Somewhere in the mists of the unrecorded past there was a moment when the first two aid workers encountered one another in the sexy conflict/hot zone of their time (forgotten not because it was before writing, but because it was before celebrities). After one-upping each other and having a fair bit of personal drama, they came to a draw and decided they could share the world of “helping people”.
The first thing to do was to protect their superior position on the human moral hierarchy by making their work seem more technical; they had to invent jargon. However the jargon had the impact of legitimising the field to legions of lesser mortals who normally would have pursued parent- and spouse-friendly careers and who now flocked to aid. Unfortunately, upping the number of syllables from “aid” to “development” didn’t reduce the flow; and besides, the bright-eyed newcomers gave the older “development” “professionals” a large influx of people to lord over, share their beneficence with, and destroy the idealism of, and also some were hot.
And so it was decided that aid/charity/development/poverty alleviation should be divided into “sectors”. A sector is a specific kind of thing that is done in a specific kind of way to help a certain kind of person in a certain kind of way. Sectors require “technical specialisation” and therefore a master’s in something (the subject is not as important as the ability to have spent money on an issue programme in a preferably cool location where you spent 1-2 years filling your life with anecdotes to carry you forward). The technical specialisation is less about learning how to do a thing than it is learning the jargon of that thing so that others are suitably impressed.
Most importantly, specialisations constrict labour markets and ensure that EAWs can maintain their lifestyles. The gender specialist is master of her or his discourse and all that pertains thereto. Woe betide the livelihoods specialist who tries to tread on that hallowed ground. The livelihoods specialist knows how to dole out money to people but is inept in sensitivity to gender issues. Neither can tackle the issue of governance, which is generally left to the multilaterals, lest the EAW have to back up her or his superior political reasoning with more than a blog or Facebook post.
The need for sector specialists is also convenient because it decreases other staff’s workload. The need for a specialist in a narrow specialty who has the time, willingness, and ability to come to a project site in Remote Location X where Assessment Y needs to be done explains delayed project timelines and fills gaps in conversation at the expat coffee shop. It also helps maintain a healthy amount of alienation from HQ, ensuring that field staff create less work for their desk officers.
EAWs continue to evolve by natural selection, and this is notably changing their approach to sectors. Ever negotiated a long bribing and approval process to get your season of Battlestar Galactica out of customs? You’re a governance expert! Installed a new toilet and actually tried to get it to work? Presto, wat-san (a.k.a. WASH) is your baby. Haggled for the thing-imported-from-China that will look sufficiently authentic for the folks back home? You just completed a market framing and supply-chain analysis!
EAWs beware, however. The current cross-sector pollination, might produce a new breed of EAW; one with a global perspective on development and their place within it…followed off by the realisation that the EAWs and locals might just benefit more if beneficiaries sold mobile phone airtime instead.