I grew up in the aid industry as a “third culture kid” and the poverty in the countries where my family lived made a deep and lasting impression on me. I thrived in expensive international schools while acutely aware that the parents of families all around me struggled to pay for adequate nutrition and school uniforms for their children. As I got older, I saw expatriate adults act rudely and callously to people from our host country, which made me feel embarrassed and uncomfortable. As a university student in Cairo, I saw study-abroads lose patience with their practice of cultural sensitivity after a few months, excusing themselves because they were deep in the throes of culture shock. As a young adult working on international development projects, I started to see classism, racism and rudeness where I least expected it – and I began connecting the dots of the assumptions us “aid workers” make about ourselves and the free-passes we give ourselves for bad behavior.
Sometimes, as a young aid worker, I would speak up, but mostly I wouldn’t. I admit, I was afraid my opinions would impact whether people wanted me on their teams. But I started to observe expat aid worker friends and colleagues as they complained about their waiters, house cleaners or taxi drivers, loudly and in front of them, in a language the details of which the people being abused could not understand. I often said something in these cases to advocate for patience and empathy, but that person’s behavior usually didn’t change. If anything, I seemed to make tempers worse by drawing attention to it.
And sometimes, I do it too.
As aid workers, we say that we are “here to help” the people in our host countries. But we call it a “post” or an “assignment,” as if we’re on some special secret mission, and forget that we’re guests, welcomed and treated as trusted allies and often as friends by people in our host country.
By seeing ourselves constantly as the “helpers,” we often forget that we also need help, and that the work we’re doing is often more nuanced and complicated than an easy moral black-and-white. And also, we tend to forget that being of service includes being open to receiving support as well. When we are stressed and unconscious about ourselves and our actions, we are more likely to look down on someone in our host country who is poorer or more powerless than us, and we are more likely to be rude.
It’s not pretty.
Aid and development built on the idea of charity and of “I am helping you” creates a separation that openly tolerates this kind of rudeness. I’ve seen entire social cliques built upon the group’s ability to talk snidely and snarkily about how shit everything in their host country is. It feels horrible to be around that kind of aggressive and racist negativity.
Many of us live the lives of the elite 1% in our host countries, and have taken on scornful attitudes towards those who, quite literally, serve us. We see someone poorer than ourselves, and we feel superior and untouchable. If we’re better educated than them, or because we (obviously) speak better English, we get to call them stupid and mock them for not understanding. If we are challenged, angry or afraid, we take our stress out on weaker parts of the system and treat others with disrespect.
Being treated badly creates stress, which has an effect on how people carry themselves in relationship and in community – no mater your place in it. But passing off your stress on someone poorer than you only creates more violence in the system. When aid workers are triggered, especially those who don’t practice good self-care, it’s likely that they’ll take their frustration out by treating someone in the host country with disrespect. And that is not okay.
I’m not saying this to make you angry or defensive, because I think the trigger feeling applies to everyone, no matter where you are in a system. We all feel it. It’s a product of the way things are, impossible not to experience at some point. When I’m under stress and not feeling resourced, I’ve been rude to staff, policemen, housekeepers, taxi drivers, waiters, the list goes on…I’m embarrassed about it and it sucks. It’s violent and terrible. But I – and we – can stop and turn this around.
With compassion and an open heart, we see that we are all connected, and that bad treatment to another is also bad treatment to ourselves. We are not creating the more beautiful world our hearts know is possible when we act this way. This is not why we are here.
By becoming aware of this and identifying it as a problem, we open our minds and behavior to change. By stepping into gratitude and respect, we cultivate more helpful attitudes to be of service.
I want to point out just one more thing —impunity. Rudeness becomes violence when it is practiced with impunity — when no one else stands up to say, “Hey, stop that, it’s rude,” or “You should apologize, that was uncalled for,” — when no one takes a stand for a respectful and peaceful community. Calling rudeness when you see it can be done with compassion. We do not need to tolerate other aid workers expressing classicist, racist rudeness—even and especially if they are our friends. I mean it. If we are who we say we are, we need to stand up for the values that we say we stand for — non-violence, equality and compassion. Right now.
It starts with us. I’m not perfect, but the more I am aware of the issues of respectfulness in aid work, the more I am of true service to my host country and the people I am here to help.
I hope that my sharing this has sparked your own awareness about how to be a respectful aid worker. This is an important issue, and I’d love to hear what you think, so drop me an email at email@example.com. And if you’d like more Expat Backup in your life but haven’t subscribed already, you can do that here. Much love.