One of the great paradoxes of international relief and development work is the inverse correlation between the amount of time one has spent in the industry and the extent to which one feels genuinely qualified to bring wide, sweeping change to poor communities in the third world. Those just starting out think it’s all simple, straightforward, cut-and-dried, black and white. It comes down to a very basic formula:
- Problem: “Those poor people ain’t got nuthin’.”
- Solution: “Give ’em somethin’.”
But then, as they stick around a little longer, move their way up the ranks in country office or HQ, the complexity, and difficulty, and far-reaching potential for negative unintended consequences increasingly sinks in. The Expat Aid Worker begins to realize not only that this is all very, well… hard, but that probability of failure is also very high, that no matter how hard she or he tries, she or he will never be “one of” the locals, and so this aid thing is all very contingent and temporal. It’s nowhere nearly as easy as “give ’em somethin’.”
Yes, the EAW comes to understand that despite having been driven around by a driver, having been called “boss” or “bwana” or “sahib” or “ong”, or having managed a budget worth millions of USD, her or his contribution was not only small potatoes but also maybe wasn’t as helpful as she or he had hoped or intended. This is a somber day, indeed, in the life of an EAW.
Like a Bat Mitzvah or ritual circumcision, this candid recognition of the frailty of the EAW’s own contribution is also the signal the she or he has finally come of age, finally attained “veteran” status.
And so, like the silverback who once having become a silverback makes a show of flinging his own dung around, there are very few ritual practices which give an Expat Aid Worker more meaning as an expression of veteran status than self-loathing.
EAW self-loathing can take many forms, including cynicism, finding themselves, and destroying idealism. Sometimes self-loathing is disguised as being enigmatic. It is the antithesis of explaining local culture to locals or dressing like locals (both utterly pointless to the silverback, and by extension, self-loathing EAW). EAW blogs and Facebook pages are the most common places to find examples of EAW self-loathing, but the relief zone pub is probably the most fun. After a hard day of running distributions or arguing with dumbasses in coordination meetings there really is nothing quite like listening to an EAW who’s been in the game for a while (after the fourth or fifth round has begun to take effect) spout a monologue tirade of self-loathing.
Conspicuous self-loathing is also a common tactic among newbies and posers who want to make the point that they’re well on the way to veteran status. Like the kid who insists on saying that he’s “five going on six.” They perceive that real self-loathing EAW have been there, seen stuff, done stuff that the real-world muggles could never imagine, let alone fathom. And so those newbies and posers like to spout righteous indignation or put you in your place as a proxy for genuine self-loathing. But take note: the real (read: “hardcore”, “scarred”, “lost soul”) veteran EAWs have nothing to prove, really. They just need to purge, to come clean, to confess.
You can also always tell the real veterans from the acolytes by asking why, if they’re so ineffective, they don’t just leave the aid industry and become bus drivers?
The acolytes: “We’ll work ourselves out of a job as soon as sufficient local capacity has been built…”
The veterans: “We have a mortgage and student loans left from the 70’s.”