Monday, 21 February 2011

(Not) why I want to be an aid worker

TalesFromTheHood was ranting a while back in this post about the glamorous, unbureaucratic, mythical aid-work-universe described in books like Three Cups of Tea. It got me thinking (again) about what is it about this work that attracts me over being, say, an accountant or (slightly more realistically) a teacher? It's a tough thing to pin down but I do know for sure that it's not all about the children.

"All-about-the-children" people* drive me crazy. They're the types who will spend whole meetings lamenting the time that is wasted on monitoring numbers or operational efficiency, because they'd rather be talking (only) about "real, human stories". They're the people who think that wanting to help is plenty of justification for expecting everyone to support their two-week trip to beach-paradise to hug orphans. Their righteous indignation follows them like a cloud stopped-off-in-New-York-to-shop perfume and ivory-tower idealism. They know better than everyone else and consider you less dedicated, less compassionate, less of human being, if you show a tendency to care about efficiency, evaluation, coverage, planning, "long-term" or anything operational.

In general, they get little done because their passion doesn't change the fact that, if you could hug every single child in the world, it would achieve less than having systems in place to ensure that the aid reaches the ground through projects that use appropriate methods, where funding is (publicly) tracked and managed and impact is evaluated where-ever possible. Which is not, of course, to say that every NGO is perfect or that every development project achieves what it sets out to achieve and/or avoids unintended consequences. As with every other sector, there is always room to improve. And quite often aid projects fail. It's difficult to get aid right. But pretending that hugging children/drinking tea/local traditional dancing will make it all better is unhelpful.

So, this is my career. I am a development professional or aid worker. I am a professional because I believe that professionalism is most likely to ensure the highest possible returns for the people aid is trying to help. Being an aid worker - I mean a real aid worker, not an "all about the children" type - means caring about the paperwork, going to meetings, reading reports and knowing that keeping donors happy (however much of a time-black-hole it is) is sometimes necessary to get things done, and sometimes people who want to help (or give you things) have to be sent away because they'll do more harm than good.

It means knowing that however much you believe in a model, there is still a good chance it just won't work. It means recognising that, even though local knowledge is crucially important, the mixture of local knowledge and international best-practice is the best shot these people have at the current problem being fixed (or at least improved) and this is sometimes more important than making people feel special.

Sometimes it's heartbreaking. There seems to be an implicit assumption in media coverage and general popular understanding of aid work, that the work itself is so fulfilling that aid workers should glow all the time and never have any problems. It's not like that. Whether you're working in the office of a large NGO or out "in the field" talking to people, it's hard work, it's often lonely work and it's generally very difficult to measure what little success you achieve.

I sometimes envy corporate employees with their regular, defined measures of business success. Or journalists who can count the front pages or lead stories. It's very often difficult to measure aid success. And even when there are clear, measurable successes, such as a reduction in infection rates when you're working in HIV prevention, it's often almost impossible to be sure whether and to what extent, the efforts of a single organisation made a difference. Perhaps that's is why some aid workers resort to personal anecdotes and heart-warming tales as their proof of success.

It's the ops, the reports, the numbers, that interest me. Perhaps I'm just cynical. Perhaps I should be more open to the joy of hugging children. If I'm going to help people, I want to get it right. If that makes me a grumpy sod, instead of a the glowing, hippie helper, complete with stories of saving the poor (naked) African children, I'm okay with that. I'll be the one in the back office trying to figure out how to make sure the data collection system gets the right info to the right people to make the right decisions possible. It's what makes me happy.

*Note: All-about-the-children people come in several versions, including all-about-the-girls, all-about-the-traditional-culture and all-about-the-rare-Argentinian-frog. They share, rather than a common cause, a tendency to be self-righteous gits who would rather talk about how they saved the children/'natives'/frogs than do the work required to make development or aid effective. Also, I have nothing against children (or saving them); I just don't think hugging a child is a huge contribution to the sector. 

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