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.

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