Life after aid work: Heading for the exit

Somali mother and child in 1992 in a refugee camp in Kenya, where Rabe worked for UNHCR. Photo by: Nathan Rabe

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.

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About the author

  • Oped naterabe

    Nate Rabe

    Nate Rabe, an India born American/Australian, began his aid career in the late 1980s with the U.N. in Pakistan. For nearly 30 years he worked in senior roles in the field and in the headquarters of international NGOs including Mercy Corps, Oxfam, Save the Children and the Red Cross. He recently decided to leave the aid sector to pursue his writing and photography, a process he documents in his blog Life After Aid. His second novel, "The Shah of Chicago" is due to be published later in 2016. He currently lives and works out of Melbourne Australia.