The things no one tells you…

27 Aug

This post is no longer available on this blog.

This post is now part of J.’s book, Letters Left Unsent, available on Amazon.


20 Responses to “The things no one tells you…”

  1. Trisha 27 August, 2009 at 6:04 am #

    Brilliant and honest. Thanks for writing what we all think.

    Now…just waiting on that white landcruiser….

    • J. 27 August, 2009 at 12:08 pm #

      Hang in there, Trisha – that white Landcruiser (or at least a Hilux) will materialize eventually…

  2. Vasco Pyjama 27 August, 2009 at 3:35 pm #

    Ah, so true. Also serves as a reminder for all those who are already in the aid sector. I’m now contemplating entering #7 after having had years of work in the NGO sector. It’s so true — aid workers still have to retire in their home country… and some of us even have mortgages!

    • J. 30 August, 2009 at 8:33 am #

      Hold your head high, Vasco. Mortage or not, no one questions your street cred!

  3. c 28 August, 2009 at 4:24 am #

    hah! nice one. But maybe the Great White Landcruiser is in fact one’s carriage to heaven after a life of field work?

    Which seems pretty cool until you realise that St Peter works for OCHA and you haven’t been to enough coord meetings lately to be allowed in….

    • J. 30 August, 2009 at 8:34 am #

      Niiiiice! If St. Peter works for OCHA, I’m surely headed straight for Hades’ inferno…

  4. Daniela Papi 31 August, 2009 at 10:02 am #

    I am sure you meant a lot of this to be taken tongue in cheek, J., but I fear that some of your readers might take this seriously. If you are reading this blog and seriously using these guidelines as a means of deciding your next career move for anything other than the “your family always comes first” section, then please GO HOME! If you are so worried about your retirement plan in YOUR country that you are willing to take a job you don’t believe in and help support an organization “you have reservations about” – GO HOME! You can kiss your way up the corporate ladder faster and make more money doing so. Go home if you are considering “sticking a job out” for a year with an NGO that you don’t believe in as you will probably cause less harm to the world working for a corporate in your country than working for one of these unregulated donor-driven NGO “establishments”. And by all means, please STAY AWAY from Cambodia. We have enough of you counterfeit “save the world” types pretending you care about something at a cocktail party just so that you can schmooze your way into a Country Director role some day. That type of behavior is absolutely NOT acceptable.

    • J. 31 August, 2009 at 10:19 am #

      I was dead serious.

      If you think that your motives are totally pure or that because you’re in aid you can’t also have a livelihood and take care of your family, then you are either naive or lying to yourself and everyone around you. Or possibly both.

  5. Daniela Papi 31 August, 2009 at 10:48 am #

    I am not saying YOU should go home, nor that people should not be paid for good work. I understand that you were serious about that part.

    I AM saying that, if people follow the steps above, and kiss up to get a job to work in an NGO that they do NOT believe in, that they think is questionable (which to me means causing harm) then THEY are indeed then becoming a part of that questionable behavior and the harm. If they are DOING it for the 401k – why not go home and make real money and get it that way? The idea of getting paid a fair wage for doing GOOD work is not something I am questioning. Kissing up to get a job one does not believe in is.

    • Transitionland 31 August, 2009 at 1:24 pm #

      I don’t know what world you live in, but in mine, I’ve had to kiss a lot of ass for a little success, and I’ve taken jobs I’m not wild about (the one I have now included).

      Does any of that mean doing things that are unethical? No, nor is that what J. was suggesting.

      He was emphasizing the importance of being a schmoozer (and, when need be, a boozer) with the people you work with. He was making the point that no one wants to hire a saint, because saints break before they bend.

      People (in all fields, not just aid or development) would rather work with someone who is honest and self-critical but also not afraid to show her or his human side, which means going to goofy work events, admitting that your motivations aren’t always as pure as the look in a seal pup’s eyes, and being willing to play as a member of a team (even if that includes going along with a plan YOU think YOU could have devised better one your own, without the input of others.)

      J. never said take a job doing something you believe to be harmful, either. I’m of the mind that there will always be Clowns Without Borders and Elvis Fans for Aceh, because people with not particularly relief-zone-useful skills will always want to share the things that make them happy with others.

      I heard of a motherly middle aged hippie massage therapist who went abroad to massage survivors of torture in a particular country with some obscure NGO for a few months. Do torture survivors need other things more? Absolutely. Was the Massage Therapists Without Borders idea a bit….odd? Does it make me giggle imagining how the torture survivors saw the whole scenario? It sure does.

      However, such is the world.

      Some NGOs do things that can’t be measured and probably don’t improve life in any way donors and international organizations want it to be improved.

      Nonetheless, I think most of them provide a moments of stress relief and comic relief (often at the expense of the NGO staff) to people in difficult situations. And I don’t buy the argument that if these NGOs didn’t exist, something more useful would. A former roommate’s friend told me about the day a non-profit circus visited the orphanage he worked for in Swaziland. The orphanage/school needed more furniture and reliable electricity, but the circus folk didn’t bring that. Instead, they made a bunch of kids with HIV laugh and smile and run around with silly string chasing people on stilts. Had the circus not visited, the orphanage still would have needed better electricity and furniture.

      Thus, I don’t think starting out as Elvis Fan for Aceh is a bad thing. And if it is a bad thing, it a very small bad thing in a grand scheme of it all. It is certainly no worse than teaching English through the Peace Corps. (Actually, in my opinion, teaching English through the Peace Corps has more harm potential than relief-zone clowning or Elvis impersonating, but that is a subject for another time.)

      On pay – the only people who can work for free or for next-to-free forever are people who entered the game rich –independently wealthy retirees, Europeans (with their little or no student debt, bastards!) and American trustafarians.

      J. wasn’t saying “compromise your principles to get rich,” he was saying it’s not evil to consider your future. I left a job I adored and felt I was actually making and difference in for one I have a real love/hate relationship and contribute little in because the job I loved was causing me to fall behind on rent.

      That said, if an organization I really disagree with or think harmful offered me a fat salary, I would turn that down. My ideals give me an ethical floor. Some people have no ethical floor. I despise these people, and the aid/development universe –especially the USAID contractor world– is full of far too many of them.

      Again, though, J. was not endorsing greed, he was just cautioning against self-righteous masochism.

      • transitionland 31 August, 2009 at 4:00 pm #

        Typos galore. Great. I typed that way too fast. I blame guarana.

  6. Saundra 31 August, 2009 at 11:35 am #

    If we want aid work to be done professionally then we need to treat it as a profession and pay people accordingly. If we do not, then just as people finally gain the experience and knowledge to have real impact on the field we will lose them to other careers.

    While I agree that people should not get into aid for either the wages or for the social status bump that comes from “working for the poor”, those people that are dedicated professionals should be paid enough to support their family, pay off their student loans, and eventually retire.

    While I have seen some aid professionals that are admittedly in aid for the wrong reason, I have also seen well-intentioned amateurs doing all the wrong things for what they zealously believe are the right reasons. Without experienced and trained professionals developing and following good standards and best practices, we doom aid to an endlessly repeated series of trials and errors which do have a real impact on aid recipients.

  7. Wayan 1 September, 2009 at 10:03 am #

    Wait, we get white Land Cruisers? How lame. I want tricked out black Mercs like the government officials who are always demanding donors pay for basic needs like schools and clean water.

    Sarcasm aside, J. is spot on with the schmoozing part. This industry is tiny and incestuous. Get your contacts early and high up, and cultivate them daily.

  8. Rachel 2 September, 2009 at 9:35 am #

    Oooh, thanks for this. As a young & naive just-starter, I appreciate all the advice I can get!

  9. Phil 5 September, 2009 at 4:28 am #

    there’s a few things there I would accept, like giving up on the retirement plan. but schmoozing? no. no way. There is way too much of that going on and I reject it. you should be known for your professionalism, competence and integrity. that is what has got me jobs. conversely, being a trouble maker in the UN (ie, identifying corruption and corrupt people, refusing to accept the path of least trouble and not accepting lazy, substandard behaviour) probably means I will never work for the UN again, because in the big HR department in NY, I have been stamped ‘do not employ’. too bad. I got into trouble in teh last big NGO i was with too, for questioning the policy that limited the career growth of local staff. NGO workers should be the first to criticise corruption, poor practice and so on, and schmoozing is a lazy way of getting ahead.
    I would also question that you should lower your personal standards. If you are in a job you don’t like and enjoy for too long, you become, inevitably, a negative force. And that drags everyone else down. Sure, for a while – we have all done that. But the most potent, powerful element you can bring to a job is your love for it.
    And as someone who has raised two children in Afghanistan, I would say get married. and keep going with the aid work. you can do both, you just need to be good, careful and check how everyone is travelling. and now we have a third kid, and will head back to Afghanistan soon.

    • transitionland 5 September, 2009 at 4:34 pm #


      I would agree that schmoozing is a lazy way to get ahead, if that’s *all* one is doing, or if one expects that to somehow make up for performing badly one the job. But there is something to be said for being social and friendly. The most brilliant, principled boss I ever had was a man who could have done much more if he had not been so stern and austere with his colleagues and superiors. This person did amazing, amazing work for a very vulnerable population, but he had his subordinates walking on eggshells all the time, afraid of setting off his temper or incurring an unnecessary and embarrassing public lecture.

      Perhaps schmoozing isn’t the right term for this discussion. I’d prefer “being friendly.” For me, this is relatively easy. I’m naturally outgoing, but not everyone is. I’ve seen ethical introverts passed over for jobs while corrupt, inept social butterflies sailed ahead. It’s not fair, to be sure, but it is what it is, and newbies should be aware.

      I agree with this statement wholeheartedly: “If you are in a job you don’t like and enjoy for too long, you become, inevitably, a negative force. And that drags everyone else down. Sure, for a while – we have all done that.”

      That’s why I’m trying hard to get out of the job I’m currently in, and why I tried everything I could think of to get a job I knew I would love every overworked second of and poured all my love and creativity into when it opened at another organization. However, I didn’t get that job. The organization was one of the “premium” NGOs and even though I met or exceeded all the requirements on paper, there were “hidden” requirements I didn’t meet. Pretty much crushed, I pushed the director for an explanation and he gave me one, which was a nice change from sending emails into the void.

      I think lowering expectations is a sanity-saving measure. A lot of college students are fed the idea that they will be doing very substantive work, in a job they love to death, working with people who will become their closest friends –right out of undergrad. That’s just unrealistic for all but a few, and those who don’t catch on quickly become misanthropes.

      You wrote: “But the most potent, powerful element you can bring to a job is your love for it.”

      I REALLY wish more people in the industry thought like you. I have seen people assigned to projects (especially in Afghanistan!) who a) were not so fond of Afghans and b) believed the project was doomed from the start. This kind of thing happens so often, at so many organizations, and it drives me INSANE. And then I end up sending impulsive, angry emails to people who are higher on the food chain than I am.

    • transitionland 5 September, 2009 at 4:49 pm #

      I would add that, for the sole purpose of obtaining employment, I have been awwwwfully nice to some higher-ups I didn’t particularly like and would have rather conversed with brusquely and only when absolutely necessary. I did that because these people were gatekeepers. I could be genuine with the people I worked with a day-to-day basis, even if that meant being cranky when I was cranky, but I had to put on a happy face for the gatekeepers. Always. But that’s pretty much as sleazy as I will go. I’m no good at actual sleaze.

  10. maria 23 July, 2011 at 4:44 am #

    oh…I realize now why I am not made for this industry….:-)

    Nobody told me this before, it sound so evident and funny now that Im out! but seriously speaking, I really lost my skin and some mental sanity on this industry. I accepted things I should not haver. Its a tough industry. It gets the best of you, then leaves you dry like a squeezed lemon on the sand. Yes the more you give, the more they squeeze. The aqid idustry comsumes you . The better you are, the worst they treat you. Skills that would be valued in the corporate are a stone to your career here if you’re lucky enough to be in an environnment that will have less skills than you: (leadership, rigour, critical analysis, innovation, team management).

    Maybe I dont have the psychological profile, after all. I never felt guilty of being paid for doing a job, and tried to comunicate the message to non aid workers that this was just a job (not a call from god as some seem to think) and so a job = a salary, a decent salary. Sine Im 18 I studied social anthropology to apply it to the development sector and improve interventions. I was naive.

    As an aid worker, I felt another sort of guilt, dofferent than the salary one, a deeper one, the guilt of being alive while all those catastrophed people had to die. Of being born in the soft side of the world. Of being able to fly back “home”, when they could not. (Now I don’t have a “home” anymore, maybe I felt guilty about having it and thats why I threw it all away). That guilt is pervasive, permanent, eats you inside a little bit everyday unless you are very strong or very insensitive or simply very mature in your head..

    I was not. but it has marked me forever, so as an ex-aid worker I live with the guilt of not doing anything for the world while judging and despising the corporate world who actually do harm to the vulnerable and the planet with their neoliberal and polluting attitudes and actions.

    I have become a stranger, to others and to myself, a permanent nomad and expat, a citizen of the world with world size anxieties, too intellectual for certain work cultures, too much of an activist for others. Without a place (literal and mental). Dont ever let the aid industry do that to you!!!!


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