This passage from Tony Vaux’s book The Selfish Altruist came to mind while observing an exchange on Twitter regarding aid agencies and their “institutional humility” (whatever that may be), and their apparent need to be able to claim to be “listening, learning organizations.”
Tony Vaux worked with Oxfam Great Britain for twenty-seven years and for a time was involved in the Sudan as Oxfam GB’s coordinator of global emergency programs. In this passage, Vaux describes how aid workers in southern Sudan—mostly male—allowed their preferences and fantasies to dictate their actions and decisions. He witnessed male aid workers become carried away by the pastoral culture in which they were operating:
…The men eat blood-soaked grain and drink milk. They have to endure terrifying initiation ceremonies. The women and children often go hungry, but they are out of the way. For aid workers, especially for males, the combination of an exotic pastoral society and the excitement of war can be an intoxicating mixture. We may forget that we are to help those in need, not to admire those who seem to fulfil our fantasies. It is not easy to be impartial without knowing how and why we react. But if we do not know these things, we may find ourselves advocating aid programs for people whom we say are in need, but really we simply like. Self-knowledge is the prerequisite of humanity.
There is a lot of ‘masculinity’ in emergency work, and some ‘femininity’ in development. The business of ‘saving lives’, especially in a war zone, has a great deal of attraction for a man, and relief workers often talk of an adrenalin surge when the action gets tough, especially when they are living in danger. Some become addicted to it and are listless without the excitement. An African woman recently told me how appalled she was, after the Rwanda genocide, to find Western aid workers yearning for more and more dire events so that they could prove their prowess.
If the objective is to prove oneself, it follows that other people’s advice and support is an admission of weakness. Such an attitude separates the aid worker from the need to listen or to extend the circle of knowledge, especially to women. Male aid workers can be fiercely competitive and seem to gain greater pleasure from proving themselves … than helping those in need.
A harsh critique, perhaps, but something to think about. From my end, now that I finally have time to pay attention to current conversations, I was slightly surprised that these are still things that are being wrestled with as a matter of method and policy. (Only slightly, though.) I thought this quote, and Vaux’s book, would make interesting and useful reading for those participating in these conversations. It’s a short and very readable, well-written book. So, this post is really just food for thought.
The citation for the above quote is: Tony Vaux, The Selfish Altruist: Relief Work in Famine and War (London: Earthscan Publications Ltd, 2001) p. 72.
This is drawn from research I did for a paper about underage refugee girls in Southern Sudan for a class at Yale (Women and Gender in African History). The paper was entitled “The Lost Girls of Sudan: An Ethnographic Analysis of the Cultural Practice of Bridewealth in a War-Torn Society.”