This week’s post is written by J, a humanitarian aid worker, novelist and prolific blogger whose sites include Tales from the Hood, AidSpeak, and co-creating Stuff Expat Aid Workers Like. To stay up-to-date with J’s aid-related writing, commentary, and fiction, check out his Evil Genius website, facebook and twitter pages.
Two weeks. That’s how long it takes, on average, for the so-called high performing and indispensable aid worker to be forgotten. You know, the one who knew the local language and culture so well they were “practically local”? Or the one who threw the fabulous parties, or the one who always knew who in the host government to ask for what. Or maybe it was the one who—by sheer force of will or expertise—managed to accomplish what no one else had prior.
Everyone else was certain this person was irreplaceable, that the office or programme just could not go on without him or her. And you know what? Within ten working days – just two weeks – their old office or cubicle had already been reassigned, IT had reformatted their old computer, and their old position had either been refilled or their responsibilities divvied up among those left behind.
I once knew a guy who got blindsided by a downsize dressed up as a restructure. It was a shitty way for the organization to move him along, and everyone felt it. Staff were incensed and outraged in the coffee room. He’d had a long and illustrious career. He had wisdom. He had institutional memory. Things that took newbies months to figure out, he knew offhand. How could the department go on without him?
But then his last day happened. We all attended his awkward farewell where the very people who engineered his unceremonious departure waxed eloquent about his contributions over the years (and they were significant). And then it was over and he was gone, and we all went back to our emails and our expense reports. The world didn’t end, operations didn’t grind to a halt, and programmes and grants continued to run or not run—just as they had when he was still in the organization.
About two weeks later, IT needed an Ethernet cable from his old cubicle. We all had to stop and think: where had he sat? Was it the cubicle right next to the pillar, or the one just over from it?
Not quite as long ago, I was faced with a situation where I needed to (as I like to say nowadays) create the conditions whereby a particular long-time staff member could make good life choices. Once the inevitable was apparent to all, I had a steady stream of national and international colleagues through my office and email inbox with essentially the same message: How would we ever survive without _________? This person knew “everything” and “everybody”, knew which levers to pull and when. So much rested on his shoulders.
Yet, in much the same way, his last day came and went. His colleagues returned to their proposal formats and their coordination meetings. Some things were a challenge at first – this person truly did do a lot. But some things were much easier, too.
Within about two weeks, the office and team had either filled in the spaces or worked around them, and work was back to a new normal.
I, also, have been in roles that I poured myself into. I am proud to say that I have been sent on mission into situations that were terrible, due to poor leadership prior to my arrival, and by any objective measure were in good shape by the end: things were falling apart when I got there, and ticking over like a brand new Bentley when I left. Or maybe I simply held down the fort and kept the beleaguered team on track during some incredibly tough times, until reinforcements could arrive. In some of those situations I, too, succumbed to the mistaken belief that I was doing what few others could. It is in our nature to want to believe that the show cannot go on without us, that we are somehow irreplaceable.
In each mission, the day rolls around when it is over, and I leave. Sometimes there is a tearful/awkward farewell, replete with colleagues and newfound friends alike pledging their undying loyalty. We friend each other on social media, we vow to stay in touch.
Within about two weeks, the emails and the Skype chats slow, and maybe cease altogether.
Perhaps the most serious and common mistake that I see aid workers of all ages and stripes make, is simply to lack perspective and awareness about the real value of their contribution to their organizations and to the humanitarian enterprise in general. Something about humanitarian culture makes us all want to believe a personal fable: that no one else can do what we do at the level at which we do it. This all plays out in two immediately recognizable and interrelated ways.
First, the aid worker who takes every opportunity to make the point that she or he is the only one in the conversation who works hard, who gets the issues, or who hasn’t somehow sold out. This person is on the more-ethical-than-thou side of every issue, big or small, and is constantly frustrated with the organization or the industry for failing to be at their level.
Second, the aid worker who can never switch off. This person’s relationships are often under stress, and they very often have physical and sometimes mental health issues as a result of the fact that they just never stop working. You receive an email from this person with a 3:00 a.m. timestamp, even when they’re not under deadline. Mission after mission, weekend after weekend, 18-hour day after 18-hour day, they don’t stop to take a break or eat a decent meal. There is always another urgent WhatsApp message to reply to or briefing to write. They’ll almost always deny this if asked directly, but the basic underlying mentality is that the machine will grind to a halt and refugees will suffer if they slow down for even a moment.
And so, if I could be indulged to dispense some unsolicited advice, it would be: Keep in mind that it will take a maximum of two weeks for your office or team or organization to move on after you leave. If you were to be fired or resign tomorrow, the most you can expect is that after two weeks, your colleagues will still tell stories about you at the local relief zone watering hole. This means you can relax, turn the self-importance dial back a few notches, and manifest some genuine humility. You’re not the only smart one on the team. Turn off your computer and leave the office. The world won’t end if you work sustainable hours.
This is not license to slack off or be complacent about issues that matter. Obviously there are times when you do have to stay late to meet a deadline—just as there are times when you really do have to hold the line over a matter of principle. But if all you do is work late or throw down over every issue, then perhaps you need to have a think about your relationship with this career path. Before you verbally dismember your colleague over a perspective or action you disagree with, or before you decide that it’s only 8:00 p.m., so you’ll work one more hour, take a moment to reconnect with the reality of how long it will take for your team to move on, should you quit and walk out the door right now: Two weeks.