Chris Blattman

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“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.

52 Responses

  1. I was just talking with a postdoc who has worked for MSF in Sudan and Jordan and he was telling tales of how socially messed up aid workers get working in refugee camps. He demarcated between those workers who are fresh, eager and idealistic, and those who are in it for the long haul and end up finding ways to numb themselves to the onset of cynicism. I’m at the beginning of my development career and am surprised by how little exploration there is given in my masters program of some of the social challenges of working in the aid industry. Thanks for the advice Chris.

  2. How can I avoid being cynical about being an academic?

    Trust your instincts and flee.

    Seriously. The median academic job is insulated from the world and focused on doing research that no one will read and teaching kids that will remember little of what you tell them. You should strive to interact with real communities, to shake up the staid and failed academic platitudes, 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.

  3. What David from the comments said! “The news (both good and bad) is that development work is a profession, not a calling” I want to send this to all my colleagues, especially the younger ones who are instantly frustrated that working for an iNGO is not just a continuation of their time in the Peace Corps.

  4. Get into the field to see first hand the difference you are making and talk to the people. Call it orientation, monitoring or anything but it is what helps keep you going and the aid business needs good people.

  5. This is the advice they should’ve given:

    As an expat in development work, it should be about putting in the work in the office so other national staff can be in the field and “close to the communities.” The end goal is to build capacity to cut out the middle man (expats), but in the meantime, though it’s more fun being out in the field- it’s much more effective if you speak the language, know the culture, and understand the communities from lived experience. If you really want to feel connected or “in the field” – international development (as an expat) maybe not be for you. If you wan to stick with it exercise humility about the fact that the work is about more than your experience/adventures. Lastly, avoid “burn out” by fostering relationships with your national staff colleagues, learning from them and hearing about the realities in the field that they know and experience first-hard- some may even restore your faith in the field.

  6. I wonder what the response would be if someone with a fresh engineering degree wrote a letter about wanting to tackle more interesting challenges, designing new bridges, and feeling that their colleagues should be less cynical about a career as a civil engineer being mostly about city politics and double-checking earlier work and fighting to do necessary repairs?

    The news (both good and bad) is that development work is a profession, not a calling – doing it well requires a willingness to do lots of boring, slogging work. Keeping your heart in the right place helps; believing you can make a difference by spending your time being uplifted by regular community engagement meetings, however, is naive. The whole point of development is that you, the aid industry worker, are not the important one. So you will spend a lot of time behind a desk, and if you’re good, still keep motivated by the rare glimpses of how the work helps (and the feedback you can get by having good engagements). By all means, find times to regularly hear from people around how your programming is working and could do better for the sake of the programming itself – and get out from the desk occasionally to keep your own energy high. But if there’s a choice between you as the non-national staff having a meeting with a benefiting community, versus you scanning the results of an effective poll of that community (something from Feedback Labs, say) behind your desk so that you can spend more of your time adjusting programming based on what they say, your job is to synthesize the feedback and work on the programming. It’s not about you, it’s about them, it’s hard and often boring and that’s why they call it work.

  7. Has anyone ever run a study where development workers are subjected to IAT’s in which the other group is the people they are ostensibly serving? My experiences with aid workers suggests there are issues of prejudice are both caused by and result from the isolation of aid workers from the target population.

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