What Does It Take to Be A Good Humanitarian?

Let me break it down for you.

If you’ve read my blogs then you would know how I define aid/humanitarian workers https://aidwithoutacause.com/2016/01/25/so-you-want-to-be-a-humanitarian-part-1/ and the types of aid/humanitarian workers https://aidwithoutacause.com/2016/02/01/so-you-want-to-be-a-humanitarian-part-2/ that are out there. No need to go over that ground again.

Obviously there’s various levels of technical know-how that are required depending on what the job is. This isn’t a thing like the thing some Americans talk to me about where you just show up some place and “help” (at least 97% of the time). No, the aid industry is large and robust and you need technical skills and knowledge in your field (which could range from economic development to finance to supply & logistics to engineering to child psychology to…you get the point).

Alternatively if you want to get in the ground floor of an organization and you don’t have much technical expertise, well the general rule should be (though it isn’t always), start in your own country. And let’s face it, for a lot of reasons working in one’s own country can be preferable (at least for the country) as you’ll have the proper language skills, cultural knowledge, etc. Not saying that there shouldn’t be cross-pollination from other countries, there should…but everything in balance.

The rest of the blog isn’t about all that. It’s about the other qualities, the qualities we should all cultivate (to my mind), if we are truly going to be “humanitarian”. It’s not about being perfect by the way, but it is about trying to really uphold those ideals.

Rule #1: To paraphrase an old friend of mine: “Don’t be an asshole.” This is a good rule of life but I think it’s particularly true in humanitarian work. It’s amazing that I should have to state it as a rule. But you would be surprised (or you wouldn’t) at how many assholes are out there. It’s amazing. Don’t be one.

Rule #2: Ego exists but keep it in check. Ex-pats (some of them, not all by a long shot) in particular can be notorious about carrying around an ego the size of a mac truck. Ego is important, don’t get me wrong, in this life we need to have identity, we need to stand up for ourselves. But rampant ego, ego that says I know everything and you know nothing has absolutely no place if you are trying to help other people. And if you can’t see why, then maybe you shouldn’t be a humanitarian.

Rule #3: Humility. Practice it. It isn’t about you, it’s about the team. It isn’t about the team, it’s about the organization. It isn’t about the organization, it’s about the beneficiaries (and moreover it’s about the community and the environment your there to help). You’re a small cog in the wheel, it’s about the larger effect.

Rule #4: Self Awareness. Why are you doing this type of work for this type of organization? You should be able to answer that question. If it’s about the money, well fine, if this is the job where you can get the most cash presently but I would suggest that if there are other opportunities that give you more money, take those. Know yourself, know what you want. The more aware you are of self and your intentions, the more effective you’ll be.

Rule #5: Knowledge baby. Get some. The more you know the more effective you can be. As I’ve described previously and as pretty much anyone in the humanitarian world can tell you, doing the “right” thing or even knowing what that is, well that’s pretty damn difficult. For example, if you’re planning on doing a food distribution program in a conflict area, what do you need to know? To do it effectively? Lots of things. For starters a good understanding of the conflict dynamics would help. Then the people, power, cultural and political dynamics of that area. You’ll need information as well (which I would classify in things like population numbers, market data etc.) but it seriously helps to start with a broader base of knowledge about both the industry you are in and then, as just stated, the area you are looking at working in and then the broader eco-system (neighboring countries, donors, supply chains, historical conflicts, etc., etc.).

Rule #6: Since you can’t know everything, it’s also about knowing what questions to ask. Knowledge is  key because knowledge can help you formulate the proper questions to any given situation. We don’t know everything but we need to know what to ask and who to ask in order to get the pieces of information that will equal the difference between success and failure (or more).

Rule #7: Communication skills. This may not be true if you’re in IT, or maybe finance (Lord knows some of you are horrible about speaking) but it really holds true for everything else. The whole thing seems like one long series of negotiations, discussions and speeches…sometimes they are even useful! If you don’t know how to speak and get your point across and far more importantly if you don’t know how to LISTEN then you just won’t be as effective as you could be.

Rule #8: Not a rule, but a value, one that holds true for most of life, Courage. I think, trying to do the right thing in any given situation, regardless of who you are and where you’re from is one of the most difficult things on the planet. You have to develop courage. Know yourself, know what you’re afraid of in your life and your work and then develop courage in order to overcome it.

Rule #9: Attention to detail is important but so is understanding when to let smaller details go for the sake of the far bigger and more important picture. We’ve all had the Finance Director who was far too committed to dotting every single I and crossing every single T. We’ve also seen how that can have an adverse effect on the bigger picture. Look, I use to be in the Army, attention to detail was hammered into our brain, but that’s because the smallest detail could mean the difference between life and death. In the aid world, most of the time, that’s not the case….if those details bog down the bigger goals, then let the details go! But knowing when to do that? That takes judgement.

Rule #10: Life and humanitarian work are one big series of judgement calls and decisions, sure we have systems but our systems cannot possible encapsulate every variable that exists, so at the end of the day you have to have a well-honed sense of fairness and the ability to make a proper judgement in the situation (and really have principles to base that judgement off of).

Rule #11: Be intentional. Know why you are doing what you are doing. Place clear intentions behind every action….and make sure they make sense…..given the entire situation and make sure you can articulate that.

Rule #12: Compassion. Have some. Compassion can be a difficult thing to fully wrap one’s mind around. Compassion to me is about attempting to understand the other’s situation through their eye’s and their world view. It’s about feeling their pain, frustration and anger from their perspective. Compassion is the base fundamental foundation for all humanitarian endeavors.

Rule #13: Trust and Honesty. I could and probably will write an entire post about trust one of these days. Trust, alongside compassion is another foundational aspect. And the building, getting and receiving (and being worthy) of trust is an incredibly large and important endeavor. While I’ll discuss it more at a future date, remember, your word is your bond.

Rule #14: The world deals in relatives, not absolutes, remember that. This is my opinion quite strongly but I don’t believe in absolutes, well at least not many of them 🙂 The only thing I know for a certainty in this life is that I’m going to die someday (as will we all and everything around us). That is an absolute, most everything else is relative based on situation, circumstance and context. Remember that.

Rule #15: Intelligence. Be intelligent. Develop it. Not just gaining pieces of information but analyzing pieces of information. What does it really mean? What does it tell me? What can I do with it? Intelligence is such an underrated resource in so many fields (this one included) these days. And remember, intelligence isn’t just theoretical, it’s operational as well. It’s about connecting the various strands of the puzzle to make the best working solution for the most people.

That’s my list, at least as it is done off the top of my head in 25 minutes. I’m sure I missed quite a few! If you have more, feel free to share.