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A word about motivation and disillusionment

There are many reasons why people set out to leave their homes and families, travel half-way around the world to war or strife-ridden countries, and immerse themselves in the endeavor of development. Surprisingly few of them are purely altruistic and noble.

That is not to say that humanitarian workers are not motivated, at least in part, by altruism and noble intentions, but that by and large, it has been my observation that people’s motivations for doing this work are mixed. I worked with a guy in Croatia who would ask people he met for the first time “What are you running from?” it was a joke, but there was some truth to it – many people enter this line of work hoping it will give their lives meaning, or solve some inner issue they have, or because they hope it will help them deal with a mid-life crisis or an unhappy relationship. Who am I to say that it won’t help? All I’m saying is that the developing world is not a therapy session, it is not the French Foreign Legion, and it is not a self-actualization program.

I’ll be as frank as I can be – developing countries have enough burdens, without being asked to help you find meaning in your life. If you have unresolved personal issues, deal with them before you leave. It has been my experience that being a relief worker will make any issues you may have worse, not better. If you have unresolved ‘stuff’, the stress and pressure of jobs that force you to encounter the raw emotions of humanity in extreme situations will bring it to the surface, and not usually in good ways. Simply taking a job working in a refugee camp is not likely to give your life meaning. It will not, in itself, make you a more worthwhile person, and it will not resolve any angst you may be feeling about your purpose in life. Sorry.

Develop your self-awareness – it’s not that it matters so much whether you are motivated by a desire to do something ‘worthwhile’, to help others, to learn new skills and build a career, to travel and see the world, experience new cultures, or to have adventures, but that you understand what motivates you and how it shapes your behavior.


I don’t know if there is anything in the world uglier than a disillusioned idealist. As James Baldwin said “The price one pays for pursuing any profession, or calling, is an intimate knowledge of its ugly side.” And make no mistake – there is an ugly side. Plenty has been written on this – there is a whole sub-genre of development literature devoted to airing the dissatisfaction of people who have seen it. Probably the two most significant examples of this are The Road to Hell by Michael Maren, and Lords of Poverty by Graham Hancock. They catalogue the inefficiencies, ineffectiveness and counter-productiveness of some of the programs their authors have seen. You should read this stuff, and expect to deal with it yourself. Sooner or later you will be called upon to wrestle with situations where you wonder what you are doing and why, or even feel that you are making things worse.

We all go into this line of work with high ideals, and then struggle to maintain them in the face the difficulties we face: Challenging bureaucracies; people you are trying to help behaving in ways that you don’t understand; the clash of your idealism with foreign policy of donor governments; tragic events and proximity to personal suffering, etc… It is easy to become discouraged, and to think that what you are doing is not making a difference. The reality is that this is not a ‘feel-good’ profession much of the time; refugees may not be pleased to see you, they might be angry, terrified, and hostile; government officials who have not been paid this month may not be very grateful for your help, their top priority might be feeding their family this week and you may be tempted to come to think of them as corrupt and grasping. The challenge is to see the opportunities for progress, and seize them.

Some of the people you will meet will be truly amazing and inspiring. They have risen to meet enormous challenges, and they renew our hope in human possibility. Others have encountered the challenges of grinding poverty, violence and injustice, and have made different choices when faced with the need to feed or protect themselves or their family. It can be tempting to leap to judgement, and become angry or self-righteous, to speculate that you would not have done the same things in their situation. I would urge you to try not to do this, rather, try to understand the conditions that drove them to make the decisions that they did. I say this not to try to excuse the worst excesses of genocide or corruption, but to warn you of falling into an easy self-righteous contempt for those whose circumstances are not as privileged as yours.

I don’t have any easy answers for how to hold onto your ideals and what to do with feelings of disillusionment, except to suggest that you try to understand your motivations and expectations. In talking to a colleague who had spent three years watching every measure that he cared about get worse in the country that he was in, we reflected that perhaps, had he not been there, it would have been worse still. We’ll never know, but his take on the situation was that even if we knew that all of our efforts would only slow the rate at which the situation got worse, we should still make the effort. For him, hopelessness was not a reason for despair. You need to figure out for yourself what you are trying to do, and what you need to feed your spiritual and personal needs.

If you have a religious faith, or a philosophy of human behavior, think a little about how you will deal with exposure to extreme suffering. We’ve all wrestled with the ‘problem of evil’, but in my experience seeing this stuff close up is a different matter to mulling it over in a philosophy class. Think about how you will make sense of the bad things you will see in ways that will not make you bitter and disillusioned. This may sound abstract, but it seems important to me that we try to integrate the things that we see into a framework of values that makes sense to us. Doing that has helped me to cope with some of the more horrific things that I have been close to.

In the end, one way to look at this work is that we are professional optimists. It is our job to believe that a better world is possible. If we stop believing that, ultimately we need to look for other work.

What we do is so little that we may seem to be constantly failing . . . And why must we see the results of our giving? Our work is to sow – another generation will be reaping the harvest.

– Dorothy Day, co-founder of the Catholic Worker Movement.

Further reading

Disaffection and detraction

This is by no means an exhaustive list of the disillusioned and disappointed, and is in no particular order (I tried to list them in descending order of melodramatic title, but lost track):

  • A Bed For the Night: Humanitarianism in Crisis by David Rieff (buy it from Amazon or from Powell’s Books). Rieff is worth taking the time to read – his thesis that humanitarianism has strayed too far from its core mission of alleviating suffering, and in doing so has become a fig-leaf for the lack of political action to solve political problems deserves serious consideration.
  • The Road to Hell: The Ravaging Effects of Foreign Aid and International Charity by Michael Maren (buy it from Amazon or from Powell’s Books)
  • Lords of Poverty: The Power, Prestige, and Corruption of the International Aid Business by Graham Hancock (buy it from Amazon or from Powell’s Books)
  • Famine Crimes: Politics & the Disaster Relief Industry in Africa by Alex De Waal (buy it from Amazon or from Powell’s Books)
  • Condemned to Repeat?: The Paradox of Humanitarian Action by Fiona Terry (buy from Amazon)
4 Comments leave one →
  1. Dillon Peeden permalink
    January 17, 2012 9:36 am

    Couldn’t have said it better myself.

  2. Ashlee permalink
    October 22, 2012 1:26 pm

    Thank you, very helpful!

    • October 23, 2012 5:29 pm

      Thanks for the feedback Ashlee – please do think about buying the ebook on Amazon, or at least leaving feedback!

  3. Mwayiwao permalink
    April 20, 2016 12:15 am

    helpful,thank you

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