Life after aid work: When the ground begins to shake

By Nate Rabe 26 January 2016

When this picture was taken in 1991, Nate Rabe was three years into his career as an international aid worker. He has his arm around Kak Mohammad, a Kurdish community leader in the Penjwin area of Iraqi Kurdistan where he was working. Photo courtesy of the author

A vague career roadmap I drafted after finishing my master’s in the late ‘80s had me ending up as a history professor. Having grown up in India and wanting to stay engaged in South Asian issues, the ivory tower seemed the most logical and easily realized option.

But chance intervened. In early 1988, I ditched my academic future in favor of a job offer from the United Nations. Within the span of a few months I went from having only a vague notion that “aid work” was a job category to heading up a large urban refugee program in Pakistan. It wasn’t until years later that I realized what a fluke it had been — to land a job in one of the more “sexy” careers in the world on my first attempt without so much as a face-to-face interview.

But those first exhilarating years were not without career anxiety. Contracts were always time limited. The possibility that it could all crash down around me anytime, forcing me to return to  driving a cab in Minneapolis — the job from which I’d been so surprisingly lifted in the first place — was ever present. Five years passed, with several longish gaps of unemployment, before I was confident enough to call myself a professional aid worker.

Anxiety over job security was soon replaced with other issues, which in the early scramble to “go anywhere, do anything” got brushed aside as easily as the wilted lettuce accompanying a mutton burger in Peshawar.

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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.


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