The Missionary Position

still 464

Overlooking Iran from Iraq.

The aphorism that aid workers are all either missionaries, misfits or mercenaries is tired and completely unoriginal. I’ve heard social workers, teachers and even missionaries say the same about their tribe. (I wonder though if somewhere in the deserts of North Africa a member of the Foreign Legion is telling a new recruit, “Remember this, Pepe. All mercenaries are either missionaries, misfits or aid workers!”) And yet for me the list rings true because at various stages of my career I’ve been all three–sometimes simultaneously!

By now I’m sure you understand that though my work in Islamabad had a certain missionary zeal about it what really drove me was a more selfish, personal motive: my own creative interests and a desire to be in South Asia. The mercenary. As for the misfit, that’s just the way I’ve felt since I can remember.

I mention this point because if ever there was a category of people upon which the general public has foisted all sorts of ridiculous expectations and idealistic fantasies it is the international aid worker. High on that list of unrealistic notions is that all aid workers are good hearted, deeply compassionate people who really care about the people they are trying to assist. Every time a relative or family member uses the terms ‘angel of mercy’ or ‘mercy mission’ I want to hide. If only you knew, I mutter sotto voce.

Most of my colleagues were where they were for all sorts of reasons: their Europe to Africa bus broke down near a refugee camp; their college professors thought a six month internship with the UN would look good on their application to grad school; they needed a job; they loved to travel; the dope was better and cheaper than in Cleveland. This is not to say that no one took the job seriously. My friend Steve was a case in point. An ex Peace Corps volunteer who had a definite career in development planned out and his two or three years in Pakistan were fodder for his research.  I worked hard, learned a lot, gave a lot and was glad the Universe had provided me with a way to make money that didn’t require environment destruction or mindnumbing tedium.

Things have changed now of course. The sector has been ‘professionalized’. But in my day the sector attracted and was sustained by real people from every profession who wanted to be in the field and were willing to work in hellholes for long periods. They mostly drank too much and had horrible personal relationships but then again you’ve got to give something to get something.

Nowadays, a career in international development is considered sexy. Every university worth its salt has a graduate program in international development/aid/humanitarian law/disaster response, you name it. While the sector needed to be professionalised the trend has taken on a life of its own. What was once a scratchy Bob Dylan album has been turned into a slick Beyonce download overproduced to within an inch of its life.

Among the unintended consequences of this trend is that Universities are producing degree holders who are frighteningly bright,  have an academic understanding of several disciplines (Evaluation, Impact Assessment, Public Policy, Gender Studies) and ambitions to immediately land a job in their specialist area in New York or London. Some (very few) actually do succeed. Most do not and struggle to find work that matches their intellectual clout. They find they are overqualified for almost every low paying position in a NGO and are competing against more and more of their type each year. Discouragement is endemic.

In the evangelical language of my father these young people are ‘true believers’. They have invested heavily of their finances, time and emotions to get a job. They ‘believe’ in development as a ‘theory’ or even a set of processes that can actually save people. But it isn’t that way. Humanitarian assistance is basic life saving work in terrible situations. By definition. Development work is even harder and more fraught. It is the organic breathing of a community. Theories are useful to reflect upon that breathing, but not very good to actually try to change its cadence.

Universities have led young people to believe that the aid sector is like most others: banking, IT or management consulting. But it’s not. To do this job requires a willingness to get your hands dirty, literally. To live in tents in war zones and in isolated mountain valleys immediately after a major earthquake. The sorts of places and operations where academic theory is a low priority and where flexibility, a knack and willingness to get along with others, problem solving, and being quick on your feet are a premium.  Theory is helpful in some instances and in some situations but for the most part the aid and development sector is about basic human responses to tough and complex human situations. It requires problem solving not theorizing and social modelling.

Even as an office bound manager, far from the action in the field, the skills that always served me  best were the same: ability to think quickly, flexibility and ability to respond to change, an ability to handle uncertainty, good writing, good human relations and a sense of humor. After my Minnesota MA I have had no formal education. While I often wished someone would have paid me to do a MA or MBA I never felt incapacitated in any job because I didn’t have one. I feel sorry for young people trying to break into the sector now. In my day, taxi drivers who could recite Urdu ghazals were considered outstanding candidates. Now, a Masters from the best university is not sufficient.

But back to expectations. Aid workers are expected to be nice people who are motivated, like Florence Nightingale, by a sense of selfless service to save others. I’ve never been that. I’m not a true believer. Over my career I’ve been humbled and touched by the people I’ve met and tried to assist. My sense of compassion has grown immensely as a result of me being in the sector. And for that I’m very grateful. Rather than being a good person motivated by noble aspirations when I started, I was a chancer who became a better person with aspirations to be more noble, now that I’ve left.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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2 comments

  1. keruin · January 8, 2016

    Very lovely piece, with a lot of tender honesty. Yes, many of the overseas aid workers are “dodgy,” as my own employer once called them. It’s much like any other slice of life or sphere. But perhaps in the midst of our collective oddities, we learn to be more compassionate and respectful. The ones who don’t… well, that’s “a whole nuther” blog post…

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Mr Harmonium · January 8, 2016

    indeed!

    Like

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