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‘Shithole’ countries and humanitarian aid workers

April 19, 2018
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Of course, Trump’s comments on ‘shithole’ countries are, indeed, a new low.

That said, the incident made me think a little about how we talk about the places where we work, and whether we always live up to the values we aspire to in this respect. Anyone who has hung out with aid workers for any length of time will have heard ‘so-there-I-was’ stories. These are used either to emphasize the implicit hierarchy of people based on how long they have spent in very tough places, or simply to entertain, and they have a pretty predictable formula, either:

  1. Straightforward accounts about how tough the place where the person was posted was (e.g. ‘of course, that was back in 1999, when security was really bad’, or ‘this was up-country, not in the capital where you could still get a cold beer’), or:
  2. An anecdote, the punchline to which has something to do with how bad the food was or how corrupt the local government was.

The aid world is rife with the same kind of gallows humor that medical professionals, police, and social workers are often guilty of, and it comes from the same place. It permeates our culture and our language. It diffuses tension and is a way for people under stress to let off steam. But when it’s overheard by outsiders, particularly by the people who live in the places we work in and talk about, it can be deeply offensive.

Our fundraising language is also infused with the idea that these are not great places – a major agency recently adjusted their language to talk about working “on the world’s toughest problems” rather than in “the world’s toughest places”. Of course, it’s naive to pretend that Syria or South Sudan are not some of the world’s ‘toughest places’, but it’s important to remember not to let descriptions of conditions spill over into disrespect for people’s homes and histories.

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3 Comments leave one →
  1. Gibbs permalink
    April 20, 2018 3:42 am

    Working in the field for the oast ten years, I have been to every “shithole” country! I agree with your post 100%.

  2. April 20, 2018 7:16 am

    Thank you so much for this post Nick. It is not only deeply offensive if overheard but deeply offensive period. Yes I have worked in a number of these places and always notice how brave and resilient people are. While we people working there are working in these places are often working in difficult positions, developing a sense of empathy for the situation of the people living there is so important to shift perspectives. Also thinking about the geopolitics that often creates or certainly perpetuates these situations is also an important perspective to keep in mind.

  3. September 10, 2018 1:18 pm

    I heard (and sadly told) so many stories that follow that formula while in Peace Corps. It’s so important to reflect on this tendency and find ways that release that stress without, like you said, disrespecting people’s homes and histories. Thanks for sharing this!

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