So You Want to be a Humanitarian? Part 2

How do we make sense of other people? We stereotype them. We fit other people into categories of he is this or she is that in order to make sense of how we’re going to deal with them. It makes sense. There’s a lot of people in the world that we have to deal with. If we quickly latch on to a few defining characteristics and then quite subconsciously put them in a pre-defined category then we have certain rules in our own mind on how to deal with people in that category. Of course the more we get to know someone, the more we find out things about them which take them out of a category and give them their own uniqueness. Categories and stereotypes are useful. They are also limited.

The purpose of this post is to discuss various traits of individuals that are in the humanitarian world. I do this by using categories in order to make sense of things. That being said these categories are limited and many times, most times, people have various traits from various categories and beyond. I would like to give the reader an overview however of the complexity of the individuals in these world. I think it will be very useful in informing stories and conversations as this series continues.

That being said, let me begin to explain various types and traits you encounter in the humanitarian world.

There’s the boss that’s an extremely good politician in terms of getting money from donors but an extremely bad manager and sometimes bad leader. I’ve seen these gravitate towards the top of an organization and then be recycled over and over. They generally seem in it for the perks and their own self-glorification more than the good of the people (both beneficiaries and staff). I think somewhere inside them they have little humanitarians that are still gasping for air. I think they’re so concerned about money, politics and appearance because that’s what the system rewarded (which needs to be talked about more in depth in the future). That’s what got them where they are today.

There’s visionaries. But this word (a limiting stereo-type word) can encompass so many things both positive and negative. There’s visionaries that provide the drive in order to do something or create something, they provide the over-arching goal, sometimes, many times, they have no idea how to get there but they know where there is. They just need other people to drive the car…and if they’re self-aware enough to know that and let it happen…..then fine. If not? Well that could be problematic.

Of course we’ve all (if we’ve been around for long enough) encountered that breed who is both visionary and a good driver. In my experience that individual generally comes from the same country they are working in (though not always, but I think you would just naturally know how to get things done better in your own environment). These people are special and they’re rare. Now, whether their morality always agrees with yours, well it could, then again it might not.

Speaking of morality, if you want to stereotype things there’s always the difference between the realistic and the idealistic. Most of us fall somewhere along the scale, we’re neither too far towards either end. Take me for instance, I like to consider myself a realist but if you listen to me for more than five minutes, it’s pretty obvious I have a little idealist hanging out in my brain. I think balance is good. If you veer too far towards either side, this is dangerous.

Overly idealistic for example, well that usually comes from a lack of experience. It also generally comes from being sheltered and thinking the world is going to play by your notion of right and wrong and morality. Hate to break it to you…..well…..never mind……you may need to figure that one out on your own.

Of course once the ideals get shattered by reality, there’s the danger of the individual becoming completely jaded and having the system or the ugly truths swallow them up. Hence, the jaded aid worker. Most people go through that stage. I like to think it’s good to keep a form of realistic idealism.

I have encountered people so completely realistic after years of war and problems that I find it hard to argue with them about having any sense of idealism left. If your world has constantly been shattered by death, failure, ugliness and pain then how can you have any sense of optimism left? Of course the fact they’re still working in this field proves a bit of optimism, even if they can’t express it.

You’ve got adventure seeking behavior. Which I think is many ex-pats, particularly one’s from the west, have but I don’t think that is solely confined to any geographic region. It can be both a positive and a negative (which it would generally be viewed as). I see it sometimes as a deep desire for experience and understanding of places outside one’s own reality. This I think is very healthy, of course if it translates into adventure seeking for adventure seeking’s sake (which isn’t the point of humanitarian work), then it’s probably not the best for the world as a whole.

You’ve got people that are just trying to get paid. As an ex-pat for a large INGO I made pretty good money. And I had my accommodation paid for, so I can’t complain. That being said, once you make a certain amount of money, studies show that’s no longer a motivating factor. Many people would hit that threshold, so I don’t think that’s it. In many places, INGOs pay better than the normal labor market, so of course people gravitate towards INGOs. I think the altruistic nature of the work (well the idea of it, if not the reality) serves as a bonus there but simple economic realities are a big factor.

There’s the fascinating trait of people who go around and take pictures of themselves with beneficiaries or people who are suffering and then posting those on social media. At first glance this seems like the worst kind of narcissism. Sometimes it is. Sometimes, I would like to believe, that it’s simply the individual trying to bring awareness to a particular cause. It’s a tough one, as it has a dual effect. It can promote the individual (to people that don’t work in this world) as the hero or savior or angel or whatever more than it actually raises awareness. But sometimes it does raise awareness, though generally only if it’s tied to committing an action (such as fundraising) or particular pieces of information. I really struggle with this one and I’m never quite sure what to think about it.

You’ve got your cowboys who are trying to blaze trails. You’ve got people that view the world as an incredibly complex rubix cube and are trying to figure out ways to manipulate the cube in such a way that it actually produces the best result for the most people. A very noble pursuit I might add.

There are individuals that are singularly committed to the development of their countries and their people. These are pretty inspiring people and I’m not even talking about the visionaries right now, I’m talking about ordinary folks.

Combined with them, you’ve got people like the one I was for many years in a way, a soldier. I call it soldier because of my time in the Army prior but it’s more than that. I call it that because it’s just a yes, I have a job, I’m going to do my job and I’m not going to ask that many questions because I have a job to do and I need to do that job well. Though, let’s face it, I still ask questions.

I think this is many humanitarian workers despite whatever other complexities we may have. You get up in the morning, put your pants on like everyone else, go to work and do your job. You like to think, though you sometimes wonder, if the effect you and your organization are having on the world is really the desired effect. It doesn’t matter where you’re from. You have to put food on the table at least for yourself if not others and this is a good way to do it. And you hope, you really hope somewhere deep inside that what your doing is helping other people and is doing that in the best way possible. That’s what you want and…………that’s what you deserve.

And that is what the system should be giving you and vice a versa. And it’s what we’re going to talk about next time. Systems and money baby, systems and money.