Aid workers are some of the biggest complainers I’ve ever met. Myself included. It’s our culture.
I can see how we come to be that way. It is our job to deal, day-in and day-out with some of the worst situations that the world has to offer. As audacious as it sounds, it is frequently our job to go to some of the worst places and in a very short time not only analyze the problem(s), but also come up with workable solutions. And so it is not all that surprising that we turn to grumbling and moaning as an ironic security blanket, whether in the field indulging in (hopefully only occasional) culture-shocked, ethnocentric tirades; in our cubicles turning our problem-and-solution-identifying lenses back on the organizations that employ us; or at the pub after a hard day of internal political drama intermingled with the latest dreary headlines on alertnet.
For the most part I’m okay with this. I admit that I find a measure of catharsis in the occasional rant to a sympathetic colleague, particularly if it’s over dry red wine and/or ‘double-apple.’ Within the various aid-work circles that I inhabit, there is a common denominator in conversations gravitating initially towards those things that annoy us. It’s almost like a purification ritual that we have to go through whenever we get together, whether in-person or online.
And within our interpersonal circles, it is all good and well. There is definitely a bonding quality to being able to share your gripes and frustrations with someone who actually does know what “it’s” like.
But beyond one’s own very immediate circle of aid-worker friends and acquaintances, the complaining culture takes on a new dimension: complaining becomes a way to show that one has suffered.
And although no one ever says so, having suffered – even more than time “in the field” – is the real substance of street cred among aid workers.
A compounding factor is that the practical difference between “time in the field” and “suffering” is often imperceptible. In fact, many aid workers confuse them for being simply two sides of the same theoretical coin: time in the field = suffering. But then we all know that “the field” can mean many different things. If you’re from the USA, Dubai and rural Ghana can equally be “the field”, even though, as we all know, there is a world of difference between the two.
And so, at the next expat gathering, as the first martinis begin to take effect, pay attention to how the aid workers will begin to drop hints about how they’ve suffered. These events are totally amusing to watch. There is nothing quite like a room full of tipsy aid workers trying to one-up each other with stories about giardia or scabies, being fired upon by militia in Dafur, a digital camera being confiscated by local police in Maputo, or a too-intimate search of one’s person in Tel Aviv.
One large part of the reason why suffering equals street cred in the aid industry is that it lends an air of authenticity. “I’ve suffered = I’ve been there, in the thick of it = I know what I’m talking about.”
Nowhere is this logic more evident than in the interactions between head office and field office counterparts.
In the field it can be almost impossible to resist the temptation to play the I’m-the-one-here-suffering card every time there’s a dispute with some paper-pusher in/from the home office. In my time I have more than once told the faceless author of an annoying email message from HQ that she/he should basically pipe down because I was too busy suffering to be trifled with. It’s easy to feel secure about your own claim to a patch of moral high-ground when you’re the one handing blankets or hygiene kits over to cyclone victims; far less so when you’re (only) someone in a cubicle in a developed country churning out the budget in Excel for those blankets…
Based for the moment in a head office, I have come to adopt the practice of specifically sharing my suffering-in-the-field credentials at the outset of every new relationship with a field office. I used to feel sheepish about doing so. But I’m over that and now find it immensely helpful to sort of establish my almost silverback status up front.
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Among the aid work-related blogs that I follow, it seems to be rather in fashion lately to dispense advice about how to get into aid work. And I do not mean for this to sound disparaging: there are some bloggers who I think are very insightful and posts that I think are actually quite good (for example, here and here). But what I find interesting are some of the comments, or other posts in other blogs by people who seem to want to suffer. In the field. They want to get out there and do it. And neither is this meant to be disparaging: I remember very well feeling the almost romantic allure of impoverished, dusty villages, war zones, hours on local busses, or nights sweltering under mosquito nets.
Then around my own office I see younger colleagues (and a few older ones), pining for an opportunity to get out to the field. They’re frustrated by the lack of options. They’re sick of reading about humanitarian work – they want to get out and actually do it. They’re tired trying to get something other than interships or volunteer posts or PA jobs. It must be incredibly difficult to be stuck in a more or less dead-end job at a head office, the only obvious career path simply more of the same, destined for a life of meetings under fluorescent light discussing documents. And all the while seeing colleagues in the field of comparable age and education, moving from field post to field post seemingly without effort, vacationing in exotic places, at times blithely going on about how hard it is to live in an exotic third-world capitol where “there’s nothing to do on weekends” except go to expat parties.
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While I do continue to believe that the core ‘real’ work of aid work is in the field, we have to acknowledge, I think, that the roles and functions of those not in direct personal daily contact with beneficiaries are of vital importance. Not everyone can stick vaccination needles into kids’ arms. Moreover, for every worker sticking those needles into kids’ arms, there are teams of people in far less glamorous jobs, based in far less glamorous places, without whose diligence and commitment that worker and those needles would not be possible.
And, now having worked both sides, when I compare the suffering of the field with the suffering of head office… I have to say: the one sitting in a cubicle under fluorescent light but who wishes she or he could be in the field suffers more than the one in the field.
Funny, though: complaining about suffering at the head office doesn’t contribute to aid work street-cred.