Life As A Humanitarian Aid Worker

Hi, my name’s Elise and I’m a humanitarian aid worker.

I often get mixed reactions when I’m at home in Australia and I tell new people what I do. I’m usually met with looks of confusion. I have to explain I’m on holiday, visiting my family and friends; on a R&R break, which is leave that your organization forces you to take every few months to ensure you don’t go batty living in a developing country and/or a war zone. I can’t vouch for whether that works or not.

There are a lot of misconceptions about us humanitarian aid workers. No, I don’t spend my days sitting under mango trees, teaching English to little children and holding hands with elder women. That does happen (the first and last – I’m not a teacher), but most of my time, I am glued to my 10 year old laptop (we don’t get a lot of funding for replacing computer equipment), madly writing proposals and reports and analyzing budgets and monitoring data and dealing with headquarters. My life is a combination of terrible internet (think dial up speed that works half the time, if that), intermittent electricity, even more intermittent water and a pretty constant feeling of loneliness. We make friends here, for sure – locals and expats alike – but we all move on. For most of us, the maximum contract length is 2 years. In places like Afghanistan and South Sudan, 6 months is not unusual. I’m 25 years old and I have “friends” living all across the world, from Iraq to Zimbabwe to Mongolia to the Solomon Islands – but I can still count the number of friends I’ve spent more than six months at a time with on both hands.

So if anyone has ever considered a career in international development, working for charity, wanting to help others – let me tell you this. It’s amazing. And it sucks. It’s a job, like any other – except that we live in “strange” places and at the end of the day, you can keep working those extra eight hours that you won’t get paid for, because from the bottom of your heart you still have a tiny bit of optimism flaring – you think that maybe, maybe if you just put in the extra eight hours on top of the last eight hours you just worked, you will actually help someone. It’s worth the crappy pay and the rather crappy conditions and the fact that carrying on a relationship in this setting for longer than a year is basically impossible (though you will keep trying). It’s both your motivation and your undoing.

Plus there are those really awesome days, where you wake up at 6am, get on a boat, head out to an island, hike for four hours to a tiny little village your organization is working in, and sit under that mango tree, hold hands with your elder women and talk about your project. They’ll tell you about the changes in their lives since your organization and your project started. They’ll feed you a ridiculous amount of food and hug you and invite you to stay in their leaf hut for the night. Overnight you’ll contract malaria (again) and have to use a “toilet” (i.e. hole in the ground) which inevitably leads you to contract something else (what, you don’t know – unfortunately medical facilities in your country aren’t good enough to tell). You’ll suffer through weeks of sickness, still having to work your 12+ hour days, while you write up your monitoring visit trip report for your headquarters and/or donor – and you get to tell the story of that lovely elder woman and how, since your project started working with her, her life has changed for the better. That, is worth it.

By Elise Bryce Johnson

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