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Aid work is not a survival contest

survive aid work

In a recent article published by People in Aid, Scott Breslin argues that grit, and not just resilience, is a key component for aid workers. Grit is defined “as perseverance and passion for long-term goals. Grit entails working strenuously toward challenges, maintaining effort and interest over years despite failure, adversity, and plateaus in progress” (Duckworth, et al. 2007: 1087-1088). Resilience instead is the human capacity to bounce back from difficult experiences.

Here I’m reflecting on whether it is helpful to search for the one “ingredient” that can toughen up aid workers and get them through the day. I question whether this can contribute to leadership.

If you’ve watched the film Divergent, you will know it’s a dystopia about a society where every citizen has to develop one trait (just one) and be the best at it: either be brave, or honest, kind, intelligent or selfless (then there are those who don’t neatly fit in those social constructs – and that’s the whole point of the story – they are the true leaders).

Looking for the one trait that aid workers need in order to successfully lead is a bit like asking: Is it better to be honest or just? Intelligent or creative? Kind or courageous? We are missing the forest for the trees, jumping from one concept to another as if we could engineer the humanitarian leader of the future. What’s needed the most? Mindfulness? Resilience? Grit? Steadfastness? Post-traumatic-growth?

All these constructs are useful and speak of the capacity to live through challenging situations, learn from them, grow personally and/or professionally. Yet, depending on the situation we find ourselves in, we need to have the capacity to discern, reach for our “emotional toolbox” and act accordingly in order not the to succumb to life’s difficulties.

Sometimes the perseverance that comes with grit is not useful at all, it can turn into stubbornness, self-sacrifice, a saviour complex. There are situations where the best thing to do is simply leave. Wasn’t it Mandela who famously said that quitting is leading too? There are aid programmes that are a waste of time and resources, organisations that will kill the life out of professionals, places that are just not in sync with us or the other way round. Why keeping at it? To prove grit and perseverance? Who’s benefitting? Aid workers don’t easily give up. From the stories I hear from humanitarians, more than grit it’s the capacity to “let go” that is lacking.

Meaningful work

“He who has a why to live can bear almost any how.” – Friedrich Nietzsche

Beyond the grit vs. resilience debate, I maintain that meaning is what gives all of us the capacity to make it through difficult situations.

Is there a purpose in what you are doing that is bigger than the fact that you don’t like your boss, you work long hours in a war-zone, have no hot water and you miss home? If there is then you’ll stick around, if not maybe you need to be on the next plane. Apparently Mohammed Ali hated every minute of training, but he had a clear purpose which gave meaning to his sweating: “being a champion, forever”. We are no different.

“Meaning” may not be one of the buzzwords of aidspeak, but it’s in most aid workers’ blood and it sits at the core of what motivates many to become humanitarians. There is no doubt that to remain in the sector one needs grit and resilience, but neither will do anyone much good if our life and work lack a sense of purpose.

Aid work is not a survival contest (though it often sounds as if it is). Maybe we need to rediscover why we are in this line of work, rekindle the spark, find what’s meaningful, rather than searching for the superhero within that can “work strenuously toward challenges, maintaining effort and interest over years despite failure, adversity, and plateaus in progress.” What if the time to “soften up” has come? What if “uncliched compassion” (including self-compassion), rather than grit, is what aid workers need? What if the search for purpose through humanitarian work in far away lands with “distant strangers”, will come full circle only when we come home and befriend ourselves? Maybe, as T. S. Eliot wrote in the Four Quartets “we shall not cease from exploration, and the end of all our exploring will be to arrive where we started and know the place for the first time.”


Duckworth, A. Peterson, C. Matthews, M., Kelly, D. (2007) “Grit: Perseverance and Passion for Long-Term Goals”, Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, Vol. 92(6), 1087-1101.

2 Responses to Aid work is not a survival contest

  1. Magnificent piece!
    Thank you!

  2. I think Viktor E. Frankl expressed it magnificently in his Man’s Search for Meaning (see for an extract: http://www.panarchy.org/frankl/meaning.html)

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