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I want to be an aid worker

3 things that separate the good aid workers from the burn-outs

A guest-post by Elie Losleben, aid worker based in West Africa

I grew up in the aid business, with my mother, a public health practitioner, talking about under-five mortality and diarrhoeal disease at the dinner table. “Mo-om,” I’d whine, getting grossed out. The worst was when I was eleven in Kenya. She helped spearhead a national HIV and condom awareness campaign and wore t-shirts advertising condoms all the time. The embarassment.

Now, it’s all good. I credit both my parents for instilling in me strong attitudes of service and social justice. I followed in my mother’s footsteps and got an MPH. I even “borrowed” one of those condom t-shirts and now think it’s cool.

But I’ve noticed something that my parents didn’t tell me, and that they didn’t tell me during my aid worker interview, either. The aid business is tough. I’m dealing with disparities all the time, and by “disparities” I mean people who are unfathomably poorer and who have a much, much more difficult life than I do. In my work, I try to help, make a difference, alleviate suffering, achieve the MDGs…Whatever name I give it, I’m trying to do something that goes beyond my job description and directly to my heart.

That’s where it gets tough. Because I see others who have gone before me and, in the conventional sense of the word, succeeded. They run their own NGOs and get lots of funding from big donors. The media quote them as experts whenever a crisis hits.

But when I meet them, they’re cranky, intimidating and sometimes mean. They flaunt their experience over my idealism and tell me that I can’t possibly understand the local situation, I’m too hopeful. They tell me not to worry, in a few years, I’ll be just like them. Not if I can help it.

That’s why I’ve identified three things that I can recognize and act on, now, to help me go down a different road, one that feeds my hope of bettering the world, but that doesn’t deny that sometimes this work feels really, really hard.

1. The work I do is service.

There’s a big difference between service and work. Work is force multiplied by distance, or something done in a factory. Service cannot be separated from my humanity. In fact, service cannot be separated from me.

When I work, I’m putting in effort and expecting a reward. I’m updating a spreadsheet, or finishing up a PowerPoint for Monday’s meeting. Work is hard and I’m not expected to enjoy it.

Service is different. It acknowledges relationships, implies humility and does not prioritize reward. Service is meeting a new community leader face to face when an email would’ve been more efficient, or showing one of our project teachers how to check their email. Service is work, and although it might not be in my job description, it always comes from the heart.

When I say that service doesn’t seek reward, I don’t mean that aid workers shouldn’t be paid for the work we do. I’m saying that if I see my work as service, financial compensation becomes secondary to reaching out and making peoples’ lives better. I’m not looking for an award or a raise, but I do want to see life get a little better for someone.

Recognizing aid work as being of service instills a deep sense of purpose to what I do. If aid work was just working at a “normal” office, why not be back where the power never goes off and I can drink from the tap? (Except, I also really like it here.)

2. Service work requires emotional labor.

In his book Linchpin, Seth Godin writes about emotional labor and its high value in a post-factory world. I see emotional labor as the skills and interactions that make us human–the creativity, the empathy and the innovation.

Service work involves emotional labor all the time. When I stop to say hi to a community member in Robertsport even though I’d rather hide in my hammock, when I mediate a dispute between Co-op members, or when I motivate a teacher in my project to try a new teaching method, I’m doing emotional work. I’m using my skills as a human being to connect to another human being. That connection takes patience, empathy and effort, and it’s always worth it.

The alternative: shutting down and going through the motions, resenting everybody I work with–and for. The alternative to not doing the emotional work? Burn out.

3. Emotional labor requires rest.

When I see service work for the emotional labor that it is , I understand why I get so exhausted. The more people I connect with, the greater my need for serious down time.

Relaxation means different things for each of us, but in the lifestyle of a healthy, happy aid worker, it involves things that relax and renew our bodies, minds and spirits. Going out for beers on the beach may be fun and a great way to connect with our friends, but it’s not necessarily relaxing in the deepest, restorative sense that I mean.

This post was reproduced with the author’s permission and originally appeared in her blog Expat Backup

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