What’s weird in the Professional Humanitarian Sector?

Entering a new profession when you don’t know the jargon, the particular culture that defines it, the structures of how things work, can be shocking.  That shock quickly wears off as pretty quickly everything starts to appear ‘normal’.


Here are five things that totally shocked me when I first started out.


  1. Fundraising Fundraising or sales is something that is not recognised as a valid way of spending charity money. Yes, that’s right. For a charity to survive it needs to fundraise, but it is not acceptable for charities to spend money on fundraising, marketing, social media, relationship management. As a result a lot of charities try to hide these costs in the way they show their accounts. See Dan Pallotta, a former CEO of a successful charity give his take in his TED talk.
  2. Interns and volunteers Most are privileged, middle class, and with parental financial backing. They are the ones who can afford to formally volunteer and work for free for a while. The UK’s National Council for Voluntary Organisations also found this to be something of an issue. Here is an overview of a report they published about lack of diversity amongst those who formally volunteer in the sector.
  3. Career Humanitarianists live like Kings The career humanitarian professional leads a life that includes eating out at top restaurants, living in elite accommodation, having access to the British or other clubs, hanging out with diplomats, has a cleaning lady and a nanny, and send their kids to elite international schools. See this article about living the life of an expat development professionaland this one which argues that it all comes with the terrain. Whatever the truth of the matter, it is definitely a tempting, luscious and addictive lifestyle.
  4. Old Boys Club? Western humanitarian professionals are usually at the top of the tree and don’t speak native languages. They work through translators, and local hires. Senior types tend to be men. This creates a situation of group think, an in-tribe, and echo chamber culture.  Dangerous when a few foreign people hold so much visible power. See the recent Oxfam article about the ‘boys club’culture British charities have. Oxfam also published its own internal investigation about an Oxfam sexual scandal in Haiti which you can find here.
  5. Cynicism A lot of international development workers get cynical about their roles in the whole international aid cycle. Where does all the money go they ask? Are we really making a difference? Are we part of the problem? These questions are often dinner tabled, and at times spill over into things like the World Humanitarian Summit. At bottom we do want to make the world a better place, but are we willing to give something up so someone else can have more? Anand Giridharadas has an interesting take on this in his bestselling book  Winners Take All.


These are just a few of the things that I found weird.  At some point I started using all the local jargon and parroting the group think when I was in group situations.  In the early days I’d often throw in an alternative thought, but I got accused of being racist or having a chip on my shoulder. So, I did that less and less.


Happy Saving the World People.


Merry Xmas and Ho!Ho!Ho!



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