Waylaid Dialectic

June 25, 2012

Should Aid Workers Lead Comfortable Lives?

Filed under: Aid — terence @ 7:13 pm

This blog post at the Development Policy Centre’s blog from a few weeks ago is – by quite some margin – the most commented upon post I’ve ever written.

In a way that doesn’t surprise me — I know the subject, whether aid workers should lead comfortable lives in developing countries, is one that many aid workers agonise about. On the other hand, I think the impact of this issue on overall aid effectiveness is much less than many of the other topics I’ve written about for Development Policy’s site.

And yet, I can understand the agonising that goes on — the discrepancy between aid worker lifestyles and the lives of people in developing countries is the place where the contradictions of global capitalism become personal. When there’s no longer any escaping the fact that, in some strange way, we benefit from all the mess.

For what it’s worth having read all the discussion following the post, my concluding thoughts are as follows:

1. Ethically, it is impossible not to feel uncomfortable at the inequality involved. But don’t mistake its source. The inequality that lies between the lives of aid workers and the lives of those they try to help isn’t a product of the ‘aid industry’ it is  a product of our incredibly unequal world. Ethically speaking, aid workers should feel very uncomfortable about this inequality. But they aren’t the only ones. Everyone living in comfort in our poor, divided planet should feel this discomfort. Not just the aid workers.

2. Practically, the real question is: what is the optimal level of inequality in terms of increasing the likelihood of aid succeeding? On this question my guess is that almost always the positive impact of having rested, safe aid workers clearly outweighs the increased overheads associated with this and any negative ‘divide’ related impacts that might impede aid work.

There are many, many problems with the world of aid, but many of these are essentially problems of our world more generally, not just of the world of aid.



  1. A university educated OECD worker costs a lot of money. I’ve seen various estimates, but let me venture a rough number: $500,000 by the time they graduate. That includes health and education and feeding since day one. And that’s before they get experienced enough to be really useful. And that’s before the costs of fares, salary, accommodation, back office support. Let’s round it up to a million dollars of social investment before they become Really Useful.

    If you send such a worker in the field, they have one responsibility: to be effective. That means overworking may be irresponsible. Sleepless nights on a hard bed may be irresponsible. Playing Florence Nightingale or Albert Schweitzer is almost certainly irresponsible.

    If being effective means sitting in a canoe for 14 hours to reach an important site, that they must see, they should do it. If it means sitting in a helicopter so they can visit ten remote sites in a day, they should do it. If it means sleeping on a hard bed, because it’s the only bed around, they should do it. If it means sleeping in a wonderful soft bed, to kick off the jetlag and be effective at 6am, they should do it. All these conditions should be approached with a Buddhist-like equinamity: do it because it produces the best overall outcome, not because it strokes your self-image, whether of being a VIP, or a fledgling Gandhi.

    Comment by davidweek (@davidweek) — June 26, 2012 @ 4:14 am

  2. glad to have read this post. it’s something i often think about, and a source of discouragement for thinking about entering the aid/development ‘profession’. but you bring up some good points about danger and about there often being no ‘middle class’ lifestyle possible. here’s another interesting opinion on the subject: http://www.aljazeera.com/indepth/opinion/2012/06/2012611121659576665.html

    Comment by Guest — June 26, 2012 @ 9:38 am

  3. Thanks David and ‘Guest’ – no disagreement from me.

    Comment by terence — June 26, 2012 @ 1:34 pm

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