Honesty 101: What We Get

24 Jul

It would be a lot easier if I could just stop caring about Sri Lanka.

But I do care, and I can’t quite bring myself to stop (and anyway, don’t really want to), so articles like this one tend to get to me.

The suggestion that I, like mercenaries and “dogs of war”, profit from the suffering and misery of others is one that evokes a strong emotional, visceral response from me.

* * *

Daniela’s posts (here) and here) got me thinking about honesty.

I’m still mulling over a few potential posts, but for now this is where I think it starts: An honest discussion about how we the aid-workers benefit from aid work.

It’s not so much a matter of shattering any myths, as the facts are lying out there in the open plain enough for all to see. What’s missing in my opinion is basically a frank and open admission that we do benefit. An admission, plus some follow-on discussion about what that means. But let’s start with the admission (by the way, in case it’s not clear, I apply all admissions and admonitions to myself as well as others):

If you are somehow involved in aid work and receive any form of compensation, the fact is that you benefit. Whether you’re a one-month contractor, or a lowly staffer, or a technical expert based in the field, or an academic who does evaluation consultancies and/or whose tenure is even a tiny little bit based on your past with some large development agency, or the author of a much-debated or controversial critique of  international aid, or even a donor who lists your donation as a “charitable donation” on your US Federal tax return (or the equivalent in other countries), the fact is that you benefit from someone else’s misfortune.

It doesn’t matter whether you’re a stipended intern or a flushly compensated IO director with per diem on top of salary + benefits; it doesn’t matter whether you live in a renovated colonial villa in Yangon or one half of a grotty flat in Bamako; it doesn’t matter whether the source of your income is a large grant from the European Commission or a patch-work assortment of funding from Pentecostal churches in Alabama and Mississippi; it doesn’t matter what kind of life you live or what kind of person you are, whether you get wasted and bed the locals every weekend, or stay in reading your Bible or Amartya Sen books and studying Pashtu: if you are involved in aid and receive anything at all in return, you benefit as the result of someone else’s suffering.

Some days it truly does feel as if the costs associated with a career in aid work outweigh the benefits. But the fact is still that I do benefit. I receive salary and so benefit financially. And every time the person at the airline counter lets me have an extra kilo of check-in weight worth of grace (because I’m on a “humanitarian mission”), or a total stranger, on discovering what my job is, affirms me for “doing such wonderful work”, I benefit socially. Any time that I, by virtue of what my job is or the fact that I have been to a lot of places that my non-aid worker acquaintances cannot even find on the map, can take the upper hand or the moral high ground in a debate, I benefit from – albeit in a way intangible to some – from a life of helping the poor. And so do the rest of you, unless you’re working totally for free and absolutely no one knows about it.

* * *

Why is this important? It is important because there is a psychology at work among aid actors which lead us to sometimes act and perhaps subconsciously believe as if all we do is give without receiving anything in return. And this leads to a feeling of, for lack of a better term, superiority; a feeling that I am a better spokesperson for the poor than someone else; the sense that I more than someone else can legitimately lay claim to a parcel of moral high ground; an attitude, as one online acquaintance put it, of being “more-ethical-than-thou.” It gives us – or so we seem to very often think – latitude to forcefully go after an organization or person whose perspective is different. I hear/read/see a lot of what looks like self-righteous, self-important dressing-down of others over issues that perhaps are not all that cut-and-dried, over offenses that may not necessarily be offenses.

Of course at the outer edges of issues, on the extreme ends of continuums things are clear enough. There are harmful relief and development practices that should be immediately stopped, if not voluntarily, then forcibly. But without recanting that perspective, and previous frustrated spouting off notwithstanding, it seems to me that the vast majority of relief and development work happens in those messy, grey, tangled middle areas.

* * *

The feeling that we give to the poor and take little or nothing in return leads to that visceral, emotional response that I had at the suggestion that I might possibly be in this aid gig for any reason other than helping the poor. It leads to our moral indignation when someone suggests that our organization or program or idea is one that doesn’t work. We think, “I am doing this for the poor! What kind of person would dare criticize me for this?”

I see a mentality which says that “we do this for the poor and expect nothing back” as at least part of what underpins the belief that the poor have nothing, and something is better than nothing, and so no matter what we give, it is still helpful. Too frequently the belief that we get nothing or practically nothing back is used as unspoken justification for not thinking deeply enough, not being critical enough about what we actually do. It clouds our judgment and our ability to think logically.

Our tacit assumption is that because our motives are pure, what we do is still “useful” and “helpful” and “good.” The fact that what we do can and should be better is too often simply not addressed.

* * *

So let’s level out the moral high ground a bit. Better yet, let’s agree that there is no moral high ground. We all get something. In lots of ways development and even flat-out NFI-distribution emergency response are processes of give-and-take between “the poor” (recipients, beneficiaries…) and all of the actors supposedly intervening on their behalf.

And that’s all fine. I see no reason why we shouldn’t be fairly compensated for our work, even if it is for the poor. (Although hard to define precisely, I’d say, though, that principles of modesty and proportion should apply to aid worker compensation.

By the same token, let’s all recognize that while this is far more than just a job for most of us, it still is a job. It’s a job that has to be done, and done well. And even done well is not good enough. We have to constantly be looking for ways to do this better. This is the case, whether we come from a moral-obligation/desire-to-help-the-poor perspective, or from a stay-competitive-in-the-industry perspective. And while I personally am more driven by the former, I don’t see that either one takes precedence necessarily.

No one gets less scrutiny simply for having the right motivation.

No one is immune to mistakes.

The onus of improvement is on all of us.

12 Responses to “Honesty 101: What We Get”

  1. Alanna 24 July, 2009 at 9:56 pm #

    I think things would improve for everyone if we started talking about what everybody gets out of this. Not just on an international relations level, but the human level. It think that aid as a one way gift is corrosive, and admitting I get paid a decent salary to do this helps make it less corrosive. I don’t want anyone to be grateful for my work.

    • J. 25 July, 2009 at 9:14 am #

      Thanks for commenting, Alanna. I think “corrosive” is possibly the perfect word to use in this context.

  2. Rachel 27 July, 2009 at 8:22 pm #

    At Christmas cocktail parties, my dad, not really knowing how to describe to his lawyer-and-doctor friends with their doctor-and-lawyer children quite what I (want to) do for my career has, on occasion, said that I am “Trying to save the world”.

    This drives me craaaaaaazy.

    I haven’t taken internships and I’m not looking for a job in aid work to “save the world”. I’m doing it because its what I like doing: Traveling, meeting people, building projects… I think most people who are privileged enough to have some education & freedom, and thus the ability to chose their own career, chose what they chose because they think they are good at it, they enjoy it, and it benefits their society, and I’m no different, wanting to go into the humanitarian aid field…

    • J. 27 July, 2009 at 9:07 pm #

      Ah, Rachel – our families and friends rarely “get” us. When you have the chance, be sure to check out this old post as well…

  3. Mo-ha-med 28 July, 2009 at 5:38 pm #

    J. – by the same logic, would you consider doctors to profit from the misery and sickness of people?
    Whether you get something out of it or not the main issue. It’s whether, at the end of the day, your ‘balance’ is negative: that you give more than what you get. I think it’s only natural that you get paid for the work you do – humanitarian or otherwise – and that, at the end of the day, you feel good about it.

    Rachel – in grad school, ‘saving the world’ was a bit of a consisten theme – and a running joke amongst us. Personally, if I knew how to ‘save the world’, I probably would🙂. I fully understand what drives you, but I also believe that an emotional drive, beyond wanting to ‘build projects’, is fairly healthy – as long as it doesn’t fall into the megalomania category!

    • J. 28 July, 2009 at 9:43 pm #

      Mo-ha-med, thanks for your comment. It’s a though-provoking one. To the first part: I’d see a huge difference between doctors who run for-profit practice and aid workers. Namely that such doctors are utterly unabashed about making very lucrative livings. On the other hand, many aid workers seem to suffer from almost a martyr complex. We “need” to suffer, to sacrifice (or at least some do). At the very least, we cannot let on to each other, to colleagues in the for-profit sector, certainly not to our beneficiaries that we profit from this business. The discussion over on Chris Blattman’s Blog about flying business class is one example that speaks to this. Doctors would not only be unconcerned about flying business class. Many would revel in it.

      And by the way, I completely agree: if I could actually save the world, I would.😉

      • Rachel 30 July, 2009 at 4:59 pm #

        Yeah, yeah… so would I…

        Thanks for your well-taken point, Mo-ha-med!

  4. Daniela Papi 1 August, 2009 at 10:20 pm #

    “If you are somehow involved in aid work and receive any form of compensation, the fact is that you benefit.” – I think we are missing the discussion about the MAIN way we benefit, and if we miss that, than maybe we shouldn’t be here.

    Those who believe passionately in the changes they are working to make in the world are compensated by the steps they see made towards those changes. If we don’t view that as the highest form of compensation we get, then maybe this isn’t the right field for us.

    If we want the programs we are working on to succeed so that we can get more money and get promoted and get better compensated, aren’t we looking at this the wrong way? I think a key to the most successful development work might be leaders (local or non) who LOVE what they do and benefit so much emotionally from the success of their projects because the believe in the CAUSE they are trying to improve. High or low salary, if positive changes are the currency of success, then program success will become the NGO stock market.

    Let’s talk about that level of honesty. If we want to improve the causes we believe in, I think we should continue to:

    – make sure we are in a field where we get great emotional reward from the work we do – because our passion to make change will be a better divining rod for the right decisions than a desire to increase our bank account size

    – be honest about the things we see – the things going wrong in our own work and in the work around us when others ask, or even when they don’t, and work to improve the movement for the causes we work in. Let’s not just view other groups as “competitors” or look away from those in the same field who are “getting it wrong”. Let’s be honest with them and those around us and help them become better too… because in the end, if we put the cause above our own pay check and our own organization, then we will be rewarded by feelings of accomplishment when the greater cause is improved – no matter who gets the credit.

    – work ourselves out of a job. Try NOT to pay ourselves more from donor dollars which could be going to improve the causes we believe in but find socially innovative models which can bring us incomes which do not redirect further donor dollars into our pockets.

    We can’t all do all of these all the time, but we can all AIM towards all of these things. If we make our decisions by

    1) being honest with ourselves and others that we do this BECAUSE we get rewarded by making changes we believe in (and if we don’t, this might not be the right field for us)


    2) be open with ourselves about the fact that those of us who get paid by NGO money are getting paid with funds which were intended to be used to “help the poor’ or whatever the cause is so it is our obligation to use our power to do that

    …then we should hopefully have the right perspective going into our work. In that way, we can take criticism the way everyone else does – the way a business person who believes in their product does, who is hurt to hear that their is criticism about their work but who wants to hear it and take action to remedy the problem because at the end of the day our egos are not what we are working to increase produce.

    We will recognize that we are very over compensated for our work if we put the positive changes we want to see in the world first and recognize that we pay ourselves dividends in “warm fuzzy” feelings as we slowly inch towards those goals.

    (I recognize that the initial reaction of many will be that “warm fuzzies” do not put food on the table. I argue that if the warm fuzzies are not enough to make you want to take on a second job to be able to still do the work you do, work harder to increase the impact of a social venture that brings impact and funds into your work, or would be so hard to walk away from because they represent work you believe whole-heartedly in, then perhaps it is time to change fields, improve the work that you are doing, or higher someone to replace you who believes in the work and can do it better for a lower price. Yes, we need to get paid, but if we do not believe so passionately in the work that we are doing that it drives us to do it better and more efficiently, then perhaps looking for higher paychecks elsewhere is indeed a better option.)

    • J. 2 August, 2009 at 3:33 pm #

      I do agree with you that in an ideal world, everyone’s motivations (and certainly the motivations of those in aid work) would be “pure” or “good” or whatever.

      Although you do not say so directly, you do stray in the direction of a kind of logic which says motives are reflected and played out in the salary that one receives. And there I have to disagree. Willingness to accept a high(er) salary and the higher degree of physical comfort that comes with that, as well as a decision to work for far less (perhaps to “volunteer”) and the supposed more legitimate claim to moral or ethical high-ground which accompanies it can BOTH be the result of self-serving motivations. Neither necessarily precludes nor proves a genuine desire to help the poor.

  5. Daniela Papi 2 August, 2009 at 10:50 pm #

    What I am saying is that they ARE self-serving, and that is not only ok, but good, if the self-serving is tied to the fact that you get personal satisfaction out of the work you are doing. If someone’s self-serving decision is aligned with getting a higher salary, their decisions would then perhaps be focused on the steps to achieve that. If someone signs up for a job because they believe in the work and get their self-serving rewards by the sense of achievement when those goals are reached or steps are made to get closer, then the person’s decisions would likely be in line with making sure the development work they are involved in is doing good.

    EVERY job we sign up for is self-serving. We sign up because of the pay, the location, the co-workers, the opportunities to learn, etc etc. If someone happens to get more out of helping people learn about health problems than they do getting a higher salary, they are still making a choice which is based on their own self-serving motives: perhaps they want to be a part of improving a problem they see in the world.

    So the MOTIVE, as defined as “self-serving” or not to me is perhaps not the indicator we should be looking at. I fully agree with you that it is wrong to think that because someone values “warm fuzzy” non-tangible rewards from their work higher than a 6 figure salary that they should be free from criticism. It is important, as you have done, to point out that we have all chosen the jobs we are doing, for a variety of reasons, but at the end of the day it was our choice based on what we personally wanted to take from the situation. Choosing to “do good” should not mean someone should be above critique. But choosing to do good and getting “self-serving”, as you define it, rewards from that, in my opinion can sometimes lead to better development decisions rather than detract from it.

  6. maria 23 July, 2011 at 4:17 am #

    “Too frequently the belief that we get nothing or practically nothing back is used as unspoken justification for not thinking deeply enough, not being critical enough about what we actually do. It clouds our judgment and our ability to think logically”

    My comment goes a bit out of your topic here, but reminds me of something: Well, I have noticed also that the moral high grounds in which we seem to operate are frequently taken as justification of the intervention (there ar epoor people here= we need to remain here) AND justification of it being done badly/in a mediocre way which would, in the for-profit corporate sector, simply get you fired (bad fund management, bad HR management, plain incompetency, technical and managerial). But in this sector is fine because we’re saving malnourished babies.

    We save the world so dont even dare to criticise. If you critically analyse youre a traitor. Because hey! we dont have the answers to your points, becasue we could see the possibility of our intervention being irrelevant, or useless, or unsustainable. And that would shake the foundations of our work and threaten our salaries.

    This is happening inside the institutions themselves, inside my ex-employer NGOs. big ones, european.

    When as a manager in humanitarian NGOSin Africa and Haiti (head of base=regional manager) and social anthropologist, I have tried to apply academic rigour and common sense (or just plain integrity) in the critical analisis for the improvement of aid interventions, I have found that Wall. The wall was hard. It took the form of discourse such as “we’re not in university here” (er,.. so we can work without indicators or logical frameworks?) and even the form of “you’re fired. you’r leaving tomorrow”. . I thus conslude the threat is quite big and the moral grounds rock solid. When I have pointed out the lack of transparency in fund management, I have been invited to leave. having refused, I have been morally harrassed until leaving, and they accepted to give me money so that I would leave.

    The moral grounds are solid rock! and they will accept to threat.


  1. No strings attached « Tales From the Hood - 9 August, 2011

    […] I understand very well the mentality of wanting to find something that is somehow mutually beneficial, something that is somehow the holy grail of multi-stakeholder synergy, the elusive “win-win.” I understand very well that many donors have many priorities, and I understand that they may have those many priorities for many reasons. And I understand that at some level everyone involved in the humanitarian enterprise gains something. […]

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