The Holy Trinity of Guilt

Working in humanitarianism often leaves you feeling guilty. You’d have to be pretty stone-cold to work in the sector and never experience it. Guilt is a feeling of having committed a wrong or failed in an obligation, and in this line of work, there are a lot of obligations since when all is said and done, what you’re dealing with is people’s lives. For me, there are three elements of my life that contribute to my state of near constant guilt of never having done enough, both at work and more generally. Oh God, I can feel my guilt welling up inside me already. That mild blasphemy brings me to the first of my own three dimensions of guilt:

The Father: Being catholic.

Catholic Guilt is totally a thing. Perhaps religious guilt more generally is a thing – I’ve heard of Jewish Guilt – but Catholic guilt is the one I have. I was bought up in a Catholic family, went to a Catholic primary school and – oh, wait for it – an all girls, convent, Catholic secondary school. With the uniforms any everything. Get your minds out the gutters and say 4 Hail Marys in penance for those thoughts. Voila. You have just experienced Catholic guilt. It’s hard to put into words, but Catholic guilt makes you feel slightly sinful about everything enjoyable. Enjoyed a beautiful meal? Yes, but think of the starving children that haven’t eaten in days. Had a bit of fun with the new flaky aid boy in town? Every sperm is sacred, you heathen and should be saved for marriage. Loving your brand new 7-billion-mega-pixel-iPad with coffee maker extension pack? Jesus gave away all his possessions, including his life to save you. Damn it! Catholic guilt leads you to question whether every one of your actions plunges you deeper into sin, or inches you a little closer to an afterlife chillin’ behind those pearly gates. You would think that working in humanitarianism – saving lives and all that – is the equivalent of a business class ticket; avoid the queues and proceed directly to the gates. But in reality, it adds more potholes to the journey as you constantly question whether you actually did any good at all.

The Son: I am a woman.

‘Show me a woman who doesn’t feel any guilt and I will show you a man,’ wrote Erica Jong. The epidemic of female guilt has now apparently reached such a scale that this generation of women has been dubbed the ‘GAT’ generation; guilty all the time. Female guilt seems to be driven by feelings of inadequacy of living up to the impossible image of the ideal woman. We should be career-driven, but not too much that we’re bossy; we should be caring but not too much that we’re doormats; we should be slim and beautiful, but also stuff our faces because there’s nothing sexier than a woman who loves her food.

Damn good job

If you can do a damn good bloody good damn good job, maybe you too can earn the title of ‘Excellent Woman’

It’s hard to navigate the minefield that leads to the elixir of the perfect woman. There is a constant pressure to prove yourself, not just for women in humanitarianism but for men too, to show that what you do is effective, innovative, transparent, participatory and a whole host of other words from IRIN’s Humanitarian Buzzword Bingo. Now we have to be the perfect woman, and the perfect humanitarian. Women tend to have more empathetic emotions than men, which means we’re generally better at putting other people first, which should make us rockstar humanitarians. The problem is we also tend to internalise faults more than men, blaming ourselves for mistakes than external factors, and that means more guilt.


The Final Straw: I am a humanitarian.

Coupled with the first two, there is the added guilt that comes as part and parcel of the humanitarian job. When you first start in the job, you feel inspired, ready to take on the world and its problems, even solve some of them single-handedly. But as you stay longer in the field, you realise that your budget and your programmes don’t even scratch the surface of the grinding poverty, trauma and need the world and the people in it inflict on each other. You feel jaded, but you also feel guilty. It was your job to make a difference, but often, aid workers can’t see any impact of their work. Sometimes, humanitarians end up damaging themselves as they enter a spiral of guilt and shame for their perceived lack of achievement, resulting in burnout and sometimes compassion fatigue, an overriding sense of cynicism and feeling that all compassionate actions are doomed to fail. Such cases are clearly extreme, but unfortunately common. Conversations around the mental health of aid workers have increased over the last year or so, however, much more needs to be done to support humanitarians to process their guilty feelings in a healthy way that enables them to continue their work with a sense of clarity and proportion.

Personally, I like a sense of  niggling guilt; it keeps me questioning the quality of my work and the decisions I take. It forces me to apologise to colleagues when stress gets the better of me and I snap. It reminds me to be patient and understanding with people who are angry, rude or challenging and whose situation I cannot understand fully, and hope that I will never have to. It makes me strive to be better at my job. And when it’s excessive, it’s also great for weight loss. But I also know when it is getting the better of me and I need to curb it before I lose myself. So, I’ll keep channeling that guilt productively, and when the wheels fall off, I’ll gorge myself on the pickled onion Monster Munch I packed for just such an occasion, because hey, there’s nothing sexier than a Catholic school girl who loves to eat.

How to Build a Humanitarian #1 Do you want this? I mean, REALLY want this?

If we’re going to talk about the oddities of aid work, then the process of actually becoming an aid worker is probably a good place to start. In the normal world – bear with me on this one; as we stare down the still smoking barrel of the 2008 financial crisis I know job seeking for many people around the world is no longer ‘normal’. Suspend your disbelief for just a short period of time – the process goes something like: person wants job; person searches for said job; person finds and applies for job; person is interviewed and is successful; person rejoices briefly, then comes to realise this is not what they expected at all and the process begins again.

So you want to be an aid worker? Great! Start your search… except there is no job listing on Total Jobs for ‘humanitarian aid worker’.  So where do you start?


Your ability to remain charming whilst demolishing cakes might just land you that dream job…

A large part of getting into the humanitarian sector is navigating the ‘Catch 22’ situation. The Catch 22 situation is explained thus: you want a humanitarian job, but all the roles require you to have experience. You can’t get any experience because no one will take you on in a humanitarian organisation without any. When I first tried to enter the mystical world of humanitarianism, I was fairly confident about my transferable skills; I had managed people, I had managed projects, I had worked as part of an international team, I’d even done the whole volun-tourism thing, god damn it! But there was never any biting when I cast my rod into the humanitarian jobs pond. I was undeterred; I had previously worked for recruitment companies and so I pestered every organisation I applied to for feedback on my applications and where I was going wrong. Luckily, one replied and set me straight. ‘Humanitarianism is a very professionalised field,’ they told me, ‘most of our applicants have undergraduate or masters degrees in a subject related to the sector, such as development studies or international relations.’ On my last check, a BA in Media Studies wasn’t going to cut it. Strike 1.

Then there is the route of the – usually unpaid – internship. When I finally plucked up the courage to leave my secure job and head back to university to study the thing I actually wanted to do, the hot topic between classmates was how to get an internship at an organisation that could inch you closer to the elusive field. One discussion we often had was around how the majority of humanitarian internships were unpaid or poorly paid, and located mainly in London, thus pricing a lot of students (who had just spent all their available moola on a hugely expensive degree course and therefore were looking to lessen the figures behind that minus sign on their overdraft as quickly as possible) out of the market. We discussed how those students that were being priced out – typically from more working class or lower middle class families, typically northern, typically bright, able and ambitious – from getting that first step into the humanitarian sector by the lack of remuneration and the high costs of living in London. Strike 2.

Then there is the old chestnut, ‘it’s not what you know, but who you know’ and in my case this turned out to be my golden opportunity. Having helped people previously to find their dream job as a recruitment consultant, I knew that networking could play a big role in helping to get a foot in the door. And I networked my arse off, even with people that didn’t want to be networked with (quite a lot actually). I spoke to everyone and anyone that might know of an opportunity and then one day, after a conference, I sat stuffing a muffin into my face and chatting absent-mindedly with one of the presenters. Apparently my muffin stuffin’ abilities impressed, or perhaps a little of what I said between mouthfuls, because after a few weeks, she contacted me and offered me a trial field role. Home run.

Speaking to a friend of mine recently, he told me the thing that annoyed him most about telling people what he did was that their reaction was typically, ‘I’m thinking of doing what you do, you know? I’d really just like to go out there and help people.’ It annoyed him, because he, like me, had worked, studied, scrimped and saved for years to finally get into an international humanitarian job, and that for people to think it easy was utterly infuriating. So, if becoming an aid worker is what you want to do, excellent, I applaud you, come and join this crazy ship, but just be sure you want it enough to jump through the hoops to get there.

Equality is not always realistic. Perhaps fairness is?

Recently I read an article on the Guardian’s Development Professional’s Network entitled, ‘How can we fight inequality if we live as privileged expats?’ The gist of the article is that aid workers cannot promote equality when their lives in the places they work are hugely privileged compared to those of the people they work with. Now, usually I don’t really feel moved to make a comment on articles from this network, despite there being many well written, funny and cringeworthy-truthful accounts written there,  but this one just… got to me. Not because I disagreed with its content; far from it, I think there is some element of truth in it. Instead it was its failure to present any solution or alternative. It merely seemed like a diatribe against the pampered humanitarian worker. As someone who has spent the last two months freezing in earthquake damaged hotel rooms and washing her knickers in ice water, I struggled to see my pampered existence in the same terms as laid out by this article. For me, the article summed up a bad habit that should be added to ‘stuff expat aid workers like’; complaining – usually about how tough their myriad of philosophical dilemmas are – without suggesting any practical steps to overcome address them.

I think what jarred with me about the article is its black-and-whiteness. The world it presents of humanitarianism is one that I have encountered in some circumstances, but certainly not in all. Yes, there are some agencies that allow their international staff outrageous ‘compensation’ packages for working in a country other than that of their home, however, there are plenty of circumstances where life is tough for humanitarians and they don’t have the creature comforts so ubiquitously inferred by this article. I think of friends of mine who have worked in South Sudan or in Ethiopia for extended periods of time; the ‘perks’ so lavishly described in the article are simply not available there – except maybe the Land Cruiser, but I would like to see them travelling through rocky desert in a Vauxhall Astra – even if the organisation had the funding (unlikely given these emergencies’ neglected status) to provide them for staff. Colleagues there were living in tents, washing in a bucket, eating what was available, rather than 5* hotels, power showers and foie gras.

If I think of my own experiences, my home, ‘household staff’, transport, and additional perks have been everywhere on the scale from tent-none-none and nothing to nice apartment-a (one) cleaner-a very comfortable SUV (handy, because I spent most of my 3 hour daily commute working in it) and a literally outrageous per diem, which I had no idea what to do with. The point is, there is not a ‘standard’ lifestyle for aid workers, and certainly not every deployment is a cushy as Secret Aid Worker makes out.

Yes, it is true that international staff enjoy privileges above affected populations and, perhaps more avoidably, local colleagues. Some of the comments for the article seek to find an explanation: that there is the need to ensure staff health (medivac-ing anyone usually costs a bloody fortune), welfare and security so that humanitarians can perform their roles effectively; that humanitarians like other economic migrants are – at least for some part – in the roles they are because they are professional and seek good pay and conditions;  that regardless of the industry, there will be those that ‘play the system’ for all the perks that they can get. The second problem with this article is that it makes no attempt to outline solutions to these issues.

Our world is essentially unequal. Humanitarianism knows that, and hence theoretically at least bases all of its response on an assessment of need rather than your political, economic, religious or ethnic status and the equality that infers on you outside the emergency. To me, this article is raising the wider issue of ‘will it ever be the case that there will be equality in the world?’ I am not well enough versed on the political/ economic/ philosophical elements of that huge question to offer a solution here; however, I do believe that humanitarianism can do its bit to make the world a little bit fairer. Fair means ensuring that colleagues employed in cleaning roles for offices or staff houses are paid a fair wage, treated with courtesy and respect for doing their jobs. Fair means extending a comparable package of benefits (including medical cover) to local based staff as well as internationals. Fair means ensuring that wages within large international NGOs are globally set and adjusted for local economic conditions so that you know a colleague doing the same job as you in Country X, or even in the office 200km from yours is receiving the same reimbursement as you and the quality of your work is expected to be the same. Some of the comments note that funding is swallowed up in providing this fancy lifestyle to international workers, but if we want NGOs to have fair working environments, inevitably, some funding will need to be channelled into providing what could be termed ‘essential’ benefits for staff (e.g. medical insurance which is so often lacking for local based staff). Perhaps if we can’t be equal, we can be responsible and we can be fair.

The question I most dread… ‘So, what do you do for a living?’

My name is A and I’m an aid worker.

Apologies for the dramatic entrance, but similar to making that brave decision to admit your alcoholism to a room full of strangers, telling others outside of my working context that I work as a humanitarian aid worker is not something that I feel comfortable doing.

I’ve been working in humanitarian organisations for over four years now, slightly longer if you count the obligatory ‘internship’ roles photocopying executive meeting minutes and living in a toad infested basement flat in London living off baked beans. That was my start in aid work; a job that was as close to working ‘in the field’ as making sure the self-service tills don’t go on the wonk in Tesco. It lasted for three months with an international NGO based in London. And it was paid. The zenith of fledgling aid-worker foot-in-the-doors. Except it wasn’t paid that much, and being a Northern lass, I had to move to London, live in the aforementioned toad hole, walk the four miles to work at least twice a week to save on bus fare, and cut my food budget to £10 per week just to cut it.

Mercifully, the fate-wielding denizens of the aid world rewarded me for my three months of penitence with a 6 month contract at a small NGO, with a survivable salary. Perhaps the unpaid internship is a kind of litmus test; I truly believe that if you can survive in London on next to no money, you will have the resourcefulness to at least make a damn good attempt at working in remote and hostile environments. I won’t bore you with the rest, save to say I am now well and truly in the mystical ‘field’ that downy lipped male and female students of International Law, Conflict Studies and Disaster Management degrees see tantalisingly ahead of them.

So why so shy about the job? It’s not the telling per say, it’s the reaction. Once, I went shopping with my mum on a break between deployments. I disappeared into the changing room only to come out to find the shop assistant looking at me like a unicorn in a Cath Kidson skirt. ‘Your mum has just told me what you’re doing…’ [cue furious glance at mother] ‘…and I just think you’re so wonderful to do that.’

Unicorn Man

Aid workers are not unicorns… some of them don’t even have magic powers

Whilst of course it is lovely to hear that people are appreciative of what you do, it feels a little disingenuous to allow myself to buy into any kind of ‘saviour complex’ when aid work is paid and very much professionalised. Of course not all reactions are so embarrassingly amenable. Once in a nightclub a guy I was convinced I was going home with reacted with, ‘Ugh, you’re not one of those people that fundraise for orphanages are you? It’s like you just get other people to pay for your holidays to exotic places.’ Taxi. For one.

The reason I flinch before telling people what I do is that everyone has an opinion on it. There’s none of the glassy-eyed incomprehension evoked by saying you’re a ‘process and systems analyst’ followed by a swift move onto number of siblings. By its nature, aid work is in the headlines that people read every day; from earthquakes in Nepal, to conflict in Yemen, to the largest number of refugees in Europe since the Second World War. Based on their reading that day people can see you as anything from a do-gooder, a missionary, an accessory to war mongering or a diverter of funds from those in your home country that also need support. The truth is aid workers are just normal people trying to negotiate a sector with a lot of strange quirks, frustrating oddities and unique complexities hoping they can help a few people that need it along the way, and a bit like Major Tom in his spaceship looking down at planet Earth, I often struggle to figure it out. This blog is my observations of it and attempts to explain it, in my own words, as a normal person navigating a not so normal world.