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Can aid workers be activists?

In this new guest-post the author explores how humanitarian agencies “kill” the spirit of humanitarianism in aid workers 

A guest post by an impassioned humanitarian aid worker.*

Ever since I left my job at a women’s rights organization and went to work for a big humanitarian actor, I have been thinking about how does an aid worker reconcile their interest in affecting social change or being part of political change when they work abroad? Where does my own political thinking fit in?

I got into these jobs because I care about social justice, I believe in human rights and I want to see a change in the world. For the most time, I think change is possible. I think many aid workers think like this, and before we were employed in the sector, we were active in local politics, volunteering, sometimes demonstrating, and writing opinion pieces and letters to the editor.

Yet then, we take up that human rights officer or the psychosocial program coordinator position, we don’t do those things anymore. Many don’t get involved – in any way, whether deeply or on the surface – in the struggle to resolve the complexities where we are based, rather make an effort to stay away and unengaged. There are of course many reasons and I want to explore and unravel some of them in this post, both for myself and others.

What am I allowed to say and how?

To begin with, what and how are we allowed to communicate? Many of us work for organizations that want to be perceived as neutral. Some set limits to what employees can say publicly on social media. This turns into self-censoring, as it sometimes becomes unclear what you can and cannot say. At the same time, we are supposed to be publicly promoting our organization’s position all the time. Our agencies start to ask us to use our personal social media outlets for illustrating the organization and its work. We should write and post photos from places we visit and people we meet.

It is not that I don’t believe in the work my organization does but I am asked to write about it in either a flowery, superlative language that sometimes makes it out to be better than what it is. Or a dreadful suicidal language to ensure that a one-dimensional image of the horror is properly communicated. Quite frankly this takes away all the complexity and any debate about the questions I feel passionate about and reduces the lives of people to advertising.

So it might not be that some of the elements of this communication don’t sync with my thinking, but the politics of it surely don’t. My political engagement is about communicating the rights of people and their strengths in an empowering language – and I don’t necessarily feel I can do that anymore.

Time well spent

Then it’s about how we spend our free time. We justify our lack of engagement citing the many hours we work and say we’re already “doing our part.” Sometimes, I just work so much that I don’t have the energy, and when I do have that energy, I would rather do something that breaks the pattern and does not involve what I usually associate to work.

For a while, working in Latin America, I took a class three days a week after work, on violence against women and children – which was also the issue I was working on. Needless to say, 8 to 10pm, three days a week of talking violence became quite heavy. Perhaps it would have been better to take an art class.

I realize sometime I actually actively try to stay away from what I come to feel is my place of work. For a long time, in my previous job I wouldn’t even want to spend weekends exploring places that I only knew through work, even though they had a much deeper, more interesting layer than the office meetings I was used to going to.

Having a good social life seems to become more important than usual. Since we don’t have the networks of someone who has lived in a place all their life, and sometimes skype is not good enough, a lot of energy gets spent on socializing – naturally taking away from other things. And since the social pool is often a bit smaller, it can at times be hard to find others with your interests in order to be able to combine social relations with political engagement.

Where do I belong?

And last, not being in my community, I have found it more difficult to become part of a local movement. In the end I am an aid worker too many. I can support the movement (whichever movement that may be), but not necessarily become a part of it. In some places this is more marked (i.e. colonial historic pasts). And sometimes, who can blame this feeling – after all, we drive big cars, wear funny vests and speak in tongues (acronyms and professional aid language). Yet there is very often a global movement (for whichever cause it is you align with) to which we actually all belong, which we could stay involved in.

Should we like to engage, we are often restricted from participating in many opportunities. “Avoid large public gatherings” – i.e. demonstrations – is I think something all aid workers have heard. It’s the security sms that buzzes into our phones, making sure we are nowhere near that rally (no matter what the subject).

And then there is the complexity of the concept of solidarity. When I speak about solidarity, it is not taken seriously by all, and to some, I am here mostly for my own financial gain. And, well, solidarity is not necessarily a very popular word in professional aid circles and is not well perceived by employers. Some would even invoke colonialist language and call it “going native” when you seem to express signs of solidarity or even sometimes just a deepened, more nuanced understanding of the situation. Relating this to the idea of “native” is particularly incendiary, not only because the term comes with so many negative connotations but also because of  how it ridicules solidarity by suggesting it could not be a professional act or that I can maintain my own identity while expressing it.

Poor excuses or valid reasons?

Yet somehow, I come to feel these are actually all excuses that keep me from engaging in complexities that I somehow believe might cause conflicts. And yet at the same time I really do feel limited by organizations that want to dictate how I should think, jobs that don’t leave much time or energy for my own projects and contexts where I remain an outsider in many ways. What I have learned in switching organizations and being challenged when not finding my political direction in my work – is to find it in myself.

First I have worked to reconfirm my politics, and understand and remember what I believe in. I have thought about that it is really a part of my identity. I have started to look for how I live my politics in my everyday life. In small ways, where no one in my office recycles, I can still gather up all the paper and make sure it eventually winds up in the right bin – and tell everyone about it on the way. I try to challenge stereotypical gender relations within my family, even if in baby steps, by telling my father in law that even my husband knows where the garbage bin is (as the kitchen is not only my domain). It might not seem political – but it is! I can stay committed to my feelings and speak up when I feel rights I believe essential are being stepped on.

I’ve looked to really remember and see what is important, and that work is work, but my personal convictions – which guided my activism into this type of work in the first place – are still there, and I have to continue to find ways to live them. In a context where our organizations can easily create ethical dilemmas and a stifling atmosphere, I have come to the conclusion that I still want to continue to work in this field.

I truthfully feel connected to humanitarian work but I realize that aid agencies might not nurture the beliefs for which I entered it in the first place. In order to stay true to issues that matter to me, I have to make sure that I create space for them in my personal life and not allow humanitarian work to kill my social and political engagement.


humanitarian work and activismAbout the author: After getting into human rights issues at an early age, I was delighted to discover that you can actually get paid for your passion. Pursuing this, I have worked in several countries and on several continents (South America, the Balkans, the Middle East), in conflict and development contexts, with everyone ranging from large, intra governmental organizations and smaller, independent NGOs.

*To protect the author the post it published anonymously.


2 Responses to Can aid workers be activists?

  1. Alessandra Pigni Alessandra Pigni says:

    Dear Nora, thank you for this comment, I agree with you.

    For me the post is an indicator of the vast and unsettling gap that there is between what many aid workers imagine they will do and be able to contribute through their profession, and what they actually end up doing.

    I will be very happy to host a post by you if you feel moved to write something on this important subject and give your view from Palestine.

  2. The idea that aid work is good but we need to protect space for activism in our personal lives is disappointing at best. What does it mean to have a “professional” life that is distinct from our personal values anyway? And how can we claim that “aid” is “helping” if it doesn’t address root causes and improve the world?

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