So You Want to Be a Humanitarian? Part 1

I hate the term aid worker. Though it is still used. And the term humanitarian? Not so sure about that because it could be anyone. As for international development worker….well no because that implies you’re working outside of your own country…..which isn’t always or even generally true.

Terms are important because they color how we think. People are even more important. In any discussion of industry or a sector I believe that you should start with the people in that industry or sector and what they are. So that’s what I’m going to attempt to do in two parts. Along the way I’ll need to define some terms. But first, let me tell you a story.

I got my bachelor’s degree in business. In retrospect I would have gone to film school. Or majored in history. But at the time I didn’t know what I wanted to do, I had some half-baked scheme of trying to get into the movie business by doing logistics for a movie set, hence my business degree in logistics. And the VA (Veteran’s Administration) would pay for it. So cool.

I was an angry lad though. I was pissed off at my country for going to wars I didn’t believe in. I was pissed off at my culture because it would focus more on Kim Kardashian’s ass then the fact we were in two wars. I was pissed off at my people, my generation, because all I felt that emanated from them was this overwhelming sense of apathy about the world and our country’s role in it.

So I got my business degree and I decided I couldn’t go work for a business. It just wasn’t in me, my primary focus would be making money and as long as I have food, shelter and a bit left over, I don’t give a shit about money. I didn’t want that to be the central purpose of my life. That, and I figured I’d probably hit somebody. I figured I’d meet some hotshot who didn’t know shit about the real world and was motivated by self-glorification and money and that would piss me off. So I would punch him. Or he would punch me, whatever.

I went and got my master’s instead. Then I found my way to the NGO world. Man told me, “There’s three types of people in the aid world: missionaries, mercenaries and misfits, which one are you?” Well there is nothing in my bones that goes and spreads any kind of word of God of any religion, so it ain’t missionary. I don’t give enough of a shit about money to be a mercenary. Guess that leaves one choice.

It’s not just me though. The individuals that make up the humanitarian world conform to certain ways of being I think. Before I talk about the individuals though, there’s an interesting dilemma here. And that takes us back to terms. When people use the term “aid worker” at least in the west and everywhere to a point I think, it conjures up an image of a white, western individual off gallivanting (I like that word) around the world, trying to fight the good fight and help the people (whatever the hell that means). And this is not the full story by any stretch of the imagination.

First of all, the term aid worker is bullshit. I used it because it’s still used in many places, but it’s bs. Humanitarian aid work, to the best of my understanding, is the immediate delivery of life-saving goods and services in order to preserve human life. It is not a sustainable thing and it’s dependent on that giving from an outside resource. Development on the other hand is helping people in communities find sustainable ways to provide the goods, services and skills they need in order to grow as a community. It is intended to be sustainable. Hell the majority of work I’ve done, though not all by a longshot, in my time in the humanitarian world, was development.

When you call someone an aid worker or development worker if you prefer are you just referring to these western people in foreign countries? Of course not. It would be anyone working for the organization and the majority of any international organization’s staff in any country (many times mandated by that country’s law) are from that country. I’d say around 80 to 90 percent usually, not always but usually, say you have 150 staff, about 140 of them are probably from that country. Oh and many of those foreigners working in a country aren’t from the west either, just to make that clear. Power structures, that’s a bit different, but that’s a problem for another time.

So all these people are humanitarian workers (I’m dropping the aid and development terms now), right? Cool. And generally in many countries where there’s a large need and a large international presence, you have many local NGOs (non-governmental organizations) that are founded, ran and staffed completely by nationals of that country. Those people are humanitarian workers right? Of course.

Now, a question. I’m currently living in Portland, Oregon in the good ol US of A. There’s a large homeless population here and I can walk down the street a ways and find plenty of organizations and programs for those people. The people that run those organizations and programs, Americans, they’re humanitarian workers right? I mean they don’t work for the business or the government. And sometimes if you’re talking a soup kitchen or something, you could argue that’s humanitarian aid, if its programs designed to get them off the street and into jobs, then that’s development right? So these people, they’re humanitarian workers right? Of course they are.

Now I can see some people, people that I know, shaking their head right now and saying (I’m being cynical now): “Well of course we know that everyone’s the same and that just goes unsaid. We don’t need to say it.” Bullshit. We do need to say it, we need to say it for a lot of different reasons.

First off and what I was pushing for is asking the question of how necessary is it to have people from the outside running or at least significantly contributing to a third sector (the non-profit sector) in any country? Depends on the country (a future subject of conversation)?  But the goal, the goal of any international humanitarian worker should be to work themselves out of the job, unless, two reasons I see. One, the person is so incredibly technically skilled at whatever they are doing they are simply irreplaceable. Two, the person has been hired as an outside steward of outside money (because if the money is generated locally this argument falls apart) as they will provide a set of eyes on said money that has no vested interests inside that country.

Second and more importantly, the issue of equality simply amongst staff in the humanitarian world when we’re talking about INGOs, INGOs funding local NGOs, etc. We think we have it but we don’t have it, it’s not completely ingrained in our organizational mindsets. I’m not saying we don’t try. I’m not saying it’s not in many places, it is, because in those places you have leadership that has made it so. I am saying that we need to be better about it. First placing it in our own minds and then communicating in proper and appropriate ways (not just with words either).

We also need to understand that there is no difference between a non-profit or non-governmental organization, or the people who staff them, at their cores, in Juba (South Sudan), Portland or Lebanon (the country, not the city, I have to qualify that for possible American readers who are geographically challenged and I’m not being a jerk, that’s true).

A lot of the reasons the sector has the nomenclature it does and refers to things the way it does is because of money and politics. We’ll get to that. For now I wanted to look at the way we talked about the people in the sector and state for the purpose of this conversation when we talk about people who we’re going to be talking about.

Everybody. Everybody that works in the third sector, not government, not profit, the third sector where I believe assistance to other human beings in the alleviation of suffering is the primary goal (another thing we’re going to have to talk about).

Until next time.