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Rethinking the Role of International Aid Workers

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I feel the mood of the room dropping slightly as they listen to my presentation. It's probably not a message this particular crowd wants to hear as I stand here speaking to an audience full of international aid workers who have spent the past few years tirelessly trying to alleviate poverty abroad. And, despite my deep conviction in the truth of my message (and the occasional heads nodding in agreement), I feel guilty for blatantly informing such well-intentioned souls that perhaps their help wasn't all that helpful.

This isn't the first time that I've felt this awkward twinge of guilt lately. In fact, throughout the past three weeks of my cross-country book tour for my recently released memoir, Beyond Good Intentions: A Journey Into the Realities of International Aid, I have on more than one occasion felt like I needed to add the title "Chief Party Pooper" to my business card. My message about the failures of international aid and the myriad ways that it needs to be improved is an important one, but not necessarily one that everyone wants to hear.

I wasn't always such a party pooper. In fact, back in 2002, when I first entered the field of international aid I was a classic bleeding heart, ready and eager to make the world a better place. My interest in aid was likely sparked by a mix of influences including the deep sense of injustice I felt whenever I encountered poverty, an inner determination to use my life as a force for good and, of course, all those Sally Struthers infomercials from the '80s. So I signed up to work with Save the Children and hurried off to Dadaab refugee camp in Kenya, full of hope and grand humanitarian aspirations to make a difference.

Luckily, it didn't take long before my naïve dreams of saving the world received a much-needed reality check. During my stint with Save the Children, a refugee boy had the courage to confront my good intentions by informing me that the aid simply wasn't working. "Do you really think that you have the answer to our problems?" he probed. His moment of honesty, which is chronicled in my book, turned my entire life around. Soon after that encounter, I embarked on a quest that has spanned the past decade of my life, as I've searched for answers about how international aid can be more effective.

Sadly, during my search for answers I've discovered that the so-called "good industry" is more flawed than I expected. And when stories like the recent New York Times report on the scandals surrounding Wyclef Jean's aid organization in Haiti surface, my feelings of frustration and jadedness grow. At times the problems with international aid seem insurmountable.

Fortunately, there's also hope. As I've engaged with readers these past three weeks during my various book tour stops, I've shared with them some of the glimmers of hope I've found in the world of social change. However, as I've recounted these stories, it has struck me that very few of my stories of successful development involve the presence of outsiders. In most cases, they don't. Locally-initiated and locally-led development seems to be a rather consistent recipe for effective aid. Not surprisingly, the handful of foreign aid workers in the audience often end up asking some variant of the question, "Great... but what about us? What's our role?" It's a question that I'm still struggling to answer.

There are, of course, both good and bad international aid workers. The bad ones are easy to spot. You're more likely to find them at the expat country club filled with other alleged "do-gooders" than patiently sitting with the relevant stakeholders in the field and listening carefully to their stories and priorities. The bad ones generally don't speak the local language (or even try to learn it), they rarely stay for more than a year or two as they prefer "country hopping" over immersing themselves in a single culture or community for the long haul, and they typically spend more time talking about making an impact (usually at fancy conferences in expensive hotels) than actually making an impact. For those aid workers, my only suggestion is, please stay home. Your "help" isn't helping.

But what about the good international aid workers? What about the ones who approach their work with deep humility, respect, and a focus on being of true service to the communities they're working with? What's the most appropriate and effective role for them?

My answers to the good aid workers sitting in this room don't seem sufficient.
In the past, I probably would have told them to stay home, too. The developing world will likely be just fine without them. But as I speak to some of them after my presentation, I can sense an undeniably strong desire among these aid workers to be of genuine service to the world. And while I still end up telling them to consider working here in their own country or to simply "be a bridge" by connecting grassroots organizations abroad to the necessary financial resources they need to pursue their own development goals, I can't help but wonder if such answers are squelching the impact of these potential global changemakers.

All I know for sure by the end of this event is that if we're going to improve the field of international development, we need to completely rethink how aid workers can be of greatest service to the communities they intend to help.