My experience in Angola ripped something out of me. And with the guts gone, all that remained was a career. Stripped of its moral trappings, aid work lost its luster. Yet I had invested 10 years or more of my life in understanding what the whole thing was about, I knew the lingo and I enjoyed the feeling of no longer being a novice. Even though I now saw aid in a less-than-glamorous light, I believed I had no option but to press on. All careers come with ladders, so I started to climb.
After five years of mid-level program work in the west, I signed up for another stint in the field — this time as country director for a big U.S.-based INGO in Central Asia. Some of the early career exhilaration did come back. I was able to build a team with competent people I respected and knew from other assignments. And being situated on the outskirts of a war-torn Afghanistan as well as a collapsed Soviet Union, there was political thuggery, moral dilemmas and opportunities to implement practical solutions galore. Angola may have scarred me, but it had toughened me up, too. I now understood that when you’re dealing with broken communities and fragile states, chaos, confusion and compromise are your inevitable and constant companions. Aid workers and NGOs are funded to get on with it.
But ultimately, field work is a single person’s game. Families (existing or emerging) tend not to survive places such as Tajikistan, Congo and Iraq. Being somewhat ambitious and wanting to start a family, I turned my attention to landing a job at headquarters, where I knew the movers and shakers made policy and set the agenda.
In observing the careers of my aid worker peers, those fabled crossroads appear exactly at the point when field work is no longer a viable option. Critical decisions have to be made for or against love, for or against health, for or against excitement, for or against stability. A few smart ones see the future for what it is and exit without too much angst. A decade of hard scrabble field work can be leveraged in any number of ways, especially if you still have a reservoir of energy and imagination to pursue other things. Most people, however, including me, opt to stay in and try their hand at management, or fancy they have what it takes to be “advisers” of one sort or another. They tell themselves they are willing to be “aid lifers” as long as they can still travel (no more than 25 percent of their time, please) and do something worthwhile.