This is the last in a series of five posts aimed at helping people who are considering becoming aid workers to understand some of the issues. The first is Know What You’re Getting Into. The second is Aid Work is a Profession. The third is Experience, Education and Personality. The forth is Where Do You Fit?
Following this post is a non-exhaustive list of web-based resources you may find helpful.
If it seems like I’m being a bit heavy on this profession so far, that’s because I’ve seen my fair share of damaged souls wandering along this particular career path. I’ve come close to the edge myself on more than one occasion, and would like to see fewer, rather than more, dysfunctional individuals working on field postings.
And with that said, hold on to your hats…
Aid work is an intoxicating, exciting and richly rewarding career. When it works. Often it doesn’t. Often things like politics, corruption, violence, interpersonal relationships, or sheer incompetence means that things fall apart. Things, like projects designed to save peoples lives. This can shake the strongest of people. When people are driven by values and a belief in the greater good of humankind, watching this sort of failure can leave them deeply wounded. I’ve known of it costing people their faith in humanity and in God. I’ve seen my fair share of cynics, and periodically count myself among them (though I still find myself drawn back, like a moth to a candle, to the hope that we can actually do something about this broken world). People become isolated. Some drop into depression.
They say three types of people are drawn to aid work. Missionaries, mercenaries, and misfits. Humour aside, it’s a fair description. You find a disproportionate number of people driven by values, by their thirst for experience or money, or people who just don’t know how to function in any other environment.
This can make the aid environment quite a dysfunctional one. Exotic, addictive, wonderfully unique, and utterly unhealthy. People jump from one emergency program to the next like it’s going out of fashion (Port-au-Prince? Ugh, that’s so 2010. It’s all Horn of Africa now darling.) They do the same with friendships, with relationships, with lovers. Work hard, play hard is the motto most employ when in the field. This might be the house-party scene, with drink or pills optional but frequently endorsed extras. It might be adrenaline sports. It might be risky travel options. Regardless, this line of work attracts the sort of person who thrives on an element of risk in most things they do. Not always the best approach to life.
I make all these statements with a healthy level of self-awareness.
Aid workers expose themselves to all manner of stresses. Some of us wander into life-threatening situations, which may sound great recanted in cavalier fashion over a couple of local brews, but in fact are anything but when you’re actually in them. Even those that don’t bear direct witness to terrible events are usually indirectly exposed to them on a routine basis. Reports suggest that above all of this, the single biggest cause of stress to aid workers is organizational dysfunction, where the pressures of a poorly managed response in a highly value-driven culture can be devastating, psychologically speaking.
These pressures lead to a whole range of stress reactions on the brain. I won’t go into too much detail, but this regular exposure to steady stress, which may or may not be coupled with repeated exposure to critical incident stress, results in physical changes to the makeup of the brain which cause long-term and in some cases irrepairable damage.
A lot of aid workers see psychologists (I am one). A lot more who don’t should.
The mobile and uncertain life of an aid worker takes a huge toll on the personal life. While the constant changing from one emergency-focused community to the next can be a lot of fun, it also means that forming deep, meaningful and stable relationships over time is very difficult. You meet a lot of single aid workers. You meet a lot of divorced aid workers. You meet a lot of aid workers who have significant marital problems, or who are disconnected from their children. And if you hang around long enough, you hear plenty of stories of married aid workers sleeping around on assignment too.
Even if that’s not the way you roll, finding and maintaining a relationship to a life partner is a challenge in this line of work. For all the negative stories I hear above, I also know plenty of men and women who make it work. But I’ll wager that they work at it a lot harder and more deliberately than their peers who don’t jet around the world at the drop of a seismograph.
It’s not just spouse and children you suffer disconnection from. Whether married or single, connecting to a stable group of friends in your home community becomes difficult as well. With you constantly on the move, you’ll find that most relationships start to slip, and you have to work hard to stay in touch with those you care about. It’s not uncommon to find that people simply stop inviting you to events because they never know when you’re around, or they’re tired of hearing you say that you’ll be overseas that weekend. I’ve found this has been one of my biggest struggles over the years, and I’ve spent long periods of time back at my home base feeling restless and lonely, struggling to maintain social networks, and wishing for my next overseas ‘fix’ instead- which ends up being just as lonely, in the long run.
If you’ve just read through the post this far and gone, “Heh heh, that sounds way cool,”, then you can sod off. Seriously. Stay at home. There are enough burned-out, dysfunctional and anti-social relief junkies out there. Some of them do a decent job at running a relief program, but most are a liability to themselves, and therefore to others as well. We have all of those we need. Don’t become another one.
If you’ve gotten this far and admitted, “You know what, that’s way more than I’m ready to cope with right now,” then no worries. Aid work isn’t for everyone. There are a zillion ways to help people in need in your local community, and there’s a lot of very wise argument that would say your efforts are best placed helping there anyway. It’s great that you care about the world enough to look into aid work, and make sure to keep connected to what’s happening in the world around us. Figure out the way you feel you’re best geared to give, then go do it.
If on the other hand you thought to yourself, “Man, I need to figure out a way to maintain my values in the face of contradicting experiences; I need to develop some good solid coping strategies that are going to hold me together when the pressure’s on; I need to really work on maintaining my relationships with the people in my life I care about if I’m going to do this work,” then congratulations. You may be ready to think about that career change after all.
I reiterate: I’m not saying aid work sucks. I’m not saying you’re destined to become a burned-out loner lurking in third-world bars preying on local prostitutes (though observational evidence suggests that if you’re going to become an aid worker, that’s still well within the realms of statistical probability…). Aid work is rewarding. If you take the effort to get yourself set up properly, work with a reputable agency, and work dilligently to minimize harm and improve the quality of assistance given to people in need, you can accomplish great things.
But if you walk into this line of work without the right mindset, you’re in trouble. You need to know what you’re getting yourself into. You need to understand that the aid industry is a profession, not just a hobby. You need to invest in getting the right set of skills, sufficient experience, and ensuring that your personality is going to gel with this line of work. You need to think through what it is you’re wanting to contribute to this line of work. And if you’re really serious about it, you need to have a plan to mitigate the highly destructive side-effects of the aid worker lifestyle.
This isn’t a comprehensive solution to becoming an aid worker. It is a handful of insights that I, as a professional aid worker, want to share with the significant number among you who are interested in this line of work and want to understand what it involves.
I know there are plenty of other aid workers out there who have other things they could add to this series, and possibly some varying opinions on some of what I’ve said. I’d welcome any comments, additions or disagreements you might have. Many of you may have specific resources that might help people interested in becoming aid workers find a starting point or move themselves ahead a little.
And to those of you out there who are seriously thinking about it, feel free to ask any more specific questions you might have that aren’t addressed here, and I’ll see if I can answer them. There are plenty of other very qualified, experienced and articulate aid workers who make themselves accessible via social media and the blogosphere, so do check out the people I’m interacting with on Twitter, follow them, and see what they have to say too.
Salaam, Shalom, Peace.
Tales From The Hood has a ream of material that catalogues, among other things, the perils of being an aid worker and some of the internal battles that this entails, in a highly entertaining, readable and often poignant style. His audience frequently includes students and would-be aid workers, and his blog should be required reading for anybody interested in the profession. He posted a couple of pieces specifically for students looking to become aid workers, which you can find here and here as a starting point.
Alanna Shaikh, another top-notch aid blogger, has a section of her home page dedicated to Jobs resources for wannabe aid workers (check the right hand column a few sections down)- I’ve linked a couple of them below. For two dollars a month you can subscribe to her newsletter ‘International Development Careers List‘ and get regular information and feedback on how to work in the aid industry.
A detailed pamphlet on how to find your first job as an aid worker can be found on Eldis, “Better Ways to find Humanitarian Employment“. Thanks to Alanna Shaikh for providing this link, and the next, on Change.org entitled “Finding a Job Overseas“.
Jobs4Development is another good gateway site to start browsing what’s out there.
Most agencies have clear links on their websites to where job availabilities can be browsed, although note that most of these are unlikely to be entry-level. Many NGOs have graduate or internship programs which enable young would-be aid professionals to get sector and field experience, but they are generally highly competitive and open to just a handful of applicants a year. The list below is not by any means exhaustive. There are hundreds of reputable agencies you could choose out there.