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.