Thursday, June 24, 2010

Humanitarians aka Mercenaries, Missionaries, and Mad Men: Part One

Me on my first trip to West Africa in October 2003

I've been doing a lot of thinking about what to do with myself and my career the past few weeks. I just exchanged emails with my former boss at Refugees International to ask him for advise and he said "For better or for worse, you are an international humanitarian/human rights worker" (and I could hear his tone - deal with it!) I do love the field and the work but I was very close to losing my belief in it a few weeks ago due to the non-stop stress this job entails.

First of all, this field is filled with crazy people! The current wisdom is that all you find is Mercenaries, missionaries, or madmen (or misfits, depending on who you ask). I've certainly encountered them all - from the jungles of West Africa to the cities of the Middle East.  And am I one of them? I certainly was close to becoming a misfit five weeks ago when I found myself telling stories of Haiti and freaking out my "civilian"  friends. We're adrenaline junkies, I think, with ill-developed senses of danger, and willing to take risks that many others from our families and friends wouldn't do. My family were always aghast that I was EXCITED to go to war zones and help out.

But where else would I work if I wasn't an aid worker? Before I went into development and humanitarian work, I worked in the restaurant business (with two very very short sojourns for a mortgage company and a retail store and a longer one in a healthfood store). I always knew I wanted to "help" in some way. My heros growing up were Wonder Woman and Florence Nightingale (I was always Batgirl when we played make-believe because I thought her motorcycle was cooler than Wonder Woman's plane though)!

As I figured out what I wanted to do with my life in college, I tried on three courses of study: Journalism (which I quickly dropped because it was boring),  Pre-Medicine (which I dropped because I hated studying for chemistry and math), and International Studies (where I thrived). I turned the Journalism interest into an English Language minor because I loved to read and write poetry - but international studies fascinated me. Latin American wars of independence, ethnic conflict in Africa, The Soviet Union, and nuclear war - (after all it was the 80s). I ended up following the Soviet Union the most due to a charismatic professor, Gordon Smith, and fantasies of moving to Moscow and fighting the cold war, I guess. But studying these things didn't give me a clue about what I could do with my life.

After college, I went to work in the restaurant biz as a bartender. Restaurants are filled with even crazier people than humanitarian agencies - both the staff and the customers. When I was 21 years old, I managed my first restaurant and I had to make schedules around people's rehab, parole hearings, and keep them from the drugs during the work hours and clean up the sex after work. I don't even remember going to bed for two years because I stayed out drinking every night and just passed out every night.  But at least I wasn't bored out of my mind like I was in the bank or the "Joyful Alternative", the hippie clothing shop I worked in. I yearned to leave South Carolina and see the world but I was broke and not sure how to do it.

Having been born in Taiwan and growing up in Belgium to a military family, I knew I wanted to travel the world and I knew that I was fascinated and appalled by war. The military was not an option for me so I thought about the Peace Corps. When I worked in a health food store dishing out advice on herbs, vitamins, macrobiotic food, and organic vegetables, I became aware of alternative medicines, indigenous rights, and anti-corporate anger. This pushed me into women's health as I was always finding young women who couldn't afford birth control or abortions coming to me to get herbs to miscarry. I became radicalized.  I wanted to work on women's health in Latin America.  The Peace Corps wanted to send me to do fish farming in Africa. I passed on the Peace Corps.

I moved to DC and went to grad school... I was finally on track.

A blog that I love, Tales from the Hood, wrote recently about how Americans understand humanitarianism and human rights. How we focus on our rights, the rights of others, and look at things from a rights-based perspective.  I am typical of this approach - I started out in the field of development by working with grassroots organizations to defend human rights in Latin America at Witness for Peace and then the National Coordinating Office on Displaced in Guatemala. I wanted to be a human rights defender and I loved working on the issue of economic justice for women in Guatemala and Nicaragua. The erosion of the advances that women had made in the Sandinistas and in the refugee camps under the new economic reforms was my rallying cry. Women's rights are human rights!

Through a series of weird missteps, I took a detour into large scale USAID funded health and development and began to learn about Africa.  I focused on reproductive health and sexual health and gender issues. While I was junior and naive, I had a lot of opportunity to see from the inside how ineffectual the USAID development model was and how the money all came rolling back to the US through the use of highly paid consultants, business class flights, and US only rules for purchasing cars, computers, etc. I struggled to implement a sophisticated computer driven health information system in Haiti where they probably would have been better off with pencils and papers and calculators. Through a wonderful Haitian colleague who was 20 years my senior, I learned a lot about the Haitian people and how decision-making went down.

Throughout it, I felt that my role was to use my privileged status as an American to move forward the goals of the people in countries less fortunate than my own. From time to time, I would become deeply aware of the injustices in my own country - lack of access to health care, poverty in the deep south and on the Native American reservations, inner city violence, and the like and fret over why I chose to work outside the country. But I also knew, selfishly, that I wanted to experience the world and meet people from places I would never venture just on 'holiday'.

I was determined to work on the issue of gender-based violence and help women and children around the world who suffered from this violence.  Whether through development or relief work, I didn't really care but I struggled to carve out a niche working on this. The advent of the Bush Administration made me realize that I couldn't stomach US style development and I went into what I thought was the more principled field of humanitarian work.

So where do I stand now? Six years of 'humanitarianism'  - three from a US advocacy based perspective, three from a European operational perspective. I've been to West Africa, Haiti, Sri Lanka, Sudan, the Congo, Somali region, Zimbabwe, Lebanon and Colombia.

I've been disgusted at the industry - because that's what it is, an industry. I've been repulsed by the selfishness and paternalistic and racist attitudes of some "humanitarian" workers. I've been annoyed by the lack of thoughtfulness, integrity and intelligence in program design. I hate how they treat us, the workers, like cogs in a machine, to be replaced when we wear out.

But I've been inspired by truly wonderful people - 25 year old nurses struggling to do the best with limited resources for their abandoned and stigmatized patients, business men and former soldiers who have left behind comfortable lives to work side by side with mechanics, truck drivers, and office workers all over the world who treat them as trusted buddies, and smart creative crazy people who don't take no for an answer.  I can't imagine my life not being involved in this world as much as I sometimes hate it. So here I am, burned out from non stop travel to Somalia-Ethiopia border, the highlands of Papua New Guinea, the border of Myanmar-India, and post-earthquake Haiti in less than six months while weathering the death of my beloved father and assorted family stress.

Next up: Where do I go from here?  (This is the part where I solicit ideas and strength from the three people who read this blog)....


  1. Like you, I'm a survivor of a group (the restaurant business) that is filled with even crazier people than humanitarian agencies. I often scratch my head in a "what-was-I-thinking?" way for having done it for so long, but reading your words about it makes me feel like a patriot. :)
    I don't know how to advise you about long-term career plans, but I do believe you should consider writing a book about your experiences in the field. I'm serious. Hopefully we can talk about this in person or via email. Too many ideas to post with this comment. xoxoxoxxo

  2. A little late to the commenting, but I like Libby's book idea - hey you've already pre-sold 2! In the meantime come chill at our house, cook for me for a bit and have a glass of wine. We'll talk about next steps in life (i'm looking for one myself). Or is there somewhere you can do some R&R to recharge? I think you're probably in the right type of work, but maybe need a new scene. Or new eyes to see.

  3. Wow Sarah.... that was fantastic. Reading about your journey on the humanitarian path helped put a lot of things in perspective for me, which I'll probably message you privately. In any case, you do need some serious R&R time and possibly a new assignment. I definitely support the other ideas of writing a book. I envision it to be more enlightening and thought-provoking than A BED FOR THE NIGHT.

  4. You've always been a writer--combine nonfiction and fiction into a new prose.