“You’re a humanitarian worker? Oh you must be a wonderful person, saving all those lives.”
That’s my mental cue to either a) look for the nearest hole to dive into in embarrassment, and/or b) start mentally checking out of the conversation.
Eight years after doing my first emergency and three years into doing this full time outside of the Philippines, I have learned and unlearned more things in the humanitarian field than I can remember. I’ve halfway given up remembering catch phrases, terms and jargon, because a couple of years into getting used to a word, it’s going to be changed into the latest buzzword to add to an arsenal of words that mean the same damn thing. I’ve started feeling jaded about the many hoops and steps we must take to be absolutely positively sure that we are doing and reporting everything in the most accurate, least double counted, zero fraudulent way. I can feel the cynicism just ooze out when trying to make a project based on needs from the ground, because, let’s face it, a lot of the projects we do are defined by donors from up high who have preconceived notions of what will solve the latest or most prolonged world crisis. But if there’s one thing that continues to stay sunny and bright and perky, it’s my feelings about the people in every single country I’ve worked in.
I’ve never subscribed to the feeling that I will save lives. In my role as a programme manager, I often feel like I don’t see enough of the field, bogged down in meetings, bureaucracy and procedures. I don’t have the satisfaction of being a public health promoter or engineer, a foodie or livelihoods person, gender expert or protection officer. I’m the poor schmuck behind the desk, in the office, running for funding, trying to keep the funding, and trying to make sure everything stays afloat (and everyone stays alive). My particular role is not the most fascinating and often, I am frustrated by the fact that I am a jack of all trades, almost completely a master of none. The impact of my particular role is filtered down through so many different teams and layers, that at the end of it, when a borehole has finally been drilled and developed and reaching a few hundred people, I don’t tend to see my role in it. When I get the rare chance to see our work in the field, I see the work of our public health engineers in the construction, the influence of our public health promoters in the community’s actions, the push of our logistics in the parts assembled into the hand pump, or the efficiency of our finance as the workers are paid out. My role, as best said by one of my mentors, is that my job is not to tell people what to do but to give my team the space to do what they do best.
And I am absolutely, perfectly happy with this reality check. I will laugh at anyone who says that I save lives. I’m not a doctor, I don’t build anything, I don’t have the expertise to put together a perfectly balanced food basket, nor come with a background in public health. While I don’t have the power or the direct impact in the places we work in and because I’m the poor woman behind the desk, my influence is with the people I work in. And specifically, the national staff we get to work with, because let’s face it, often in a room, I am an infant next to many of my international colleagues who have been doing this and doing this well for decades.
My absolute favorite thing to do in any deployment is getting to know and be with my team, getting to know the culture, learning how people work and trying to figure out the ways that their world would fit into delivering a humanitarian response. In a country like Nigeria, with very little experience in humanitarian work, it has been a huge satisfaction seeing international colleagues paired up with national staff, teaching them the ropes, asking them tough questions, and pushing them to take risks but never leaving them behind. When the end result is seeing green assistants who have had no experience in a humanitarian response start becoming more and more independent, and succeed in moving up the ladder, that is when I feel that my direct impact is realized. It’s not really in the field, that is not where I see my work always in action. It’s in the people and the way they deliver that I can feel that I’ve done my part.
So when people say that I’m wonderful for saving lives, I would disagree. I do this work for purely selfish and realistic reasons. I do this because I love puzzles and a humanitarian response is basically a massive one where the pieces have to fit like cogs on a wheel, while someone is trying to throw rocks and spokes and random other things to jam your systems (or, let’s be honest, trying to hit you like you’re the bulls-eye). I do this for the moment when I can explain something to one of my team and see that lightbulb moment when it clicks for them like it’s common sense. I do it for the times that I can check back on my old teams and find out that they’ve moved on to bigger and brighter things, sometimes not always in my NGO. And I do it for the possibility that I can light that fire for the humanitarian field in the hope that they could be that person doing the lifesaving work.
Abbi is a petite human, blogger, amateur photographer, permanent humanitarian, avid traveller, culture addict, giant bookworm and impossible foodie.