What's your advice for people embarking on an aid career or any international do-gooder endeavor?

I’ve been invited to speak at my alma matter and so I’ve been eagerly reading fellow bloggers’ recent advice for students and aid career seekers. See Tales from the Hood’s posts on Motivation and Sacrifice, one from Satori Worldwide on whydev.org, one from La Vidaid Loca, and another from The Principled Agent. Here’s a few of my thoughts on the subject (en hommage a Sy Safransky) to add to the mix.

When I came out of grad school, I was programmed to think macro, think sustainability, to think that development economists had a clue (do they?), to think, think, think. In essence, nothing in my training prepared me for what I would feel as an aid worker.

The mantra “what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger” comes to mind. And the trauma, the vicarious trauma, the loss, and the isolation that aid workers can face indeed may make you stronger. Unfortunately, what makes you stronger might also make you less sensitive, hardened, more disconnected, less caring. Thus with all of our conditioned tendencies to avoid suffering, self-critique and self-compassion must be your constant companions.

The over-intellectualization of professional aid work is staggering to me at times. Yet I still often find myself wondering, in relationship to various projects, “What were they thinking?”

No matter how self-aware you come into this work, most people, especially in the beginning, will be operating from a worldview in which change in poor people’s lives is possible with our help and that it was something that can be “managed.”

In my mind, the jury is still out on this.

When I first saw this graph, I thought, “Gee, this would have been helpful” as I worked to discern my ‘calling’ from what the aid industry was requiring of me, i.e. think-think-manage-manage, and what was actually happening on the ground. The difference between helping, fixing and serving presented below is intended for health care providers (click here if the table is not visible), but I think it has real relevance for aid workers and do-gooders alike:

A quote I always keep nearby:
“If you believe if you're going to...change the world, you're going to end up either a pessimist or a cynic. But if you understand your limited power and define yourself by your ability to resist injustice, rather than by what you accomplish, then I think reality is much easier to bear.” ~Chris Hedges

Even when real changes in people’s life conditions are not imminently possible, our role can be to enable hope in the face of adversity.

What is required of aid workers, community builders, and peacemakers to serve rather than help, is illustrated further by a concept my friend Silvia brought to my attention, that of “cultural humility.” She works in hospice care in California, working with healthcare professionals to offer more appropriate and compassionate care to the Latino community. In healthcare settings, cultural humility involves active engagement in self-reflection, bringing power imbalances into check, relinquishment of the role of expert, becoming the student, and seeing a patient’s potential to be a full and capable partner in their recovery.

The most effective and inspiring development practitioners I’ve ever worked with embody cultural humility.

Do you have the courage to battle the modernist viewpoints, privilege and racism at the roots of international aid, as well as to question your own personal prejudices, stereotypes, and agendas? Be prepared to go deeper to examine your own beliefs, values, assumptions, and biases. Karen Armstrong describes the “hard work of compassion” as constantly “dethroning” yourself to challenge your own worldview.

Maybe the title of this talk should be “What I had to un-learn from grad school.”

I do think there is room for aid workers and do-gooders to redefine our role as translators, between what people on the ground really need and that of the demands of donors. Not as providers of what people need. Not as enforcers of policy, or rules, or regulations. Not as helpers or saviors or martyrs.

Results, results, results. Yes, they are important. Results are not possible, however, without tending to “the process.”

You will have many bosses who do not understand this.

You will have to fight hard to not let the overly technocratic, abstractionist tendencies of aid work pull you under.

You will have to fight against “charitable” urges towards impoverished and marginalized people you encounter, which can ultimately debase their dignity.

You will have to fight to experience the full range of our human condition.

Anyone can identify what’s wrong. It will take much more skill and strength to wake up everyday and help identify what’s right, what’s possible, and where incremental changes can occur.

…Just a few of the things I wish I had known. What about you?



This post originally appeared at: http://www.how-matters.org/2011/03/30/if-i-had-only-known/

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Hi Jennifer, 

Have been thinking about this during the week... 

If I have had one big surprise over the last few years, it is my discovery that it really doesn't take a lot of skill to identify what is working well. When I start with the idea that people have strengths and that my challenge is to learn from those strengths, then the conversation flows easily. 

I have found that it is a lot easier than exploring for and analysing weaknesses. And it is a lot more productive. 

I like your table. It has made me think a lot. I don't think I want to serve (or to be served). I want to appreciate. 


Pardon the joke but I really APPRECIATE your reply Phil. I, too, liked the table, but was a little stuck on the word "serve". Rituu, below, has mentioned accompaniment, which is ballpark for me, but as a concept it still doesn't quite capture what I see to be the relationship between community worker / facilitator and community. For me, "appreciate" seems to get closest to what I see as the primary role of the community worker.


What other ways could this relationship and role be described? Perhaps others have some ideas....

Dear Jennifer,


Having expereinced working both in a funding agency as well as in a civil society organisation, the word accompaniment comes to my mind. A donor can stimulate that empowers rather than provide that fosters dependency.The video of Amartya Sen which you had uploaded few days ago explains it beautifully.


Warm regards,


Wow Jennifer! What a helpful list of insights! It helps me to define my dream, which is based on my experiences and personal reflections, but which I had always struggled to articulate.


By sharing these insights in your presentation, you will have really challenged many people, and their presumptions about "Aid work". I am sure it was really well-received.


Thank you!

Thanks for your encouragement Olivia! You can follow more on these topics on my blog, how-matters.org. Good luck in all your endeavors!



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