“I expected a challenging experience, both from a human and a professional point of view, and to get in touch with different cultures. I found that my job is never the same, it is very dynamic and exciting; a complex working network; the precious possibility to get in touch with many children, who are always joyful and smiling despite their needy condition, and the luck to meet enlightened people, who made a better future for children their reason to live” (Woman, 31-35 years old, 2-5 years professional experience)
“I expected being able to assist vulnerable people and try to address injustices. I found myself being trapped into bureaucracy, being trapped by diplomacy and being unable to speak up” (Woman, 40 years old, more than 10 years professional experience)
“I expected to collaborate with locals in order to improve life condition and create awareness on specific topics, putting different ideas, culture and attitude together. I found that collaboration is there but it is difficult to always understand the other culture’s point of view” (Woman, 31-35 years old, 5-10 years professional experience)
Let me introduce to you three profiles that I’ve met while I was doing my PhD research project on international aid workers: the enthusiastic (extract 1), the disenchanted (extract 2) and the rational aid worker (extract 3).
At the start of my research I was desperately looking for data on aid workers, and I rapidly discovered a lack of academic and research-based enquiry on this professional category. Thus, to gain a better insight on who aid workers are, I decided to create the online survey “Being an international aid worker”. 188 European aid workers (124 women, 64 men) working in the aid industry (both in development and humanitarian), with at least one working experience in the field, were recruited. In the 6 sections of the survey (you, your job, everyday life in the mission country, being an international aid worker, make an assessment, your future) they were asked both multiple-choice and open-ended questions about their professional and personal experience. One of the questions focused on the expectations participants had before becoming aid workers and the reality they experienced in the field:
“Try to think back to the time when you chose to become an international aid worker. What did you expect? And what did you find? (Please write max 3 main aspects)”
As a social psychologist, with this pair of questions I wanted to investigate the match (or mismatch) between aid workers’ beliefs and their actual experience, and the reflexivity they had about this important aspect of their job, that plays an important role in their satisfaction and resilience. The following are the three characters  I identified and some illustrative answers from women aid workers’ reflections.
The enthusiastic is the aid worker whose expectations around the international aid industry became reality. Typically these aid workers describes their experience as ‘interesting’, ‘dynamic’, ‘exciting’ and offering ‘professional growth’ opportunities. The job is portrayed as one that guarantees ‘challenging experiences, both from a human and professional point of view’ and that makes it possible to gain a ‘better understanding of the world’, satisfying the desire to feel ‘useful’ by ‘helping people’. Other aspects that contribute to the satisfaction of this type of aid worker are related to the fulfilment of the desire of discovering: ‘knowing new cultures’, meeting ‘enlightened people’, and seeing ‘wonderful places’. The enthusiastic at times judges her experience as even more rewarding than expected.
“I expected to meet different people and cultures, to know better and understand the world a little more and to offer my work, my talents, my aid to the less fortunate. I found that I understand humans and myself a little more, and also the real richness and important things in life. A lot of good things, I probably receive more aid and more joy than I give” (Woman, 31-35 years old, 2-5 years professional experience)
“I expected a challenging environment, both personally and professionally and I found what I expected but 1000 times more intense” (Woman, 26-30 years old, 2-5 years professional experience)
“I just wanted to make myself useful by providing my resources for the common good of children and young people. I always thought to develop a job for providing opportunities for those who are denied for distinction of race, gender and social background… I did it! Over seven years I’ve been improving myself and my skills to offer social projects and to rise up the civic and social consciousness” (Woman, 36-40 years old, 5-10 years professional experience)
The disenchanted are aid workers that had the same expectations of their enthusiastic colleagues, but differently from them, they did not find in their professional experiences what they were looking for. They expected aid jobs to be ‘ethical and challenging’, but they found that the aid world was not the ‘idyllic world’ they thought. They wanted to ‘work in the field with local beneficiaries’ instead they described having discovered a world full of ‘bureaucracy’, ‘diplomacy’, ‘administrative blockages’ and ‘paperwork’. They portray other aid workers as ‘lacking in professionalism’, as having a ‘weak knowledge of international development issues’ and as not interested in ‘high ideas and values’, but ‘in money, career and in escape’. Many are also disappointed by the relationships with the beneficiaries ‘not always as positive and easy as expected’. They also point out to the ‘usefulness’ of the aid industry itself, recognizing some of the limits within it, such as the non-immediacy of the achievable ‘impact’. Some of these disenchanted aid workers also criticize having to move ‘here and there all life long’ relating this aspect with the difficulties in ‘building anything that can last’. Finally, a few highlight ‘inadequate working and contract conditions’.
“I expected extending my knowledge of people, cultures and places; being motivated by high ideas and values; improving lives of people in difficulties. I found a lot of compromises; difficulties in adhering to ethical ideas and values and challenging environments” (Woman, 31-35 years old, 2-5 years professional experience)
“I expected to be working in an environment where people were highly motivated in order to bring a change in the economies and lives of disadvantaged population through meaningful and effective projects/programmes. I expected to work with open-minded people and to find professionalism. I expected to work most of the time closely with local beneficiaries. I found myself questioning the usefulness and the ethical approach of many projects implemented by international development partners, including my organisation and NGO. I found myself working and exchanging with people with cynical view and little interest in what they are doing. I found myself working mainly with civil servants from the government” (Woman, 36-40 years old, 5-10 years professional experience)
“I expected more professionalism, less rhetoric, more consideration for our professionalism. I found lack of professionalism, inadequate working and contract conditions” (Woman, 31-35 years old, 5-10 years professional experience)
The rationals are the aid workers that sit in between the enthusiasts and the disenchanted, as in their answers they recognise the good and the bad sides of the aid world. Their descriptions are balanced, and show both positive matching between their initial expectations and the reality, as well as some negative ‘surprises’ they had (the influence of higher dynamics on their job results, ‘politics is affecting the humanitarian aid world’, ‘aid agencies’ are resisting ‘major changes’). Despite acknowledging a number of challenges related to their job, they nonetheless claim to ‘love’ it. As regarding work relationships, they note ‘low professionalism’ and evidence the difficulties in ‘understanding other cultures point of views’ even when collaborating. Some of them define their colleagues as ‘smart and bright’ on their job, but ‘dysfunctional’ when it comes to private life; about friendships some regretted having ‘no exchanges with local people’, but on the contrary they appreciated the relationships within ‘the expat community’.
“I expected to explore different cultures, to travel and to improve problematic situations. I explored different cultures but understood relationships are not always positive and easy as expected (you are not always welcome), I travelled, I had specific very positive relationships with people in difficult situations but projects were not successful in determining an improvement of these situations” (Woman, 26-30 years old, > 2 years professional experience)
“I expected to know deeply a country, a culture, a language; to work together and find out good solutions coinciding with project’s aims; to exit from a logic of profit and to find an idealistic work environment. Staying more than 18 months, I found the effective possibility of understanding other cultures; Humanitarian logic not always corresponding to the needs of the field, but the possibility of rearranging the activities with the different expertise of international and national staff as well of communities; Both motivated and suitable colleagues as well as deceptions in humanitarian staff” (Woman, 26-30 years old, 2-5 years professional experience)
“I expected a challenging job, anthropological experiences, and to work in multicultural context. I found very challenging jobs, sometimes with no resources to implement projects, very nice experiences, love, dedicated as well as lazy people, disappointment and joy” (Woman, 26-30 years old, 2-5 years professional experience)
While the three profiles described are an attempt to simplify the complex experience of aid workers, in their lives these professionals are more likely to move between enthusiasm, disillusionment and a balanced objectivity. Is this shifting something that characterises the experience and therefore, that cannot be avoided? Could this transition from enthusiasm to disappoint be prevented? What could be done in order to have more rational profiles, and therefore, more resilient professionals? What kind of woman aid worker are you?
Gritti, A. (2014). Sequential MCA approach to aid worker’s talk: The interactional negotiation of gender identity. PhD thesis, the University of Milano-Bicocca.
Stirrat, R. L. (2008). Mercenaries, Missionaries and Misfits Representations of Development Personnel. Critique of Anthropology, 28(4), 406-425.
A. Gritti (2014) ‘Sequential MCA approach to aid worker’s talk: The interactional negotiation of gender identity’. PhD thesis, the University of Milano-Bicocca.
I am using these profiles in a similar way to Stirrat’s categorisation of aid workers, that is, “as an entry-point for exploring the tensions and contradictions in ways in which people working in the industry view themselves and others” (Stirrat, 2008, p.407)