Aid workers

Peace & Security13 Jun 2011Thea Hilhorst

Aid workers are a beautiful subject for anthropology: they mediate ideas about aid and development and they are the frontline folks that translate programmes into reality. Two books were recently published about them. Anne Meike Fechter and Heather Hindman edited Inside the everyday lives of development workers: the challenges and futures of aidland (Kumarian) and David Mosse edited Adventures in Aidland. The anthropology of professionals in international development (Berghahn).

At the conference there are quite a few presentations on aid workers in the humanitarian field. The opening session by Michael Barnett suggested that professionalism has taken over from moral and humanitarian values to legitimise aid. Listening to some of the presentations, however, gives one the impression that professionalization of the sector has progressed less than we like to believe. Kirsten Johnson’s presentation on volunteers in medical emergency work was quite a horror story of unprofessional and unethical behaviour. The calls to further professionalize the field are getting louder.

I also attended a panel on the life world of aid workers. Rachana Patni of Brunel University interviewed nationals working for international agencies. She quoted one of them saying:

“I am only accepted as a refined beneficiary, not as a competent fellow human being, … what they think they have to learn from me is about the community, nothing else! For me community is the group I work with, for them, I am the community.”

No matter how well we train international aid workers, everything starts with respect for the people they work for and with, not in the least local colleagues.