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Is the aid architecture crushing young aid workers?

I have asked myself this same question many, many times. So when I read the phrase above in my inbox yesterday, I jumped to share it on how-matters.org.

Kenden Alfond and Charles Vincent of Dialogue for Professional and Personal Development have been working with aid workers who have, or are confronting strong emotional stress in their personal and/or professional life. They shared this letter in particular because it felt so truthful. Their first thought when they read it was “I wish I had gotten this letter when I started aid work.”

It speaks about how the aid environment strongly impacts the emotional experience of aid workers. Kenden and Charles want to share it with…

  • you, the young aid worker whose humanitarian spirit is breaking; may reading this give you solace and empower you to keep going after what you want. I hope that this letter gives you more energy to seek a professional environment and/or mentor in the aid world that will support your development;
  • you, the manager who is really trying to relate to your staff and nurture them: you may be feeling the pressure to manage in a different way and wonder if your more human approach is really of any importance in a system that does not seem to value relationships. May reading this reassure you that you are on the right course and strengthen your resolve;
  • you, the manager who is negatively affecting your staff; may reading this stimulate a reflection and possibly inspire you to change.

With his permission, we share key extracts of P.’s letter:

***

Hi Kenden and Charles,

I am writing simply to offer you my words of support and encouragement in researching aid workers’ emotional experiences.

I am retired now. While I continue to feel passionate about the humanitarian cause and the Organizations which lead it, my last few years in the System left me feeling some disappointment at its direction and particularly at the manner in which the brilliance, the passion and the desire of that army of young people coming along is being abused.

The System nowadays rewards compliance and acceptance and can be crushing for all but the strongest of the young. All but the most diligent of Managers tend to be pushed into the process themselves, such that rather than nurturing the young they channel and shape them negatively. 

The young bear the brunt of this sad reality. Managers seem to be buckling under the weight of a System they are perpetuating, and ignoring (or simply being tuned out to) the damage they are doing.

This requires patience, but it's worth it.

This requires patience, but it’s worth it.

There is no shortage of bright, highly educated, energetic young professionals in the UN, IO, and NGO system, but there is a shortage of Managers sufficiently able to support and shape them in a direction which is positive both for them and their Organization.

It is a contradiction that many of the Organizations to which finer-spirited youth are attracted are nowadays so oppressive and hide-bound by bureaucracy and regulation.  In the worst cases, these very Organizations crush young people’s humanitarian spirit in its infancy.

It is understandably difficult for many aid workers to find their way in the early years – and the risk is that young aid workers become so compromised by the process of “making it” that they lose that purity, energy and optimism which is the hallmark of youth and the driver of successful outcomes in the complex world of humanitarian operations.

Every generation of aid workers have their particular set of struggles to overcome, even if in retrospect I believe we of the 80′s had it easier in our quest to achieve.  The current generation of aid workers’ are not provided with the necessary freedom of thought and action to thrive and to make the best contribution possible.

Every organization, Public and Private, has its share of bureaucracy, bad managers, abusive behaviour and tough times so if you are experiencing this in the Aid World you are certainly not alone within it, or indeed outside it. Lamentably, it’s everywhere.

The good news is that you are working in an environment and for a cause which is noble and worthwhile, that you are in the midst of some of the best and brightest Managers in the humanitarian world (you just have to seek them out ) and that you have the opportunity of contributing to the betterment of man-and-woman-kind.  

You should identify strong Mentors and have the courage to ask them for their support and guidance at critical points along your path, at the same time as mustering your own reserves of determination, intelligence and raw power to overcome the obstacles with which you will be confronted.

Take a breath, look up, hold your head high and reflect on the broader dimensions of the particular problems you may be facing personally as well as operationally, and decide to solve them, because you can and it’s worth it.

You are part of something great. Please remember that if you find yourself in a difficult place, then take action to improve your personal situation so that you can make the humanitarian contribution you have within you.

Cheers, P.

***

After reading this letter:

1. For you, what is one thing that would have made the international aid world a better place to start your professional journey?

2. If you could write a letter that would help thousands of other aid workers, what would you write about?

Kindly share your thoughts in the comment section!

***

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1 Comments Add Yours ↓

  1. BG #
    1

    Thank you very much for posting this incredibly important letter. I am a young development practitioner with a couple months experience at a major INGO. I have now realized that as well as having to learn how to swim in the deep end, navigating bureaucracy and corporate politics has become an invaluable part of ensuring my short term future. I firmly believe in the work the organisation and the sector does and stands for, but i had some dark moments of confusion and disillusion. I have seen many young people give up on the sector in my country due to the hoops and issues mentioned in this blog and in other forums on INGO practices. This has further reinforced my commitment to follow my passion for development work despite the hidden challenges and minefields that i must navigate.

    Simply put, thank you for reminding me that i am not alone.


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