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Aid to Zen: A – Aidland

This is the first post of a new series Aid to Zen – A Quick Guide to Surviving Aid Work from A to Z


survive aid work

I think universities should consider offering a course called “Aid work is not what you think”. It could prevent a lot of disillusionment and waste. I’m not aware of the existence of such course (please correct me if I’m wrong), so I’m giving my thoughts on the matter.

Aid work is not paid activism, it’s not about sitting under a mango tree with “the community”, it’s not about learning the language and going native, it’s not about solidarity, it’s not about exploring life on the edge. Because the edge is generally the fence around your air conditioned compound.

Don’t get me wrong, we all had that romantic notion of aid work, and went in with the wrong set of expectations. So let me briefly share what I know about Aidland.

Aidland: Between Neverland and Divergent

Aidland is a curious place, a mythical spot where good people want to make a difference and change the world. Loved by celebrities, it’s where young people with ideals want to hang out, where those in transition from the corporate sector want to land a meaningful job. For those who’ve been in it a while, aid is a profession with its highs and lows. Let’s hear from J., a veteran aid worker:

“The hardest part of this job is not seeing awful things in the field. It’s not repeatedly witnessing the suffering of others and being able to offer little as a remedy, dealing with corrupt district officials, getting sick, or spending too long away from one’s family too often, hard as those things truly can be. No, the hardest part of this job is simply dealing day after day with the crushing weight of a system that fundamentally lacks real incentives for getting right what it claims as its core purpose. And by the same token, the most dangerous part of this job is not armed militants, or bad drivers, or blood parasites. No, the most dangerous part of this job is the humanitarian world itself. It will eat your soul if you let it” (J. Letters left Unsent).

Pause and breathe, there’s more.

Believe it or not most of aid work involves sitting behind a computer and having Skype meetings with poor internet connections, the type where you keep saying “ Are you there? Can you hear me? Oh, I think I lost you…” after you’ve talked to yourself for five minutes about the latest project proposal .

Beyond talking on Skype, mostly you will: write proposals, prepare budgets, compile reports and waste some time on Facebook, Twitter and the rest. You will also most likely sit in endless meetings that will challenge your capacity to stay awake, occasionally visit the mythical “field” and might, just might, sit under a mango tree. Often you will go to parties and get drunk (if alcohol is available…wait, it’s Aidland, of course it is!).

On the journey through Aidland you will meet people who will show you what resilience is, encounter both the generosity and the scorn of those whom you call “beneficiaries”, and hopefully learn not to call people “beneficiaries”, discover that aid is not paid activism, but that you can still be an activist and do meaningful stuff.

It’s likely that your boss will be more challenging than war, so prepare for interpersonal conflicts, not for war-zones. Leave your combat boots home – you won’t need them in the office – and bring patience, assertiveness, and a healthy capacity to say no and walk away from bizarre people and projects. I’d like to say otherwise, but you are responsible for your sanity in the field: watch out for signs of burnout, it’s the “aid worker’s disease”.

So, yes aid work may not be what you think, sometimes Aidland can appear as mix between utopian Neverland, and dystopian Divergent, but it will teach you a lot about yourself and the world if you let it.

It will take you round the globe and let you meet people who carry incredible stories of loss and steadfastness.

Aid may not change the world, but it will change you, making you into a better or worse version of yourself.

Just be careful not to let it eat your soul. And know when it’s time to get out.


Here’s a few reading tips to understand Aidland and yourself, because ignorance is not bliss:

J. Letters left Unsent

Michael Barnett, The Empire of Humanity

And some poetry to keep sane:

Staying Alive: Real Poems for Unreal Times

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