Becoming an aid or development worker, i.e. getting into disaster relief and international development work, may seem like a way to change the world and feel accomplished and inspired. Sometimes it is, in small ways and maybe sometimes in big ways.
It's true that you accumulate great stories for parties, you sound cool as all get-out at high school reunions, and you have a valid reason to get extra pages in your passport. You do meaningful work that you care about in amazing parts of the world.
In contrast, some things about it suck:
- You’re always understaffed and underfunded. Pressure to keep overhead costs low means that you never, ever have enough people to do the work you are supposed to be doing. This means working overtime for free, or doing your work badly. Sometimes it means both working free overtime and doing things badly.
- You know you’re a drop in the bucket. Actually doing something to solve global problems brings you face to face with the complicated and painful nature of global problems. It’s a whole lot easier to feel miserable about Somalia and then donate a lot of money to WFP than it is to be in Somalia and run a food program. Giving money to the organization of your choice feels like you are doing something with impact; working for that same organization will often feel completely futile. Perspective is not always a good thing.
- You’re a bureaucrat. An awful lot of every expat’s job involves paperwork. Most people picture international work as feeding hungry people, providing health care to refugees, or building schools. In reality, it makes no sense to pay an expatriate to do that. Instead, we do what cannot be hired locally: English-language paperwork. We write reports to HQ and donors, proposals, and program guidelines. We write even more reports. We can go days without seeing anybody who is helped by our work.