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Leaving the Aid Sector

On Gratitude and Laying Down Urgency. A Reflection.

15 minute read

I am at the end of nearly 17 years in the international aid and development sector. As the time to move on has come closer, I’ve reflected on what drew me to this particular helping profession and how it’s changed me. It started in my teens. It’s a little mortifying, and I’m so grateful.

In the high school summer break between year 11 and 12, I spent three months in Africa. My aunt and uncle were missionaries in Tanzania, and I stayed with them in their home in the capital, Dodoma. Over Christmas, their family took a break, and my four recently adopted cousins and I trailed behind them as we boarded a small plane to Nairobi. We shared one room in a missionary guest house for four weeks. We ate mangoes from the trees outside and saw lions at a nearby game park. We heard Handel’s Messiah performed by an all-African choir in a sandstone church.

I was nearly 17, clueless and naive in the way of young people of the 1980’s and pre-internet. An idealist and a romantic with a good dose of Pentecostal fervour.

17 years old, with my little cousin in Dodoma.

The airlines allowed smoking in-flight back then and I had turned up in transit in what was still called Rhodesia on my plane ticket, full of allergies and knocked around from jet lag. I’d only flown once before, from Sydney to Melbourne, and could hardly stand up straight or string a sentence together. On the flight to Dodoma, I played Do they know it’s Christmas on repeat on my cassette Walkman, feeling very Live Aid about being in Africa. I’m not joking.

I remember rationing toothpaste and driving for half an hour for water every few days. There were police with huge guns at the bank in town. I had never seen a gun before. Regular visits to the local market made me consider for the first time that fresh produce came from the gardens of people who grew it. I had never not been able to just get a banana from the fruit bowl on the counter.

As a nurse there were people lining up for my aunt’s attention each morning; she cared for three babies in the next room to mine while I was there. I woke one morning to learn one of them had died. They had a humble home but a lush garden full of colourful flowers and when the electricity was working, my aunt baked cakes in her much loved, enormous microwave. Processed food wasn’t available and we ate what was there on any given day. It was good, fresh bread, fresh fruit and veg. I didn’t really miss the junk.

One afternoon I wandered off to the nearby football field and, despite there not being a body of water in sight, stripped down to my bikini, poured reef oil all over my body and lay on the bench seats to bake. Before too long I found myself surrounded by a group of wide-eyed young men trying to proposition me in Swahili. My little cousin soon found me and went running to bring my aunt whose face I still remember. She shooed them away then spent some time trying to figure out how to tell me why what I had just done was all kinds of inappropriate, and how the boys thought I was a sex worker.

Nearly three months later they waved me off with their friends who were going to drive me in their un-air conditioned car from Dodoma to Dar es Salam where I would begin the trip home. An eight-hour drive if memory serves. I remember the incredible skies, the street food, the heat, the women effortlessly carrying bundles on their heads, the roadside fires, the dodgy overnight motel with bed bugs, how life was lived outside, pulsing, vibrant.

My time there was formative to say the least.

Just outside Harare, Zimbabwe

From the 1980’s on, I have done stupid things with the most innocent and well-meaning of intentions. More than this, I felt called and compelled with the urgency of Christian service. I was always the one bringing home the misfits (my mother twitched a little at the friend whose family were part of a Satanic cult), serving coffee to trans ladies of the night in Kings Cross on a Friday and generally feeling very earnest about ways I could serve. My time in Africa had pulled me into the dream of missionary work as a vocation and I bought into the exotic otherness with all my heart. At church I sang songs about being ‘sent’, one in particular that belted out a promise from God, ask of Me and I will give the nations as an inheritance for you. The sense of responsibility, colonial leanings notwithstanding, was powerful. I finished school and went to Bible College.

Bless my young, sweet self, I was going to Save the World.

In the days before Instagram I imagined myself in Nat Geo style photos in remote villages with grateful people, the lighting just so. Perhaps in a t-shirt with an inspirational quote. And I can’t tell you how many well-meaning groups with similar imaginations I’ve seen in off the beaten track airports over the years, matching caps, branded bags, wide smiles and rehearsed conversation starters. Always with a guitar. I can spot them, they are so familiar to me.

In my twenties, when my kids came along, I wanted them to learn to be generous, I wanted them to grow in an understanding of their privilege, to appreciate all they had. We sponsored children and memorised Bible verses like speak up for those who cannot speak up for themselves and for the rights of the oppressed and needy. We packed those shoeboxes filled with plastic toys and toothbrushes to send to poor children in overseas communities. My daughter and I cried at that footage of Oprah gifting Christmas presents to hundreds of South African children that time. I hoped when my kids were teenagers, they would choose to go on short-term missions perhaps to teach English or help build a school. It didn’t occur to me they weren’t qualified to do this and maybe there was a backstory I needed to understand, something systemic that needed addressing. It also didn’t occur to me that other people’s hardship was not a teaching opportunity for my children.

Like my friends in branded caps, I thought I had to take God to unreached people groups and serve them in their poverty. I have learnt that God is already there, and in many cases they have all they need. Where they don’t, local groups are best placed to serve their own people and our role is to transfer wealth and shift the power, to work for change at a global level.

Perhaps I sound jaded and perhaps I am. I’m weary from travelling those roads paved with good intentions, tired of seeing the damage that’s been done. But, like it always does, my story started with the desire to make a difference. My idealism set me up for a personally transformative career in the Aid and Development sector, rich in relationships and incredible experiences, but one that was not equipped to work outside the system.

I come from the dominant power story. I’m white, educated and middle class and I live in one of the wealthiest countries in the world. As the dynamic of me in the centre started to make me uncomfortable, I had to learn to be quiet. To listen and learn, to be led by people in communities where I found myself working. 

My journey started in the early 2000’s, when my young family moved to Fiji for my then-husband’s job. I found my way into a role at the Fiji Red Cross Society that would change everything. I was part of a team delivering health promotion all over the islands and discovered that if you sit on the mat with people long enough, you hear they already have the answers. I started a degree in International Health and found that rather than missionary work where I imagined swanning in to save the day, locally centred and led community development was going to be one of my greatest teachers. 

It started to dawn on me that while white and Western colonisation may no longer be happening formally, it continues in the form of outside groups coming in to build structures that are not needed and nobody asked for, by fly-in-fly-out training that places outsiders at the centre and doesn’t build local skills, that imposes Western ways of working on cultures that operate so differently. By getting caught up in the drama and territorialism of emergency response, assuming control, then being shocked when the Government of Indonesia says ‘no outside agencies please’ after the tsunami in Sulawesi for example.

I had to learn that if I’m uncomfortable about being challenged, I am not being oppressed or discriminated against, I’m just feeling awkward as the dynamics start to shift. 

If the way we work for and give to overseas (and local) development is above being challenged or accountable and was not established at the invitation of communities, (women too, not just the blokes), it might be unhealthy, dangerous, or worse. 

I have travelled to far away and unheard-of places, made meaningful connections and met incredible people. I don’t take the experiences I have had for granted. While NGO travel is the most unglamorous and exhausting thing going, it has been a privilege. 

I took this photo from a sea plane that had just taken off from a grass runway, days before TC Pam devastated 85% of Vanuatu.

But I have learned the hard way there are healthy and toxic ways to engage and the ones with the power must reflect and be prepared to acknowledge, we may have been part of the latter. Certainly, we are part of and benefit from systems that oppress our sisters and brothers around the world.

In truth, I often wondered how to define my role in the work I did. I knew what my job description said but struggled at times to justify the power I held. The partners I worked with in my various NGO roles are courageous and resilient changemakers, they are far as is possible from the patronising narratives we have allowed ourselves to believe. We found ways to fund what they were doing, offered our friendship and technical skills, heard their perspectives and thought about how we could transfer what we learned from them to our own context. But I often felt uncomfortable with the dynamics, the unequal representation of voices being heard and the ramming of square pegs into round holes when it came to expectations around ways of working.

I’m so pleased to see and to have been part of the dialogue around decolonisation that is taking place in the Australian Aid context. It’s a reckoning, long overdue, on how our roles need to change. One of the reasons I transitioned out of the sector was the need to let go at long last of any notion that I could make it all better. That was never my job. Those of you starting out have a wonderful opportunity to reframe what your contribution can be. I am starting to see BIPOC practitioners, often with lived experience of the contexts NGOs operate in, but certainly as the cultural other, as leaders. And, finding their own spaces to define how to take care of their mental health in a Western-centric, often racist industry. White and Western practitioners increasingly are changing their posture towards listening and then advocating for global partners back to donors. Acting as translators of the clunky and often unworkable compliance and regulatory requirements. 

The role of white and Western people in overseas development is changing, reforming even. Perhaps not fast enough, but it is changing as people find their voices and push back against unhealthy ways of working. We are being asked to consider if we are yielding or wielding our power. We have a place as allies and partners. May we have the courage to acknowledge our colonialist roots, remove ourselves from the centre and feel a little uncomfortable. 

Perhaps it’s time to stop helping.

A river crossing in Arawa, Bougainville

I have a framed quote on my desk by Gangulu woman, elder Aunty Lilla Watson, which she attributes to her whole community. It says ‘If you have come here to help me you are wasting your time. But if you have come because your liberation is bound up in mine, then let us work together.’

I teared up the first time I saw this on the wall of a colleague’s office. I was acutely aware that my liberation was bound up in that of the people I worked alongside. I am better for knowing them and their generous friendship, their gracious tolerance of the times I messed up. Their joy amidst impossible circumstances, their strength I have often remembered when facing my own pain, the compassion they have shown me during hard times. 

Just before travelling four hours by speedboat to a remote island in PNG one trip, I learned my beloved dog had been run over by a car and  died and my devastated kids hadn’t been able to reach me. The village nurse in the community we were visiting saw me crying and sat with me on the beach, her arm around me. She said she remembered losing a dog when she was a girl and was sorry for my sadness. She then took me for a walk and showed me hundreds of ancient pink, yellow and white frangipani trees, some interlaced with Bougainvillea, which were achingly beautiful. I felt so foolish, she was delivering babies on an island with no clean water but didn’t hesitate to bear witness to my pain. During my divorce and while raising teenagers with the challenges that brings, our partners have been such good friends to me.

A remote island in PNG, stunning tropical gardens surround their small community.

I wish I had seen the imbalances earlier and had more time in the sector to affect change. I wish I had understood my own trauma when I started out and known how it would be tested and triggered over and again, making me less able to be present to what our partners needed. I wish I’d had the tools and headspace to have known how to make NGO operations less frenetic and stressful in my corner of the Australian context. Burnout often comes from this unrealistic pace and the ways Aid and Development practitioners bump up against each other while managing highly sensitive, traumatic situations and relationships. And perhaps we need to lay this urgency down. Or at least hold it differently. 

I can’t help but draw a comparison between the development sector and the religious fundamentalism I grew up in. The end often justifies the means and our bodies and compassionate souls become exhausted. We begin the work responding to big, hard, heavy things and people’s individual and collective suffering, but often when we feel tired and start to feel the impact of vicarious trauma, self-care feels indulgent. We can feel something like survivor’s guilt, but can’t quite name it, it lives under the surface. There isn’t language for it or dedicated time in the sector to process it. Introverted, highly sensitive people on our teams often feel they need to toughen up, burnout is acknowledged as something individuals have to prevent, but the systemic reasons for it often feel out of our control. Like fundamentalism, many of us feel called to the work, and how can we argue with that? It doesn’t feel like something we can negotiate with. So high-stress roles keep us on the treadmill, unable to be disruptive and challenge the sectoral status quo, often maintained by donor, or our own, expectations. 

And the part that is the hardest to face is the way we overlay this way of being and doing on to the people we work with. Teams serving their communities, but who value time on the mat under the mango tree in the village, who mark occasions with henna and singing. They stop and have lunch together while we eat at our desks. They often don’t respond to our requests for project documentation because they value a slower pace and the people and needs in front of them.

On the mat, under the trees in rural West Bengal, India

Despite it all, I am immensely grateful for the human connections, the adventures (I can’t believe some of the risks I took!), the breath taking beauty I experienced across Asia, Africa and the Pacific. And the times I was invited into tribal practices, to hear elder wisdom, community celebrations, rituals, tragedy. 

Nusa Tenggara Timur, Indonesia

I will continue to stay connected to people and projects where I can give technical or other support and where my contribution doesn’t get in the way of the change that is taking place. And I think I will always feel the most alive in a jungle where I need a bodyguard to watch out for snipers at the toilet stop. Or maybe rooftop dancing in India, or shoving boxes of muesli bars in my carry-on enroute to post-cyclone settings, for partners who haven’t really eaten in three days. Or crossing the ocean in a banana boat under a worship-inducing sunset, as it starts to rain on my laptop bag.

But for now, full-hearted, it’s time for me to stop helping.  

You can now find me on Instagram or LinkedIn or connect with me here.

  1. Proverbs 31v8-9
  2. https://www.abc.net.au/news/2018-10-09/indonesia-tells-independent-foreign-aid-workers-leave-quake-zone/10357204
  3. Decolonisation and Locally led development ACFID and La Trobe University Discussion Paper
  4. I took these pics, during trips to Bougainville, India, Vanuatu, Indonesia, PNG and Zimbabwe. From sea planes, river crossings, banana boats, in community. Somewhat unbelievably, I counted almost 70 trips during my last role and many more before that. What a privilege.

 

 

 

 

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