Dear Students – 3: Buyer Beware

3 Oct

This post is no longer available on this blog.

This post is now part of J.’s book, Letters Left Unsent, available on Amazon (click the image below to visit the Amazon purchase page).


20 Responses to “Dear Students – 3: Buyer Beware”

  1. Amy 24 April, 2011 at 10:32 pm #


    As a student, I really appreciate these kinds of posts that shed light into an issue that no one talks about. All three parts of the ‘dear students’ posts have made me think a lot. With that being said, I wish that you would write a little bit more about the last sentence of this post- “Nor is this a list of reasons why you should not chose the life of an aid worker. I have, and pretty much all of my friends have, too.” Since you have a way of making aid work sound like it can be extremely depressing (which I know can be reality and I do appreciate), I would be interested to hear more of the other side of the spectrum- why you chose aid, and continue to work in this field.

    Now I know that you’re thinking of giving me a telling off- ‘This blog isn’t about rainbows and unicorns’ while pointing me to a website that does. But from my personal opinion, I think if you are posting things that are so deeply influential to your readers, it would also be fair to shed light on the other side of the spectrum, however disproportionate it is.

    Thanks and keep writing more of these!

    • J. 26 April, 2011 at 11:52 am #

      Amy: Honest-to-god, while reading the first paragraph of your comment it never once occurred to me to give you “a telling off.”🙂

      I think I kind of get at some of the upsides of aid work in the very first “Dear Students” post about motivations. I enjoy the travel, the exotic encounters, and if I’m really honest (and most days I try to be), the excitement and chaos of disaster zones. I enjoy the intellectual challenges as well as the omnipresent paradox and dilemma, although there are definitely days when as part of the job these can take you down some depressing paths. And of course there is professional and personal reward in the knowlege that some good does, in fact, get accomplished and from having been part of that. And I do really believe that some good does get accomplished.

      Two additional thoughts, for what they’re worth (and maybe they’ll be their own posts at some point):

      1) The role of ‘informal instructor’ here at Tales From the Hood is not one that I have sought or particularly embrace. I have a close friend who was in Beijing during the opening days of the summer Olympics there. She described the experience as inadvertantly crashing the world’s largest private party. And in a way, that’s a bit what the aid blogosphere is like: a private party that almost anyone can get into. So while it may seem obvious to many that aid bloggers such as myself have a role to play in the education of tomorrow’s aid workers such as yourself, what that role is exactly remains far from clear from where I sit.

      2) Many accuse me of being cynical, snarky and unbalanced in my views on humanitarian aid and development, at least as I present them here on Tales From the Hood. Just so that everyone is clear, I do not feel any burden at all to be balanced. But rather to bring some balance to the overall discussion – a discussion which outside of a few cynical/snarky/unbalanced aid blogs, perhaps including this one, seems overwhelmingly focused on the rainbows-and-unicorns views of the aid world.

      • Happy Aid Worker 29 April, 2011 at 12:35 pm #

        In one place you say that humanitarian work will “take everything you have and give you nothing back”. And in another you say “I enjoy the travel, the exotic encounters, and if I’m really honest (and most days I try to be), the excitement and chaos of disaster zones. I enjoy the intellectual challenges as well as the omnipresent paradox and dilemma, although there are definitely days when as part of the job these can take you down some depressing paths. And of course there is professional and personal reward in the knowlege that some good does, in fact, get accomplished and from having been part of that. And I do really believe that some good does get accomplished.” Now, that’s not nothing, is it? 😉

  2. AP 24 April, 2011 at 10:51 pm #

    Great post, once more. When I talk with friends who are in the commercial sector, they always seem shocked when I tell stories of inflated egos, manipulating colleagues or office politics. Somehow they think that our sector is full of dedicated, warm, fluffy people.

  3. Peggy 25 April, 2011 at 5:07 am #

    Thanks!! This is very helpful as I contemplate which path to take next. Look forward to your next short series postings.

  4. maria 25 April, 2011 at 6:58 am #

    yes, this si all exact. I have experienced these things in my own way and let this sector destroy my life to a big extent, by making my own bad choices. I even came to think that the least excellent you are the better for you in this sector. Excellence, rigour, integgrity, self criticis and innovation seem particularly condemend within the aid industry. thanks for your posts and and wisdom. ill keep reading you.

  5. Roxanne 25 April, 2011 at 7:59 am #

    Thank you for this beautiful and honest post. Parts of it – especially the reference to stories of divorce – reminded me of the interview Lynsey Addario gave after her release in Libya. She essentially said that she has been single for a lot of her life and she thinks that her job as a photojournalist in war zones is a big part of that. Specifically she said:

    “Most of my life, I had no personal life. I tried having relationships. But they were never successful because I was never home. That’s my fault. That was my decision. I would leave for an assignment and come back four months later. You can’t ask someone to be in a relationship with you if you’re not home. I think it’s a very good reason that a lot of women decide that they don’t want to do this.” (

    Thank you again for this post. Hard truth.

    • Akhila 26 April, 2011 at 12:02 pm #

      This is something I always struggle with. I would personally like to get into an international human rights career, but of course like many others, long for a more stable life with a family and kids. I recently watched a TED talk in which Jacqueline Novogratz briefly touched on this as well. She said she was married later in life, and does not have any children. She said something along the lines of “you should not feel the need to be *everything*” But it’s a difficult message to take in: that those who enter this career are likely to lose *something*.

      • J. 26 April, 2011 at 12:07 pm #

        Hard trade-offs are a part of life (see also “Dear Students – 2: Sacrifice []). Perhaps, made all the harder because (in the West, at least) we all grow up being told, very often in so many words, that we can “have it all.” The reality that, in fact, we can’t have it all, is an uncomfortable one to face regardless of one’s chosen career path.

  6. lu 25 April, 2011 at 8:32 am #

    great post!

    and i think it is as important for the students and others considering a career in development as it is for those who sing the praises of anyone who works in the field (or even the local non-profit sector) with the belief that the ‘community’ is full of great people doing meaningful work who have sacrificed their own comfort and happiness for others. it is patronising and in many cases, incorrect, and perpetuates the myths of development: that people who work in the field are all wonderful humanitarians and by extension, the perceived helplessness of the people assumed to benefit from the selflessness of others.

    for others to take the field seriously and treat its people as professionals, the image of what development work is must change for many people, thanks for painting a realistic picture.

  7. Andres 25 April, 2011 at 9:20 am #

    Thanks for posting J. My number one fear about going into aid is that it could ruin my marriage.

  8. Amelia 26 April, 2011 at 2:18 pm #

    oooh, J – good post my friend. Too true!
    To the student who said ‘why still do it?’ I found I suddenly had a reply.

    For me, it was because a) I felt I just had to (though I’ve learned to measure my life out a bit more carefully nowadays)
    b) because I find systems fascinating and aid and development work make you think really hard about how things are linked together.
    c) cos it can be like legalised nosiness and you get to visit people in different places, ask them highly impertinent questions, sometimes be asked a few impertinent questions and work out (hopefully together) how to make things a bit better.

    d) occasionally, and more by luck than judgement, you make things better, sometimes you make things worse but then you REALLY REALLY try hard not to do that again.

    e) it changes you – and mostly -if you are willing – makes you a bit better.

    Not a very sophisticated list – and I could expand on it – but it’s true for me. Also, let’s face it most of the people who write or comment on here are aid geeks – we find it fascinating, whilst the rest of the world couldn’t care less

  9. hjamal 26 April, 2011 at 4:48 pm #

    Good post J., it pretty much sums up the concerns I had about becoming an aid-worker both before I got into this field and even now as I have gained more experience. One question though: is the life of an aid worker something you have to buy or can you just rent it?

    It’s true that aid work is all consuming- we aren’t just talking about a job here but an entire lifestyle. That said, it can be the right choice for someone for a certain period in your life when perhaps the personal sacrifices aren’t so great. It’s still possible to spend part of your life as an aid worker and then transition, either within the field to a more stable HQ position or to another field such as journalism, education, or academia/policy. You can remain true to your interests and your desire “to do some good” without signing your life away to the aid industry.

    I hate to play the gender card here, but I think that women in any profession (women especially, though not exclusively) are often confronted with the career vs family dilema. But I’m a big fan of having my cake and eating it too (I love cake). Perhaps it’s just a matter of careful sequencing and balance? (Get the cake, look at it for a while, then devour the damn thing, though maybe not all at once-save some for later.)

    The trouble is, despite the countless frustrations and sacrifices, I think it can be very easy to get hooked on aid work. Despite my rational (and perhaps naive) perspective on the possibility of having it all, I know that if I stopped working in the aid sector I would always feel a strong pull back towards it. At some point, difficult choices still have to be made.

  10. Kristie 26 April, 2011 at 6:26 pm #

    Thanks for posting this. As a student, I often see huge misperceptions about aid work that my peers hold. The mass media tends to glorify the term “aid worker” (not that it is not deserving) in such a way that it is easy to believe that those doing such work get back what they put in. Sure, you hear about people giving things up at home, but largely, the media portrays aid work as being emotionally rewarding enough to make up for whatever one leaves behind. And, the fact is, that is often not true. I think the fact that aid work is not always in it’s most idealized form actually makes it all the more admirable – for those who can handle it.

  11. solemu 26 April, 2011 at 7:15 pm #

    Great post J!

  12. Steven E. 26 April, 2011 at 9:24 pm #

    This post really struck home with me. I grew up in a military family and will soon be embarking on my own military career. While the work is certainly different, as well as some of the payoffs, there are some definite similarities in the sacrifices one must take to devote their full time and effort into their career. When you talk about the woman who wasn’t prepared to handle a year away from her family, I could definitely see the resemblance from a military member going to a deployment leaving their family behind. My family certainly underwent their struggles while my father was deployed, and it takes a strong woman to run the family and stay strong as your loved one is gone for a year. I believe you definitely need to know the struggles that lie ahead of you before undertaking such a task, and if you have even the slightest doubts about it before you begin, it’s probably not the career for you.

  13. TB 1 May, 2011 at 8:36 pm #

    Great post. After trying to break into this field (and failing) I came to the conclusion that this probably wasn’t for me. Yes, some of it had to do with my lack of real development job but a lot of it had to do with my own personal goals in life and priorities that had changed in the past few years. I was not willing to make the relationship sacrifices required to really get my career off the ground.

  14. FL 3 October, 2011 at 6:17 pm #

    if you are ever inspired, I would love to see a post on any words of wisdom you have on how to balance a job with frequent and sometimes unpredictable travel, with a relationship with a non-aid-worker type. It can be hard to manage sometimes as I am sure you know. I wonder if sometimes, like maybe that coworker you mentioned, you don’t realize how bad it’s gotten until it is too far gone?

    • J. 3 October, 2011 at 7:39 pm #

      That is a series of posts, actually. Already partially written. Maybe I’ll post them one day….

  15. Sila 11 October, 2011 at 8:50 pm #

    Hi J..
    New reader here. I was just reading an article in Foreign Policy which has a link to this blog and I ended up reading this post. (

    I feel you here! I have worked for 2 different INGOs in the last 3.5yrs – taking on different roles. I’ve tasted the sweet part of it as well as the bitter. Like you, I enjoyed the travels, exotic encounters (with project beneficiaries), and intellectual challenges. May I add that it does feel good to know that your work actually does good to other people – but this, if one is not careful, in my opinion, could actually lead to arrogance (your work help others in need so you feel better than those guys working for a multinational oil&gas company) which is often seen in many aid workers.

    Even though I was never sent out to disaster/emergency areas, I think I know enough, through the “community” and from my own experience in working with others in the industry, that at the end of the day aid/development work is (almost) just like any other work. Office politics, clashes of egos, superiority feelings, even corruption – these can also be seen in the humanitarian field. (I just watched a film called The Whistleblower, about an American police officer who works as a peacekeeper in Bosnia, where she found a daunting reality of human trafficking in the country – a real life example of the dark side of aid work)

    Those things were part of the reasons for my sabbatical. Even though without doubt I will work in this field again some time soon, I just need to take some time off and enjoy life🙂

    This is not to say that there aren’t many dedicated, hard working aid workers out there who stay true to their ideals despite the conditions. There are so many of them and I respect them highly.

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