I’ve been invited to speak at my alma matter and so I’ve been eagerly reading fellow bloggers’ recent advice for students and aid career seekers. See Tales from the Hood’s posts on Motivation and Sacrifice, one from Satori Worldwide on whydev.org, one from La Vidaid Loca, and another from The Principled Agent. Here’s a few of my thoughts on the subject (en hommage a Sy Safransky) to add to the mix.

When I came out of grad school, I was programmed to think macro, think sustainability, to think that development economists had a clue (do they?), to think, think, think. In essence, nothing in my training prepared me for what I would feel as an aid worker.

The mantra “what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger” comes to mind. And the trauma, the vicarious trauma, the loss, and the isolation that aid workers can face indeed may make you stronger. Unfortunately, what makes you stronger might also make you less sensitive, hardened, more disconnected, less caring. Thus with all of our conditioned tendencies to avoid suffering, self-critique and self-compassion must be your constant companions.

The over-intellectualization of professional aid work is staggering to me at times. Yet I still often find myself wondering, in relationship to various projects, “What were they thinking?”

No matter how self-aware you come into this work, most people, especially in the beginning, will be operating from a worldview in which change in poor people’s lives is possible with our help and that it was something that can be “managed.”

In my mind, the jury is still out on this.

When I first saw this graph, I thought, “Gee, this would have been helpful” as I worked to discern my ‘calling’ from what the aid industry was requiring of me, i.e. think-think-manage-manage, and what was actually happening on the ground. The difference between helping, fixing and serving presented below is intended for health care providers (click here if table is not visible), but I think it has real relevance for aid workers and do-gooders alike:

A quote I always keep nearby:
“If you believe if you're going to...change the world, you're going to end up either a pessimist or a cynic. But if you understand your limited power and define yourself by your ability to resist injustice, rather than by what you accomplish, then I think reality is much easier to bear.” ~Chris Hedges

Even when real changes in people’s life conditions are not imminently possible, our role can be to enable hope in the face of adversity.

What is required of aid workers and peacemakers to serve rather than help, is illustrated further by a concept my friend Silvia brought to my attention, that of “cultural humility.” She works in hospice in California, working with healthcare professionals to offer more appropriate and compassionate care to the Latino community. In healthcare settings, cultural humility involves active engagement in self-reflection, bringing power imbalances into check, relinquishment of the role of expert, becoming the student, and seeing a patient’s potential to be a full and capable partner in their recovery.

The most effective and inspiring development practitioners I’ve ever worked with embody cultural humility.

Do you have the courage to battle the modernist viewpoints, privilege and racism at the roots of international aid, as well as to question your own personal prejudices, stereotypes, and agendas? Be prepared to go deeper to examine your own beliefs, values, assumptions, and biases. Karen Armstrong describes the “hard work of compassion” as constantly “dethroning” yourself to challenge your own worldview.

Maybe the title of this talk should be “What I had to un-learn from grad school.”

I do think there is room for aid workers and do-gooders to redefine our role as translators, between what people on the ground really need and that of the demands of donors. Not as providers of what people need. Not as enforcers of policy, or rules, or regulations. Not as helpers or saviors or martyrs.

Results, results, results. Yes, they are important. Results are not possible, however, without tending to “the process.”

You will have many bosses who do not understand this.

You will have to fight hard to not let the overly technocratic, abstractionist tendencies of aid work pull you under.

You will have to fight against “charitable” urges towards impoverished and marginalized people you encounter, which can ultimately debase their dignity.

You will have to fight to experience the full range of our human condition.

Anyone can identify what’s wrong. It will take much more skill and strength to wake up everyday and help identify what’s right, what’s possible, and where incremental changes can occur.

…Just a few of the things I wish I had known. What about you?



This post originally appeared at: http://www.how-matters.org/2011/03/30/if-i-had-only-known/

Related Posts

Confessions of a Recovering Neocolonialist

Development Aid 2.0

More on Why ‘How Matters’

A Heartbreaker

What is our true job?

Views: 42

Tags: Armstrong, Karen, NGOs, aid, assistance, charity, compassion, cultural, cynicism, development, More…dignity, donors, foreign, graduate, humility, industry, international, racism, school, service, workers


You need to be a member of Peace and Collaborative Development Network to add comments!

Join Peace and Collaborative Development Network

Comment by sajeed on April 2, 2011 at 2:51am

Jeniffer, u made me think...

What u just said is applicable for most of aid workers, many a time it would be a dissapointing day after all hard work. But always I keep trying at least we can make another think...

Comment by Jennifer Lentfer on March 31, 2011 at 8:08am
Thanks for your kind and encouraging comments. @Steve - I love your description of the arch of the experience. We keep on trying indeed.
Comment by Steve Forbes on March 31, 2011 at 3:49am

This was very well said.  Thanks.   We have to start somewhere, usually with paradigms taught in institutions that we must re-forge into our own usable tools honed and tempered though trial, tribulation and error, until dulled and twisted  by difficult challenges not overcome, we come to  the ego deflating realization " I do not know enough";  only then  can we identify what it is  that we wished  we had known, only to learn we already knew through seemingly inconsequential moments in the past; until one day we understand "I can never know enough" and we cry, soothed by those we sought to teach "it is as it is” they say, “what can we do but keep on trying."  And so we keep on learning and applying through experience and perseverance what we had wished we had known, comforted by the knowledge that if we had waited until we knew what we needed to know, we would never have made it to the bellows; so undeterred by the realities that what we know and what we accomplish will never be enough, we keep on trying.   

Comment by irit hakim-keller on March 31, 2011 at 3:48am
Thanks for the inspiring wise post, Jennifer.
Comment by Antonia Michaela Porter on March 31, 2011 at 2:37am
Wow! What a truthful and amazing piece.  This perspective is sorely needed in the aid, development and conflict resolution worlds.  Thank you for posting this....
Comment by Sahar Taman on March 31, 2011 at 1:16am

Thank you so much Jennifer for your humility.  I am touched at the core.


Sponsored Link

Please Pay What You Can to Support PCDN

Please consider Paying What You Can to help PCDN grow. We encourage you to consider any amount from $1 and up. Read the SUPPORT page prior to making a payment to see PCDN's impact and how your payment will help.

Sponsored Link

Translate This Page


PCDN Guidelines and Share Pages

By using this site you're agreeing to the terms of use as outlined in the community guidelines (in particular PCDN is an open network indexed by Google and users should review the privacy options). Please note individual requests for funding or jobs are NOT permitted on the network.

Click BELOW to share site resources Bookmark and Share
or Share on LINKEDIN




© 2016   Created by Craig Zelizer.   Powered by

Badges  |  Report an Issue  |  Terms of Service