I was recently invited by the Center for Social Change at Latrobe University to present on how social change takes place in the cultural sphere.
A friend who still works in the aid sector but who like so many harbours a desire to pursue other things sent me an article this week. Why do aid workers leave this line of work? presented the findings of a survey that quizzed about 1000 aid workers. It came as no surprise that many of the ‘gripes’ about the sector I’ve hit on in this blog and in my Devex series, were confirmed. In spades.
One of the themes that always comes up in this conversation is ‘if I don’t puruse a career in aid, then where and how do I make a living?’ There are two aspects to this question: passion and cash.
Passion in the sense of, “Am I going to find the same sense of purpose I have now, as a teacher, taxi driver or banker?” (Given the high levels of negativity about the aid sector from the same respondees, this anxiety is not without irony!)
The second part of the equation is cash. “How in the world am I ever going to get paid as much as I do now, with all the benefits of frequent free travel, paid housing, pension funds and subsidised education?”
These are existential questions. They are—to a point—essential questions. But they can also be comfortable questions. The sort we love wrestling with but enjoy not coming to a conclusion about.
Eventually, some aid workers will make the leap out the sector. Hopefully, with both questions (and all the others about family, schools and aging parents) nicely answered. But if you’re like me you’ll probably have one mostly answered and the rest still frighteningly open and uncertain.
I named this blog Life After Aid because I believe there is such a thing. And not just a miserable, slow-decline-to-oblivion in the suburbs but an exciting, enriching and rewarding life. Easily as good as any mission or project or friend we ever encountered in our humanitarian work.
In a way, this is the first proper post of Life After Aid. Everything up to this point has been about life in aid. And in answer to the many people who have enquired about it, I’ll share a bit of how I make ends meet without a regular aid salary coming in.
Ultimately, I left the aid sector to write. I have a contract (just got the advance last week!) to write two books. I write a couple of columns for an online newspaper. I have a pretty strong idea of what my next novel will be about. And the one after that, too.
Even though the publisher’s advance was happily received, and I get paid for my articles, I am under no illusions that writing will support the lifestyle I’ve come to expect and aspire to. At least in the next year or two.
This may be a good time to digress a bit. My aspirations for personal wealth are quite healthy. I’ve got two young children in a fee-devouring school. I’ve got my eye on a new car and regular trips to the US to spend time with my aging father as well as vacating our two bedroom apartment in favour of a multi-bedroomed house and garden. All as soon as possible!
Getting to the point of allowing such luxurious and wealthy plans into my consciousness was a struggle in its own right. I mean, 30 years of aid work, of being nose deep and obsessed with poverty, deprivation, economic injustice and systemic exclusion from wealth, has reinforced the belief that having lots of money is somehow inherently ‘wrong’. Or, at least unseemly. ‘Rich aid worker’ is one of those oxymorons no one likes to utter in public.
I may share some thoughts on how I changed my attitude towards personal wealth later but suffice it to say that when I considered how I was going to make a living outside of the aid sector, I was not thinking about scraping by. I was looking for a way to make a steady, sustainable and sizeable income. An income that would afford me the freedom and wherewithal to write, travel and photograph.
To be honest, there aren’t too many options. Especially, once I factored in an additional parameter: no more office jobs, no more senior management jobs, no more ‘leadership roles’, in fact, no more employment in the ‘normal’ economy.
Other than Powerball, the only legal option seemed to be to become an entrepreneur.
Yvonne, my wife, and I have set up a business in the personal development industry. We work with an American company and offer a range of subscription based online courses as well as Live events. We work from home. We work from the library. We work in the car as we wait for the football training to end. We work wherever we have wifi, which is pretty much anywhere. We work about 20 hours a week.
I have to admit, I was not an immediate supporter of this particular business plan. I’ve been raised and have nurtured the idea of Me (or at least a big part of Me) being co-equal with my career, salary and position. I offered the usual resistance to the idea: home businesses are dorky (at best) and predatory (at worst). They never work. They are all pyramid schemes. Just stick with a job and wait life out till pension time.
But when I turned my attention to the reality of what that final sentence actually meant, my heart sank. I knew that staying in a job I didn’t like meant dousing the flame of my purpose. In the end, it was a no-brainer. Rather than seeing a home business as a dorky scam I looked upon it as an adventure.
The advantages of a home business are many. As aid workers we love travelling and not being tied to a desk. Flexibility and portability are a big part of why we became aid workers in the first place. Some home businesses do tie you down. You’ve got physical stock to keep and ship, or your market is so niche it’s only viable in one particular country. But for most home (or any) businesses these days the market is global and products are online or in the cloud.
So, big non-negotiable Number 1, the ability to keep travelling, is a Big Tick with an online business.
Big non-negotiable Number 2, to still retain meaning in the work I do, is also ticked. We aid workers spend our lives all fired up (until we get burned out) about community development. We are gung ho about helping other people develop themselves into innovative, resilient, strong, healthy, economically viable and aware individuals and communities. But when it comes closer to home most of us ignore developing these very same qualities in ourselves.
Running a business where my daily job description is implementing more productive and positive ways to make my relationships, my body and my mind strong, resilient, innovative and flexible is exhilarating. Helping others who are looking to get more out of life and make a positive contribution is pretty fulfilling. It is refreshing to work with people on implementing positive change in their lives without any of the political agendas and management bulldust and donor interference that characterizes ‘aid’. It’s person to person assistance. The best kind.
Finally, an online small cottage business can be very lucrative. Since we don’t have any overheads for inventory and have no employees, our expenses are incredibly low. At the same time, our ‘parent’ company, which provides the content of the personal development courses and events, has structured itself in a way that allows us to keep between 75-100% of all our earnings. In any industry or business of any sort, that is almost unheard of.
Big, non-negotiable Number 3—earn as much if not more than I did as a senior aid worker—a Big Tick.
Here’s my advice for those who want to seriously consider this option for life after aid.
- This option is best for people who have other passions to pursue and who want the time and cash to pursue them. If you’re happy with the 9-9 office culture of NGOs and Aid then this is probably something you’d find too unstructured.
- A home business is like any other serious commitment you make, be it buying a house or a car or changing careers. You need to invest money up front and be willing to not earn much or anything for a few months until you get some momentum up and learn the ropes.
But if you can handle those two, then Life After Aid can be truly inspiring and rewarding.
I woke this morning to read that Teddy Arellano had died.
Disbelief rushed through me. How could this be? He was much younger than me. How could this be?
I moved over to his Facebook page and began scrolling to see if it was some sort of Filipino joke. It wasn’t. Teddy had really passed. His friends were posting photos of flowers, remembering him fondly and urging him to go gently and peacefully to his maker.
Teddy is the latest in what seems a long queue of significant others who have moved on. A swagful of beloved ‘hero’ musicians and actors. Two other Facebook friends died very unexpectedly sending shock through the online photography community. 2016 is a sad year and we aren’t even in May.
Teddy’s death has hit me harder than the others because I knew him. Not just through records and films or Facebook posts but in the flesh.
You were always dancing in and out of view
I must have thought you’d always be around
Always keeping things real by playing the clown
Now you’re nowhere to be found
I don’t know what happens when people die
Can’t seem to grasp it as hard as I try
It’s like a song I hear playing right in my ear
That I can’t sing.
I met Teddy in Beijing in 1997. We were part of a small Oxfam team drawn together from the UK, Hong Kong and Australia to make an assessment of the humanitarian situation in North Korea in the wake of a couple seasons of floods.
We met in a Communist era hotel. Teddy was young and rather rolly-polly. He admitted to being too fond of donuts and more than once disappeared from the group only to return with a big box of pink, chocolate and sugary rings that he “just had to buy” after stumbling upon a Dunkin’ Donuts outlet.
Teddy was the only one of our team that had been to North Korea. He was one of thousands of politically-aware youth that had been invited by Kim Il Sung to a grand Youth Solidarity event in Pyongyang several years earlier. Teddy made us laugh and shake our heads in amazement with his stories of massive parades and staged propaganda shows. He let us in on ‘true’ tales of the Great Leader and his family. He prepared us to receive ‘on the spot guidance’, once we arrived.
The next ten days turned out to be a highlight of my life. Not just as an aid worker but as a person. We got to walk around Pyongyang without our ‘minders’, take a ride on the grand subway, visit villages and towns far from the capital and get drunk with officials who urged us through bloodshot eyes to ‘tell Clinton he’s a devil’.
I got to know Teddy pretty well on that trip. He didn’t just love donuts and gadgets—he had the first micro disc recorder/player I’d ever seen—but he had a genuine passion for making things better for people. Though he didn’t share a lot about his background he did speak of being involved in leftist causes and I got the sense he was from a fairly well off family.
But the best thing about Teddy on that trip was his cracking sense of humor. He was rotund and spoke in a quiet way. He looked jolly from the git go and he had the timing of a comedian. The understatement and the elongated pause. The sarcastic jibe which could have hurt but for the sparkle in his eyes.
We got to calling each other Comrade. And thanks to Teddy the whole group became expert at giving ‘on the spot guidance’ to our official minders on the differences between the Workers Paradise and the outside world.
We stayed in touch over the years, both working within the Oxfam world. Drinks at a pub in Oxford. Tea at a café in Manila. When Typhoon Yolanda (Haiyan) hit in 2013 I tried to get him hired by the Red Cross but it didn’t work out. Instead, he and some friends organized their own little NGO in Tacloban. They struggled for funds but were at the very coal face of assistance, sleeping and working in the same conditions as the victims themselves.
His Facebook posts were usually quite political, highlighting the gap between promise and delivery by the government or appealing for funds. Teddy, it seemed to me, had lost some of his jollity. He was a very serious and committed humanitarian.
One thing I hadn’t known about Teddy, and I think he didn’t know about himself, was that he was a brilliant photographer. I could be wrong but I think he only took up a camera in the last few years. The first few images he posted on Facebook blew me away. His eye was so mature and acute. He was capturing stuff—all in black and white—that made my jaw drop. Portraits that were troubling but compassionate. Street scenes worthy of exhibition. With a little effort I have no doubt he could have been recognized as a truly outstanding artist.
I hadn’t seen any posts from Teddy for a few weeks. I had no idea he was ill. He suffered a stroke on 11th March and passed away yesterday.
Ted. Farewell comrade. Give some on the spot guidance to St Peter about taking people way too soon!
I don’t know what happens when people die.
The title of this post is taken from a Depression-era song, How Can a Poor Man Stand Such Times and Live?, recorded initially by Alfred Reid in 1929, that infamous year of financial disaster. It has since been recorded and performed by all sorts of groups and singers including UB40, The Del Lords, Bruce Springsteen and even a band called Boxcar Satan.
My personal favorite is by Ry Cooder whose powerful version from 1987 can be seen in this clip.
I remember a time when everything was cheap
Now prices nearly puts a man to sleep
Well, when we get our grocery bill
We feel like making our will
Tell me, how can a poor man stand such times and live ?
Tell me, how can a poor man stand such times and live ?
Well, the doctor comes around with his face all bright
And he says, “In a little while you’ll be all right!”
Well, all he gives is a humbug pill
Dose of dope and a great big bill
Tell me, how can a poor man stand such times and live ?
Tell me, how can a poor man stand such times and live ?
Poverty. Poorness. Money. These are the some of the rawest and most charged words in the English language, and perhaps in human experience. Louise Hay was saying the other day that it is easier to conduct workshops on sexuality than money. “People just feel so angry about money,” she said.
I have gone through most of my life holding two attitudes towards the stuff. On one hand I resent it for never being around in the volumes I think I need. On the other hand I lust after it, gripping it as tight as my first girlfriend’s hand on movie night.
When I was a gainfully employed aid professional, especially before the kids came along, I seemed to enjoy the most comfortable lifestyle. In the field there was little to spend my earnings on and so it just accumulated month after month in the bank account back home. Housing, transport and in some cases even home-cooked meals and domestic help, were part of the package.
I spent 6 months in Iraq in 1991. In addition to my salary I was paid $400 a day for ‘post allowance and per diem’. I lived in a tent provided by the UN, drove a brand new Nissan Patrol provided by the UN, and ate three meals a day prepared by cooks employed by the UN. The only thing I had to spend my money on was cigarettes and booze, both of which were as cheap as the dust on our tents and clothes. When I left Iraq I had a savings account balance of $40,000.
In Kenya, in 1992, as the whole of the Horn of Africa seemed to be collapsing, I was involved in setting up several large refugee camps in the northern part of the country. There was one in particular I liked to visit because the amenities for us expats were so cool. In particular, I couldn’t get over the linen table service we had at every meal. The UN had contracted a safari company to cater to our needs and so as we saved the world we had the assurance that we would eat very well at the end of the shift.
Yesterday I came across a review of a book written by Ben Rawlence in the Guardian. He focused much of his criticism on the Dadaab refugee camp in northern Kenya where Somalis have lived for nearly 30 years now. This was the camp I helped set up and which served us our meals on white tablecloths. When Rawlence visited Dabaab he apparently could not stomach the sight of hungover aid workers making stacks of tax-free dollars talking pieties about helping poor people.
I must be honest. When I was in the system I didn’t object to it. I enjoyed the ridiculous amounts I made in Iraq. I didn’t protest the white linen either. I drank my share of Tusker beer late into the night in many other camps across Kenya. And if truth be told, I was always a vocal advocate for aid workers being paid like professionals. Be it in the field or in a capital city, I made sure I got every entitlement and dollar I was owed. I was an ugly aid worker.
You can make a genuine argument for good perks. Isolation from family and friends. Security risks. Job insecurity. Sophistication and complexity of the role. Risk management. All worthy and legitimate reasons (most) aid workers are not paid bottom of the barrel wages. But there is also a counter argument that can be made just as convincingly that the perks are now more important than the reasons. In other words, good salaries and perks have now become a huge part of every program budget; there is little to distinguish the aid sector from a mainstream industry back home. And that has consequences all down the chain and has transformed the sector fundamentally.
I’m not a huge Serena Ryder fan but one of her songs sums this issue up perfectly:
Take a bite from my rotten apple
He said as he left his castle
With miniscule appendage
And he was such an asshole
Only over loved his mother
Never would he love another
Never really loved his father
Because he was
Saving the world
And some money too
What else in the world
Would you have a man to do
He’s breaking his back
He’s tried and true
He saving the world and some money too
As aid workers we are ultimately there to ‘reduce poverty’. Even government aid agencies as cynical and corrupt as Australia’s mouth this mantra. Yet, I can’t help but feel that the average ‘poor person’ who is receiving assistance from a western aid agency, can easily identify with the last verse of Alfred Reid’s poor man song,
Most preachers, well, they preach for gold and not for soul
Well, that’s what keeps us poor folks always in a hole
Now, we can hardly get our breath
Taxed and schooled and preached to death
Tell me, how can a poor man stand such times and live ?
Change ‘preachers’ to ‘NGOs’. We harangue and harangue our poor people then retreat with our bulging saving accounts, tax-free incomes, company 4X4s and furnished accommodation feeling pleased that we’ve saved the world. And some money too.
Has the day of international NGOs come and gone? Are they needed any longer? Would anyone miss them if they went the way of the T-Rex?
This question has been ‘blowing in the wind’ for years but only recently has it become a topic for public polite conversation.
A recent article in the Guardian reported on a conference where the subject was debated by some of the biggest of bigwigs in the industry. It seems the ‘great and good’ of the INGO (international NGO) world spoke in serious tones about the need for ‘northern’ NGOs to be more responsive and sensitive and acknowledged that hard questions must be asked about what value ‘we truly bring to the development equation’.
All good. But seriously, no industry is going to wind itself up in an act of industrial hari kiri. Unfortunately (for the most part) INGOs are an established part of the international development architecture and they will do everything they can to stay crusted onto the rusty bow of the ship. Just like those other suckers, deep Atlantic barnacles.
My own view tends toward the jaundiced. I understand that. I recognize I have the ‘aid malaise. I’m one of those ‘untrustworthy narrators’ you come across in novels. The guy who is constantly ducking and diving and tailing back on himself. Justifying his contradictions.
But even a sick man deserves to be heard.
Do we still need INGOs? Yes, but only for the following purposes.
- To leverage their global capacity of people, technology, funds and equipment in times of major disasters such as the Tsunami or Nepal earthquake.
- To provide expertise and solutions in their own communities and countries.
- To contribute to but not lead, set the agenda of or dominate the global development conversation.
There are other occasions and situations where an international organization, as opposed to the national or local one, can indeed be more effective. Usually in places of conflict where distrust among local players is so intense that only a perceived neutral party can literally deliver the goods. The sorts of organizations with this sort of mandate and reputation and trust are few and far between. ICRC, I would say, is the only genuine candidate on the global level.
But other than these instances, I honestly do not think the world’s poor would miss the sisters of charity.
A few years ago in Australia one of the State Premiers resigned when he became linked to a very expensive bottle of red wine. He had received it years earlier and the opposition was gearing up for some mud slinging. But the next day the Premier resigned and slipped off into obscurity. The nation, so used to pollies clinging to their positions and perks until the absolute last second, was stunned. Here, at last, was a man who truly took the high road and did the right thing. His exemplary action raised the bar overnight. Years on, very few have managed to reach the same level.
Another article on the dark side of the international child adoption industry raises similar questions as the Guardian article. What is the point of these agencies, many of the most successful of which, are ostensibly ‘Christian’?
What connects both groups of international adventuring do-gooders is at core a conviction that as privileged westerners we have an inalienable right to play with the lives of non-western, supposedly poor and easy to manipulate people. What makes it worse is the self-congratulatory brochure-speak that frames the interference in terms of ‘empowering’ and ‘saving’ of ‘rescuing’ and ‘strengthening’. These are powerful words. Addictive as drugs. We believe them deeply. And because we do we turn our eyes away from the damage and destruction, and assuage ourselves with mantras like ‘Do No Harm’.
Is it any wonder that voices as varied as Shashi Tharoor and ISIS reject western do-goodism as just another powerplay designed to keep the West/North on top of the East/South?
I would love Oxfam or World Vision to announce, like that rare Premier, they were moving off the scene. That after 70 years of work they were closing their operations in all foreign countries. “We are pleased to announce,” the press release might go, “our assessment that there are few issues left in the world that require establishment-educated western experts to ‘fix’. Our capacity building programs have been a smashing success. There are now tens of thousands skilled, strategically minded Indians, Albanians, Zambians and Fijians who are better placed to figure this shit out. Goodbye!”
Russian postcard of a warbling bird. 1984
For about 18 months I lived and worked in the former Soviet Republic of Tajikistan. The small country, where the earth quaked over 700 times a year and three mountain ranges accordioned into each other along the fault lines that divide South Asia from Europe, was emerging from several years of ugly war.
Several of the smaller republics of the former USSR were ambivalent about and surprised by their freshly acquired independence. Most, like Tajikistan, were dependent upon the Soviet Union for their annual national budgets and their economies were fully integrated into the larger Soviet economy. Cut loose from Mother Russia they plummeted into poverty and social upheaval. In the case of Tajikistan, war broke out. Nascent and long suppressed Islamic groups battled for control of the new state against die-hard Communists and gangster mafias.
When I arrived in November 1999 the hot war was over but the situation was far from stable. Gun battles did break out in the streets on occasion while large areas in the central and southern and northern tiers of the country paid little more than lip service to the central government. When the sun went down the city disappeared into the darkness like a crocodile sinking deep into river water. Restaurants were few and far between–most expats spent weekend evenings in the bar of the Indian Embassy–and more often than you wished, mud, rather than water, gurgled out of the bathroom taps in the morning.
Though working and living in Tajikistan took some getting used to what with no banks, no entertainment or internet, few eateries , bribe sucking, violence-prone officials and often not enough heat to keep you warm at night the romance of Central Asia was impossible to escape. The landscape of giant mountains and utterly green but narrow valleys which produced the sweetest fruits on God’s earth were absolutely stunning. In the north the mountains gave way to high sierra. Endless horizons of brown hills not unlike the American prairie seemed the cradle of so much of human civilization: the Mongols, the Silk Road, Samarkhand, Khiva and Merv. Without a doubt, wandering around the gray dustiness of ancient Bukhara was one of the highpoints of my aid career. The massive brick citadels, mosques and tombs, largely left in a crumbling state, had that rare capacity to render you speechless and transport you in an instant, centuries back in time.
Several months into my assignment I wondered if the country itself would not be better off if someone like Microsoft or Ford or BP bought the country outright. With the transaction the corporates would acquire a highly educated and skilled workforce, a lax tax environment, a supportive officialdom that would not hesitate to crack as many heads as necessary to ensure that company rules and regulations were followed and the ability to set up alternative income streams such as adventure tourism, hydro-power and agribusiness. We’ve heard of company towns. Why not make Tajikistan the world’s first company-country? I was sure most Tajiks would have welcomed with open arms the idea of good paying, steady jobs.
We’ve heard of humanitarian wars (Kosovo, Iraq) why not humanitarian hostile take overs? These countries can’t manage themselves. So let’s buy the place give everyone jobs and tickle our humanitarian fancy all at the same time.
The idea, of course, is ridiculous. Or is it?
The entry of corporations into the business of aid and humanitarian relief is now no longer novel. It’s mainstream. It may be just a matter of time before the Red Cross or the UN or Oxfam or any of the other big players allow their brands to be co-opted, if not entirely replaced by corporate logos. Microsoft-Oxfam water systems. Coca Cola-Red Cross emergency response units. Ford-UNICEF cold chains.
Corporate management culture has long bewitched the NGO sector. Most CEOs are former heads of QUANGOs or multinationals or prematurely retired politicians. Their management teams are generally free of any content except of the sort Harvard MBAs regurgitate.Efficiency, innovation, systems, processes, the 7 S’s of McKinsey lore, have replaced building relationships with real, poor and vulnerable people. Scaling up. Globalization. Standardization. Reach billions of people. Public-private financing. These are the agenda of huge corporations. And they are increasingly the new birdsong of humanitarian and development leaders.
Big Pharma. Big Steel. Big Auto. Big Development. The progression is real and predictable. My musing about a corporate take over of Tajikstan was an idea for a book. Perhaps one day I’ll write it. But I wouldn’t be surprised if Life beat Art in this race. Who knows what a Trump Presidency could do!
One cold winter morning I was in Khojand (formerly known as Leninabad) in northern Tajikistan. I was woken by the most incredible birdsong. Below is what I wrote about it at breakfast that morning. It will always sum up Central Asia for me.
Early morning. Listening to the most amazing birdcall I have heard. A loud series of confident, audacious chirrups, growls, clicks, whistles and scratches. At times a low coarse growl (very un-bird like) then a piercing whistle or two. Now, one, two, three, four; the strange almost metallic sawing sound like the inner workings of an old office chair that hasn’t been oiled in years. Just as quickly the bird finds its birdness again and lets loose a lovely syncopated series of crystalline, round, delicate squeaks. For a moment it is silent, then as if it were a one-man band playing an upbeat number, (thumping the loose bass strings, the tinkle of the cymbal, the squeak now and then of a sax and a droning harmonica) the concert begins again. Right outside my window. She taps her beak against the branch on which she is perched, like a maestro tapping the podium. And then as that elongated moment of expectation stretches out, at last, the music, in a frantic tumble of tones, begins again.
This experience, this birdsong, is rare or seems so in this place. It has a lustiness and vibrancy of a tropical setting: a Thailand or southern India. Not a bleak washed out Central Asian winter morning. But it is lovely and nearly humourous. She’s a prophet. A voice from God reminding us that He is always with us-even in the most alien, isolated and uninhabitable places.
It is quiet now. The bird has gone. In the distance further away and more subdued and barely audible above the morning traffic that is starting to whoosh through the streets, I can hear the slight, timid, weak calls of a flock of small birds. This is how I will recall Russian Asia. Ordered, unspontaneous, uninspired. But now also will I remember Khojand—-in the winter nonetheless-—for the laughably unexpected concert that woke me up and got me on my way.