Between Arrogance & Defeat

22 Aug

One very hot day last February I was in an NGO-branded vehicle (it was a minivan, not a Landcruiser) with five colleagues, about half way between Port-au-Prince and Fond Parisen. As those who have also been down that same road know, some areas in that region of Haiti look like desert. There are some moments when you could almost just as easily be in parts of Jordan or Arizona. It was a harsh looking place under harsh sun, the nearest towns four or five kilometers away in either direction.

As we crested a small rise the colleague riding shotgun spotted what looked at first like a dead person, a corpse crumpled in a heap on the dirt shoulder. As we drove past the body moved. Our driver stopped and backed up. A couple of us piled out and went back to see if we could help.

The gaunt, old woman told us that she had been trying walk from one town to the next to visit her sister. Too long without enough food or water, she’d been overcome by exhaustion and the heat, and had simply collapsed. Her arms trembled violently as she tried to raise herself up off the ground, and her knees buckled as a colleague and I helped her to her feet. She was terribly thin, cheeks sunken, eyes glazing.

I’m no doctor, but it looked to me as if she was close to death.

IDP camp near Fond Parisien, Feb. 2010.

IDP camp near Fond Parisien, Feb. 2010.


I cannot recall that encounter on a lonely stretch of Haitian highway without almost immediately also flashing back to another encounter under the hot sun on another continent more than a decade prior. An encounter that, more than most others (and there are many), continues to haunt me. The encounter that I wrote about in the first post ever on Tales From the Hood.


I’ve written before that one of the hardest things about being an aid worker is maintaining some sort of balance in one’s own personal life. And it’s true that we are often driven to extremes of different kinds. But I’ll update this statement now to include that one of the hardest things about aid work is keeping a balanced perspective on the work itself, as well as the issues that we have to deal with in the course of doing that work.

It is a constant struggle to keep the extremism of the life of aid work from spilling over into substance of aid work. It is easy to feel at the end of a week that you have done nothing but argue all day, every day. After enough weeks like that – weeks during which you repeatedly feel as if you have only two options: fight to the death, or full capitulation – it can be exceedingly difficult to choose well which battles to fight and which hills to die on, which to negotiate, and which to simply let go.

For all of the (I believe) good made possible in part through the application of concepts like polyvocality, practices like participation, and standards around things like good process, one of the great paradoxes of aid work is that aid workers come to the aid enterprise constrained at the get-go by the self-same beliefs and values that drive us. We endlessly, it seems, remind ourselves and are reminded by others of how little we know, of how shallow our understanding of the cultures and communities where we work is,  and why, because we are outsiders, it can by definition be no other way. Yet we cause immense, sweeping, far-reaching change, with almost cavalier naïvete. We promote what we’ve done in superlative, inclusive language in well-designed websites or interagency working groups where consultants are teleconferenced in and interns brew free-trade coffee.

By contrast we also routinely go to the worst places on the planet, engage directly with the most abused, most disenfranchised, most marginalized, most forgotten people there are; we come face-to-face with objective evil, whether in the form of genocidal regimes, horrible practices like human trafficking and slavery, or the modern bastardization of ancient cultures. Yet we often feel constrained to speak out, to act, for fear of being or appearing ethnocentric, for fear of being called out on some small detail of history or linguistics that we may have missed. There is always complexity and often chaos, but even so there are times when both the problem and the remedy are crystal clear, and when redress is within our power, even if only on a limited scale. We allow ourselves to become bogged down in discussion and semantic hair-splitting and some nebulous kind of “reasonable doubt.” Far too often we lack the confidence to say the hard things, to take decisive action when decisive action is needed.

Paradoxically, we are often slow to call out examples of bad aid, organizations whose founding assumptions are flawed, or those programs which continue despite real evidence that they enable (if not directly cause) harm. Yet at the same time we are often quick to quibble and nit-pick any time a fellow aid-worker who makes a simple declarative statement without a lot of fluffy caveats and self-abasement. An unqualified opinion uttered or written in anything other than bland dispassion or grey technicalese is too easily received as “strident” or “harsh.” Beyond personal self-deprecation the language of aidspeak is increasingly devoid of middle-ground expression.

The culture of our industry continues to erode away the already narrow and precarious space between arrogance and defeat.

* * *

It’s trendy right now to be either stridently critical of the aid industry or to sort of mindlessly cheer it on. I am trying to find and stay in that liminal space between the two: I don’t think that aid is failing or that it is irreparably broken. Nor do I think that it is a smashing success. There are some successes, to be sure. But there is also a very long way to go to make it better. Like Alanna said, aid is like a big, flailing machine, whose output (in my opinion) is simply mediocre overall. On balance neither horrible nor awesome.

In that first post ever on Tales From the Hood I wrote that “we must go about this business of making the world a better place mindful of the fact that we are still learning. … we must do it humbly. And we must do it confidently…” I believe those words more now even than when I wrote them, several years before I got around to publishing the post.

Many more intelligent than me analyze and write about what’s wrong with the structures and dynamics and economics of the aid industry. They have their views about what needs to be fixed and how. But for me it starts with attitude and perspective at the individual level: How to find the balance between acknowledging one’s own limitations with doing what one knows must be done; how to clearly appear and also to be in fact open to new thought and perspective without compromising the value of experience and those hard-won lessons about what works and – perhaps even more importantly – what does not; how to make the hard decisions, say the hard things, take the difficult and perhaps unpopular action, knowing full well that it will be misunderstood, but without going so far as to revel in being misunderstood; how to be equally honest and uncompromising about the successes as about the failures.

In short, how to manage the opposing tensions of arrogance and defeat and find the sweet spot of confident humility.

* * *

The last I remember of the thin old woman was the sight of her being helped into a tap-tap. We’d given her food and water, and after a few minutes she’d revived enough to stand. We’d flagged down the tap-tap and given the driver cash, plus a little extra to take her directly to her sister’s house. He’d readily agreed, and while this is far from any objective measure, he had an honest face.

I can’t take any personal credit for anything: Any of my five colleagues in the car would have insisted on stopping and helping. Nor do I overstate the importance of what we did: with nearly 300,000 dead, more than four million homeless, and untold millions of dollars in aid to Haiti, one person and maybe a few dollars worth of tap-tap fare was a drop in the ocean.

But still, it is one person we had the chance to help… and did.

And right then, flashing back to another blistering hot day in rural Cambodia, watching a frightfully thin child grow smaller in the distance, it might have been just the heat getting to me. But I could have sworn I felt the universe say something like, “don’t get to feeling too confident, now… but you’re getting there…”

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25 Responses to “Between Arrogance & Defeat”

  1. Ian 22 August, 2010 at 12:44 pm #

    Brilliant, just brilliant writing.

  2. angelica 22 August, 2010 at 3:21 pm #

    “confident humility” I like that. it’s a fine balance. I agree too many people are too full of it. at the same time, too many wont rock the boat or say anything outside what’s expected.

    Cultural sensitivity hanging over our heads always, if we don’t agree it’s always cause we don’t understand. I am DONE with that. I will always be respectful, of anyone, anywhere, but things like “asians don’t like to loose face” I’m sorry but, who does? it’s not a cultural thing. the important things, like your woman by the road, transcend culture.

    most of the problems could be solved if there was less corruption and less greed, so don’t come to me with excuses.

    I don’t understand, you are damn right, and that is why I’m here to do something about it. and hopefully I’ll stay humble and listen in the process

    did any of that make sense?

  3. Linda Raftree 22 August, 2010 at 6:34 pm #

    I can relate, esp to the parts on being constrained by the very values that drive us, the paragraph that starts with ‘it’s trendy to…,’ and the bit about finding the balance. Nice post!

  4. stayingfortea 22 August, 2010 at 7:48 pm #

    Thanks J.

    I suppose a lot of us feel like the proverbial kid on the beach with all the washed up starfish: almost powerless, overwhelmed, under-resourced, half ignorant…but…but, there is this one starfish within reach…

    to be humble and confident, avoiding arrogance and defeat – that’s a great thing to hope for, to strive for.

  5. Meg 22 August, 2010 at 8:13 pm #

    I’ll echo angelica in also loving the idea of confident humility.
    As always, thanks for wonderful and provocative writing.

  6. Mo-ha-med 22 August, 2010 at 9:34 pm #

    “…interagency working groups where consultants are teleconferenced in and interns brew free-trade coffee”
    Loved the piece, J.

    Let me start by a lighter note – Reading Angelica’s “asians don’t like to look face – I’m sorry, but who does?” – I am reminded with the shoe being thrown at GW Bush by Al-Zaidi, the journalist; all newscasters took serious airs as they informed us that “throwing shoes is insulting in Muslim culture”. I can’t think of another culture where a shoe thrown in a sign of respect!

    But back to your entry.

    Drawing my own conclusion, it seems that the way to improve aid work is effectively to sidestep our regulations and follow logical behaviour?
    Because, referring to your Cambodia story, organizations I worked with would expressly forbid taking passengers in our official cars; yet if someone is dying and needs a lift to the hospital, dammit you give them a bloody lift.

    What you’re saying is that we can be better at what we do by doing what seems to be right.

    Heck. That shouldn’t be too complicated.

  7. Gary Walter 22 August, 2010 at 10:48 pm #

    Now that I’m back in EMS, I resonate more clearly with what you’re saying – especially having just read your first post about the four year old girl. Since I have kids that age, and have had several four year olds in the back of my ambulance lately, my heart breaks.

    True enough, we can’t save everyone – and should we try, we will die. Hard to know where to draw the line. Working the streets, I see many people whose need is not an ambulance ride, emergency medical care, or even an ED visit – what they need goes much deeper. They need time, caring, and understanding – something church-goers should be doing, but by default, it is thrown into the 911 system.

    I give everything I have 4 days a week, 12 hrs a day (not counting a 3 hr RT commute) – I need my four days off to recuperate, relax, and be with my family. But what if….

  8. 2zpoint 22 August, 2010 at 10:50 pm #

    I feel that you are doing what it takes to help those people and to stay alive. If you fall on the sword for one injustice how much more are you really helping? By letting the people live their lives and fight their own fights you will give them their own life. One can only imagine what your going through and how hard it must be to help people yet watch them do harmful things that you just wish you could say no don’t do that! But you can’t take those risks. Keep strong! You are doing work that we all should strive for…a better world one deed at a time. Thank you for your insight.

  9. Rachel 23 August, 2010 at 12:53 am #

    Thanks for the post. I’m all caught up right now in all the myriad of things that I don’t know about where I am… “Confident humility” — I will practice that. :)

  10. Canadian Idiot 23 August, 2010 at 2:09 am #

    You have interns to make coffee for you – nice!
    Excellent thoughts as always – confident humility about sums it up. Reminds me of a song by Carolyn Arends called “Do What You Do” .

  11. Amelia 23 August, 2010 at 2:18 am #

    That’s what I was talking about J! This is just beautifully written, don’t stop writing.

  12. c-sez 23 August, 2010 at 6:17 am #

    Shorter J:

    “They know what is what, but they don’t know what is what; they just strut. What the fuck?”

    – F. Slim

  13. @viewfromthecave 23 August, 2010 at 7:16 am #

    A very measured response to some biting crit. Very well written. Thanks J.

  14. Carla 24 August, 2010 at 6:05 am #

    You are skilled with the pen, my friend.

  15. Matt Davies 29 August, 2010 at 1:05 pm #

    Very thought-provoking. Can’t help thinking though that the word aid worker is so constraining in that it allows so little room to portray reciprocity. When you add the word “humanitarian”, it at least shows that we share a common humanity with those we work alongside. What terms do others use?

  16. underthemosquitonet 9 September, 2010 at 11:13 pm #

    Great post.

    I would like to take the dilemma of WHO you can help a little further. In my mind–and in my experience–it goes deeper than this. I know for a fact that I meet hundreds of people every day who I could help. How? I could help them by giving them food, medicine, a roof to sleep under.

    But just as I begin to reach into my pocket, I that dreaded word slips to the front of my mind: sustainability. This word gives me reason (excuse?) not to help people I see in the streets, because I would be helping them in the wrong way. I would be giving them a temporary fix to their deeply rooted, complex problems. Most days, I feel confident that I am making the right decision–focusing on my work will ultimately have a more significant, more lasting impact.

    But your post reminds me to remember my humanity. It is indeed easy to lose balance, to confound obvious decisions with work-related principles.

  17. solemu 28 June, 2011 at 7:00 am #

    Amazing post J! “Confident humility” says it all.


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