It recently occurred to me that:

– Soldiers and police officers get medals for valor and heroism.
– Athletes get medals for winning competitions.
– Writers and journalists get Pulitzers.
– Academics, thinkers of deep thoughts, scientists, and sometimes politicians get Nobel Peace prizes.
– Actors/Actresses, and film industry peeps get Oscars, Emmys, and Golden Globe awards.
– Singers/musicians and music industry peeps get Grammys.

But what do aid workers get?

Pins for organizational loyalty.

I’m sure many of us could go on to list many other professions where the rank and file go in and get it done, day after day, largely unacknowledged, let alone lauded or awarded. Teachers and parents, especially single parents, for example. Or bus drivers. Or construction workers. And many, many others.

Yes, the world is certainly unfair in the way that it bestows wealth and acclaim on those who are really good, say, at tossing a ball through a net, or who manage to get their lines (written by others) right in one out of 20 takes and who stay fit with the help of personal trainers and nutritionists. While ignoring or perhaps demeaning outright those who form the foundation of our collective civilization and culture. Aid workers are hardly the most marginalized or forgotten in the great, global organogram of who matters in the minds of those who apparently matter in the world.

Moreover, the vast majority of the aid workers I know would be terribly uncomfortable receiving a medal or trophy. In an imaginary aid world equivalent of The Oscars, I can picture my colleagues and friends, in their cargo pants and Beer Lao T-shirts, shuffling up to receive a little statue of Henri Dunant for “Best Logistician” or “outstanding performance as WASH cluster lead”, and babbling awkwardly about how they don’t deserve it. Most aid workers I know, whether in the field or hunkered down in the cubicles of HQ, would far rather celebrate the occasional, incremental wins by sharing a few rounds with close colleagues at the expat bar or watering hole of choice. I don’t think that many of us are in it for the acclaim or the money.

But nevertheless, it bothers me.

It bothers me that when you Google “humanitarian awards” you get pictures of Ben Affleck or Angelina Jolie. It bothers me that we cannot articulate, even to ourselves, what excellence—what award-worthy humanitarian practice looks like. It bothers me that the closest we seem to be able to come is a recognition of loyalty to a particular organization: a pin or certificate, more or less every five years, which doesn’t say much except that the recipient was neither fired nor had the wherewithal to leave.