Rumble: As aidworkers, are we allowed to have a life?

Frida, a fellow blogger who previously worked in Afghanistan, Timor-Leste and Palestine, posted something recently that made me think.

She wrote about the guilt she felt, living back home in New Zealand:

All the people I've met in Afghanistan, Timor-Leste and Palestine whose lives continue to be insecure, poor and relentlessly harsh. All the people I worked with who are still there, working through the cold, dark winter to bring a little relief, to provide a little security. All the people I have never met but whose conflict and natural disaster afflicted worlds are more real to me some days than this fantasy land we live in here in New Zealand.

I'm terrified of forgetting them. But how could I ever forget them? Seriously. It's impossible, right? But I've been so afraid of it that I've been clinging to my guilt as a kind of reminder. Every time I get too close to relaxing into joy, pleasure and fun my guilt kicks in like one of those electric shocks that scientists give to rats in aversion response research.

Her post connected somewhere with a previous post I wrote about my own feeling of guilt, coming to work in our headquarter and in how far this was still really "aid work" in its distance far away from the real "field work". "Was I really still worth the salary the UN paid me?".

On top of that, there were some comments made on a recent post I wrote while skiing with the family in North Italy two weeks ago:
Anonymous said: as far they pay the taxes also for people like you.... we think we are also very generous.... certainly with all that money saved you can enjoy posh holidays in Italian winter special resorts... meanwhile our taxes have increased.. that's how life goes..

Peter said: Mmmm would not exactly typify Kronplatz as "Posh holidays in Italian winter special resorts"..
Shooting from the hip, are we? Ha!

Anonymous said: Kronplatz might be not as posh as St. Moritz, Cortina d'Ampezzo or Madonna di Campiglio... but that was not the point. With our donations we can work out for next year to give you the opportunity to go there. One more thing: too much hypocrisy on this blog: and that is not "shooting from the hip" (look at yourself first..), it's a fact. Enjoy your "false" aidworker life.

Peter said: Hey, I am an aidworker, that is my job, that is how I earn my living. About ten months per year. This does not mean I have to spend my personal life -two months per year- locked up in a cell, with ash on my head.
I choose certain ways to spend my off time. I choose certain ways to spend the money I earn. I choose certain ways to spend the few weeks per year I can have with my family. Be it skiing, sailing or just laying on the beach, or being at home. Those are my personal choices. Nothing to do with the job I do.
I stand for the things I do, be it in my personal life, or in my professional life. In full conscience and in full ethics. I hope you do too!
PS: Cortina d'Ampezzo were nice ski slopes, but a completely old infrastructure, at least to the parts we went. Posh? Don't think so!

This made me think: "I am not sure if people really understand aid workers". Somewhere there are people out there assuming because we are paid to provide aid, we therefor, we should do nothing but... providing aid. And sure enough, some people might be confused when I post pictures of me and and my family skiing or sailing, in between posts of food riots or yet another armed conflict.. And on top of that, might get angry, thinking "is this the way my tax-money is spent? This guy is supposed to be an aidworker, and he is off skiing somewhere..."

That reminded me again of Frida's post... To feel guilty or not to feel guilty... Well, here is a piece of news: the only guilt I feel:

  1. I work in our headquarters in Rome. I have a comfortable life just like anyone else in Europe would have. And yet, thousands of my colleagues are "out there in the field", in less than comfortable duty stations, or working in dangerous areas.
    Somewhere I hush that guilt by thinking "I did my share of hardship duty stations, I have worked under the line of fire, I did my part of suffering, and as we rotate duty stations every two to four years, probably I will again". Plus the work that I do "still makes a difference for those that work in the field". It has to, otherwise, I would simply not do it.
  2. Being a mid-level manager, I have a high salary. At least I think I have a high salary. Certainly posted in Rome, where the so-called "post adjustment" (a way to adjust the salary to the local cost of living) is very high.
    Some of my colleagues would disagree with me. They would say that we are paid far less than if we would hold equal positions (with the same level of responsibilities) in the commercial world. I don't think this is an appropriate comparison. For me, my own conscience is the measure I go by. It is a fact, we will never get rich with our salary, but I still measure it by the fact that it costs about 25 cents to feed a child for a day. A lot of children could be fed with my salary. Does the work I do, make enough difference in the overall scope of things, to justify this salary?
    That is a struggle I think of day by day. Independently from the fact that yes, we make our own sacrifices: many of us live away from our families, travel on a moments notice, move home every two to four years, do sometimes put ourselves in harm's way, but hey, that is part of the line of work we have chosen. That is the type of life we like to live. Me, for one, would not like it any other way...
But apart from that, I never felt guilt for how I spend my off-time, for the time I spend with my loved ones. And the way I choose to spend the money I earned, i.e. rather than saving it, "living life now", including taking my family on holidays, that is my choice... No guilt on that.


Mats 14 April, 2008 18:01  

Would never even think of being guilty for getting paid for the work I do. To go see my family it will cost me about a 1000 USD each time. At the most crazy time I saw my wife 50 days in one year as I was on the road all the time. Am I feeling guilty because I can enjoy a few short moments in a nice place with my family... Never.. Right now I have not seen my 1 year old son for a month. Meanwhile he turned one started to walk.. What is that worth to see... Priceless! did i see my 10 year old daughter grow up.. no.. To see that happen.. priceless! Meanwhile I have seen my parents and brother 3 times in 4 years. Most people take all that for granted. For not being able to be everywhere I should be for my family, that I feel guilty about...

Ellen 14 April, 2008 18:27  

Yep.. the familiar discussions we have over here in the Netherlands too..
The popular opinion is that executives of the non-profits shouldn't earn 'high' salaries (where, as you say, 'high' is in no way comparable to those in the commercial field)..
Where, in fact, shouldn't we all want that those non-profits are lead in the best possible way? If it takes a bigger salary to make sure that non-profit is run in the most efficient way, than that's how it is..

IMHO, we all lead the life we were meant to be, do the best we can. There is absolutely no use in comparing yourself to others, feeling guilty that you're not doing as much.. Whether your work is directly in the field, 365 days a year or being a fundraiser (as I am) at a distance.

I personally am convinced that my talents and experience have the highest impact (and with that, help more people) at the very place I am right now.

And yes, that means a significant lower salary than I would earn (and have earned) in the commercial sector. That means I don't get to see my precious loved ones as much as I'd like. But what I do in my free time, is absolutely my business, and no-one else's..

In your case: your ski or sailing trips are what you need to give it your best at your work. And that's what counts, isn't it!??

Peter 15 April, 2008 10:48  

Thanks Mats and Ellen!


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