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International Aid Worker Appreciation Day

A big part of what we do on this blog is criticize bad ideas in aid. But in our zeal to get this message across, sometimes other, important messages get lost.

Today, we devote the blog to expressing our admiration and respect for aid workers. Aid work can be a tough, grueling, frustrating, even heart-breaking job.

Aid work promises the adventure of foreign travel and the gratification of working for the good of others, but also the monotony of data-crunching and report-writing, the fear of losing funding, and the frustration of fighting bureaucracy.

It demands time spent away from home and loved ones, and is notoriously tough on family life.

Parodies aside, aid work is not all flying business class to stay in luxury hotels. The pace of travel can be punishing, the accommodations uncomfortable, the food unfamiliar. And sometimes conditions are dangerous. Aid workers by profession take risks that range from just inconvenient to lethal: jet lag, homesickness, food poisoning, petty crime, disease, terrorism, war.

Of course these hardships are taken on voluntarily, and small compared to those of the people aid workers are there to help. But many aid workers are highly-educated and come from privileged societies, where they could have easily found jobs that pay more and require less dedication and hardship.

Obviously you will notice that we planned this post months in advance to coincide exactly with the 151st anniversary of the historic day when French acrobat Jean-Francois Gravelet (pictured above) became the first person to cross Niagara Falls balancing on a tightrope. Likewise aid work, whether in the field or at HQ, requires balancing along a thin and possibly nonexistent line reconciling the irreconciliable demands of your bosses, your evaluators, your funders, your critics, your local government counterparts, your clients, your family, and your own ideals.

Today, we recognize and celebrate aid workers’ commitment and sacrifice.

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  1. Sceptical Secondo wrote:

    If only ‘aid’, ‘development assistance’, …, had a clear beginning, a clear end, and a straight line drawn between those two points.

    Posted June 30, 2010 at 3:24 am | Permalink
  2. Caitlin wrote:

    I always have a negative reaction when people appreciate the ‘commitment and sacrifice’ of aid workers. Earlier this week, Tales From the Hood articulated why better than I could:

    Posted June 30, 2010 at 4:09 am | Permalink
  3. geckonomist wrote:

    Great spoof post!

    What about entrepreneurs & businesspeople in poor countries? let’s say the types of people who actually create wealth and growth, against the odds, contrary to those parasites of poverty whose biggest worry is that the Jones’s might get a bigger, newer landcruiser than they have.

    Has it ever occurred in your burocratic mindset that the following also applies to business?
    Doing business in poor places promises the adventure of foreign travel and the gratification of working for the good of everybody, but also the monotony of data-crunching, fighting theft and report-writing to please your auditors, the fear of losing hard cash and your income, and the frustration of fighting bureaucracy.
    It demands time spent away from home and loved ones, and is notoriously tough on family life.

    guess our appreciation day is coming up next?

    Posted June 30, 2010 at 5:34 am | Permalink
  4. B. R. Pill wrote:

    Unless of course you work for the World Bank, then it really is all about flying business class to stay in luxury hotels.

    Posted June 30, 2010 at 5:43 am | Permalink
  5. William Easterly wrote:

    Caitlin, actually this post was partially inspired by Tales from the Hood, which described some of the hardships as well as the discomfort of being recognized in a naive way.

    B.R. Pill, yes World Bankers are better off than other aid workers with business class air and luxury hotels (altho not in all destinations). But the World Bankers definitely have the other hardships described in the post, including a very large share of lonely time spent on the road and the damage to family and social life that the rest of us count as very important in our lives.

    Best. Bill

    Posted June 30, 2010 at 7:57 am | Permalink
  6. Anne wrote:

    Wow. Thanks Bill and Laura…

    Posted June 30, 2010 at 10:23 am | Permalink
  7. Jessica L. wrote:

    I kept waiting for the jokes to let me know this was a spoof… But is it actually sincere? I’m impressed.

    Posted June 30, 2010 at 12:12 pm | Permalink
  8. Brigid wrote:

    As just an average knucklehead donor trying to figure out where and how to give from my cozy and secure home in LA, I second this wholeheartedly.

    I love the critical eye and rigor in finding the right way to do aid. But anyone doing aid work is doing a lot lot lot lot lot more than the vast majority of the rest of us.

    Posted June 30, 2010 at 1:38 pm | Permalink
  9. Aid Worker wrote:


    It’s not that we aid workers want to be portrayed as saints (bc as the Tales from the Hood link clearly show) bc we know we aren’t and usually are loathe to accept misconstrued praise we know is undue. When asked by friends back home about being in poor countries, I make it a point to tell them I don’t think I did anything and that you end up walking right past beggars and lepers and knowing you are a louse. Not about self-flagellating, but just about not wanting to be showered with compliments you know you don’t deserve.

    Anyway, the point is, as far as I know from most of the conversations I’ve had over the years, aid workers share most of the same opinions as Aidwatch’s but aren’t in positions to change the systemic blocks. I am a mid-level bureaucrat that has to work on Big Plans. I can’t stand up at a meeting with senior staff (who have also inherited obligations, reporting structures, etc) and say “we must change this! let’s stop this matrix-planning nonsense and just do small things we can truly achieve!” I mean I could, but I’d be deemed crazy, have my contract expire, and nothing would change anyway.

    Anyway, the point is, I appreciate this post.

    Posted June 30, 2010 at 3:44 pm | Permalink
  10. Thanks for this post, this was very thoughtful and encouraged me to reflect on the thousands of people who dedicate their time, talents, and resources in order to care for their fellow human beings.

    Posted June 30, 2010 at 3:50 pm | Permalink
  11. Ana wrote:

    By following DRI’s and Prof. Easterly’s work, I don’t find this post at all surprising or with the risk of being a spoof. For those who were surprised, maybe now they will read the criticism and analyze/contribute to it under a better light.

    Posted June 30, 2010 at 9:52 pm | Permalink
  12. ewaffle wrote:

    geckonomist: The appreciation day for those doing business in poor places comes when the profit and loss statement comes out black.

    That’s the point of doing business in the first place, is it not?

    Posted June 30, 2010 at 10:39 pm | Permalink
  13. Laura wrote:

    The greatest sacrifice I have made in the past 12 years in the field is being close to family and friends. It’s painful…but I don’t regret choosing this field of work. I firmly believe in what I do, I believe in my organization’s mission…thanks for this appreciation, it’ smuch appreciated!

    Posted July 2, 2010 at 2:33 am | Permalink
  14. Eugene wrote:

    As an aid worker who just joined this field in a developing country, I really appreciate your post. Yes, things can get tougher, frustrating sometimes. But at the same time it’s not always so bad though sacrifice to my family and friends can’t be denied.
    Working in this field was our choice, and we should go ahead with it, knowing that there are so many colleagues, same mind-setters out there.
    Again, I really appreciate your post, and appreciate all the aid workes about what they do.

    Posted July 2, 2010 at 4:49 pm | Permalink

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  • About Aid Watch

    The Aid Watch blog is a project of New York University's Development Research Institute (DRI). This blog is principally written by William Easterly, author of "The Elusive Quest for Growth: Economists' Adventures and Misadventures in the Tropics" and "The White Man's Burden: Why the West's Efforts to Aid the Rest Have Done So Much Ill and So Little Good," and Professor of Economics at NYU. It is co-written by Laura Freschi and by occasional guest bloggers. Our work is based on the idea that more aid will reach the poor the more people are watching aid.

    "Conscience is the inner voice that warns us somebody may be looking." - H.L. Mencken

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