Getting started in aid work

I am not going to do here what Alannah at Blood and Milk, or Peter at Road to the Horizon or others do better: suggest ways that you might get a job in aid work. But a few people have asked me recently how to get started, and below is what I emailed them. I think it is relevant to our motivations for being here, and for what I consider good development work in general.

Dear ____
It’s good to hear from you and to have the chance to discuss working in Afghanistan a bit.
Let me list first a few things that the Afghan Government requires – these are not negotiable. To get a work permit here, you need to have a recognised tertiary qualification. And it needs to be in a field that can be perceived as being of use in Afghanistan. So – esoteric qualifications from obscure colleges, in belly dancing, in yogic flying or equestrian sports, or from non-formal institutions will not be accepted. You also have to be below 65 years of age. So that is the first hurdle, though most professional people can get over that.

I guess the next thing is to find an agency to work with. When I said in my recent blog post that the pay (in my organisation) is non-existent, I meant it. All the expat staff (50+) in the organisation I work for are volunteers. We receive no salary, no perks. No danger money, no hardship allowance. We consider it a privilege to be here, not a chore. Danger is understood; all of us have done the arithmetic and are prepared for the worst outcomes; some of us have been beaten, raped, assaulted, shot at, imprisoned, kidnapped and killed. There has never been any question that we would be compensated for such events. Nearly all of us are here for at least two years; most of us a lot longer. My wife and I and our kids are here nearly 7 years now, there are plenty of others here for 10, 15 years.  This is not a country where problems will be fixed quickly. With us, the first six months is language study and cultural study; though you are expected to keep learning language as long as you are here. Long ago, we worked out that if you want to be effective, you need to be able to work directly with local people; language and cultural sensitivity are essential.

All of us are supported either by our own savings, our friends, churches or other agencies from our home countries; this support covers living costs, but none of us are getting rich here and most of us will return to our home countries financially poorer, or about the same as when we left. It is a matter of some pride that we can say to the Government of Afghanistan that every dollar given to us is spent in Afghanistan, on projects that benefit Afghans, and that no expat is paid for the work he or she does. In a context of substantial corruption, and where it is common knowledge that most expats take home high salaries, with perks, with danger money and hardship allowance and living expenses, our approach gives us great credibility.

We are also here for the long haul, and so we pace ourselves. This is a marathon, not a sprint. And so most of us take a few weeks every 6-9 months; many of us take leave less than once a year. In contrast, those seeking adventure and cultural experiences come here for a year or less, fuelled by the thrill of such a place. They work some, get tired, take leave and have R& R in the Maldives, come back, get tired again, get sick or get bored with the glacially slow pace of change, the way Afghans don’t seem to ‘get it’, the continuing insecurity, the restrictions, the corruption, the roads, the privations, take more leave, or move on. I don’t have a lot of time for such workers. You need to be here for at least two years to do any good, four is better. Development adventurers can go to Haiti or the Congo, or wherever the latest disaster is: In a disaster setting they probably won’t do much harm. But don’t come here.  Afghanistan requires a different kind of worker:  in a conversation with a UN staffer a few weeks ago, the woman commented to me that she wanted to be in a more fun place, and so that after a year and a half, she was moving on. She wanted more stimulation, more chance to socialise, more chance to get out.  This person then asked how long I had been here; and when I responded that this is my 7th year, she was amazed, and questioned why. My response was that the work was not finished: why would I leave a job half done? Though I didn’t say it, I had a smear of other half-formed, uncharitable thoughts: if that is the sort of person you are, why come here at all? So you are leaving, and taking with you anything you have learned, and now the UN will have to spend countless thousands getting a new person hired, on the field, supported etc – money that could be used in actual projects, helping people. Why not stay longer? work through the hardness of it all. Grow as a person, grow internally. We have all felt bored and understimulated here: what you are suffering is nothing new. And so on…

I guess I am saying in all this, that a high level of commitment, patience and tolerance is required for effective work here. Count the cost before you come. Afghans are tired of seagulls – white people who fly in, take the good bits, make alot of noise, crap everywhere and fly out. Sure, you can work through interpreters, and you can do lots of bricks and mortar stuff and  you can run lots of community education projects, and it may all look quite nice, and your interpreter will tell you how people have said the right things, but you should not fool yourself that it is development. Or that it is real, or that it is much good. Such projects – many of them funded by the big Government donors – are highly corrupted, and not really of much use. I have evaluated and observed plenty of such projects. They serve to entrench unequal power relations, not serve the poor. They are expensive, ill placed, ill implemented, and irrelevant. They are not evaluated and so no one learns from what has failed, and the next raft of workers arrive and enthusiastically repeat what has failed before and the cynicism such approaches foment in the local people is deep, hard and enduring. This work is not, in the long term, at all helpful. These projects, implemented under unreal schedules with impossible outcomes to achieve, answer the needs of donor countries, not Afghan communities. The country is full of such development junk and when people wonder why things aren’t getting better in this county, the answer is right there. Money is not needed here, understanding is, and there is no shortcut to that.

So – if you need to have success or see change, go elsewhere. You probably won’t see much of either here, unless you are here for a long time, are extraordinary or extraordinarily lucky, or capable of self delusion. Of course, such a vocation is not for everyone. I worked for the UN for a year here, and there are positions with other agencies that pay high salaries, and where the staff do some good – disarmament (about 20% effective); elections (irrelevant, but a nice confidence boost for some). I am simply describing our work, our agency, and my take on it. If our approach works for you, I can link you with our personnel director. If you need a salary, or want to work in a secular agency, there are other agencies I could link you with.

Hope this helps to start with.

3 thoughts on “Getting started in aid work

  1. Pingback: Tweets that mention Getting started in aid work « itinerant and indigent --

  2. Phil, your words are a true inspiration. And I mean that deeply. This post has affected me deeply, and I will keep it in mind for years to come, I am sure.

    – Someone just getting started in AID work.

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