Privilege

22 Sep

Anyone who’s even partially awake in the aid world right now is aware of the Millennium Development Goals Summit currently ongoing in New York City. And a single line tweeted by @texasinafrica late yesterday from somewhere on location there pretty much says what I usually think about such events:

“So ends a day of listening to rich people talk about ways to help poor people they’d never dream of letting in the door.”

All of those helping the poor to help themselves, whether the decision-makers in cubicles, expatriate managers in white SUVs, or locally-hired community mobilizers (and a range of shades and colors in between) are all in different ways “the rich.” Maybe not rich in the “Oprah takes every member of the studio audience to Australia” sense. But definitely rich in the “oh crap, my iPod stopped working… I think I’ll just go get another” sense.

And yet, we’re also poor. No, not poor in the “live under a bridge because we have no other option” sense. But yes, poor in the, “oh crap, at this rate I will not be able to retire until I’m 103” sense.

The fact that the MDG summit took place in New York City betrays another paradox, too: the growing reality that Humanitarian Aid is now as much about what is debated and agreed in the conference rooms and cubicles of New York, DC, Brussels, Geneva, and perhaps also Seoul, Jakarta or Nairobi, as it is about what happens in villages out in “the field” in rural Togo, Kazakhstan, or Timor-Leste. In this case, it seems that the real action is taking place quite some distance from the real action. And for some reason, I now feel like I ought to add Ace Frehley to my aid work playlist: “I’m BACK… Back in a New York Groove….”

The whole MDG endeavor including this summit embodies what for me are the crowning ironies and paradoxes of Humanitarianism. While those aid workers in my close personal circle consider it a great privilege to be able to do the work that we do, few of us would call ourselves “privileged” in the sense commonly connoted by the word in American speech. We didn’t attend Ivy League schools, we don’t drive expensive cars, our houses are modest, our salaries pale in comparison with those of high-school classmates who made their fortunes in the corporate sector. And even so there’s no denying that we are privileged, at least compared with the vast, vast majority of the population of this planet.

We often cultivate our personas as part bohemian, part outcast, part illuminati, part survivalist, part bad-ass… But the greatest of the ironies and paradoxes is that at the end of the day, despite our self-packaging, and for better or worse, humanitarian aid is a profession for the privileged.

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12 Responses to “Privilege”

  1. Meg 22 September, 2010 at 4:08 pm #

    Yes, yes, yes. Thanks for keeping it in perspective.

  2. danielle 22 September, 2010 at 4:26 pm #

    as a new yorker who left the aid world and expat ecosystem to return home and launch a social venture, i often laugh that i now can’t afford to attend said events in my own hometown, and that i can’t afford to do aid work in the field, either.

    funny part of your post is that yesterday, while walking past the UN, i couldn’t get past both an African delegation and a European delegation, both of which acted without the NYC courtesy of letting others walk through.
    i found myself uttering ‘hello privilege!” as i tried to get by. when finally passing through the impasse of game changing humanitarians, i thought to myself, even the models during fashion week don’t act so entitled that they colonize the sidewalk!

  3. trayle 22 September, 2010 at 6:57 pm #

    Hit it right on the head, as usual. I am feeling all sentimental and cheezy.

    I never thought I was privledged (I grew up on food stamps and government food, always had to have a job, drove a VW that broke down a lot) until I started this work and realized that at least we had food stamps, and a job, and a VW… and a degree… and a mom… and shoes… etc.

  4. Mo-ha-med 23 September, 2010 at 1:54 am #

    Some unease as I read this post. (and that’s always a good sign :).
    Okay, sure. We are privileged in the sense that w have access to the computers we’re using to converse at this very moment. To running water and toilets that flush. To (some level of) rule of law. Etc.
    But that’s not an aid industry ill, I reckon. In fact we probably wouldn’t be noticing it if our work didn’t have to do with people and countries lacking access to those very privileges.
    Because in this definition of ‘clean water and toilets’ privilege, we are no different from our neighbours.
    I know, our neighbours at home, that is, not our neighbours in ‘the field’… that however is really where ‘privilege’ kicks in.

    And when my Ipod breaks down, I have it fixed, not buy a new one!

  5. Paul C 23 September, 2010 at 3:11 am #

    humanitarian aid is a profession for the privileged

    Indeed it is, but that’s not the problem. The problem is that the humanitarian community doesn’t recognise this. Once you recognise you have a problem, you can start to address it.

    Secondary problem: the entire system is built around this lack of recognition. Big wheel conferences in New York are always going to be elitist, no matter how many Togolese villagers you invite.

    And that’s why I have a policy of not going to those conferences. Well, that and they don’t invite me any more because I stand in the doorway haranguing people as they enter the room.

  6. Marianne 23 September, 2010 at 4:21 pm #

    Hmmm. So is privilege always relative? It seems to me that it must be because it relies on relationship. I’m privileged in relationship to you. But he is privileged in relationship to me. Am I on the right track here? Help me out. I’m a lawyer not a sociologist!

  7. angelica 27 September, 2010 at 10:24 am #

    ironies and contradictions of aid work. You NEED the privileged to give a fck so that some money flows. politicians and the like make the policy calls. That is why I’m a big supporter of people going back and forth between the field and the policy making level. to keep it real, because politics ARE behind a lot of the big decisions, (that’s just the way the world works), so there IS work to be done at that level, and I think a lot of “field” people forget this is where their funding comes from. You need people in the big NY summits that KNOW the realities on the ground. And you need people in the field to remember that the people back in NY and Geneva have a job to do too.

    me thinks

  8. Sterling 3 October, 2010 at 9:57 am #

    as always, i love what you have to say (as i read this from my new macbook pro, courtesy of my parents). and it connects to everything else you’ve talked about.

    sometimes i get frustrated and feel that americans should stick to improving our own country right now. people my age (early to mid 20s) feel like they have to go abroad to make the world a better place and to experience an un-privileged lifestyle or whatever. but maybe if we realized how many issues there are in our own country, we could get a lot more done.

    and as interesting as some of these summits sound, how much are you guys learning and taking away with value? (that’s an honest question, not rhetorical.)

  9. J. 4 October, 2010 at 10:40 am #

    Thank you all, first for reading, and second for your great comments.

    Daniell - see? You’re totally living the paradox. :)

    Mo-ha-med, Paul C. Angelica – I think we’re in agreement. The fact that aid work is an occupation for the privileged is not, nor should it be cast as a “bad thing.” It just is. In my opinion, though, it leaves us all with a responsibility to acknowlege our privilege, rather than try to hide it or to try to front as if it’s something else.

    Marianne – sure, to some extent. You can always find someone who has it worse, and so by comparison appear privileged. The point I’m sort of getting at in this post, though, is that very often aid workers/orgs illegitimately (IMO) try to make it seem as if they’re “one with the poor”, when in fact there’s a huge gulf of privilege and power between them.

    Trayle – true enough. Sounds like our upbringings were somewhat similar. And yet, now I jet around the world “helping the poor.” It’s a privilege both in the sort of universal “it’s a privilege to help fellow humans” sense, as well as in a very worldly “few of my friends have been to as many countries as I have” sense.

    Sterling – That’s a key question: why not just stay home and help our own? In my opinion we need both, helping at home and also engage on issues of poverty, etc. internationally. I think there is value in acting on behalf of our fellow humans in other parts of the world. And for the record, I would also very okay with people from other countries in African, the Middle East, Asia… involved in change for the better in the United States. Heaven knows we have plenty to learn from them!

    As for those summits? I’ll just say that I was too busy with actual work to justify attending the MDG summit…….

Trackbacks/Pingbacks

  1. Thought of the Moment « Planning the Day - 22 September, 2010

    […] Privileged at Tales from the Hood. […]

  2. A compilation post on articles written about the Clinton Global Initiative and UN Week | Good Intentions Are Not Enough A compilation post on articles written about the Clinton Global Initiative and UN Week | An honest conversation about the impact of aid - 22 September, 2010

    […] Privilege – Tales from the Hood – “The whole MDG endeavor including this summit embodies what for me are the crowning ironies and paradoxes of Humanitarianism. While those aid workers in my close personal circle consider it a great privilege to be able to do the work that we do, few of us would call ourselves “privileged” in the sense commonly connoted by the word in American speech. We didn’t attend Ivy League schools, we don’t drive expensive cars, our houses are modest, our salaries pale in comparison with those of high-school classmates who made their fortunes in the corporate sector. And even so there’s no denying that we are privileged, at least compared with the vast, vast majority of the population of this planet.” […]

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    […] over at Tales from the Hood, wrote a poignant piece highlighting how things are happening in conference rooms and over pricey dinners rather than around […]

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