Leaving the aid world has been likened to escaping from a cult. I prefer to think of it as overcoming an addiction. There are three options available to us disgruntled, burned out and cynical humanitarians: cold turkey, the gradual withdrawal and death. The same options any old junkie has. Heroin, booze or aid. The grip is hard to break.
A lucky few go cold turkey. They wander into the party for a few years have a good time, work in a couple of major operations then announce they are going back to carpentry. Or that they intend to study something completely off the wall like sexology. Aid for them is but one of the many phases of life. Those of us who remain harbor a sniffy resentment. He wasn’t the real deal. She didn’t have what it takes. They weren’t real aid types. They really didn’t have the right motivation.
At the other end of the spectrum are those who have the decision made for them. Aid workers are no longer–if we ever were–immune from targeted violence. Murders and kidnappings of aid workers are rising (121 and 120 respectively in 2014). Road and air accidents remain the number one killer in the sector.
But even when the worst doesn’t happen emotional exhaustion or exotic diseases can stop a career on a dime. One dear friend told me, “My departure from Afghanistan was not planned. I went on R&R and simply didn’t go back. I could not get back on the plane. Signing off on wells where there is no water, just so the US military can get access to the area and being bullied by alcoholic political appointees was too much to take.”
One of the most brilliant minds and dedicated policy wonks I know, the man responsible for landing me my first job in the sector, was debilitated by a rare blood disease he picked up in Sri Lanka. His steady rise in the World Bank and indeed, all future employment, ceased in his mid-40s.
The middle way, the one I chose, is the well-trodden path of gradual, planned, rescheduled and repeatedly delayed departure. Like the road to Hell it is paved with good intentions.
Once my decision to get out was made it took me another five years to make it official. Though I knew the fire of humanitarianism and development had flickered its last I was completely flummoxed by the smoking embers. Where was my paycheck going to come from? What about retirement and the pension? Did I really want to start at the bottom of the ladder in the banking sector or as a just-over-broke lecturer in International Development? I was middle aged. I had responsibilities for other human beings.
I gave it a go, nonetheless. I networked with bankers, academics, management consultants and risk analysts. I was met with skepticism. Why, they wondered, do you want to give up a ‘sexy’ career, especially at your age? My enthusiasm gave way to a vaguely defined shame. I felt like a career derelict. As if I were someone that had lost control of the boozing and was trying to hide with a new crowd that didn’t know me. I learned that ‘transferrable skills’ is more myth than strategy.
I soldiered on. The good intention to leave and pursue something I really wanted was just below the surface but also pretty far back on the burner. I became a consultant, a half-way house of the sort addicts are familiar with, except there’s a higher recidivism rate.
But I wrote as well. And started a music business, which completely flopped. Eventually, financial obligations forced me back to the warm embrace of a big international aid agency. My feelings were mixed. I dreaded having to attend the meetings, chair panels and rehash those old familiar “lessons learned” which remained forever unapplied. But I was grateful for another chance. I swore I’d not do anything as foolish as trying to leave, again.
One of the many ironies of aid workers is this. We spend our lives telling poor, broken, marginalized, fragile, disempowered, failed, oppressed and benighted people and communities that they must ‘develop’. And that they must accept the challenge of radical change in many of their cultural practices, social structures and power arrangements. We bombard them relentlessly with freshly concocted ‘urgencies’ (HIV/AIDS campaigns this year, environment and innovation, next) that they absolutely must address if they are to develop into strong and resilient people, communities and countries.
Yet when it comes to pursuing even the most tepid of changes—to find a new way to earn a living—we act like the biggest pack of unresilient wusses that ever walked the earth. Community development and radical change it seems is a dish best served to others. Personal development of our own selves, including taking care of our bodies, souls and families, on the other hand, is taboo. We avoid the challenge like we do performance reviews. We hold fast to organizations and jobs we no longer respect. We bitch and moan. But we continue to inject the aid into our veins as if it really was a narcotic.
Eventually, the rutted road of half-hearted departure deposited me at the gates of my personal hell. The decision could no longer not be acted upon. “You can wait till it’s too late,” a senior UN colleague told me, “or you can go when you still have a bit of spirit left to enjoy the rest of your life.” He is scheduled to throw in the towel in a few months and take up a career in film.
Why do we humanitarians take ourselves so seriously? Why do we believe that our roles and organizations are so important that to leave them is an act of supreme betrayal? Of ourselves, of humanitarian principles, of ‘the cause’ and even of poor people. For Mother Teresa, helping poor people was a vocation. For the mass of aid workers it’s a job.
I don’t know why we are that way. But like pop stars who begin believing their own hype, we have drunk the Kool-aid. For most of our careers we exist in a bubble which is reinforced with an unquestioned belief that we are important and that and what we do is more noble than what those outside the bubble do. To get out of that echo chamber and live independent of its teat-like familiarity is something too many aid workers are not muscled up to do. The warmth inside the bubble, paid travel and delegated authority to play at rearranging other people’s lives seems to be sufficiently fulfilling.
When I announced my decision most colleagues congratulated me in the same way they would a fellow inmate on his release day, with palatable longing to join me. Respected gurus confessed they too were planning to leave and implement that special project. Others said, “We’re right behind you mate. Next year or the one after that, for sure.” I knew many of them were as burned out as a cheap toaster. They complained incessantly about the system. Most looked unhealthy. I have no doubt that almost all of them will never leave.
Leaving aid is not a requirement. Not everyone has to make the decision. Though I know very few myself there are people who insist that even after twenty years they still really love their work and look forward to the next big disaster. To them I say, ‘Bon chance.’
For me, and many others, though, it really was a matter of life and death. I did not want my life’s work to be limited to what I had accomplished a half-decade earlier in my career, no matter how fulfilling, interesting and exciting it had once been. There is so much more to Experience than being clever with concepts about aid effectiveness, unlocking revenue streams and gender.
What I really wanted was, to grow up. And I couldn’t see that happening in aid. The thrill of disaster chasing can be character building when you’re in your twenties. In your fifties, it is just a bit sad. When I finally arrived at the place where a decision could no longer be delayed all the arguments for me to stay fell away irrevocably. I could choose to hasten an inner death or I could take responsibility for crafting a new version of my life. Adventure needs fresh challenges to stay alive. After nearly 30 years of playing on a vast global, even historic, stage, I accepted that my life had become completely unadventurous.
The choice was suddenly easy. I opted to get out–cold turkey.