(The Humanitarian Social Network)
When people ask me what job I do, I always struggle to find the appropriate response. It tends to differ according to who is asking me, and will range from ‘development/aid/humanitarian/human rights worker’ to ‘advocacy/policy/programmes officer’. This linguistic difficulty is not only due to needing to second guess whether the person I’m talking to will actually understand what any of these terms mean; it’s also because I myself am not sure what I am. Maybe the blanket term is ‘activist’ – although this actually doesn’t describe a job, but more a way of life. And not every development worker is an activist; you don’t often see a United Nations official on a podium at a public rally, or camping outside banks or embassies to raise awareness of a political injustice (although I’m sure there are some that do).
I’m dwelling on this because this trouble in semantics is actually part of a wider symptom of burnout in the sector I work in (what sector do I work in? Is it aid/development/humanitarian/charity/non-governmental? Oh never mind…). Struggling to talk about what we do reflects a deeper emotional difficulty in expressing all the hopes, fears, anger and uncertainties that go in to our work. It manifests itself in the tension one feels in the chest, or the lump in one’s throat, when embarking on a discussion about what ‘advocacy’ or ‘capacity building’ is, or what it’s like to live in a ‘war zone’.
I’m not trying to belittle people’s genuine interest in this kind of work – and people are indeed interested and want to understand it more. What I struggle with is actually trying to describe, in as concise and eloquent a way as possible, the feelings, emotions and experiences of working in Palestine, or Uganda, or any other country which is not in the slightest way similar to home. And without using all this jargon listed above, which no one understands unless they’re doing the same kind of job.
It’s not easy to answer the question often posed when returning from one of these countries – what’s it like there? Well, it’s like a number of things, but which parts does the person asking actually want to hear? About the house I lived in or the restaurants and markets I’d regularly go to? About the neighbourliness of everyone I met, and the high number of cups of tea and plates of unfamiliar food that have been put in front of me, on occasions several times in one day? About the elderly man in a refugee camp I met, who was dying from AIDS having had no access to proper treatment? About the friend of mine who was arrested and tortured?
More specifically, how do I describe what my work is like (click to see an amusing summary)? Should I be honest and say I spend most of my time in front of a computer in an office, feeling frustrated as I try to jump through numerous bureaucratic hoops and hopeless because most of the time I feel it doesn’t make any difference to anything anyway? Or do I focus more on those occasional times when I do go to a refugee camp, or a village, or a prison, or someone’s home, and actually have a proper conversation with a ‘victim’, as they’re so often inappropriately termed for their mere existence in that particular country.
What follows is the reality as I see it of doing this kind of work – whatever we might choose to term it. For purposes of clarity, I will use the term ‘international NGO worker’. This is from my own experience, but not every worker is the same, as our environment, our colleagues, our office, the communities we are trying to help, all vary greatly; along with our emotional reactions and approaches to what we’re doing.
I have spent the last ten years doing a number of activities in different countries, most of which have been going through long periods of war. This has included funding projects in communities that have borne the brunt of years of conflict and need support in rebuilding their economies and their livelihoods. This could be a female-headed family, whose men have been killed in war or have abandoned them, and who want to grow some vegetables or rice to sell at the local market to have a sustainable income. At the same time, I have also been raising awareness at international level of the injustices of these conflicts. This entails lobbying British Government and M.P.s – taking them to conflict areas, writing to them, issuing public statements which pressure them to take action; doing much the same with UN officials, to push them to intervene by sending in monitors, or by passing a resolution at the Security Council (the UN body responsible for maintaining international peace and security). It also entails developing campaigns and awareness raising initiatives which will engage the general public in my country – students, workers, Church groups, ANYONE – to take action against the injustice of that conflict. This means supporting them to write to their MP or to a Cabinet Minister to express their concern regarding the British Government’s complicity in that injustice (which there usually is in some way); or getting them out on the street at a public demonstration.
We go into this kind of work with the best of intentions, thinking that at least one small action – any of the above, or something else – is better than nothing and will maybe help one person facing injustice, and could even help an entire community. And with some actions, it’s easier to see those positive results immediately. The female-headed household gets its small loan, or sack of vegetable seeds, to grow crops to sell at market. The family can now pay for the children’s school fees. Continuous pressure on the British Government results in the Foreign Secretary making a public statement which condemns the violence in that country.
But the bigger picture gets far more complicated. Because ultimately the female-headed household is still at risk of being thrown back into poverty by its Government’s intransigence, corruption or involvement in another war. And a statement by the British Government means very little unless it’s followed up by concrete action and policies aimed at stopping the injustice. And real action is dependent on a number of factors, but ultimately is decided according to the interests of the Government of the time and not public opinion, as we’ve seen so clearly with the invasion of Iraq in 2003.
So in fact having a sense of achievement when working for an international NGO is very hard, because we’re up against powerful decision-makers that appear almost impossible to influence. Sure, there are occasional breakthroughs, and maybe over time we do witness a crucial change in policy or approach at Governmental or UN level. But rarely do we feel confident enough to say that we contributed to that. Instead, we spend day after day, in front of that computer, writing that press release or call for action or letter to the Prime Minister, with moments of determination matched by moments of questioning whether there is really any point or purpose. Occasionally, we get out ‘into the field’ – in other words, into reality, where we meet the local population and hear directly from them what it is that’s needed to stop the injustice. Unfortunately, these demands often fail to be met by the NGO in question, for a number of reasons related to capacity, resources, interests, policies, funding. Meanwhile, the violence/poverty/human rights abuses of the country in question rage on, with no sign of meaningful intervention by that country’s Government – who surely should shoulder the most responsibility, over and above our own.
This may all sound very depressing. But then it is coming from a self-proclaimed girl in transition (visit my blog for more information), who is trying to make sense of her past - spent working in Uganda, Kenya and Palestine as well as the UK - in order to make a positive and meaningful step into the future. And I know I’m not alone in this – the feeling of hopelessness, of failure – when trying to address the ongoing injustices attributed to ours and other people’s governments. It is part of the job of an activist or international NGO worker to understand the brutal realities of one’s efforts. It’s good to be idealistic to some degree, but it is equally important to know one’s limits, and not to set one’s expectations too high with any action. It won’t lead to any change overnight. But it might just go some small way in adjusting people’s perceptions or assumptions about a situation in another country that they’ve never been to and barely read about. And this may just go some small way in developing a new world view, a greater connection with other cultures and populations, and ultimately a greater resolve to live together on this planet with more equality and more compassion in our hearts. Perhaps this is the ultimate goal, over above any lofty aims to end a conflict, or change Government policy, or stop its corruption or use of torture, in any given country.
As the Dalai Lama and his supporters have put it, we all need to stand up, and be the change.