Aid workers: These are your life options …

A friend of mine sent me the deeply satirical text you find below. However, it’s not  far from the truth and I couldn’t resist sharing it …

You’re an aid worker with 10+ years experience under your belt. You earn a pittance but it works for you because you are non-resident at home so you don’t pay tax, you are catered for on assignment so you don’t pay rent,and your mortgage is covered by the people renting your place because you are never there. You can’t hold down a relationship for more than 3 months and you secretly know that despite what you tell him/her it’s really not because you’re only ever there for 3 months… it’s because you can’t live without the independence.

UN convoy in Chad; UN Photo/Olivia Grey Pritchard

UN convoy in Chad; UN Photo/Olivia Grey Pritchard

Things are ok now but you’re approaching 40. What should you do? What does the future hold? Are you one of the new world order of aid worker gypsies?

Welcome to your future – these are your life options:

Option 1. You go back to a headquarters job. Instead of doing what you want to do, you now advise people who are doing what you used to do. You earn the same more or less as you did before, but your costs of living shoot skywards because you’re now paying tax, rent/mortgage and utilities…

You consider sharing accommodation and, bingo, you’re a student again and like a student can’t afford to do 1% of the things you think you would like to do.

Option 2. You go work for the UN. Keep the job you love and the lifestyle that goes with it. Your salary jumps to levels that used to get you all riled up after a few drinks back when you used to work for “honest”  down-to-earth INGOs. Now you’re cynical about them all and aggressively defend your need to raise a nest egg to plough the way for the family/dog/cottage/brats you’re planning. You’ve done your bit after all. You do this for a while before you realize you sacrificed every dream you ever had in this work and can no longer look yourself in the mirror.

Option 3. You find something suitable in the commercial sector and live happily ever after. This only happens to 1/10,000 aid workers and if you’re a logistician, forget it.

Option 4. You retrain and change course. You take a massive pay cut. Your skills and experience in aid work go unused and unappreciated. You marry someone who will never fully understand where you are coming from and why you are quiet for long periods of time. If you haven’t left it too late to have kids, just remember – dysfunctional.

Option 5. You write your memoirs and someone makes a movie out of it starring Leonardo De Caprio / Angelina Jolie. You become an even more arrogant git, lose all your friends, and make a lot of cash. This only  happens to 1/100,000 aid workers and will definitely not happen to you!

Option 6. You become that lonely, jaded expat sat at the bar in some third world piss pot letching over young locals and making snide remarks.

Option 7. You decide to set up home but not in your own country. Forget moving back to London, Paris, New York, Munich but head for the Balkan Adriatic or one of the emerging Eastern European States before the property developers get there, and develop a serious liver problem.

Option 8. You hit the road along with thousands of your cohorts with visions of huge bands of ex-aid worker families roaming the European countryside in caravans, plastered with “No guns on board” stickers and of course pulled by white Toyota Land Cruiser hardtops and pickups, scratching out a life by erecting latrines and living under plastic sheeting. You take stock count of everything you come across….. and from time-to-time you seek charity.

  • Fiona

    Very apt! I think quite a few take Option #7

  • mbb

    I've been "doing" development for 13+ years and you have captured many of the thoughts that have gone through my head on depressing Sunday evenings in the "field".

  • Nicola

    This is exactly where I was a year ago. I took option 1. It sucks.
    Option7 is looking more and more attractive….

  • Harriet

    Yet you did it – you did aid work for years and helped, some of us just dreamed about it – traveled in less well traveled places, then set up work, home and families in safe places and still dream of doing what you have done knowing they will never get around to it…..well maybe in the 1/100000 cases. You should not be downcast that decades of experience is not recognized in any other field after all professional footballers dont have too many transferable skills either!

  • Dule

    I've been doing number 3 (if that is what working for a consultancy is considered) for over 2 years. Great money, but not helping anywhere near as much as I used to.

    Getting sick of it. Interviewing for DPKO in 2 days.

  • NGO's (elderly) mum

    Thank you for all that you do – and for suffering the work / life consequences….. would be a sad, sad world without you.

  • marina

    there's this also for those considering a headquarters job:

    You know you're working at an aid organization headquarters if…

    1. You just had a pre-meeting to discuss your strategy planning session for the new initiative to reduce poverty by increasing access to safe water/credit/food/health care through fair and equitable distribution to those with the right to said good or service through engagement with duty bearers in the government and other stakeholders and civil society organizations.
    2. You just repeatedly slammed your head into your keyboard after spending the last 20 minutes trying to get your Skype conference call between Port au Prince, West Bank/Gaza, Delhi, Nairobi and New York to work only to fail miserably.
    3. You realize that you can no longer squeeze into your cubicle past that cool hand-woven cloth from Mali, the wooden mask from Congo, the elephant figurine from Thailand and the rug from Afghanistan.
    4. You just completed an annual report to your donor explaining that you're very sorry that you only managed to accomplish 2 of your 14 objectives due to sudden onset of war, drought or an invasion of futuristic nano-robots.
    5. You just finished explaining to the donor that you are likely to need a two-year extension and an extra $200,000 to hire an independent consulting company to come up with a plan to fight off the nano-robots, carry out said plan and then finish up the original activities.
    6. You realize that you just used cheers, karibu, Insh'Allah or namaste in casual conversation despite the fact that you are neither English, Kenyan, Arab or Indian.
    7. You realize that your favorite and most frequented cafe is located in Schiphol Airport in Amsterdam.
    8. You just finished depressing a volunteer caller from the Red Cross for the 12th time this year who reluctantly agreed that you are not eligible to donate blood because you just got back from fill "in malarial region here".
    9. You're pumped with antibiotics more frequently than a cow in a concentrated feeding operation.
    10. You tell yourself it's not failure if you turn it into a lessons-learned document.

    • http://sm4good.com Timo

      So, so true!

    • Conor

      So on the ball Marina. I can picture your cubicle so perfectly – like every other HO cubicle we have all passed through. All these comments describe all of us so well- its really amazing. Surely if there are this many of us we should eb able to start a more "sedate' INGO with a more ;mature approach.

      I am doing option 7 for 18mths now…………in Greece by the way for all those considering option 7. . If things keep going the way they are heading we could have some very nice projects here in Athens.

      From a 37 yr old ex CD now selling his soul in the private sector. Completely underutilised, bored beyond belief and missing it all- even Abyei….

    • dflower

      Brilliant!

  • Peter

    Option 9: You cant be arsed anymore and wait for the phone to ring with a lucerative consultancy offer. But you have to be 50 for that, ofcourse.

  • Aarathi

    marina – you just summed up my life. i was reading it literally as i was working on a lessons-learnt document.

  • Guest

    You missed an option…..go back to your 'home' town and get a job teaching other new young idealistic folks how to be aid workers. You get a union salary, 8-12 weeks paid holiday and a captive audience to listen to your stories that rotates every semester so you can tell them all again. These are 1 in 100,000 but I got one!!

  • tom

    How about option 9; you become a consultant, doing exactly what you did before, and for the same amount of money, only now you work just three months a year :-)

  • http://www.nickyreiss.blogspot.com Nicola Reiss

    Option 9:
    You contract a chronic mystery illness while working in the field and are forced to retire and live in poverty because the long-term disability insurance you thought would cover you denies your claim. The INGO you used to work for doesn’t want to know you – you are totally expendable, just like a factory worker.
    Yes – it happens. I’d like to hear from anyone else this has happened to. Don’t assume it won’t happen to you!
    http://www.nickyreiss.blogspot.com

    • http://intensedebate.com/people/Timoluege Timoluege

      Sorry to hear that!

  • Christina

    I say pick a country and teach English …. Getting paid and still helping children

  • david

    what about this as a variation? You take the UN route, and then you figure that when you qualify for retirement, you will do what you always wanted and go work for an NGO.

  • Stallyktan

    it seems that the majority agree the post which is somewhat hard to develop much enthusiasm for the aid work. HOWEVER it also seems that almost everyone had experienced or is still doing their job in the aid work. I wonder what kind of motivation you guys have in spite of those depressing part of aid work on the post above. SInce I am one of "new young idealistic folks"…I seek expert advice.

  • Nishan

    In my INGOs. life so so true, its a very good document

  • http://www.humani-coach.com Cedric ROUSSEL

    Beautiful description! So true and funny at the same time!
    I do believe it is possible to find our very own, personal and beautiful way (even for logisticians, which I was!), when in the field or back from it.
    After +- 15 years in the field, I became aware of these 8 Options without knowing which to choose: none of them respected my core values and dreams. I also realized that (too) many of my colleagues had the same concern! I too, had a go in the "evaluation world" until I realized 80% of the recommendations produced by the evaluations were not implemented – see the report of ALNALP (Active Learning Network for Accountability and Performance). Why? According to me, recommendation are often good but people (human kind?) are scared to change. I am sure it can explain why some of the headquarters jobs are taken with so little motivation.
    Anyway! I looked for an Option 9 and I found it! I got specialized in helping people to find their own UNIQUE Option 9, depending on their life vision, skills, knowledge, competencies, fears, dreams and sometimes traumas, but also their family and financial situations… This work is called "life and professional coach", also for expatriates (humani-coach.com).

    Stallyktan, beware that this article concerns people back from the INGO field. Therefore it does not deny the incredible value of the field life/work/experience of this profession.

    My conclusion: don't miss the most beautiful mission ever: build the life that suits you best!

  • George

    the thrill of walking into an unknown, and possibly dangerous situation, throwing the rule book out the window to make "it"(what ever it may be) happen, and giving every once of my strength and mind to helping people in need. That is why I show up during the emergency phase sometimes, but I don't do it for a living, just 1-4 months at a time. I usually only get enough pay to feed myself and have a bed. By the end of it I'm mentally and physically drained but I sleep very well at night.
    I have immense respect for those of you capable of doing it full time, but at the same time I think your all mad.

  • me-

    hahaha, I love it- ha, it is great to know I am not the only one, thank god you are all out there :)

  • Vikas Goyal

    Very true.. I also have around 10+ year experience and i am going through same things.. totally agree..

  • Grumpy Owl

    This is just sad and nihilistic. Its written from the point of view of someone who had their unrealistic dreams crushed by the reality of the world. Its possible to work in aid/development for 10+ years but also keep a head on your shoulders and feet on the ground about paying bills, finding meaning in your work, and making a difference in other peoples lives. Here's a lesson to those starting out in this kind of work: humanitarian field work is only one facet of a global reality, and often times it is a skewed and manufactured reality which requires lots of resources and money to construct. That isn't to say it is meaningless. Quite the opposite. It is the culmination of a great deal of goodwill and positive energy to change reality. But keep in mind that fieldwork is not a utopian dreamland that you might allow yourselves to think it is, where you are the great white saviour to the poor black people. You still have to leave this place and rejoin the world that you left behind and assume a social role which is less visible than what you will become accustomed to in the field (hence the unexciting desk job which most people have to do, and the reality of paying bills which you had been exempt from, and the career indecision that everyone else in the world faces daily).

    • miriam

      Dear Grumpy Owl, I think you have not fully understood the heart language of this Aid Workers Article. It is written with deep insight of reality, and reveals a perceptive comprehension of all the aspects of INGO work, before and after. And, most of all, it is written with one of life's greatest gifts, amazing humour, which strengthens and encourages their invaluable work of helping people to turn their lives around.
      All the Best

  • bsk

    well… i'm only just starting as a humanitarian expat, but the plan i already have is to open up a hippy nostalgic café with the best friends i'll have at that point + my sister, either in a trendy european capital by the sea or in a town in the developping world (also by the sea) and teach troubled kids catering skills. I'm young and idealistic, but honestly, i don't why that wouldn't work. If you're ready to do as you always did: live on very little, share a house and deal with admin/log/legal problems everyday! And we'll have concerts and conferences to fundraise for whichever NGO we best liked to work for. Feel free to try out my number 9!

  • http://www.wfp.org Hasan siyat

    I joined these through a friend who as well happens to be my boss..and from the thread and all comments, i realised that all we are getting is perceptions, experiences,opinions and stories of colleagues who are of international status.I wonder does the national collegues story, perception and side counts in these blog….cause you bet, all those options availed will be critically commented and analysed on, from a local perspecvtive..and damn you, most of you if not all will be shocked !!!

  • hassan siyat

    Hi All,
    Almost all if not all of the threads and comments that i have read suggests that it all comes from one who has enjoyed an international standard as a staff with his organization…unless you can prove me wrong. i wonder, does a national staff or a locals perspective count in these blog?..let me know, coz you bet, the options presented before mostly does in no way befit a local staff`s life with humanitarian organization regardless of the number of years there.. unless a national or local staff if you like..does not meet your meaniong of INGO humanitarian staff..yet we all know that they are the people doing the real job on the ground. I never knew many have such a take and expectation from being a humanitarian worker. Seems it`s all bussiness for some…and no wonder we had the `lords of poverty` published out of it.!!!

    • http://sm4good.com Timo Luege

      Dear Hassan,

      you have a valid point. Most blogs that deal with international aid and disaster relief are written by expatriates and we are missing the critical (in more than one sense) voices of the local colleagues. I’m sure if you started a blog where local staff would share their experiences, a lot of people would be interested in reading it. Alternatively, if you wanted to write share a local staff’s perspective on “Stuff Expat Aidworkers Like” (http://stuffexpataidworkerslike.com/), I’m sure they would be delighted to have your text.

  • Eirik Jarl Trondsen

    I chose option of doing social business in Africa. To me it combines doing something meaningful while leaving the NGO lies and double standards, and making money in the process. Life is great, and Africa has much to offer, especially when you are outside the UN/NGO/Donor sector and live a free life!!

  • A clean break

    Tried Option 1 but it sucked for all the reasons set out above… so took option 4 instead. Retrained as a lawyer. Money is much better (although less keen on paying taxes), and many of the life skills transfer across well.

    I steered well clear of everything to do with human rights/ refugees and/or humanitarian work and decided to practice in the big, bad commercial world. I needed a clean break.

    A few people here know what I used to do. Most do not, but it does not matter – I have 13 years of memories to make me smile, and a blessedly uneventful (but dynamic and challenging) life to look ahead to. Plus kids who I get to see mornings (and some evenings) every day of the week.

  • Alina

    This article is like the elephant in the room no one in the field really speaks about. The work is rewarding and thrilling, no question (that's why we started it) but it comes at a price: the compromise.

    Usually, once that work path is successfully reached (I sincerely had tears in my eyes when I got my first job out there), you end up compromising something, your ideals (that for sure if you work for UN), identity (if you browse too many countries), financial stability, long term life planning, what else. It is better to realize that before the good options run out.

    But the most essential compromise is that of your private life – the key to a happy life, so one has to make a decision. Well, it must not be. Sometimes it works out for those happy two who found each other in the aid worker arena and start a family of newly displaced children. But not for all of us. And be driven be hope that “one day…” is naïve and you will end up doing the job you like, staying alone.
    I was one of the "new idealistic folks" only 2 years ago. Most of us start this work because they are dedicated to make a change (some of us for the consultancy money) and its personally fulfilling and fun (like traveling). But let’s be honest, which change? Refer to the hundreds of published testimonies by aid-workers, economists, historians, analysts. So truth to be told, you continue with the work because it's your element, you feel alive.

    So the other elephant in the room is mostly that you do that for yourself. Helping others? Rewarding, yes. But you do it because it makes you happy. Sometimes I wished I could have found fulfillment in baking bread. Well, I didn’t. I LOVE what I do now. But the elephant is knocking at my door.

    So the best advice I can give, follow your heart, you will not regret it, but think ahead! Make a plan. The options described are pretty depressing, and for sure you will need to compromise something on your wish list for life. Be well aware of what is important to you NOW, and what might become important for you LATER on, and plan wisely. Keep a stable basis in the country of your origin or anything comparable, have a backup plan that allows you to re-enter the public sector in a field that can still make you happy. Priorities might change later on, think about it.

    I have done this for 2 years now and am at the cross-roads, big decisions ahead, “career” (=doing what you love and getting money for it) or a stable private life (=family), sometimes it’s really this against the other. Not only in aid work.

  • PEACE BAYOH

    These experiences are very hard to shallow although some lines are humorous, it needs a lot of patience and understanding from people with whom you share your life, although some may give up, for those who like taking up challenges, they will continue to interact with you even when you go silent in some while. Note, people keep on making choices on daily bases, at times, these choices are based on values, and interests.Although, what one values may not be the same with another in some instances, it may concur and life has to continue whether in diversity or convergence.Better be resilient and continue…please some courage no regrets , cheer up!

  • Leonardo da Vinci

    Article and comments pretty much sums it up – Many (too many) unqualified northerners are increasingly having difficulties to enjoy the expat luxuries in the aid sector, can't build a career out of endless aid processes that require the same skill set as organizing a party or working for a travel agency. After the 10 year paid-for backpacking tour of the world is not fun anymore, there is envy over friends who actually built a career out of education and work and have a family life. And there is realization that the poor bastards you set out to help actually are more competent than yourself. And you can't even get a business class ticket to that ngo meeting at a well know resort. Life sucks say you. I say, get a grip and get a life.

  • On with the mission

    Remember Ross Coggins, 1976:

    The Development Set

    ‘Excuse me, friends, I must catch my jet
    I’m off to join the Development Set;
    My bags are packed, and I’ve had all my shots
    I have traveller’s checks and pills for the trots!

    The Development Set is bright and noble
    Our thoughts are deep and our vision global;
    Although we move with the better classes
    Our thoughts are always with the masses.

    In Sheraton Hotels in scattered nations
    We damn multi-national corporations;
    injustice seems easy to protest
    In such seething hotbeds of social rest.

    We discuss malnutrition over steaks
    And plan hunger talks during coffee breaks.
    Whether Asian floods or African drought,
    We face each issue with open mouth.

    We bring in consultants whose circumlocution
    Raises difficulties for every solution –
    Thus guaranteeing continued good eating
    By showing the need for another meeting.

    The language of the Development Set
    Stretches the English alphabet;
    We use swell words like “epigenetic”
    “Micro”, “macro”, and “logarithmetic”

    It pleasures us to be esoteric –
    It’s so intellectually atmospheric!
    And although establishments may be unmoved,
    Our vocabularies are much improved.

    When the talk gets deep and you’re feeling numb,
    You can keep your shame to a minimum:
    To show that you, too, are intelligent
    Smugly ask, “Is it really development?”

    Or say, “That’s fine in practice, but don’t you see:
    It doesn’t work out in theory!”
    A few may find this incomprehensible,
    But most will admire you as deep and sensible.

    Development set homes are extremely chic,
    Full of carvings, curios, and draped with batik.
    Eye-level photographs subtly assure
    That your host is at home with the great and the poor.

    Enough of these verses – on with the mission!
    Our task is as broad as the human condition!
    Just pray god the biblical promise is true:
    The poor ye shall always have with you.’

  • Pingback: Great future ahead for aid workers. | urbanopolista

  • juliet.p

    I have my perplexities about the aid sector but what you say seems to me really off the mark. “Northerner” aid workers (which represents only a fraction of aid workers since many now are from developing countries) are usually recruited among the better educated and better qualified young graduates. Getting a job in the development sector requires often much more skills than getting a “normal” job at home. The reason why they are “increasingly having difficulties to enjoy the expat luxuries in the aid sector” are simply the same why their fellows at home have increasingly difficulties in finding well qualified and well paid jobs -ie much more people that a few decades ago have degrees and the global economy is shrinking.

  • http://www.sm4good.com/ Timoluege

    I couldn’t agree more! Why is it that working with displaced people in foreign countries frequently is more appreciated my people outside the aid sector than working with homeless in your own country? It is a form of cultural imperialism, i.e. “The White Man’s Burden”? Or is it that people are more uncomfortable being confronted with the failings of their own society – and the implicit knowledge that they, too, could do more – than with a society far, far away? Whatever the reason, it is certainly true that local aid workers are the most efficient most of the time since they understand the context, speak the language and have the cultural knowledge that is necessary for a programme to be successful over the long run. So yes, work for a local NGO if you can.

    • guest44555

      No, not really:
      1. most charities in developed countries now are just as professionalised as international aid agencies are. you want to work for a homeless organisation? you need a social work degree. In which case, go to Option 4 above.
      2. most of the issues that charities in developed countries deal with, frankly, pale in significance, urgency, adrenaline or impact against what you can achieve in a displaced camp in South Sudan or wherever. That’s just the truth, coming back is a come-down.

      • http://www.sm4good.com/ Timoluege

        Hi guest! I’m not sure how your first item contradicts what I have written in my comment.

  • LC

    Life doesn’t suck, but your condescension does. I did build a career out of education – a BA, an MA, and a postgrad – and left those and the job they brought precisely because I DID get a life. It’s the life I wanted, not the life you think I should have. The requirements I had to meet to get in to this work are more rigorous than any I ever faced in the private sector, and if you think moving aid to thousands of people is as easy as throwing together a wine & cheese then I’m glad it’s me and not you who is part of the effort to give people who are far from “poor bastards” all the assistance they deserve while they re-build their lives.

  • julie

    very true. And by the way, in case you settle down in Italy (your home country), while looking desperately for a job to survive (after months of unemployment without any state support)…..people just call you for interviews to tell you “I don’t have any job to offer you, but I wanted to see your face since you had such interesting experiences before…”. ……………………………..

  • Juliane

    Partly depending how you define “aid work(er)”, where you work and in which kind of position (working in emergency response in a one of this world’S remote aread is certainly a different piece than being advisor at a Ministry in the capital), it may also an option to stop convincing yourself that your job is so exceptional and you are soooo different to your (former) friends and family at home. And remember that you always have an option – you decide. With only few years into the “aid work” and I think many more ahead, I actually find the level of “arrogance” and “exclusiveness” expressed by “aid workers” (including myself when I don’t watch carefully) impressive. I would argue it applied for many that entering this work field is much more a self-interest driven decision than anything else. And this realization may help with reconciling with the fact that it is time to go home (?).

  • James

    Yes. You are so right. Also the comment on working in their home countries. Priveleged kids who go around “saving the world” and then come home and complain because they feel entitled to more in life.

  • Observer

    Not to diminish the good intentions of individuals in the field but when it comes down to it, NGO’s and other Aid organizations like so many of Societies flawed institutions peddle Hope. Short term assistance / hand outs do not translate into sustainable independence. Target groups systematically learn to become dependent and forget how to be self sustaining, inevitably doomed to suckling at the teat of Aid organizations.
    It’s my opinion that Hope resigns the individual into acceptance of their circumstance, lulling them into complacency and fueling the soul destroying ‘Hope’ by capitulating their fate to the generosity of others. In the absence of hope one can take control of your fate or yield to it.
    Not to mention the glaringly obvious fact that we focus our energy primarily on treating the Symptom and not the Cause…as for the Aid worker, how can one expect satisfaction at the end of a lengthy arduous journey when, deep down we know that we are not stemming the tide?

  • Livingstone2004

    I am still to read the well-founded expatriate critique, despite of having read all the books. Alternatives are generally missing.
    I reallly love the article from the perspective “What do you do after 40″
    Some issues, which may be worth mentioning:
    - You’ve had too much malaria;
    - You’ve heard too many shots passing by;

  • Grai

    When we say “NGO” we all assume INGO. This is part of the arrogance of the Development Worker/Manager mentality. The primary role of INGOs should be to develop NGOs (local) to build their organisations to be able to work alone and alongside their governments as developed organisations. Instead I see too much of the limiting “implementing partner” role being assigned to (local) NGOs with no access to influencing, let alone developing, the strategy to solving their country’s development issues.
    I also can’t help sniggering over the ” .. we only earn a pittance .. ” lie. International staff earn 10 times or 20 times what local staff earn and do not pay tax and usually have the perks of living a lifestyle in a developing world that they could not even imagine in their own countries. How many of your family in their twenties have a large house, car and servants … eh? Yes I know that International staff earn less than thy would do in thweir own countries when working for an INGO – but they are not living in their own countries.
    I made the decision to work for local NGOs and have done so for the last 6 years in Sri anka and now Burma – my future life choices could be the same as outlined above as I too will not have money to save … the difference is I live quite happily and at the same life style level as I would at home in the UK – no cars – no big house – no servants – no eating out every day – no drinking the most expensive imported alcohol and eating mainly imported international foods.
    So …. get a grip … stop feeling sorry for yourselves and bleating about self-sacrifice … enjoy this period of your life where you live in a anerr you are unlikely to ever again – or go home ….. or god forbid …. get your life view sorted…….