5 Insane Things I Learned as a Foreign Aid Worker

#2. We Donate the Wrong Things

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The oversimplification that the aid agencies perpetuate is that if the public gives them money, they will help a particular poor child. They might even send you a kid's picture to reinforce the idea that money equals helping one person in need.

World Vision
Usually the village stock models.

The reality is that there are an almost infinite number of steps between one person's donation and the final beneficiary. At the end of the day, it's not possible for an agency to target one vulnerable kid; it's just not practical. They have to work with local structures that have their own agendas. But, it makes for a nice ad campaign that tugs on the old heartstrings.

And that is made necessary by the fact that there is such a massive gap in understanding between the people who need help and the people who are being prodded to actually provide it. Even once the money is in play, it's easy to blow it on the wrong thing. We like to come in as the advanced, enlightened Westerners there to bring the help that these backward villagers didn't even know they needed. In reality ... yeah, you really have to listen to them.

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"Digging a well sounded like it would take a lot of energy, so we thought espresso maker!"

We were working with a foreign public health aid agency, and they wanted to bring this fancy system to the islands that would let doctors there send tests back to the U.S. to get really quick results. As cool as that sounded, the local medical professionals just wanted help building a better system for tracking their patients across the islands. That's all -- fishermen just pop off in their boats and sail to new islands all the time, spreading whatever disease they had. It was so obvious that the agency had missed it altogether -- which is easy to do, when you're from a western country where the vast majority of your patients have addresses and cell phones, and it's actually considered weird when somebody just takes off and disappears. But the islanders didn't need a high-tech miracle cure -- they just needed better record-keeping.

This "the locals know best" concept is hard to grasp in light of all of the talk of corruption above. Yet, often the most effective aid you can give people is cold, hard cash, with no strings attached.

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Apparently, the secret weapon against worldwide poverty is far less complex than you'd think.

That's right -- you might expect handing out lump sums of money would just markedly increase the quality of recipient's televisions and, briefly, their liquor cabinets. But the government of Uganda actually tested this theory on a group of 12,000 citizens, and they found most aid recipients spent their windfall on such extravagances as school and starting a small business. People who got the aid were 65 percent more likely to practice a skilled trade. Four years later they earned 41 percent more than their peers who didn't get the benefit of a big, meaty stimulus package.

#1. Feeling Sorry for People Is a Dick Move

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When I was about three years into my stint, I had the misfortune of visiting a village that was in the midst of severe famine. I just lost it. Cue tears and Sarah McLachlan music. "What's the harm in a bit of emotion and sympathy?" I hear my younger self ask. The answer is, a whole lot. These people have to live that, and my reaction pissed them off. Walk into a friend's house for the first time and immediately burst into tears, see how they take it.

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Get the full experience by telling their kids they'll be with Jesus soon.

By getting all worked up and theatrical, I was treating these folks like the cast in my own heroic drama. They didn't want sympathy, they wanted solutions, and all I achieved with my outburst was reminding them of how shitty their life was compared to mine. So, no, helping those less fortunate isn't about shedding tears and letting them touch your heart -- you actually have to get to a point where you're numb enough to block out emotional onslaught and just treat it as noise. There's work to be done.

I should mention, by the way, that drug and alcohol abuse is rampant among the aid workers I've been around. That's often because they're trying to find some strategy that helps them avoid melting down in front of these people (hey, at least there's nothing disrespectful about brooding over a whiskey bottle). It's the people who can't throw off the "heroic savior" mentality who cause more problems.

Dan Kitwood/Getty Images News/Getty Images
Meaning no matter how much dried food you brought, resist the urge to introduce yourself as "The one the prophecies spoke of."

Once, there was a Peace Corps volunteer who came to help at our hospital. She was a very gung-ho type, and that's great. But she also acted like her ideas were strokes of genius she was bestowing upon the ignorant peasants. Weren't these people just so lucky she was there? For example, she wanted to initiate a measure where everyone would use alcohol hand wash as soon as they entered the building. It was a fine idea, but her attitude caused even the locals who had already been using it to stop, just to spite her.

So that's one thing we do have in common, all over the world. Nobody likes being treated as the victim or feeding somebody else's savior complex.


Mark Hipwood worked as an aid worker for fifteen years. He has compiled an anthology of short stories about living and working in the Pacific Islands. It's called London Via Banana, and you can grab it here.

Related Reading: Other things you might have to do helping in foreign countries? Reviving a corpse so you don't become one yourself. Of course jobs here are unsavory also, especially when you're asked for underwear soaked in menstrual blood. Have a story to share with Cracked? Email us here.

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