Over at WhyDev they’ve produced a long, bleak, amusing list of advice for aspiring humanitarian workers.
Pickers of nits (who me?) can find things to complain about (it’s wrong to state categorically that foreign aid doesn’t stimulate growth; if anything, the best available evidence suggests it does) but, overall, the list rings true.
At a more meta-level the list illustrates well one of the grim truths of aid work, that it is a human endeavour, and so is replete with the human failings we see throughout our lives. There is no escaping this. No part of the world of aid work that’s free from it.
If you imagine yourself working for a crusading NGO speaking truth to
DFID/USAID/DFAT/MFAT power, odds are you’ll find yourself working for an entity that receives enough funding from the power itself, or easily scared suburban donors, that truth telling has to be muted. Or, if you end up in a small independently funded cluster of the ideologically pure, you’ll end up doubting, amidst the complexities of development, you actually know what the truth is.
Similarly, if you plan on standing in solidarity with some idealised noble savage against the depredations of the developed world, odds are you’ll find that while those depredations are real, the societies you imagine yourself helping have plenty of their own ambiguity and their own internal abuses of power. And that these are more often the source of suffering than our own crimes. You will also learn similar hard lessons about power and people’s failings if you stride into the world of development keen on promoting participatory approaches.
The dismal science won’t help you either. If, fresh from your economics degree, you imagine all you need is to bring some hard-nosed analysis based on sound theoretical fundamentals into the game, you’ll likely learn the hard way that amidst the messy processes of development tidy theories struggle to give guidance, and simple solutions fail.
Yet, at the same time, if the message you take from all this is that development itself is bad, and if you race to the embrace of chic, post-development philosophising, you’ll find just as much contradiction and confusion. Most importantly, if you are being honest, you will also have to face the uncomfortable truth that — for all it’s flaws and ambiguities, and for all we don’t know about how to bring it about — development actually delivers, both longer and happier lives.
And as for aid work, while it is far from perfect, it’s also far from the worst we can do. The long sad sweep of human history is mostly filled with examples of us actively doing harm to anyone who wasn’t kin or, more recently, compatriot. Set against this, the fact we try to help strangers in far away lands is actually something. Of course it’s still ambiguous, we haven’t actually evolved into a better species in the meantime, but compared to the unambiguous nastiness of much our past, muddled attempts at kindness are still an improvement.
For what it’s worth, if you end up working in development, my advice is to abandon all hope of perfection, or of healing the world, but try your best to contribute in some small way to making our planet a kinder, more sustainable place. Do this, and I think you’ve done your bit.