If I had to describe the western expat aid workers I’ve worked with in one word, it would have to be ‘hyper’. Most of the time they’re running around the office – hardly ever on the ground in the communities they’re meant to work in – checking, controlling, advising, shouting, trying to help, working late into the night. I’ve seen locals stare at them like they are a TV show on fast forward.
My first real field experience was in Nepal, in a village in the middle of nowhere, where I shared a flat with Nepalese colleagues. We had a rule that there would be no work talk after 6pm – and we all stuck to it. The village was tiny and there was nothing else to do other than having dinner and a couple of beers once a week in the only local restaurant. I was always careful not to drink too much and shock my Nepalese colleagues.
Kathmandu, on the other hand, was a different world. I’d travel there every couple of months to dive into the real expat world – the hyper one, as I would call it. Almost all the expats I met there were Europeans or Americans, always on a sort of high from their field experience. Even after 9pm, they couldn’t stop talking about work, issues they encountered, failed aid, and how things could be improved. I hardly heard of their families and friends there or back home.
Don’t get me wrong – sitting in a pub and talking to people who shared cultural references with me was great. But I couldn’t help think that the high concentration of expats was rather weird. All of them were full of energy until their last drink – alcohol seemed the only way to get them to turn off. They would find any possible way to invent a crazy adventure – such as hiring a rickshaw at 3am for the equivalent of the average Nepalese weekly wage, driving it drunk and risking their lives in doing so. They were teenagers on a trip to Nepal by night, slightly cocky aid workers by day.
After Nepal, I travelled to a number of other countries, mainly staying in capital cities, and while I encountered some expats who had really tried to integrate into their host communities, most of the rest lived completely detached lives from the country they were working in. You know the stereotype; they have a fancy house with a cook and guards, earn twice as much as the yearly local GDP in a single month, and sneak off to parties at the UN compound during curfew hours.
I sound judgmental here because this is not how I’d like a foreigner to live in my country when they come to help or support. I understand they need to decompress, particularly when working in an emergency setting, but how you do that is something I have always questioned.
What I also found weird is that most of these men and women seemed unhappy. Whining is a favourite sport of the usual expat: everything in the management is wrong, the office is not right, things do not work in the organisation, in the system, in the country, in the world.
They all seemed to be trying to escape something but not quite succeeding. Everything needed to be fixed constantly, no matter if it was work, the home, the friendship or the relationship. No matter where you were or what was improving, the grass was always greener on the other side – hence the constant need to hop to another disaster, another country.
Of those I became closer to, I often learned of incredibly painful family histories, and saw little recognition that they might be escaping one desperate situation to solve another distant one – one with people they could never really get attached to.
For many aid workers, returning home too is difficult. Whenever an aid worker friend of mine returns home from Somalia to southern France he feels like fleeing: family reunions and shopping malls give him panic attacks.
This is not unusual. When I returned home, I also wondered if I had actually been one of the hyper aid workers I’ve just described, looking for an escape. It took me two years to finally stop dreaming about Afghanistan or Congo, to withdraw from the adrenaline, the high you get, and the constant feeling of having to fix anything I could see. It also took me the same amount of time in therapy to realise I could live back home, face some of my issues and even enjoy a gentler pace of life without trying to prove myself all the time.
Of course, there are many aid workers who might not always have been like the expats who frustrated me. But more recently I’ve started wondering whether for some, choosing a career as an aid worker might be the hidden symptom of earlier trauma in life and not solely the beginning of an adventure. They can’t deal with their own issues, so they make it their mission to desperately try to put a stop to everyone else’s pain.
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