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A quick guide to getting out of aid work

By Alessandra Pigni and Janet Gunter

Over time I’ve come across two groups of people in aid: those who desperately want to get into aid work and those who want to – equally desperately – get out of aid work. While there is plenty of information out there for the first folks (I said information, not mentoring nor informed guidance), the latter have to rely on the cynicism and snark of colleagues who are forever transitioning elsewhere, inevitably to be sucked back in by yet another mission. Yes, that’s what’s hard about aid work: it sucks you right back in and sends you precisely where you did not want to be yet again, not in another war-zone, not in another water and sanitation project (it’s the last one!), not in another psycho-social programme.

Suddenly there you are again! Sharing a house with your colleagues, working all hours, writing reports. It may have to do with the fact that you’ve lived out of a suitcase for the last 5-10-15-20 years and have no home to go back to. That’s a big one. Truth is, it’s not that hard to rent a place back home. Now that’s the question…where’s home? While I can’t help you with that, my friend Janet Gunter and I have gone through the process of leaving aid work ourselves, and having listened to more than one story of aid workers desperate to quit not just the field, but the sector altogether, we thought we could offer some “food for thought”. We discussed the idea of putting together a quick guide to getting out of aid work over a coffee in London and for your benefit, here it is.

But before exploring the marvellous world beyond aid work a word of advice: if you want to get out of the sector you’ll just have to take the plunge and resist the temptation of getting sucked back in. So to begin with, if you are serious about it, “leave without pay” may sound like the safe idea now, but all it does is to keep you hanging in a place you are sick and tired of. Just saying…

Keep in mind that those who have transitioned into something else are not lucky, they’ve made a choice. Once that choice has been made – and yes it may come after various attempts to leave the sector for good and that’s pretty normally given the addictive quality of the job (see below our last point about being kind to yourself) – it’s crucial to create around you an alternative “hive” that will make it sustainable. The allure of the field can be like a drug: you know it’s bad for you, leads to burnout, shatters your dreams, nevertheless you’re still looking up vacancies of Relief Web, Devex, LinkedIn. A simple word of advice: STOP.

leaving aid work

And now over to Janet and off to new horizons!

A couple of years back, I “quit” international development. I never considered myself an “aid worker”, but I’d spent 5 years in total working in INGOs and international agencies in the sector. Mostly at “headquarters” but partly “in the field”.

I’d grown tired. At the time I wrote an unsigned “Dear John” letter to development which stated “no amount of earnest critique, satire, or wounded camaraderie” could help me stay on.

Nearly three years on, I’m now fully out of it. (My last intercontinental work trip for a consultancy was over a year ago.)

People ask me all of the time how I did it. I am always surprised when people approach me for this kind of coaching. While I am happier and more stable than I can remember in my adult life, I remind people I am by no means materially better off. So. This will not help you decide how to make money or choose a new career. If you are looking for advice about how to feel ok again, and (re)construct meaning in your life after working in international development here are some tips.

Save cash. Figure out how much you need based on your own risk-threshold and your commitments. I saved about a year’s salary before I was ready to go, and I hadn’t reached 35. (Perhaps this is more if you are later in life.) And if you are in a stable relationship and have a partner who can support you, this may not be such a consideration. Then, if you have dependents this may be the hardest part.

Focus on building a “hive”. Do this before you leave. This is NOT “networking” or joining LinkedIn. This is spending time with people you like who do different things and approach problems from different angles. Rekindle contacts with people you’d lost touch with or go to Meetups. Take time with this. Tell them that you are making a change. Start to do favours for each other. Dream up small projects together, or go to events together. A healthy “hive” is diverse with people from all professional backgrounds, which inspires you to experiment and helps you express your own unique skillset.

Go gradually. Probably quite obvious, but you’ll probably have to do a couple of longer contracts or some short stints once you’ve ditched Stable Job. (Unless of course you have another profession up your sleeve.) Don’t beat yourself up about this. In fact, you might see this as a way of testing who from international development might actually be constructive and life-affirming members of your hive going forward.

If you have trouble leaving the “international” aspect, work with a project in a “developing” context that is entirely locally owned. Spend time in solidarity with a project that you love that is very driven and owned locally. Let them tell you what they need. Simply hang out as long as is mutually beneficial and do not think about money. Then realize you don’t actually want to be there forever… And that they don’t want you there forever! And if relevant, think of ways to support this project or this kind of project from afar.

Figure out how and where you want to live. Why is this so far down the list? Because it might actually take time. Your friends may be spread out across the world. You may want a place that is raucous and informal, or you may want to soak up amenities you haven’t had for years even if it will cost you loads. You may actually want to “go home” if that still exists for you. Give yourself time to figure this out. Even if this is a simple decision, the how part is important too. Do you want to walk or cycle to work? How many people do you want to work with? Let these things shape your new professional life. You have an opportunity to rethink how you work and live. Cultivate routines – especially those not afforded to you while working in international development.

Learn things or refresh skills you put on hold while jetting around or being an “expat”. Before you threw your lot in with “development”, there were probably things you loved that you simply could not keep up. Whether it be some rare martial art, micro brewing, or analog photography, it is worth intentionally looking for learning opportunities in the place you have chosen to live. (Include in this learning about yourself through psychotherapy or by investing in a relationship.)

Invest in your own back garden. Get involved – on a regular basis – in some activity in your chosen home community. You’ll start to feel connection and commitment in a new way. You may also find that your experience in international development is actually relevant and useful. You may meet other people who have had made other big life transitions, not necessarily from international development, who you can really relate to. Or you may simply reap the benefits of knowing your neighbours, sharing and creating around you. Do not fear investing in a home.

Be compassionate with yourself. BY FAR the hardest part. Chances are, one motivation for entering international development was to create meaning for yourself. The feeling of abandoning that particular form of striving for meaning is a major blow to your sense of self, no matter how grounded you are. Opting to change your life to feel better in your own skin is about being compassionate with yourself. I remember reading a picaresque novel before I quit and admiring the compassion the author had for his characters, who, in their seriousness, were absurd and human. This had a profound impact on me. What if our lives are both very serious and very absurd? What if life is not a sequence of milestones, but a meandering flow, moving fast at times but often slowly? If so, we should not only practice patient compassion not only with others, but with ourselves.

***

Janet Gunter lives in London and spends more time with broken toasters than is advisable.

Alessandra Pigni lives in London and still spends too much time in international airports than is advisable (an issue soon to be addressed thanks to this post).

11 Responses to A quick guide to getting out of aid work

  1. Pingback: GETTING OUT OF AID WORK

  2. Thanks Jack, yes making a transition into a more “ordinary life” is not easy, mostly because aid workers invest so much of their identity in their job. But as I like to remind myself and others: “I am not my job”. Best of luck!

  3. Jack Freakazoid says:

    Hi Alessandra

    Thank you very much for writing about your own experience and giving these magnificent advises. I pass my previous 8 years as an aid worker in many countries around the world. One year ago I decided to stop and coming back home. It has been a very hard decision, sometime I freak out because I don’t feel part of this new environment where I’m living now. However, I will follow your recommendations in order to route my life as comfortable as possible doing something else extremely different. Thank you again. Cheers.

  4. Tom says:

    Great article, thank you! The seriousness and absurdity definitely chimes, what was that novel you read by the way?

  5. lauren says:

    Thank you so much for writing this article. I have felt quite drained from doing aid work and trying to decide whether I really am in a place to continue doing it while still struggling with the restlessness of having a ‘stable’ job in a first world country. You summed up that feeling of being torn so well. Thank you. My soul felt affirmed reading others feel this way too.

  6. Nadine B. says:

    This is all soo true. I am half way through and all you say is accurate. A tough but effective way to leave is to actually get a burnout! Time in a nice recreational facility back in the normal world with other normal (but also burned out people) may open your eyes for many things mentioned in your article.

  7. Atif Sandhu says:

    While doing humanitarian work many forget that aid workers are also human. They are equally exposed to harm, vulnerable to stress and trauma once they indulge with disaster victims. There are many standards for ensuring the quality of humanitarian/relief services but none deal with the overall safety and security of aid workers. Though every organization has its own framework that is itself a discriminatory practice among humanitarian professional world. Some are very good in supporting their humanitarian staff but they turn their eyes when their partners’ staff is at stake.

  8. Marie says:

    Yes! I was there trying to get to the field, now I am here trying to get out… Thanks for tips!

  9. Sophia P says:

    Good stuff – all very true, I have been through it. Keep writing. It’s an interesting and understudied area.

  10. A very well written article. I wish to commend you for the good work here. I think it also good to reflect on the contribution your work has made in making a difference in the lives of the needy. This enables you to be more couragious while planning your exit.
    It is always helpful to remember that before you joined aidwork, you had a life and your life will not stop simply because you have left. It is to me all about managing change.

    Keep on writing. This is a very interesting area.

  11. Bill Sparks says:

    I still feel what is lacking after 50 years of IDev are the reintegration resources to make sense of the experience, optimize learning and allow application, intervention and rest wherever the worker is from, goes to and returns.

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Mindfulnext by Alessandra Pigni is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License.