“How can I avoid becoming cynical about aid work?”

FEMA_-_16424_-_Photograph_by_Liz_Roll_taken_on_09-29-2005_in_TexasThe Guardian has an advice column for development workers, ‘Dear NGO agony aunts’. A recent letter:

Two years into working in the aid sector, I’m already starting to lose hope and passion for my career. The main comments I hear from people are ‘Oh, you’re so lucky to be young and energetic and not cynical yet … enjoy it while it lasts’. It is upsetting and discouraging to see how negative so many people are about their line of work, and also how little interaction there is with actual communities, both in NGOs and the UN, particularly as non-national staff. I can’t spend my entire career solely behind a computer and becoming more and more negative.

Some of the advice is reasonable, though perhaps not the first piece:

…don’t just do M&E (monitoring and evaluation) and produce the results your donors may want to see but you know don’t reflect the changes on the ground. Try to incorporate more rigorous impact evaluation at the start of the programme (the medical equivalent is a randomised control trial) to really understand the changes, if any. If there are none, you will know you need to adapt your intervention rather than invest in something that is useless.

Fun fact for everyone: running a randomized trial is not the path to happiness. I can speak from experience. It is long and painful and costly.

But what I really wanted someone to say: you are completely sane and correct; trust your instincts and get a new job.

Seriously. The median development job is insulated from the world and focused on a project that probably doesn’t work. You should strive to interact with real communities, to shake up the organization you work with, and even upend your profession if you can.  Every year you should learn so much from failure and success that you look back at your younger self one year before and shake your head at your naivete.

It’s hard, but there are jobs out there like this, and as you get more senior you can try to build them. A lot of the time you will fail. And this striving will come with a fair amount of angst and stress and a feeling of inadequacy. But seldom complacency and cynicism.