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.
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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.
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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.
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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.
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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.