#29 Destroying Idealism
We all know about the role Expat Aid Workers play in stamping out corruption and building capacity in their primary target groups (local people and local institutions) but what many don’t speak of is the critical role that EAWs play in a secondary and no less vital effort: destroying idealism in their own kind.
If you’ve ever spent an evening at the bar with Expat Aid Workers of the older, crustier variety or sat at the back table with them during an endless workshop, it will quickly dawn on you that there is no place for fluffy bunnies, rainbows and happy endings in the experienced EAW’s life. In fact, if you like fluffy bunnies, rainbows and happy endings, there is probably no place for you in the EAW’s life or in this field in general. So it’s a good idea not to seem too excited or hopeful about aid work and its impact if you want to be accepted by the cool kids and secure that next job in Berserkistan.
But wait, I’m confused… you are thinking. I thought people became Expat Aid Workers because they want to help the poor and make the world a better place! Well… yes… most EAWs were once naive college students who believed in a) kittens, puppies and volunteerism, b) God, Jesus and perhaps the Virgin Mary, c) Che and si se puede!, d) Sen and human rights, e) Chambers and local capacity or f) some combination of the above. But then they entered “the real world” of aidwork and their idealism was destroyed by endless life-saving meetings, kill-joy bureaucracy, the cynicism (or alternately, the idiocy) of their superiors, and the realization that development work is juuuuust a bit more complicated and much less sexy than what Sally, Jeff, Greg and Angelina let on (… and then they perhaps read some Illich to nail it all home).
Great value is formally placed on idealism in the INGO world, so it’s rare to find open and straightforward efforts to destroy idealism. Instead, older EAWs with the greatest amount of genuine field cred are forced to subversively attack idealism where it flourishes: in the hearts and minds of younger co-workers. The responsible older EAW feels it is his or her duty to induct and guide new EAWs through their experience with the red pill of aidwork.
As it’s in somewhat bad taste to openly ridicule the idealism of younger co-workers and starry-eyed volunteers and interns, the EAW relies on his or her typically laid-back, passive-aggressive style and sharp wit. Idealism destruction and cynicism building take place via raised eyebrows and smirks, snide comments directly to or in earshot of young EAWs, or sometimes via special mentoring relationships with those younger EAWs who like to drink the most, have the most potential to survive in the field, or are the hottest.
The young EAW who challenges the older EAW’s cynicism will find his or her childish energy, enthusiasm and belief in “helping others,” and ideas on how to do things differently quickly brushed off, derided or simply laughed at. Thus the young EAW either learns to chill out and take on the snarky, all-knowing tone of the EAW or leaves and starts a MONGO or DIY initiative, leaving him or her an open target for direct criticism by the International Humanitarian Blogosphere’s Snark Brigade.
Though EAWs spend much time and energy destroying idealism, because of the underground nature of the task, it must be conducted through parallel systems and outside official channels… at bars and EAW parties, on Twitter, in blog posts and blog post comment back-and-forths, via personal email between EAWs. This means that, despite the hours invested, the experienced EAW’s untiring efforts at destroying idealism are never officially recorded or appreciated on a time sheet and will never form part of the goals that the EAW is evaluated on during his or her yearly performance review.
The EAW labors on, bitterly unappreciated and unrecognized for his or her efforts at making the world of aid and development a more realistic place, one cynic at a time. Sigh.