Four things

A few times each year I’ll get email from people or organizations who wants me to give a nod of endorsement for what they do. It’s usually some new start up organization or person with a new take on an old theme.

We can argue and wordsmith things to death. In my opinion there are four basic qualities that mark the difference between professionals and amateurs:


(1) It’s not just some random, occasional thing. This is not something to dabble in. Either you do it or you don’t.

(2) You have specific, identifiable skills that are relevant. Maybe you have a degree or a certificate to prove that you have those skills. Maybe it’s just something that you have done for many years and are very good at.

(3) You do what you do at a level that falls in line with established standards and norms (and there are standards and norms for most everything that we do in the aid world).

(4) Constant pursuit of improvement.


Plays well with others…

Everyone in their first entry-level job is ready to dispense advice on how to get into the aid industry. But at some point the entry-level jobs no longer cut it. Then what?

In response to specific requests, here are my five go-tos for those mid-level, blase, cynical-yet-still-kinda-idealist, over-educated, broke professionals, who maybe indulged in a tad too much job-hopping/dream chasing, and now feel stuck.

None of these are end-all-be-all. They’re tips. They’re what I’ve seen work in the lives and careers of people that I work with. For the sake of this post, I’m assuming that you’re basically qualified for the jobs you’re applying for, have the right level of relevant education, have a solid work ethic, etc. Take it or leave it.

Here goes:

Play well with others. If you read no further, get this one right. There’s always someone on the team or in the team house who knows the answer to everything; who can deftly deconstruct everybody else’s argument; who knows everything that everyone around them is doing wrong and is endlessly in everyone else’s business; who is forever pissed off and intense about something; who flies off the handle at any and every perceived or real injustice. Don’t be that person.

Figure out where in the industry you’re happiest/most effective. Forget about climbing the ladder unless what you actually want to spend your day doing is at the top of the ladder. And forget about trying to move to [SOME COUNTRY], if what you really want to do can be done just as well in [A DIFFERENT COUNTRY].

This takes mental discipline. Strip away title and strip away location. Then ask yourself, which jobs do you actually want to do? Then go for those kinds of jobs, and let those around you say and think what they want.

Invest in understanding the aid/dev/humanitarian industry. You can’t figure out where in the industry you’re happiest, nor can you chart a path to get there if you don’t understand the industry in the first place. Know your context. This is basic.

Professional Communication. You know the adage, “Dress for the job you want, not the job you have”? The same applies to communication. If you want to be the boss, you need to communicate like a boss. And I don’t mean talk down to others and try to boss them around. I do mean write complete sentences with capitalization and punctuation. I do mean you should componse coherent messages and spell people’s names correctly.

Get good at managing others. Ever been managed by someone who got promoted because of longevity, seniority, or technical ability, but was a terrible manager? Yeah, it happens a lot. Don’t be that person, either

Aid Worker

“Aid worker” is one of those nearly impossible to define terms. The wild mis-perceptions that ensue almost every time I out myself as one can be as frustrating as they are amusing. The term “aid worker” says nothing useful about what we actually do, yet at the same time comes laden with loads of baggage around who we are, and who and what we should and should not be. No one in the comments thread (pick any Huffington Post or Guardian article about the failure of the aid system) knows specifically what our job(s) is/are, but most everyone has an opinion about whether it’s acceptable for us to drink, live in a team house, or go on vacation.

It’s time to recognize that the aid industry is a lot like the aviation industry. Which is to say that it’s very large and very broad in terms of the range of professions, occupations, and specialties that fall into it. The vast majority of those people who work in the airline industry are not pilots or flight attendants. And by a similar token, I don’t know or know of a single person in the aid industry whose title or job description include the word “aid worker.” There are accountants, lawyers, HR staff, logisticians, technical specialists of all kinds, managers, directors, communications staff… When an employee of an a IT company tells me she’s a software engineer based in New Delhi, it’s not like I have a detailed understanding of her job, but there’s basically no real confusion.


In an earlier post, I wrote that it’s time to dispense with the traditional romantic notion of an aid worker. The more I think about it, the more I see this as a central, root issue. Those traditional, romantic notions of what we do, who we are, and who we should be underpin a vast amount of both public misunderstanding, and also our own cognitive dissonance and crises of faith. We need a makeover, and in this case I don’t even care what journalists and mom-bloggers and crackpot commenters think. We need a makeover of how we see ourselves, for our own benefit. We need new memes, images, and words around whatever will replace this antiquated term, “aid worker.”

Perhaps the most common complaint that I hear from colleagues and people I supervise is that they feel as if what they’re doing doesn’t matter. Very often, it turns out, they’re comparing their actual job—“grant acquisition specialist,” maybe or “food security technical officer”—to this mythical thing called an “aid worker.”

We need new words.