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There’s a debate in the aid worker wellness sphere about self-care: “Is self-care all you need, or is there something more that your unhappiness is pointing towards that needs fixing?” I’m paraphrasing here, but you can Google it yourself if you’re interested. It seems to me to be a bit of a false argument, since the answers to these questions are pretty obvious to those of us in the field.

Of course, self-care isn’t all you need. We don’t live in a vacuum. But I’m not sure anyone actually said that, so the answer is: no.

And yes, if you actually work in aid, of course there’s something more that needs fixing, some underlying problem contributing to your unhappiness. It’s called aid.

No one who has worked three months in the aid industry thinks that it’s a perfect system. If it was, wouldn’t we have fixed poverty and inequality and health and education and ecosystem degradation and fill-in-the-blank by now?

Of course, the system is broken. It’s built on post-colonial, paternalistic ways of thinking, an outdated charity model and the assumption that everyone in the world must want what we “developed” or industrialized countries have.

I’m not saying we should scrap it and start over. I’m just being realistic.

But, rather than encourage you to find another job (wasn’t this one hard enough to get already?) or buy a coaching package (no comment), I have a proposal to make. But before I get there, let’s go over the Expat Backup basics.

First of all, self-care is the bedrock of wellness. Period. Try telling me you can be effective and efficient — not to mention happy or healthy — when you’re sleep deprived, dehydrated, upset with your boss and haven’t had a weekend in months.


Let’s focus on the second part of this idea, that the problem is your job. I mean…yes. The problem is your job. Your job is trying to do something really difficult by using outdated tools and hierarchical, centralized ways of working that we knew were broken when the Internet started happening. It’s trying to solve systemic and sociocultural issues in a very unequal global system by tackling things in silos, one issue at a time and often while prioritizing the economic or political gain of the country footing the bill.

So, of course you’re frustrated. And of course, your project isn’t likely having the effect of fixing things that you thought it would have. And, on top of that, maybe your coworkers don’t give a shit.

Like we know, aid is broken. It’s okay, it’s just something we have to acknowledge and accept so we can move on to fixing it. Because if you’re reading this, you care about solving the problems you came here to fix, and quitting should not be an option.

My purpose here is not to take down aid, but to help us open our eyes and admit difficult truths so that we can change them. We can’t fix something unless we know it’s broken, right?

And here’s where my challenge to you comes in – and my challenge to anyone who wants to point at the system and tell you it’s not your fault.

I’m here to challenge you to take a stand, because I know from experience — and I’m guessing, so do you — that to buy into the “you’re depressed because you’re in the wrong job” assumption is wrong for several reasons.

First, aid jobs are hard to get. Anyone who tells you otherwise hasn’t tried. There are so many of us, and only so many jobs that pay well and give benefits and last longer than a year. Most aid workers I know spend months out of work, looking for their new assignments — or end up in more difficult postings than they wanted, because times are tight (Pakistan, Afghanistan, you know what I mean).

Second, and more importantly, aid is broken, so of course your job is too. Built on a mislaid foundation, how could it be anything but? Blame whatever or whoever you want, but that doesn’t get you out of your — and my — and all of our — responsibility to fix it.

Instead of running away and throwing your hands up in despair because the world isn’t perfect and your job isn’t perfect and everything is probably really shit, I challenge you to stay. Just like there are problems that need fixing with aid, your job needs fixing too. This is what you signed up for.

Take a stand.

Stick it out.

Fix it yourself.

It’s kind of like the situation we’re in with the planet. If you don’t do it, who will?

You are a thinking, feeling part of the aid industry, and it is within your power to transform the parts of your job that need changing as it is to fulfill your job description.

And here’s where my tough love gets better. It’s not as hard as it sounds: fixing the parts of your job that drive you crazy. Because chances are, you know how to do it already. You know what needs changing. You’re just not sure how to do it — or if you can succeed.

So, if you’re frustrated because your job, your project, your organization or your team aren’t working, here is what I do:

1. Up the self-care.

You are going nowhere until you are resourced, healthy and happy. Also, no one wants to play with a cranky team member, so this is for their good as much as it is your own. For more detailed guidance on how to do this, see what I’ve written elsewhere.

2. Get strategic.

Where is the biggest pain point for you right now? Is it your boss? Your organization’s HR? The fact that it seems you’ll never get a permanent contract? Your project? Your stakeholders? How (or if) you measure the impact of your interventions? , The quality or absence of partner organizations? The quality or absence of academic rigor underscoring what you do?

Pick one pain point that is giving you the most grief, and focus on that until you change it. Do not, I repeat, do not try to tackle everything at once. It won’t work and will backfire on you spectacularly. Just stay focused on one thing at a time until it’s done.

3. Learn your problem.

Study the issue. Research everything you can about it, all kinds of ways. Talk to people. Read stuff. Come at it from every angle you can think of. Enlist the advice of outside experts and impartial friends. Take your time and be patient. This step, done well, always pays off. In the last decade, quite a few aid organizations (big and small) have learned some tough lessons and achieved some notable, internal reforms. What can you learn from these?

4. Change your attitude.

I was going to write “battle plan,” but I dislike violent metaphors and it’s really important here to avoid opposition. We humans like to think in false binaries: female is the opposite of male, cat is the opposite of dog, blue is the opposite of pink. These tend to break down when looked at from a distance.

Also, as Einstein famously said, you can’t solve a problem at the level it was created. That means that opposing the thing you’re trying to change will not work. In fact, it will likely just make things worse. That’s not what we’re going for here.

What is required is to stop thinking about this as a problem at all. Stop judging it. Accept it and, if you can, have compassion for it. Love it, even. I’m serious. The energy and emotion you hold around this issue is important if you want lasting change to take root. A healthy plant will not grow in toxic soil.

5. Make a plan.

Knowing what you know, strategize ways you can start to fix it, shift it, change it, disrupt it. There are going to be many, many ways to do this, if you’ve done your research. Some of them — most of them — won’t work. Each failure brings you one step close to success.

You are going to need to be smart here. A good plan is always adjusting, always changing, pivoting and taking into account new data and new ways of doing things. Stay flexible, and hold your intention in your heart, certain of your success. Visualize it when you meditate, and let the joy of the change you see yourself making infuse everything you do. Intentions are far more powerful than we give them credit for in our material world. Trust me on that.

6. Hack aid.

No one is ever going to give you permission for this. You have to decide and do it for yourself. You have to be strategic and diplomatic, graceful and even kind. This is going to demand everything of you, but it’s worth it.

The world is waiting for aid to do what we say it does. You are in your job for a reason. You are exactly where you are supposed to be. Now pick up your power, and go make some change.


One last word from me before I leave you to it. You’re not alone. There are many of us, making things better. It’s no longer lonely, solitary work. We’re happy to see you stand with us — and welcome to the tribe.


And as always, sharing is caring, so if you know someone you think this might resonate with, please spread the love! And if you’d like to get Expat Backup delivered straight to your Inbox but haven’t subscribed yet, you can do that here.

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