When I joined Oxfam in 2016, I was certain that the several hundred people working at Oxfam’s HQ would all be walking saints – people who had made it their life’s work to selflessly serve others. So it came as somewhat of a shock when half-way through my first week, I opened the staff fridge to find my brand-new carton of milk from that morning open and half-gone. Surely, I thought, aid workers don’t steal milk from the fridge?
The longer I stayed in Oxfam, the more I realised that they were people just like me. And my motives for joining Oxfam certainly weren’t entirely altruistic. Of course, I strongly empathised with Oxfam’s mission, and I still do. But there were also a number of other, much more prosaic reasons that I joined. When I had applied for the job, my thinking went: 1) right experience – tick 2) looks interesting – tick 3) it’s within walking distance – tick 4) more money than my current role – tick. Plus, maybe I would be able to travel. In other words, being passionate about Oxfam’s mission was just part of the reason I ended up working there. And the truth is, no matter how dedicated you are to a cause, on a day-to-day level it can be easy to lose sight of it as you deal with the mundane realities of work: whether it’s yet another meeting, annoying colleagues, or dealing with an ever-increasing inbox.
I suspect this is also somewhat true of the people in international charities who go on to work in the field. The word ‘aid worker’ evokes the image of someone handing out food parcels to starving children. And there are people who do this job, of course (although it is often local staff rather than expats who are employed in this role). But many more expats working in the field in the aid sector are software engineers, administrators, IT officers, HR personnel, or logisticians. Their day-to-day roles may not be hugely different to roles they might have had in the private sector prior to joining the aid sector. Many of them will also have joined for a variety of reasons – the opportunity to travel and use their skills to help others being some of them. Clearly, this isn’t the slightest excuse for abusing anybody, which is a despicable act by anyone’s standards. But it’s merely to make the point that the work in the aid industry might not always look or feel very different to work done in other organisations, even if it is arguably for a higher cause. And if expats working for other organisations take advantage of the great power disparities which often exist in these environments to commit abusive acts, (as they often sadly do) is it right to assume NGO workers would be any less prone?
My own (albeit limited) experience of working for NGOs abroad in Senegal and Sierra Leone was that NGOs workers were simply regular people, in that the great majority were decent, hard-working professionals who wanted to do a good job. Yet In some sections of society, it seems that, not content with this, we want our aid workers to be heroes. We project our dreams of saving the world on to them, and turn them into symbols of bravery or selflessness. Yet seeing aid workers as angels doesn’t help anybody. It prevents putting safeguards in place, because we assume that an aid worker would never do anything like that. Furthermore, it prevents us looking critically at the power structures that they are enmeshed in and the potential for abuse that it entails. Finally, it means that the level of betrayal we feel when some don’t live up to those standards creates a backlash that jeopardises the whole aid industry and puts the lives of those reliant on aid at risk.
Many people on the right will try to demonise aid workers. But let’s not turn them into saints, either.