Aid by itself can have tremendous benefit to communities affected by conflict or natural disasters. It can also be catastrophic in the negative impact it has on those same communities if applied inappropriately.
In this book, I would like to take you through as much about the job as you might find it; the day to day life of an aid worker, how they live, what they eat, how they entertain themselves as well as the difficulties they face and how they might deal with them. Then I delve into some broad details about very general conditions of the jobs in the different sectors that you might pursue. Following that I will discuss the industry itself and its impact on the lives of the people we serve. Here I want to look at some of the structural faults that exist with present aid packages. Finally, I would like to talk about the geopolitics and why after so many years, we are still in a global situation that requires so much aid to be constantly delivered.
Throughout the book, I will be referring constantly to anecdotes of my own career as an aid worker. I start off with my joining an NGO in Kosovo to help rebuild destroyed homes, to then joining another NGO in Afghanistan, working on livelihood programs in a vain attempt to prevent farmers from growing opium poppies. From there I moved to the UN as a UN Volunteer in Kandahar where I encountered the first and within a couple of years, rising through the ranks to become a Senior Program Manager and adviser on development to government Ministers in Kabul and on from there.
All in all, I have managed programs with hundreds of people engaged and controlled budgets involving hundreds of millions of dollars so hopefully, some of my experiences might be helpful to others entering the industry although it might be at odds with how others see the work.
Throughout it all, I want to look at the mechanics of being an aid worker. Is what we are doing beneficial or is there a better way to provide aid? Is handing out materials and supplies the most appropriate way to go? Who makes these decisions and to what benefit? What about the governments of these places, what is their role and how should we work with them?
I have some very committed points of view that not everyone will agree with. Aid as we know it, takes place in three distinct actions. First there is the relief stage, the provision of food and shelter in the immediate aftermath of a crisis. Following that is the recovery stage where we aim to bring living conditions back to the status quo. The final stage is the development stage where we seek to elevate the living conditions, the health of the people, their education, their homes and the public infrastructure, legal frameworks and the like.
It is a great career choice to make. I have spent almost seventeen years at it working in the field and as a program administrator. While it has it’s upside and the satisfaction of making a difference, It also has its down sides, I have had half a dozen colleagues killed, others injured in explosions and still others held to ransom by kidnappers. I have had great successes. I have seen the joy that comes with people’s lives being stabilized after disaster. I have travelled the world and filled up all the pages of several passports from the different ports of call. My friend base on social media for instance is made up of people who are scattered all around the world.
There is a strong argument that present day aid is badly delivered. That the aid is not getting to the people and that the donations you make are being wasted. Many people are critical of the work of the UN without knowing what it is they do. A lot of this is true.
After making a lot of mistakes over the years and hopefully learning by them, I now hold a somewhat anti-establishment viewpoint of how aid at all stages should be delivered if we are to ever improve the lives of the people in these communities. In later chapters, I intend to take you through some of the successful approaches to aid and at the same time, highlight some of the problems that aid produces and hopefully, steer you in a direction of change on how it can become better and hopefully, you might be able to avoid some of the mistakes that have been in my particular trajectory.
One reason I am feel strongly about it is, the aid community is constantly revolving. Only a very few make it a long term career and then they often end up in administrative positions without dealing with the realities on the ground. Many people entering aid work are fresh off the boat, arriving at some disaster having completed some instructive course in their home country intending to save the world.. While some have made a study of it, many more haven’t and often without any real life experiences in aid delivery or even with the culture of the people they intend to help tend to come in with the idea that they know what is best and belligerently follow their own course of action. I am sure I made the same impression when I first went to work in Kosovo and I hope I might be able to point out some of those instances that I have taken away as a lesson learned which by the way, very few people do.
Importantly, I want you to be aware of the personal dangers of working in aid, the fact that people can lose their lives or be kidnapped or contract strange illnesses or have accidents in conflict zones that they otherwise might never experience. To understand that when you are directly in contact with so much trauma that you face prospects of doing damage to your own mental health. That the job itself can lead to stress and anxiety while the support systems of the organisations fail to provide long term relief. And then finally to the impact that your job has on the people at home who cannot share or even understand your experiences.