Tuesday, July 20, 2010

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

(I left this post lingering unpublished from my return from my sick leave. It was written in October 2010. I'm in a different place now but I think I'll post it anyway.)

Well I've finally decided... I'm in it to win it (to paraphrase Hillary Clinton). I'm not giving up on humanitarian aid yet. A couple of things have convinced me...

1. Helping a friend apply for a training course, I was reading her writing sample. I got pretty excited about it and had lots of ideas on how to beef it up. I want to turn this writing sample into a joint paper on how quality of care can be as important a humanitarian principle as neutrality or independence.  I feel like I have something to say again... I want to write some papers for publication and I want to make an impact on this crazy profession again. I think I'm getting ready to find my voice, which has been lost for a while. 

2. I don't feel so alone anymore. With so many of my friends in the same exact organization are burned out right now and struggling.... I realize that its not just me. Sitting in the misery and depths of burn-out, I felt like a crazy person. I was the only one who was so angry and outraged. I was so exhausted and tired of fighting all the time. I was sensitive and impacted by everything. I felt like my skin had been scraped off and there was nothing protecting me anymore. But the more I get out of that state and talk to others, I realize that it is normal to struggle in abnormal situations. I need to take much much better care of myself nowadays. I have to learn to prioritize keeping myself healthy and de-stressed. I'm never going to change my passions and personality but I can change some bad habits.

3. Opportunities are presenting themselves to me. I've been stuck wondering what to do... but just by stopping for a little bit and ceasing to try to find the answer for everything and MAKE things happen, I've suddenly been shown a few different ways I can move forward. And a few little glimpses of a changed life that could make me happy and content. And they are all still related to being a humanitarian worker -I am not going to have to drastically change my identity. I have a better idea of who I can be in my career but I realize my career is not the most important thing to me anymore.

4. Discovering how wonderful and supportive my friends and family are. While I'm dealing with burnout, I'm not depressed. I've struggled with depression in the past. I'm just plain ole damn exhausted. And my friends who check in on me, call me up, meet me for picnics, take me to Poland, and listen to my frequent crazed thoughts about this and that are my lifeline. No man is an island. But I've felt like an island for a while - but thanks to my sister, my friends, and even random new strangers that I meet at after football celebrations and talk to - I realize that there is a lot of love and good things out there. I'm building back up my batteries.  You gotta have a good network to survive this life. 

So what have I learned in my downtime? 

Humanitarian agencies can be dangerous places to work. While my friends who don't work in the business don't really get why its different than other bad organizations,  the ones who do understand that its a toxic soup of poor management, nepotism, severe power politics, and a never ending supply of idealistic volunteers who will always step forward to accept the abuse. I think its the idealism thats the worst part of it.... over and over again, I've had to end conversations with people i've just met about where I work. I'm out on stress leave and when people hear where i work, they can't believe it. I don't want to tell them about it. I believe my organization is one of the best providers of humanitarian assistance in the world. I don't want to kill off charitable contributions! A lot of the stress is brought on by my own inability to make boundaries, draw lines, say no, and protect myself. The good people outweigh the bad but sadly the good ones have to leave after a while to protect their sanity. They often return but always trying to warn the rest of us about how bad it can be.  But the abusers of power, the corrupt people, the incompetent, and the (frankly) insane are tolerated here because "they really care about women and children" or because "you don't know what they were capable of doing back in (historic crisis)". Idealists all, we tolerate abuse and poor working conditions on the belief that those who are there must be good people just like we hope we are.

A friend once told me, when I was on a quixiotic quest to improve DDR programs in West Africa by becoming a donor,  that going to work for the World Bank would kill me. "That beast is too big to poison from within" - he said poetically (he's a pretty poetic and philosophical guy and the one to take with you if you get harrassed by the cops in Kinshasa... he can sweet talk his way anywhere!). I'm an idealist and I always think that I can improve things and contribute to the bigger good. I want to give away all my good ideas and work in teams and I believe deeply that consensus and participatory decision-making are the ways to go. But the place I work right now doesn't work that way. That beast might be too big to poison from within. 

So I have to find my own way - I don't want to leave. I still have things to accomplish here. I am going to have to fight to keep working there - I have also learned to find the other thinkers like me and stick by them. It's too tempting to get pulled into the clique but as my beloved graduate school professor once told me, "As an anthropologist, you are always going to be the gadfly". I want change and I want to improve the world to assist the most vulnerable women and children out there - that's not going to happen by being coopted by power or by shutting up when the going gets tough. I believe in what I do and I know there are others out there that do as well - I find them every time I go to the field or meet a new colleague (usually the depressed looking ones lurking by the copy machine).  To use a cliche - its a marathon not a sprint so I have to change tactics and build up new stamina. I need to start ignoring the crazies and focusing on the good folk.


  1. Glad to see you posting, and it sounds as if you're finding your way. Thanks for sharing....

  2. Oh Sarah, what a great post. I'm so glad you're posting again. I'm feeling myself nearing burn-out again and so this really touched me.