My experience in Angola ripped something out of me. And with the guts gone all that remained was a career. Stripped of its moral trappings aid work lost its lustre. Yet, this was now my career. I had invested 10 years or more of my life in understanding what the whole caper was about. I knew the lingo and was building up a storybook of yarns. I enjoyed the feeling of no longer being a novice. Even though I now saw aid in a less-than-glamorous light I believed I had no option but to press on. As all careers come with ladders included, I started to climb.
After 5 years of mid-level program work in the west, I signed up for another stint in the field this time as Country Director for a big American NGO in Central Asia. Some of the early career exhilaration did come back. I was able to build a team with competent people I respected and knew from other assignments. And being situated on the outskirts of a war-torn Afghanistan as well as a collapsed Soviet Union there was political thuggery, moral dilemmas and opportunities to implement ‘practical solutions’ galore. Angola may have scarred me but it had toughened me up, too. I now understood that when you’re dealing with broken communities and fragile states, chaos, confusion and compromise are your inevitable and constant companions. Aid workers and NGOs are funded to get on with it.
But ultimately, field work is a single person’s game. Families (existing or emerging) tend not to survive places like Tajikistan, Congo, and Iraq. Being somewhat ambitious and wanting to start a family, I turned my attention to landing a job in HQ where I knew the movers and shakers made policy and set the agenda.
In observing the careers of my aid-worker peers, those fabled crossroads, where one must make a deal with the Devil, come exactly at the point when field work is no longer a viable option. Critical decisions have to be made for or against love, for or against health, for or against excitement, for or against stability. A few smart ones see the future for what it is and exit without too much angst. A decade of hard scrabble field work can be leveraged in any number of ways, especially if you still have a reservoir of energy and imagination to pursue other things. Most, however, including me, opt to stay in and try their hand at management or fancy they have what it takes to be ‘advisors’ of one sort or another. They tell the Devil they are willing to be ‘aid lifers’ as long as they can still travel (no more than 25% of their time, preferably) and do something ‘worthwhile’.
The second phase of my career played itself out pretty much as I imagined it would. I was part of ‘senior management teams’, I referred to myself as a leader, rather than a mere manager, and I spent most of my productive hours in meetings and workshops. I enjoyed it. Because I’d come up through field work my understanding and approach to ‘development’ was almost entirely practical and oriented towards problem solving. I was fascinated by the way my colleagues used academic language and models to ‘unpack’ and ‘frame’ poverty, effectiveness, gender and capacity.
The intellectualising gave me a peculiar comfort as well as went some way towards answering the question Angola had so crudely asked—what’s the point of aid? I embraced the metanarrative eagerly. By attending conferences and sitting on panels I replaced the passion and guts of field work with heady conceptualization about politics, power and systemic mechanisms of oppression. I was once again reconciled to my work. Sure, I understood there were limits to these theories and that many of the theoreticians were self-important windbags. But in general, I absorbed this ideational gospel and could be counted on to defend the case that my chosen path was indeed, worthwhile, even noble.
There was no Damascus road incident that caused me to reassess. Neither was there for many of the people who contributed to this article. When I asked a friend who still works in the UN for his thoughts, he exclaimed, “Aid is like a cult! Its hard to get out.” As those who do manage to escape cults or North Korea will tell you, it is the accumulation over many years of small doubts about the party line that cause the pressure to build to the point where an exit is the only honest option. So it is with aid.
For my UN friend it was a process of discovering that his role as a staff representative advocating for colleagues working conditions and better treatment rendered him dead meat. His career prospects died. Promotions never happened. Being gay didn’t help either, despite the UN’s supposed Zero-tolerance discrimination policy.
Another very experienced peer got tired of hitting the glass ceiling in a technical sector dominated by men. “I took more attacks from colleagues in the watsan sector than I ever have before or since. The bias against women is very deep.”
These and many other indignities—incompetent bosses, inconsistent application of rules, political power plays, the lack of evidence to back up hubristic claims, corporatization, even sexual offences and graft–are by no means unique to NGOs or the UN. Why then are so many senior aid professionals cynical, bitter and anxious to leave?
A big part of the answer lies in the gap between expectation and reality. Be they missionaries, mercenaries or misfits, aid workers choose the career because they have some sense of altruism. Ultimately, we want our original idea that we are doing good to be confirmed by organizations that hold themselves to higher standards then the corporate world. After years of making excuses and overlooking yet another scandal, when the evidence of good results is still amorphous, duty of care for employees still a low priority, and predators are handled with a dismissive arrogance similar to the Catholic Church you ask yourself, ‘Are we really that different?’
In the end, it is that emotional let down that defeats so many of us.
My experience in Angola outraged me. But ultimately I handed in my resignation for a more mundane reason. I was fed up with our (the sector’s) refusal to learn lessons. After every disaster, every emergency, every development program the evaluations, reviews and audits make the same recommendations: hire more experienced people; be more accountable; invest more in national staff and so on.
For years the best analytical minds and most experienced operations people identify what needs to change. How things need to improve. Where the investments that will make the difference need to be made. The reports and reviews are distributed, sometimes discussed and haphazardly implemented. New CEOs are brought in. But little really changes. A year or two later we find ourselves sitting around a table agreeing deeply that ‘things must change’ this time.
After thirty years of service I decided I didn’t want to work in a system that isn’t serious about improving. There is no lack of smart people, no question about what needs to change and contrary to popular belief, no lack of funds. If my employer was not serious about these things I could no longer justify investing my time and energy into the charade.
The time to head to the exit had arrived.