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#52 Cynicism

May 2, 2011

Submitted by MoreAltitude who blogs at Wanderlust: Notes from a Global Nomad. Twitter: @morealtitude

At the start of any Expat Aid Worker’s career will come a moment, perhaps during a volunteer posting or a field internship, when the kindly, senior and experienced Expatriate Aid Worker who has become their guide and patron, will take them quietly aside, point to a colleague lurking behind a cigarette at the edge of the compound, and say gently,

“Whatever you do in this industry, don’t end up like him.”

‘Him’ is a burned-out, cynical long-termer with a red veiny nose and an accent that probably started off European but is now a pastiche of mid-Atlantic drawl and Afrikaans clip, seasoned with odd phrases of Kiswahili and Tok Pisin. He has a scowl for a smile and a limp he picked up when his Buffalo had to do a pancake landing on some mud-soaked Southern Sudanese airstrip in ’96.

The fledgling EAW will nod, wide-eyed, at this wisdom, and will be filled with an immediate and burning passion to be JUST like the grizzled long-termer. This will never dissipate.

In the pecking order of Field Cred, nothing says ‘I’ve been through the crapper’ to an EAW like cynicism. The more bitter the EAW’s tirades about things that ordinarily seem harmless, the harder they have clearly lived, and the more extreme their experiences have obviously been. It stands as a proxy for just how badass the EAW truly is.

The journeyman EAW, of course, will quickly develop cynicism as a way of gaining social currency with peers and those he or she aspires to be counted among. Easy first steps include cynicism about host governments, donor agencies, and head office administration. Cynicism about program quality, impact and UN coordination meetings quickly follows.

The more experienced EAW, of course, will be cynical about such trite cynicism. She or he has developed cynicism to a higher plane and is cynical about the humanitarian imperative (there is only selfish action); little grandmothers who donate to charity (tax breaks); and recipient communities (eviscerating the myth of the noble savage with bitter joy).

Our grizzled long-termer is way past this. He’s seen so much and lived so hard, he no longer believes that there’s any good in the human spirit. He’s long since stopped trying to justify his actions as anything other than self-serving, but won’t leave the industry because he knows nothing else, and it’s cost him three marriages, and anyway, relief ops are kind of fun. He doesn’t bother expressing cynicism about anything any more, he’s that hardcore. In meetings he listens to impassioned pleas for improving programs and contributes only Gallic snorts. At parties he loiters in corners behind clouds of smoke from local cigarettes and the only flicker of interest in his grey eyes shows when some fresh EAW-ette floats past in search of the bar.

The fledgling EAW has an instant crush, and will subsequently take every broken, dead-end, soul-crushing posting in every war-torn, cholera-ridden, scum-infested backwater she or he can find in an effort to become as cynical, jaded, snarky and grizzled as the long-termer, and so claw their way to the top of the Field Cred pile.

Until one day, two marriages down, with just the first inkling of a chronic sciatic nerve problem from too much time off-road in Toyota Land Cruisers, the EAW will spot some wide-eyed intern fresh off the UNHAS flight. The EAW will take them aside and point to the EAW’s old mentor who is currently rifling through a crate of infants’ food rations, destined for a therapeutic feeding centre, because he forgot his lunch. Then the EAW will warn the intern in earnest,

“Whatever you do, don’t end up like him.”

But the EAW won’t mean it.

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