Wednesday, June 10, 2009

So you want to be an aid worker?

Deserted: Refugee Camps in Chad; a slideshow @ The New Yorker websiteIn a recent issue of The New Yorker, Jonathan Harr wrote an intriguing and disturbing piece on the refugee camps in Chad, housing the displaced of Darfur and a small cadre of worn down aid workers titled, Lives of the Saints.

(Clicking on the image above, by the way, will take you to an online only slideshow accompanying the article.)

As Harr notes early, the camps he visits are about the hardest of all possible hardship postings. The sheer number of refugees, and the scope of needs is almost unparalleled. Supplies and resources are in frightfully short supply. The area is, effectively, a war zone. Political control has largely broken down.

Still, I see many students who want to "do good" and work in the "humanitarian" field -- which often, when pressed, means they are interested in doing relief work. And there are some potentially hard lessons to be learned from this piece.

For one, I would be surprised if anyone who hasn't lived in a camp such as this can ever be prepared for the sheer misery. As Harr points out repeatedly, it is grinding -- bone and soul grinding -- for both the refugees and the aid workers.

Also, aid work is about provision of often frightfully limited resources, which means not just offering support to a particular camp, community, or individual, but also often limiting or shutting off those same supplies.

Similarly, aid work is about logistics -- getting supplies from point A to point B -- and documentation: filling out all the paperwork required by the manifold layers of bureaucracy.

Most important to note in Harr's piece -- certainly striking to me -- is the fact that those who are doing the work on the ground are those with highly specialized skills and lots of experience. A lot of the workers that Harr profiles also happen to be African, a reality that I am (perhaps mistakenly) under the impression doesn't really register with many of the folks I sit down with here in Madison, Wisconsin.

Again, it's important to recognize that the refugee camps in Chad are about as hard as they come, and there is a tremendous need for skilled -- and hardened -- professionals. But the same holds in broad strokes for any and every such camp; Africa, as a friend of mine likes to note, is not lacking for inexpensive, well-intentioned but generally unskilled workers. If you want to be an aid worker you need to develop a skill set and experience that is going to allow yourself to be of use: not just to individuals on the ground (where compassion might very well soothe for a moment) but to the massive agencies that funnel resources and supplies into the camps.

That is a tall order indeed.

And so we bump up against the rather standard refrain: all these jobs require experience, but how can I get experience if I can't break into the field?!?

Look locally. Work locally. Do your research (I always tell folks you have to know your field -- and what it requires). Talk, talk, talk, talk to others. And read. Skills are transferable. Start working in poverty alleviation locally. Volunteer with the Red Cross for disaster relief. Get some medical training.

There actually is a lot you can do. Locally. And if you're young and really have both a desire and the motivation to work in the field, you can. But it's not going to be something you can just decide to do and parachute in.

Read Harr's piece -- if you have any sense, you wouldn't want to just drop in. There's simply far too much at stake. For everyone.

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