Has aid lost its humanity?

When Mette Müller, founder of Best Self Experience, shared the following comment on my blog, I knew I wanted to invite her to share her story:

“The grassroots [organizations] that I have worked with have been excellent in seeing development as a process rather than a large checkbox… but many aid workers (sorry sorry sorry for the generalisation) seem to misunderstand this, and project their own ambitions and understanding of what development ‘should’ look like unto grassroots… the cool thing is: most of the grassroots I have worked with in Kenya seem to find a way to maneuver in all this frenzy and still continue their good work!”


When Jennifer invited me to write a guest post for how-matters.org, my first response to her was this: How could I possibly turn all these strong (often angry) feelings and thoughts about how development aid is being run into something sober and rational?

After our email correspondence I though: Am I even interested in sober and rational? I have been so frustrated reading heaps of sober and rational how-to-guides, tools, policy papers, frameworks, white papers… I realised that what I had missed the most in my work as a development professional was… people! Not participants, not target groups, not beneficiaries… just people. And ‘people’ in every aspect, with all their non-sober, irrational human emotions, feelings, thoughts and reactions. I had felt that development work had become more about systems and structures than the actual lived realities of people.

The department in the global NGO for which I worked was new and so we mainly worked with small grants, partnering with small and young grassroots groups living and working in Nairobi’s informal settlements. We did everything together, from research and data collection, to defining the goals of the project and which activities and processes were needed to reach these goals. We drew up budgets together and decided on how to evaluate and monitor the projects.

Doing everything together of course meant that full ownership of the project was being ensured (which should really be a given in any project). However, what I found the most important was that we actually got to know each other very well. And this made the biggest difference to our projects! I and the local facilitators and coordinators understood our partners. We understood why they might be delayed with a report, why spending was slower in certain times of the year and so forth. And even more importantly, we understood the personal sacrifice and struggle that many of the grassroots volunteers were making to actually create a better community.

But as our department grew and as income became even more important in order to sustain our programs, my work became more a matter of income targets and how to motivate (read: force) local southern-based partners to implement faster and spend more. To me, development aid had become yet another production machine – a conveyor belt mechanism, where effectiveness meant speed, production and income, rather than the well-being and growth of those involved.

As the grants became bigger, it became more and more difficult to focus solely and intensely on the small grassroot sgroups, and they seemed to get lost in the frenzy of income targets, reporting, spending, and ‘effectiveness’.

I was burnt out. I lost sight of the task at hand. I did not feel we were changing the world. On the contrary, most of the time I felt that we were doing more harm than good. I felt that we were causing more burnout and stress amongst the grassroots volunteers, loading more and more projects, involving more and more training, onto them. I didn’t feel that they were getting the quality support and help they needed in order to lift the heavy task of improving their own community.

We were training volunteers to become counsellors for families to children with disabilities and to literally knock on the doors of strangers to talk to them about their children, who are heavily discriminated by the rest of the community. Would I be able to do that without adequate support, understanding, guidance, mentoring, coaching, counselling or healing? NO!

I have never had more respect for other people than I have for those community volunteers who dedicate more than half of their daily lives to supporting other people who are in more difficult situations than them! But where was the understanding, and where was the support?

After I left my full-time programme coordinator job, I returned to Nairobi to visit my old friends working and volunteering at the grassroots. I realised that what I had been feeling was in fact true. Many of the volunteers are stressed. They do not feel that they are able to fully lift their weight. They are frustrated, and thus they sometimes forget all the good they are actually doing. They do an amazing job, but they feel a lot of struggle… and wouldn’t you, if you had to save the world, at the same time as constantly being told what to do, being told to make activities more effective, that you are too slow and therefore have to speed up the work you are doing, to write detailed reports for everything you do, and AT THE SAME TIME not being given an appropriate space to at least voice your complaints, frustrations, worries, feelings, thoughts and fears?

So, whatever happened to humanity?

What happened to the person, the human being and their lived reality in all the systems and structures that we now call ‘development aid’? It seems that empathy, compassion and understanding towards those people who are getting their hands dirty in the communities is rarely seen as a vital element of a good project. But what would happen if ’empathy’, ‘understanding’ and ‘compassion’ became equally important buzzwords as ‘capacity,’ ‘ownership’ and ‘participation’ within aid effectiveness? Are these words too soft and irrational for the toughness and rationality of the development world – or could they be the missing piece in the puzzle?


If you want to meet some of these amazing volunteers, check out these videos:




Mette Müller is an intuitive healer (and ex-development professional) working with social change agents, aid workers, counsellors, and helpers, who are struggling or on the edge of burnout and stress. Mette has worked for more than ten years in the aid sector. She grew up in Tanzania, has lived in several other countries in eastern and southern Africa. You can learn more about her work at: http://www.bestselfexperience.com.


Related Posts

How would you measure the strength of a partnership?

The Joy of Aid Work

Got ‘Em: An Evaluation Story

Love of the process

A Heartbreaker

Isn’t it time for a morale boost?


  1. I found Ms. Muller’s statement very profound and it crosses many levels and arenas.
    “…What ever happened to humanity?”
    I think this question is one we must constantly ask ourselves. We have managed to put our collective humanity on a shelf, sometimes out of reach, because then it seems easier to move on with our lives, our concerns, our existence. We have been manipulated by that ‘us/them’ mentality. Somehow, ‘humanity’ seems to have lost it’s importance as we focus on ‘us’.
    Ms. Muller’s words are a welcomed reminder.
    Crystina Wyler

  2. I’ve been thinking about the role of empathy and compassion and how absent these terms can often be from discussions about aid and development. Thank you for this guest post… So needed, and so beautifully put.

  3. Parker Filer

    I like to believe that “Empathy”, “Understanding” and “Compassion” are the catalyzing forces that motivate most people who enter into international aid and development work. These terms appear quite often in various NGOs’ mission statements and glossy promotional materials; but, as Mette Müller poignantly states, as budgets grow and careers advance, the amount of human interaction, the intrinsic humanity of the endeavor, is lost. I agree that the burden placed on local leaders and community volunteers can be overwhelming and is absolutely marginalized among NGO staff.

    I am increasingly intrigued by the notion field staff cultivating a “meaningful physical and emotional presence in the community” some sort of structural approach to “embeddedness” or “rootedness” in the host community. Might living within the communities we serve, for extended periods, help restore these human connections, foster understanding and empathy between expat and local workers while improving the effectiveness and satisfaction of both?
    Thanks for sharing Mette and Jennifer!

  4. @Crystina: Thank you so much for your comment! And I agree, I do think that we often ‘close our hearts’ so to say and put our collective humanity on a shelf or out of reach in order to move on with our lives our concerns and our existence… sometimes I think it might be a coping mechanism amongst many in an attempt to avoid burnout. Thanks again for your comment.
    @Roxanne: Thanx for your comment! I am glad you found the post needed :o)
    @Parker: Thank you for your comment! And yes, empathy and compassion are often part of the mission statements of many NGOs and it is definitely a driving force… however, many very passionate aid workers do not get the chance to express this in reality due to the various kinds of pressure existing within organisations and systems, unfortunately. In my view, I think this is amongst one of the bigger reasons why the percentages of burnout are so high amongst aid workers too (this was my biggest cause of burnout at least). Thanks again for your comment.


    We make different to vulnerable children and poor community. We are interesting in transformation life of Orphans, street child, disabled child and the child who are from poor family and to see life change of widows. We love and interesting in working in the area of health promotion, rural child education and orphans, street children, abandoned children and women’s empowerment, poor community in region and disabled young and adults people.

    We need PARTNERSHIP WITH YOU FOR WE HAVE SEEN YOU ARE DOING GREAT, Let us have chance to hear from you friends if you would like to be part of us and have great partnership with you. We are working in the country officially. You are free to come here in the country of Rwanda to visit us.

    Best regards,
    Jean Claude MANIRAGABA
    President and Regal Representative
    Email: claudemani83@yahoo.com
    Phone number: (+250) 078 366 5403
    Office telephone: (+250) 072 279 1335
    Head office email: aharvestsoffriends@yahoo.com

  6. Pingback: Has aid lost its humanity? | Best Self Experience

  7. Clement N Dlamini

    Thanks for the practicality of your presentation which is something we have lost in the development work or aid work. You asked a very fundamental question which in essence means we have replaced the people with words like beneficiaries of aid. This is the very core of the problem because it would seem like we are transacting with people rather than adding value to capacity they already have..”how did they survive before aid?”. I am convinced that there is no curing development workers than going back to being humane in our approach. A question that begs for an answer is, “was aid about humanity from the beginning?”. I cannot speak as an outsider because I am amongst many who have worked with grassroots communities and found myself wanting to change them -without the understanding the development cannot be done for the people but it is done with the people. I sometimes feel communities were better off before we invaded their space with confusing statements and jargon that has made their lives miserable. I suspect there is an agenda in aid that we do not know about. In Swaziland where I am, there is already a strain caused by HIV and AIDS, so asking communities to dance to our music doesn’t make things better -we need to use the strengths perspective approach and give these communities a break.

  8. Humayun Gul

    Dear Jennifer Lentfer,
    You are so very true. Being a humanitarian and social development worker, I have always tried to incorporate this people centered focus in all my projects and programmes as most of what i have been doing was actually planned and developed by myself. In implementation, I have seen that Field workers also do try to implement on similar lines as they are always in direct contact with the people but the problem arises when interests of the implementing and donor organizations especially those individuals that extract monitary or other benefits from acquiring more and more projects and are always trying to finish task instead of contributing to save/improve lives through their actions and inputs.
    Despite being at an apex leadership role in my organization, I still feel the way you do (as in your article) at times. Yet, we must not quit and must continue to contribute our shares and strive for the best that we can do for our people. This is the motivating force behind my actions.

  9. Pingback: The humanity in humanitarian work | Engineer Without Borders

  10. hi we r a community based organization working for the support of community development for the poor community we work for .we r in need of long/short term volunteers to visit and work with our community organization.email or call+2540705540401/0725734777 .

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *