thing.

The poll is still open, so if you’ve not taken it yet, you still can. These results are preliminary.

(Not familiar with my mini-polls? See this post and this page.)


My read of Q2 and Q3 together is that the respondent pool is primarily what I would call mid-management and technical. These are your run-of-the-mill NGO and UN system employees, doing moderately specialized work. Walk through the cubicles of any household charity field office or HQ programmes unit, and you get a sense for the majority of the respondents to “Are you good at your job?”


“Which of the following best described how specialized or difficult your aid industry job is?”



Q4: What would happen if you unexpectedly missed a day of work?

Obviously this gets away, strictly speaking, from the question of whether we’re good at our jobs, and gets into something around the immediacy of what the vast majority of us do. Look at the capture of the responses: A combined 92.3% of us could simply miss work for a day without beneficiaries noticing. I’m not saying that 92.3% of us could all miss work on the same day – I expect there would be a huge impact if that was to happen.


Yes, deadlines. There are times when it’s full-on and everyone works around the clock. But most of us are being overly dramatic when we carry on about the never-ending urgency of our jobs.


Q5 – this seems straightforward…


Q6: If you answered “Yes” to question 5: What makes you think you are good at your job? How do you know that you are effective?

An illustrative sample of the responses:

“I am not entirely sure if I am good at my job in the sense of making a ‘sustainable change’ for the better, but the fact that I am questioning it, finding solutions to improve and having discussions with others within the sector in order to increase impact (because that’s difficult to assess anyway, have we made a real difference?) is more than I can say for a lot of other aid professionals out there.”


“I don’t just do what is in my job description, I go the “extra mile” if I feel that it helps overall programme delivery / performance. I have worked in several contexts (different aid organisations and/or duty stations) and I have always been appreciated by colleagues and supervisors so I guess I am really doing well, or at least better than average. Clearly there have been situations in which co-workers did not agree with me on some specific issues, but overall they seemed to like my way of working. I never had any negative review (at least not that I know of).”


“I support monitoring, evaluation and learning processes across the organization. I see success every day in the fact that teams are eager to learn about their environment and impacts and openly reflect on how past decisions would have been made differently if they had better information. The processes aren’t easy but are far from impossible, having a global team who is eager to consume information for program improvement is a huge win! It will be a game changer when the whole industry feels the same way.”


“I see progress happening and nothing is falling apart!”


“I think I am good at my job because I have led the organisation to quadruple their budget, while ensuring we are still implementing with quality under my leadership. I am proud of the work that I have done and the team that I have hired.”


“In my head, I have two simple objectives. One is to improve programme quality and reach for beneficiaries. The second is to capacitance my team with clearer systems, processes, and knowledge and confidence, for when am I am not there, or they move on. If I get overwhelmed by the To Dos… I come back to these objectives; if what I am doing is serving these priorities, then I am using my time effectively.”

For as famously self-deprecating and cynical as we can sometimes be, in the responses to Q6 I got a very strong sense of people taking pride in what they do, and in a good way. This is very positive.

I was intrigued by the juxtaposition of these responses with the overall sense of Q4. How do we make sense of “no beneficiary will be affected if I miss work for a day,” vis-à-vis “I’m good at my job and what I do matters.”? This can mean many things, but to me first and foremost it points to that wide gulf between perceptions about what the aid industry is and how it works and how it is talked about, and what it’s actually like to be inside it.


Q8: Please rank the following attributes in terms of their relevance in *your own* aid industry job performance and capability.

Here’s how the ranking came out (scale of 1 – 6)

  • 5.1 – My experience: On-the-job learning.
  • 3.8 – My technical ability.
  • 3.8 – My people skills.
  • 3.5 – My understanding of the aid system and how it works.
  • 2.5 – My formal education: degrees, certificates, etc.
  • 2.14 – My strong commitment to the humanitarian cause (or my employer’s mission, “heart for the poor”, etc.)


Three things jumped out at me from this result.

First, the expressed importance of experience and on-the-job learning. This would seem to fly in the face of very popular opinions from elsewhere about the need to bring in non-insiders or the importance of “disruption.”

Second, the distant second clustering of technical ability, understanding the aid system, and people skills. Part of this might be sampling – most respondents seemed to have roles which focused internally (within their own organizations), and so understanding the aid system would not necessarily be top-of-mind for them, for example. And if you’ve ever lived for very long in a team house, you’ve confronted the reality that most humanitarians have mediocre commitment to people skills.

Finally, the dead last ranking of commitment. Every aspiring humanitarian needs to read this. Declaring your love for “the poor” doesn’t make you good at your job


And lastly, a response from Q9: Anything else you’d like to ask or add?

“I think that effectiveness in a humanitarian job is connected to length of time in a specific job. Based on my observations of myself and others, it is easier to be effective in the initial stages of being in a role but as time passes, effectiveness decreases. I have worked in organisations where people have the same job (with minor title and salary changes over time) for 5, 10, even 15 years but the ones who’ve been there the longest doing the same thing are no longer able to see an issue with fresh eyes and perpetuate the same habits.”

Don’t make me name names.

Four things

A few times each year I’ll get email from people or organizations who wants me to give a nod of endorsement for what they do. It’s usually some new start up organization or person with a new take on an old theme.

We can argue and wordsmith things to death. In my opinion there are four basic qualities that mark the difference between professionals and amateurs:


(1) It’s not just some random, occasional thing. This is not something to dabble in. Either you do it or you don’t.

(2) You have specific, identifiable skills that are relevant. Maybe you have a degree or a certificate to prove that you have those skills. Maybe it’s just something that you have done for many years and are very good at.

(3) You do what you do at a level that falls in line with established standards and norms (and there are standards and norms for most everything that we do in the aid world).

(4) Constant pursuit of improvement.

Plays well with others…

Everyone in their first entry-level job is ready to dispense advice on how to get into the aid industry. But at some point the entry-level jobs no longer cut it. Then what?

In response to specific requests, here are my five go-tos for those mid-level, blase, cynical-yet-still-kinda-idealist, over-educated, broke professionals, who maybe indulged in a tad too much job-hopping/dream chasing, and now feel stuck.

None of these are end-all-be-all. They’re tips. They’re what I’ve seen work in the lives and careers of people that I work with. For the sake of this post, I’m assuming that you’re basically qualified for the jobs you’re applying for, have the right level of relevant education, have a solid work ethic, etc. Take it or leave it.

Here goes:

Play well with others. If you read no further, get this one right. There’s always someone on the team or in the team house who knows the answer to everything; who can deftly deconstruct everybody else’s argument; who knows everything that everyone around them is doing wrong and is endlessly in everyone else’s business; who is forever pissed off and intense about something; who flies off the handle at any and every perceived or real injustice. Don’t be that person.

Figure out where in the industry you’re happiest/most effective. Forget about climbing the ladder unless what you actually want to spend your day doing is at the top of the ladder. And forget about trying to move to [SOME COUNTRY], if what you really want to do can be done just as well in [A DIFFERENT COUNTRY].

This takes mental discipline. Strip away title and strip away location. Then ask yourself, which jobs do you actually want to do? Then go for those kinds of jobs, and let those around you say and think what they want.

Invest in understanding the aid/dev/humanitarian industry. You can’t figure out where in the industry you’re happiest, nor can you chart a path to get there if you don’t understand the industry in the first place. Know your context. This is basic.

Professional Communication. You know the adage, “Dress for the job you want, not the job you have”? The same applies to communication. If you want to be the boss, you need to communicate like a boss. And I don’t mean talk down to others and try to boss them around. I do mean write complete sentences with capitalization and punctuation. I do mean you should componse coherent messages and spell people’s names correctly.

Get good at managing others. Ever been managed by someone who got promoted because of longevity, seniority, or technical ability, but was a terrible manager? Yeah, it happens a lot. Don’t be that person, either

Aid Worker

“Aid worker” is one of those nearly impossible to define terms. The wild mis-perceptions that ensue almost every time I out myself as one can be as frustrating as they are amusing. The term “aid worker” says nothing useful about what we actually do, yet at the same time comes laden with loads of baggage around who we are, and who and what we should and should not be. No one in the comments thread (pick any Huffington Post or Guardian article about the failure of the aid system) knows specifically what our job(s) is/are, but most everyone has an opinion about whether it’s acceptable for us to drink, live in a team house, or go on vacation.

It’s time to recognize that the aid industry is a lot like the aviation industry. Which is to say that it’s very large and very broad in terms of the range of professions, occupations, and specialties that fall into it. The vast majority of those people who work in the airline industry are not pilots or flight attendants. And by a similar token, I don’t know or know of a single person in the aid industry whose title or job description include the word “aid worker.” There are accountants, lawyers, HR staff, logisticians, technical specialists of all kinds, managers, directors, communications staff… When an employee of an a IT company tells me she’s a software engineer based in New Delhi, it’s not like I have a detailed understanding of her job, but there’s basically no real confusion.


In an earlier post, I wrote that it’s time to dispense with the traditional romantic notion of an aid worker. The more I think about it, the more I see this as a central, root issue. Those traditional, romantic notions of what we do, who we are, and who we should be underpin a vast amount of both public misunderstanding, and also our own cognitive dissonance and crises of faith. We need a makeover, and in this case I don’t even care what journalists and mom-bloggers and crackpot commenters think. We need a makeover of how we see ourselves, for our own benefit. We need new memes, images, and words around whatever will replace this antiquated term, “aid worker.”

Perhaps the most common complaint that I hear from colleagues and people I supervise is that they feel as if what they’re doing doesn’t matter. Very often, it turns out, they’re comparing their actual job—“grant acquisition specialist,” maybe or “food security technical officer”—to this mythical thing called an “aid worker.”

We need new words.


HUMAN is coming. And, once more I find myself in that final sprint toward a self-imposed publishing deadline.

I’m pleased to announce that my newest work of humanitarian fiction will be released on 1 August, 2016 through my personal label, Evil Genius Publishing LLC.

This book is entitled HUMAN and is much, much more than humanitarian fiction – it is humanitarian science fiction. As far as I know, this is the first work of humanitarian science fiction ever.

“Aid work was never “just a job” for Nassandra. But on Planet Earth, as head of the Inter-Galactic Aid Programme relief response, she found herself tested in ways she’d never imagined. As the last Native Earth tribes fought for their survival against the savage R’tulan who plundered Earth’s very substance, Nassandra found herself caught in a drama of passion, struggle and an unexpected search for the essence of humanity.”

HUMAN is a short book (about 33,000 words), and should take 3-4 hours to finish, depending on how quickly you read. Less time than it takes to read the average World Bank report, but so much more interesting. Or perfect for long layover or SDG workshop!


HUMAN is available for pre-order here. If you buy today, it will automatically download to your device on 1 August. For now HUMAN will be available as an ebook only. It’s possible I may release a print version at some point in the future.

Pre-order HUMAN right now!

Of course, if you don’t want to buy HUMAN, you can always get it for free:

  • Are you someone famous, important, or otherwise noteworthy in the aid world? Great. Read HUMAN and give me a blurb (one of those short statements that appears on dust-jackets and websites, like “Stunning… a triumph.” Or whatever.)
  • Are you a blogger, reviewer, or journalist? That’s cool, too. Read HUMAN and publish a review on your site, along with links to the purchase page on Amazon.

If either of the above are of interest, drop me a line at evilgenius.main(@)gmail(.)com, and I’ll send you the information package.


And now, the question on everyone’s mind is, “What difference did the World Humanitarian Summit make?”

If social media is any indication, I think many could carry on a great length about everything they think was wrong about it. It is important to keep in mind that arguing, semantic debate, nit-picking, and being endlessly dissatisfied in general are central to aid worker identity. And so, to some extent, OCHA along with a host of supporters, were in a losing struggle for industry goodwill even before the consultative process was fully underway. I have my own array of pet issues, but I won’t bore you with those right now.

No, rather than pass judgement on the #WHS, I would like to challenge all of you–the aid industry–to frame your assessment in terms of two filtering questions. Whether you’re tweeting your effusive support for a life-saving hashtag, or clogging Facebook with your nay-saying, ask yourself:

If we change the status quo on this issue, will beneficiaries* be able to tell the difference? These days, this is my basic filter for deciding whether or not to even engage with an aid industry argument and debate. If we tweet using the #ReShapeAid rather than the #ShareHumanity hashtags, will a refugee somewhere feel a difference? What about yet another panel discussion on “evidence and data?” Or continuing the humanitarian versus development debate? If Ashley Judd or Angelina Jolie give another talk or go on another junket? If MSF was present or not? If you were to get your way with your pet issue, would it seriously make life better for someone else?

I think that most of what we argue about doesn’t matter. Let’s argue about the things that do matter.

What will I do differently tomorrow, based on _____? Many things matter, but we can’t always do something about them. Let’s say, for the sake of argument (because in the aid industry there is always an argument), we all agree that “agencies will share their data relating to vulnerability; undertake joint analysis of need and response; and collaborate on planning and programming, backed up by financing and strong leadership,” we’re all firmly committed, we’re all on board. What’s the first email you send tomorrow as your part of moving the needle on this issue? Or maybe it’s all-male panels. Or maybe education really should come first. Or maybe CARE is right, after all, and the whole thing was a disappointment. Draw a straight line between whatever issue you’re passionate about today and what specific things you will do as part of your job.

The WHS was a big meeting. Big meetings happen because that’s just how we roll. Did it make a difference for the better? Was all the expense and fanfare really worth it? Or was it just a gigantic blabfest that will lead to no meaningful change?

Well, that’s kind of up to you…



*Or whatever other term or phrase you prefer.


One of the most difficult and troubling aspects of actually doing international humanitarian aid and development is the issue of different pay and benefits for international staff, compared with local or national staff. I suspect that in 2016 this issue needs no real introduction. Everyone in or watching the humanitarian industry, regardless of where she or he might be from or works now, has an opinion on how local staff and expats should be compensated vis-à-vis each other.

I think it’s safe to say that there is virtually zero industry-wide consensus on this matter. There are probably as many permutations of internal policy on expat / local salary and benefits differentials as there are NGOs and UN agencies, each rigorously defended as fair and just by its author(s). I cannot think of any single issue with as much power to divide teams, to permanently sour relationships between local and international staff, or turn individual colleagues irretrievably against each other. And few issues provide such consistently reliable fodder for whistle-blowing or irate carrying on in comments threads around the Internet.

Up to now, nearly all of the debate and commentary has focused on the aspects of fair compensation and actual cost. The fact that expats often receive a different array of benefits than local staff do, and the comparatively high cost of fielding an expat versus the cost of hiring a local person are the go-to touch points of the debate.

Those who wave the flag on this issue of expat versus local compensation and cost have mostly done so by calling for transparency of expat salary and benefits. The underlying assumption seems to be that details of expat housing allowances, R&R, or per diem are smoking guns of evidence that, if made public, will outrage donors into defunding those NGOs and UN agencies not automatically shamed into equalizing their salary structures.

Those few highly competent national staff that we do have consistently outperform half of the international staff in the office, while collecting a fraction of the salary.”

This comment below a recent “Secret Aid Worker” article in The Guardian reflects a common, very familiar sentiment. And the snap-to reactions are to call for the expats to be paid less (or perhaps sent home altogether), and the locals to be paid more. Or to vehemently defend why expats are necessary and worth the high cost. “…while collecting a fraction of the salary,” is the part that we all want to latch on to.

This is the wrong approach.

At its core, this all comes down to an assumption-turned-accusation that two people do the same work at the same level, yet are compensated differently. But unfortunately for pretty much everyone, regardless of where on the spectrum of opinion they sit, there is currently very little basis for either supporting or refuting such accusation. We have very little basis for saying that either local staff or expatriate staff under-perform, out-perform each other, or perform the same. Our inability to say what excellence looks like, whether for the industry as a whole, for an organization, or for an individual aid worker renders us inescapably incapable of having a rational conversation about who should be compensated how.

I’m not blind to the existence of racism or ethnocentrism (along with plenty of other “isms”) in the aid industry. But I do not see this as fundamentally a racism issue. I see this as a bad people management issue. I see this as an issue of consistency and clarity around what it takes to do the job well, what good performance looks like, and then holding staff accountable for good performance regardless of where they come from. As an industry, we basically suck at managing our people.

If you want to move the needle on the issue of unequal compensation between local and expat staff, you have to begin by having an honest conversation about what the/an actual job entails, what the actual requirements are, and what the person in the job now actually does. Let’s sort out what skills and abilities are actually required, and then talk about how to pay for it. The salary debate is meaningless apart from a clear understanding of actual performance. Knowing what expats make tells us nothing useful unless we also know what they’re supposed to be doing to earn it, and also what they’re actually doing.

There are many good reasons not to publish the details of salary structures or individual contracts. But there is no good reason not to publish job descriptions, terms of reference, expected outcomes, or performance measures.

Peace, out…

By now most anyone with serious interest in the humanitarian sector or the UN has come across this article, a “peace, out” (farewell) excoriation of the United Nations system by a Mr. Anthony Banbury. I Love the U.N., but It Is Failing.

I’d be willing to bet beer that the majority of those now busy Facebooking and retweeting the link had almost certainly never heard of Anthony Banbury prior to his #dropthemic op-ed (I hadn’t). I’ll even go out on a limb and guess that most people Facebooking and retweeting the link cannot say with any real certainty what a UN “Assistant Secretary-General for Field Support” actually does (I couldn’t).

But all the same, “I Love the U.N., but It Is Failing” strikes a resonating chord. It seems to confirm what we already think we know: The UN is an inefficient, bloated bureaucracy; a dystopian relic, the spawn of twisted minds. We need look no further. “I Love the U.N.” is a scathing indictment by a long-term insider who resigned from a senior post in protest of the graft, incompetence, and inefficiency we all knew was there but until now had no proof. Every righteously indignant voluntourist, every low level aid worker who thinks she’s too important to go to the cluster meeting, and every P2 who’s grumpy because he got passed over for promotion to P3 now feels vindicated.

"Peace, out..."

Peace, out…


These articles and blog posts come out occasionally. “I’m breaking up with aid, because, you know, I just can’t…” Some long-time (or not) insider has had enough, wants out, and wants us all know that he/she has had enough.” For those who remain, though, these breaks up and the know-it-all flurries that invariably ensue can be incredible disenchanting. I can’t claim 30 years in the UN system, but I have been around long enough know from personal experience what it’s like for those in the trenches when someone supposedly important and high-profile makes a big splash about leaving.

To those who remain, who still believe, or who simply are not able to resign in protest, this is for you:


The behavior displayed by Mr. Banbury has a name: Displaced dissent. Displaced dissent is an actual thing that has been studied. Plenty of information out there on displaced dissent, but you can start here. In short, displaced dissent is whinging about the boss at the pub after work. Displaced dissent is blogging about your workplace frustration, or if you’re senior enough in a high profile enough organization, getting an op-ed in the NYT.

It’s important to understand that displaced dissent, by definition, is not an effective means for affecting organizational change. Displaced dissent is what workers resort to when they feel it is unsafe to dissent internally through established channels, or when they have simply given up hope that their dissent will make a difference.

So, basically, the UN will not change because of “I Love the U.N., but…” You can retweet the link all you like, you can post it on Facebook with your comments, and to cut straight to the spoiler, nothing will happen.

If you want to change the system, you have to do something other than resign and then make a big deal of telling everyone why. Join the flurry of know-it-all and whataboutery if you must, but manage your own expectations about any likely outcomes.


This is just a job. None of us thinks that everyone stuck in the cubicles of Philip Morris’ corporate headquarters is a smoker. No one believes that every employee of British Petroleum is an eco-terrorist, or that every employee of Chrysler a climate-change denier. Most people—including those of us in the aid system—go to work, get salary, pay bills. We agree or disagree with our employer’s corporate identity or policies. We complain about our bosses at happy hour, gossip about incompetent colleagues or ridiculous policies in the coffee room. But some level we all make a conscious or unconscious calculation about the extent to which our disagreement with our employers outweighs our tangible need to actually make a living.

Mr. Banbury chose to leave the UN system in protest. But to go to what? What’s he going to do? Consult? (probably) Start his own NGO? Work for the corporate sector?

Many aid workers express rather extreme moral and ethical elitism around the water cooler. But let’s be clear: It is not cynical to disagree philosophically with the organization or system we work inside of, and also to continue to work inside that organization or system. It is, rather, a recognition of how the real world is and how it works. And also a recognition that our mortgages, car payments, insurance premiums, and educational loans don’t simply pay themselves.

[How loyal are you (to your NGO employer)?]


It is possible to be a good person, to do good work, and to make a difference in the world for good, within a broken or dysfunctional system. For those of you still in the system, whether UN or other, now questioning whether or not you’ve thrown in with the crew of a doomed ship, this is important:

One disillusioned individual who can no longer take it is not proof that you’ve wasted your life.

I’m not sticking up for the UN or the aid system, and if you’ve read my writing here and in other places, you know that I certainly have my issues with both. But it’s important to understand that when it comes to the aid system you will find what you look for. You can find evidence of systemic failure. And you can also find evidence that good things happen. There are people around the world today who have an objectively better life because aid workers not unlike yourselves, whether somewhere on the front lines or buried in a warren of cubicles in New York, showed up for work.

Be introspective, be self-critical, do commit to excellence, do be clear-minded about the real contribution of your role toward the big picture, and do remove yourself from toxic or dysfunctional situations when you’ve had enough. But do not let the fact that some high-level bureaucrat went all “peace, out” be the thing that shakes your faith in what you’re doing.


Identify your own triggers. Think now about what it would take to make you walk. Simple as that. What lines would have to be crossed for you to up and leave your employer? The aid industry as a whole? At what point would you rather be unemployed than work another day in the system? Is it about salary or benefits? Would it be over some matter of technical approach or programmatic delivery? Would it be over some in-principle issue?

It doesn’t have to be all fraught and dramatic. And you can always change your mind later. But think about it now. Otherwise, you probably will find yourself 10 or 20 or 30 years later, disillusioned and bitter, but unable to articulate why, and with no real alternatives. Anthony Banbury will not hurt for livelihood options. He had the luxury—and make no mistake, it was and is a luxury—of being able to resign in protest. Most of the rest of us are in no such situation.

Basic Premise

I’ll be vulnerable and just admit that I’m supremely bored with the usual critiques of the aid system.

Don’t get me wrong. I don’t think the aid system is in great shape, or even good shape. I don’t think that things are acceptable the way they are right now. And I do think that some things need to change.

But when I look at the substance and tenor of the vast majority of what passes for online discussion about the aid world and what’s wrong with it, I begin to get the feeling that most of those doing the discussing are bringing drama rather than substance. They’re not very skilled at guiding their existential angst around to some kind of grounded conclusion. More than anything else, I get the sense that there is a disconnect, not between what people think it’s going to be like and then what it’s actually like, but rather a deeper, more fundamental one: Disconnected thinking and expectations around what the aid system is for and how it actually works.


I’m going to guess that most people who sign up to be police officers accept, perhaps implicitly, the basic premises of police work. That police forces are local extensions of state power, for example. Being a police officer is about imposing the will of the state on a local population. There’s nuance and variation within the system, of course. But at the end of the day, that is the basic premise of police work. Many people have issues with the basic premise of police work, and predictably these people do not aspire being police officers.

Similarly, I’ll guess that most people study to be paramedics have accepted the basic premises of pre-hospital care. They don’t cure cancer. They don’t provide end-to-end service. Emergency Medical Systems (EMS) are set up to respond quickly to situations where people have suffered physical trauma or acute medical stress, stabilize them, and then get them under the care of someone who can provide more comprehensive diagnosis and treatment. If you reject the tenets of pre-hospital care, then paramedic is not the right job for you.

The basic premise of being in the military is that it is your job to enforce the will of your country nationally or internationally. There might be different ways to go about this, but that’s the basic premise. If you want to be a soldier, you need to get to the place where you’re okay with this basic premise.

The basic premise of being a teacher is that you impart knowledge and skill at the standard of whatever educational system that you’re in. The basic premise of being a bus driver is that you have to drive a set route, rather than wherever, whenever you please.

Accepting the basic premises of whatever line of work you happen to be in is key to being able to go to work and do your job, day after day. Thinking through and understanding in as many words what those basic premises are, in my opinion, simply part of being a grown-up.

I think it may be time to have a quiet chat about some of the basic premises of humanitarian aid and development work. There are three:

This is a global system. There are two parts to this one:

The aid system is a system, and yes, you are part of it whether you’re the head of OCHA, leader of the OFDA DART, a programme officer for CARE Malawi, or the founder of some self-started charity that collects bras for women in India. You are part of the system, even if you don’t participate in any kind of coordination or share your programmatic data with the UN. You are not off the grid. You/your organization/your project exist within a framework of control and accountability.

Second, it is a fact that the aid system exists globally. As I wrote in the prior post on this blog, there are roles and jobs within the system that legitimately need doing almost everywhere. Many of the roles and jobs can literally be done from anywhere there is Internet. Some of the roles and jobs really do seriously need to be done can only be done in specific places. Maybe Kabul. Maybe Malakal, or Erbil, or Port-au-Prince. Maybe Washington D.C. Maybe Geneva.

Go ahead, figure out what role you want to have in the system. Take some time to discover where your knowledge, skills, and experience can be brought to bear to do the most good. But if you cannot come to grips with the premise that no matter what you do and where you do it you are part of an integrated global system, then you may want think carefully about whether international aid and development are really the right place for you.


This is about affecting change. I am honestly baffled by the number of times that I have to have this particular conversation, but here we go again: The world can be a pretty crappy place. We look at a situation somewhere (could be local, could be in another country) and arrive at the conclusion that things need to change. We further believe that we can be personally part of that change process. Then we implement what we believe our role to be. Whether we’re a donor or an implementer or something in between, we are part of making change in the world. At a very basic level, you literally cannot embrace the status quo and also make the world better.

That is one of the basic premises of aid and development. We—you, me—are part of making change happen. Aid and development are about causing change.

Yes, we must be honest, reflexive, and introspective. Yes, we should follow good process (which can mean many things). Yes, we must take it seriously. We should not be cavalier or arrogant. Yes, being part of a change process implies necessarily that we pass judgment on conditions somewhere. It implies that we think we know or can do better. Yes, it is audacious.

But at the end of the day, if you cannot accept this basic premise of international helping, then perhaps this is simply not the place for you.


This is about power. Maybe you don’t feel powerful as you sit and debate the format for this year’s annual report. Maybe it feels ludicrous to talk about power when your life is an endless series of capitulations, when you’re endlessly hounded over petty bureaucratic details, or when your typical day is a lot of fighting for the obvious. It may feel silly to talk about power when global humanitarian and development assistance is a small fraction of, say, global consumer spending on technology.

But make no mistake: Aid and development are about power. Aid and development are very specifically about reducing the power of the powerful and increasing the power of the less powerful. The aid system, like it or not, is about exerting the will of donors on beneficiaries, even when donors insist that beneficiaries get to choose (being forced to choose, to participate as a requisite for assistance is another kind of submission to power). The aid system is about exerting the will of donors, many of whom represent political power, on communities and countries. Even the stridently self-described “neutral” NGOs still impose their agenda for change on the world, and by so doing use power.

As a participant in the system, you, too, use power: you influence resource use and allocation decisions (not saying that you always get your way); you influence outcomes at the level of end-users. If you are in the aid system, you are part of that power-wielding and influencing structure. You are part of often complex negotiation of moving resources (and by extension power) from one party to another. And the same caveats as the above point also apply: None of this is license to be arrogant or cavalier.

This is one of the basic premises of humanitarian aid and development work. The system at all levels is about power, and you also posses and use power if you are in the system. Now is not the time to get all obsequious and self-loathing. The aid system is about power. If you cannot live with this premise, then perhaps you should not be here.

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