Some days…

12 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).


13 Responses to “Some days…”

  1. pj 12 October, 2011 at 10:34 pm #

    Been reading your blog since last year. I’ve been in development work for just the last 5 months after 6 years in academia, and thank you for saying this.

  2. Petunia 13 October, 2011 at 12:42 am #

    I agree with this 100%. In addition to the humanitarian aid system itself being the most difficult part of the job, from what I’ve seen there is an almost purposefully lack of willingness to admit these issues in and among the management structure of organizations (except for Medair – they have a fantastic support program). If we were all honest about the effect of the industry on individuals (which you have posted about before) and more actively aware there would be far less burnout and fewer people in the jaded purgatory you talk about that is a horrible place to be. Personally, after my last post I realized that every single day for the final six months was an “act of will to stay”. It’s crushing when it’s every. single. day. Perspective is a precious, precious thing.

    • maria 13 October, 2011 at 2:12 am #


      I had that too. The six months where every single day was an act of will. Alone, physically and mentally, in a remote place between three unstable west african countries, managing a program that did not make any sense beyond justifying the head of mission’s living in that country(nad being amrried to a national):

      Without any support from hierarchy, no communication, without internet to work (Ihad to go every single day for 6 months to another ngo office to beg for connection), living in the office/garage because no money to have a guesthouse (and I was the only expat besides one married male expat. The married expat lived in a villa 200 metres away (which use dot be the general guesthouse before he married a local woman and got it as a personal house while I moved to the office/garage), and wanted not chinese but american fans to furnish his house. (married aid workers sometimes get furnished houses for themselves, wiht their lot of guards, car and drivers).

      In this mission, I wanted to leave after two weeks, even before miving to the office/garage for living. a visit form HQ asked me please not to. I stayed because I did not have enough perspective. becasue it appeared as a challenge, because I had to try, to be be strong, to give my best. I should have left. I paid it later. I was crushed, as you say. later on, HQ top management where very surprised when I wrote the end of mission report and told them about life conditions, sense of it all, etc. They said they did not know I lived like this. There was indeed a complete abyss between HQ life and knowledge of field and field itself.Needless ot ay there were never any performance or analysis reports about the work of thie NGO int his particular program,a nd nobody seemed to be woried about it in HQ or in field.

      All I can say is consider carefully to what extent it is worth for you to live this way. We ony live once.

      • Petunia 13 October, 2011 at 3:10 am #

        Maria, I hear you, and I’m sorry you had such a trying experience. I ended up going into academia for awhile, but I’m sure I’ll be back, grabbing onto that perspective of what is possible with both hands!

  3. maria 13 October, 2011 at 1:58 am #


    you’re so right (again). but somehow your post today is very pedagogic, in a way, it makes me reconsider my place inside the big picture, in a more optimistic way. Perhaps there is hope, if we find the right place? perhaps we need a little help to find it…?

    I was in that zone that ate my soul. It got eaten and I fell into cinicysm, bitterness and void. I’m out of that system now but I feel only temporarily out, like I miss something, like the work was unfiinished and I left too soon without peace. Perhaps I miss being strong and mature, in the sense of finding that place you mention between what is possible and what is. I did only four missions. two years on the field, on and off, and I was already completely destroyed. Maybe Im too sensitive.

    I’ll send this particular post, with the recommendation to follow your blog generally, to this friend who works in fundraising here in the HQ of a big medical ngo we all know. She wants to go to “the field”, she asked me about what countries I’d been with sparkles in her eyes. I told her it was a difficult life, I always say that to people who ask, but I don’t express myself half as good as you do. I’m afraid that she just crashes when she gets there one day, I think your blog, and this post in particular, should be of compulsory reading/ following for all new workers before going into he field.

    Please keep writing….

  4. Chiranjeet 13 October, 2011 at 3:54 am #

    Amazing and deeply resonates with my expierience.You really write very well and it’s a pleasure to read your articles.


  5. Aengus 14 October, 2011 at 11:19 pm #


    A few observations that struck me on reading this blog post…

    “Not to mention that fact that it is difficult, largely thankless, and very often dangerous work”.
    Why do you do it?

    “We’ll be in a space of heady naïveté where it’s all good because we all mean well and just that alone makes all the little brown babies gain weight and the villagers all smile…”
    As an aid worker, I find this attitude disturbing. Who actually thinks like this?

    “The aid workers I know personally who spend too long in this space become depressed, maybe leave the industry. Some commit suicide. Some abuse substances. Some live with mental health issues.”
    Are you really saying that you personally know aid workers who suffer from these problems and even some that have committed suicide? Really? How many? Out of how many aid workers? That is, what percentage of the aid workers you know have these problems? Do you think the incidence of depression, substance abuse, “mental health issues” and suicide in aid workers is higher than in, say, accountants? Significantly higher? If so, do you have any evidence for it? I’d like to see it.

    “Some days all I do is explain, yet again, the most basic of basic principles of good aid to people who, for reasons I am not able to fathom, seem patently incapable of getting it”.
    Who are these people? Are they staff members of your organisation? Members of other organisations? Interested members of the general public? Do you ever wonder, as you spend entire days explaining it to them and as they continue to fail to get it, whether your certainty about you being right and everyone else being wrong is entirely justified? Could it be that in some cases they are not so much “patently incapable of getting it” as politely disagreeing with it?

    “The hardest part of this job is not seeing awful things in the field. It’s not repeatedly witnessing the suffering of others and being able to offer little as a remedy, dealing with corrupt district officials, getting sick, or spending too long away from one’s family too often (hard as those things truly can be).” “…the most dangerous part of this job is the humanitarian world itself: it will eat your soul if you let it.” “Some days it is about just getting through the day.” “Some days it takes a conscious act of will to stay.”
    I admire your resilience in enduring these miseries. However, you shouldn’t have to. Work doesn’t have to be like this. I have been an aid worker for several years and I actually like my job.

    I would respectfully suggest that you consider looking at alternative employment options. Maybe something that allows you to be close to your family? Close to western standard health care facilities? I’m sure you are doing a very good job but it really seems to me that you have chosen a career for which you may not be ideally suited.

    Best regards,

  6. Anonymous 21 October, 2011 at 12:20 pm #

    Methinks Aengus has never worked in the field ….


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