My father, a missionary, always hoped and prayed fervently that at least one of his four children would follow in his footsteps. My eldest brother did try it out for a while before achieving burnout within a few short years.With some fellow Jesus Freaks (remember them?) he wanted to support a children’s home near Allahabad. But the harsh realities of dealing with Indian officialdom and a charismatic church leader in the States who seemed to have little patience for delays eventually turned my brother 100% off the whole Christian faith.
Some years later my sister and her young family took up an assignment in rural mountainous Nepal. The critical tipping point arrived even quicker than with my brother. Ill health forced the issue and they returned to the States smarting. Unlike our brother, my sister did manage to retain her religion. And over some years the disappointment of the truncated experience eventually passed.
I never gave the missionary option serious thought. It seems my desire to return to India was not urgent enough to include proselytization. I have always been a man of (some would say, a few) strong convictions but religion has never been one. For a period in my twenties and into my thirties I silently scoffed at the whole notion of trying to ‘save’ peoples souls and convert them to a new religion. Like many missionary kids I felt burdened by my father’s vocation. During those years I came up with several euphemisms for what he did: director of a social organization, educationist, principal.
One of the unconscious pleasures of landing a job with the UN was the knowledge that it was not mission-tainted in any way. Not only had I managed to land me a job, but by doing so I had stepped out of my father’s shadow. Again, more subconscious than conscious, at that time in my life, this was a very important milestone for me.
You can imagine the cold horror that came over me then some years into my brilliant secular career when I became convinced that the difference between missionary and aid worker was, rather than mightily great, about as solid as a piece of rice paper. If you looked at it from certain angles you could conclude the difference barely existed.
In the mid-1990s there seemed to be a feverish energy around emergencies in the NGO world. Agencies that had hitherto looked down their noses at relief and disaster response operations cottoned on to the trend that it was a growth industry. Starting with the Afghan refugee crisis which was followed up in quick succession by the collapse of Somalia and Ethiopia, the Iraq war, the disintegration of the Yugoslav state and genocide in the Central Africa (just to touch on the major humanitarian crises of the time) most international donor money and attention had gone towards what were suddenly branded as ‘complex humanitarian emergencies’ or CHEs to the cognoscenti.
These were in the news every evening and morning for a decade. The siege of Sarajevo. The Tutsis massacred. The Kurds fleeing Saddam’s gunships. Red Cross workers being shot in Chechnya. Wave after wave of Africans shifting back and forth across the landscape. It was this short period between 1991 and 1997 when the great tectonic shift took place. Millions of young people in the West were fed images of great poignancy, human suffering and noble effort ( entirely of Western origin and agency) almost unceasingly. New aid agencies popped up like mushrooms. Universities, a few at first, started testing the appetite for fitting all of this effort into a theoretical framework. MSF won the Nobel Peace Prize. Aid became sexy.
It was during an Australian interlude (95-97) between field assignments that the penny dropped. My wife and I shared a job at an organization that was struggling with its relevance and going through a painful internal reimagination. The emergencies faction was teeny weeny and we were part of it. The true believers, those who had been working on the same small projects in India, Tonga and Ethiopia for decades floated about and gloated like Incan high priests. Their pity for us emergency people was palpable.
The leader of our tiny cohort was pugnacious if nothing else. He knew the enemy well and understood that what was required to get the attention of his haughty co-workers was an intellectually rigorous catchphrase upon which he could hang his arguments. He found one but the first time I heard it come out of his mouth, I nearly burst into laughter.
When I enquired what that meant I was shown a definition in a photocopy of an academic article that essentially said: when people’s lives are in danger other people MUST act. Intervene. Take action. Respond. Action is not suggested. It is required.
When you stop and consider that statement it does appear to make sense. No one can really argue the opposite, i.e. that if an individual is in danger and you have it in your ability to save them or at least decrease the damage you should NOT act. If you know a village is to be wiped out by a volcanic eruption, you should, most people would agree, give them a headsup at least. And if you can, the means to escape.
But I wanted to laugh the first time I heard that lofty term. Humanitarian Imperative. My urge was instinctual and instant. I surprised myself. For a few days I believed I was a bit of a loser–someone who didn’t buy into the holy tenets. Humanitarian Imperative. It just didn’t sit right with me. Something was suss. But other than me, what was it?
A few days later the switch went on and set in motion the tragic unwinding of my position that being an aid worker was a vastly different (and more noble) thing than being a low-down missionary.