I've Got The Aid Worker Blues

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March 19th 2006
Published: March 19th 2006
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Although my Dad would surely disagree, I don't consider myself an idealist. I came to Banda Aceh because I felt my skills would be useful and I would get work/personal experience that I couldn't get back in New York. I wanted to be in a motivating environment and part of something extraordinary and unique - the rebuilding of a region after the greatest natural disaster in present history.

The reality is, well, different. And there's been a few things I've discovered recently that i've had to reconcile personally:

FACT: The Humanitarian Aid Industry is a big, highly profitable business.

FACT: Aceh got $6 billion dollars for reconstruction, to be spent in about 18 months. (Imagine having to spend a million dollars at the deli down the street, in about 10 minutes.)

FACT: I am not working directly with the community.

Okay, so those are the shocking facts that took me 4 months to figure out.

In some ways, I don’t mind so much about the first fact. I am a capitalist and so I believe in the power of business. If the aid business couldn't sustain itself and grow, it wouldn't be around to help

Doctor, friend and longtime aid worker. I attended a ceremony where Atilio and his team signed over a Midwife Clinic to a village. It was so uplifting to be there that day.
anybody, least alone itself. Like it or not, right now it’s the best system we have to let people help other people.

Unfortunately, the huge scale of money donated to Aceh and tight timeline in which to spend it has put the ugly side of this business on full display here. All the agencies here, including mine, are competing for the same two things - communities to provide support to and resources with which to do it (financial, materials and employees). In the crush of all this, it feels like the reason why we are all here is sometimes forgotten. There are many examples of where the best interest of the Acehnese people collide with business sense and the varying results directly affect my ever-changing feeling about the reconstruction effort here. Last week - felt desperately frustrated. This week - feeling hopeful.

So, what this all boils down to, as always, is me. My job is challenging and interesting, but I’m not getting a sense of satisfaction from it that I expected. Or maybe now, seeing what is possible, I expect more. I see my colleagues’ work having a direct and positive impact - and I want that
Copacabana Club, New York CityCopacabana Club, New York CityCopacabana Club, New York City

When I'm feeling blue, I make myself feel worse by checking the Copa's calendar. Oscar DeLeon is performing next month. Arrgh!! What I wouldn't give to be there, just one night.
too. Is that selfish and self-serving? Maybe. I mean, what skills do I actually have? I’m not a doctor or an engineer. I know I should be (and am) quite grateful to be on the administration/management fast track with my organization. But instead I look forward to my outside-of-work volunteer opportunities - playing Bingo at the old age home; games with the neighborhood kids; supporting the local dance group. Things that I can put my heart into and see the result in front of me. Do I want to go in the direction of planning/implementing programs? I don’t know...I never saw myself as a programs person. God, send me a sign here. Or at least an email.

Additional photos below
Photos: 5, Displayed: 5


Smiles of SatisfactionSmiles of Satisfaction
Smiles of Satisfaction

Members of our Livelihood team, who proudly share in the success of the village sewing business they helped create.

Apparently, people here have never heard of it, but the old folks caught on quick. You are looking at the very first Bingo winner in Aceh!

19th March 2006

Another step
Fascinating perspective and experience. What to do except to use this as another tool to get to where you really want to go, just another step on a long journey.
21st March 2006

very interesting to hear a fuller scope of your experience Erica. was all of this brewing around while you were on vacation, were thise thoughts formulating while you were having another perspective, being away? did you get a sign? xx
22nd March 2006

Cousin S's bro
Hey Erica, I've been reading your experiences for a while and have enjoyed them immensely. What a great experience you are having! Seems like you've been having some real personal and professional revelations. Keep up the posts. You could probably turn them into a book someday.
23rd March 2006

Inspiring thoughts
Erica, I always enjoy reading your entries. You are challenging the norms of the aid industry and involving yourself in things (outside of work) that are impacting the community greatly. Your love and respect for Acehenese people fantastic! Can't wait to follow in your footsteps in a few short weeks.

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