Tales from the Hood


Survey: Who are the aid workers and what are they really doing? | 

Editor’s note: What do we know about the people who actually ‘do’ aid? Not much, apparently. The anonymous aid worker known variously as J. or @TalesFromthHood is working on a project with Elon University sociology professor Thomas Arcaro to change that. Take the survey!

No, this is not aid work. Last week, soccer superstar David Beckham, via UNICEF, met with survivors of the Philippines typhoon Haiyan.
No, this is not aid work. Last week, soccer superstar David Beckham, via UNICEF, met with survivors of the Philippines typhoon Haiyan.

By J., guest contributor

You’ve got to admit that there’s a certain level of irony in the lack of any kind of systematic, evidence-based study of humanitarian workers. It’s ironic in two different ways.

First, there’s probably no other industry that puts more emphasis—at least at the level of professional discourse—on understanding culture, host communities, specific demographic groups, and so on, than the global community of humanitarian aid and development practitioners.

We’re kind of obsessed with context, culture, community, and finding ways to shape interventions which make sense and are effective. We agonize for weeks or maybe months over how to introduce birth-spacing in rural Afghanistan, say, or how to get people to cook differently in the Sahel. As we should. It is fully the aid community’s doctrine that “we shall respect culture and custom.”

But doesn’t it strike you as a bit odd that we don’t spend much time trying to understand aid and development workers (including those who sit in offices around the world, doing the unsexy work of making the spreadsheet cells calculate properly, or getting the report into the proper format)? They’re an important—a crucial, even—ingredient in the overall aid formula.

Without them, aid work doesn’t get done. Wouldn’t it be useful to know what makes them tick? Continue reading

Book Review: Missionary, Mercenary, Mystic, Misfit | 

M4 Version 5Attempts to fictionalize humanitarian work have managed to fail on the level of garnering public interest and on the accuracy of living as an expat aid worker.

The Grey’s Anatomy-goes-to-South-America failure better known as Off the Map lasted all of 13 episodes. The few aid workers that tuned in gleefully tweeted criticisms of the melodramatic plot and portrayal of aid work.

Anonymous aid worker J emerges as a person with long humanitarian experience using fiction to capture the frustrations and politics that make up aid work while telling a gripping story.

Missionary, Mercenary, Mystic, Misfit picks up with aid worker heroine Mary-Anne who left Haiti behind for her next assignment at the Dolo Ado refugee camp in Ethiopia. Her partner, Jean-Philippe, the object of her torrid affair in Haiti which drove the plot for the prior Disastrous Passion, is traveling around East Africa on a separate assignment.

The pair that fell so deeply in love in Haiti are under stress due to the physical distance and the pressures of the work on their lives. An experienced and older Oxfam aid worker named Jon Langstrom joins the cast as the new leading man and the potential love interest for Mary-Anne who finds herself pulled to this man who seemingly has his life together.

J’s previous life was spent as a popular aid blogger at Tales From the Hood. In the year and a half since J hung up his blogging shoes, he launched a social media site for aid workers called Aid Source, co-produced the popular and irreverent Stuff Expat Aid Workers Like andwrote two humanitarian fiction novels. Continue reading

Tales from the Hood takes up my holiday challenge | 

I’m still on holiday break but I wanted to publish this guest post from “Tales from the Hood,” an aid worker-blogger who has provided many of us with great insights and perspective from inside the humanitarian industry.

“Tales” was posted anonymously, in part to avoid causing trouble for his organization or himself. But this was also because he cares about promoting knowledge and understanding more than his personal brand.

Tales is now moving on to new things, putting the blog to bed. I’m not alone in seeing this as a loss and so I hope to convince him to continue posting here on Humanosphere.

For a start, here’s his answer to my holiday query in which I ask if we are entering a new phase for humanity in which the concept of “charity” needs to be reconfigured and if we need some new lingo for these folks we call philanthropists, humanitarians or, worse, do-gooders.


Tales from the Hood:

Three things I wish more “ordinary people” understood about humanitarian aid:

1) It’s possible to do aid wrong. There’s always some woman at the Christmas party who, once she discovers what I do for a living, wants to talk my ear off about some awful idea she has about how to help poor children in El Salvador or Cambodia. She’s watched the Brian Williams “Make A Difference” segments, maybe Googled a few things, and now she’s got it all figured out. Then she gets somewhere between hurt and mad when I tell her that her idea won’t work. It’s clearly come as a surprise for her to learn that it’s possible to do aid wrong. Continue reading

Why do aid workers like to cut off their nose to spite their face? | 

Flickr, Vaughan


I’ve always liked that phrase, about cutting off your nose to get back at your face. It’s both wonderfully absurd and so bloody descriptive of our tendency to act against our own interests.

Today, I want to defend aid and development workers against themselves.

To be clear, I am not really an expert on this stuff. I am a journalist and, I accept, a lower form of life with no special insights into … well, much of anything.

Worse, as someone of Scandinavian bent, I am predisposed to holding a relatively bleak view of humanity and distrusting those who smile too much and/or claim they’re primarily motivated to help others.

Yet my job is to write about these folks who aspire to reduce global poverty, prevent deaths from unacceptably stupid causes like dirty water or lack of basic preventive health measures like vaccination — and generally keep slogging along trying to make the world a better place for the poor, for all of us.

I have to admit I am, despite myself, constantly amazed, encouraged and even inspired by these people.

So what the heck is their problem?

Why do they keep flogging themselves, even celebrating those who criticize and ridicule them? Why are they so passionate and engaged about what’s wrong with what they do? Continue reading