Working in international aid: Stereotypes vs reality

Camaleo / Opinion  / Working in international aid: Stereotypes vs reality
Travailler dans l'humanitaire: idées reçues et réalités

If you work in the field of international development, you might have received on a few occasions a phone call from someone you barely know: « my niece/a colleague’s son would like to work in the field of international aid. Can I give them your number so that you can tell them how it works? ”

I always remain puzzled by the question, by what I should answer, and the simplicity they expect. Having tried several times, probably in vain, to give some quick basic explanations, I will try here to give a few elements that I feel are important to understand our complex and inspiring work.

  1. The « humanitarian » field, which is not the same as international aid, is not a job as such, but a field of intervention. Once you have decided to get committed, the most important choice remains: what will you be doing concretely? If you are not currently an engineer, a (para) medic, or trained for another job that is sought for in the sector, chances are you will need to get some training, which can request a certain investment in time, and possibly a financial one. Do you want to do this on the long run, so that this investment is worth it, or do you want to give a meaning to a trip you have planned?
  2. Define your project. Going abroad for a week or two, or even several months, while paying for all costs, including those of a structure that organizes your trip and work, often linked to construction or educational activities, has nothing to do with a long-term commitment, for which you will have gone through a classical recruitment process. We certainly have no doubt about the benefits brought by the first type of project, but we need to stay humble and remember that it’s really more about tourism, and an experience that remains, although it is often very strong and an opening to other types of commitment, personal.
  3. Thus, keep in mind that we do this experience primarily for ourselves, and that it can produce a certain effect on others. For example, avoid absolutely volunteering in orphanages, for several different reasons that we can develop in another article, the main one being that in the case of children already having severe attachment issues, the frequent stay of volunteers and the creation of bonds, which are sometimes deep and brutally broken, provokes a worsening of these issues. In order to check whether a project makes sense, imagine the opposite situation: would you find normal that African volunteers, having no specific qualifications, come and teach in a centre for children with specific challenges, or even in schools?

We certainly don’t want to discourage altruistic vocations, even on the short term: getting committed, traveling and meeting other cultures have always had a positive impact. We only wanted to bring in some food for thought. The debate continues!


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