Why cash-strapped aid agencies should hire rookies: A rant

One dreads a civilian surge of highly paid westerners, spending all their time behind barricades in meetings with other westerners, drawing up work plans and draping themselves in red tape while dirt-poor Afghans look on in dismay.


I hear this same story, over and over: Western aid workers go to Afghanistan, ostensibly to do good, but then expect to have en suite bathrooms, receive high per diems,  not have to travel outside Kabul, and to get plenty of time off to sun themselves on the beaches in Southeast Asia and go sightseeing in Europe.

Hey, aid agencies! Here’s an idea: start hiring more first-timers.

I’m totally serious. Let me explain.

Newbie aid workers right out of school or with limited field experience are willing to work longer and with far fewer perks than many of those who’ve been in the game for years and years. I know this because I am an aspiring aid worker, and I would gladly work in a conflict zone for the equivalent of an entry-level NGO salary here in the US, as would numerous others in my position. [Disclosure: yes, this rant post is partly self-serving. Surprise!]

Conventional wisdom holds that the more difficult the environment, the more important it is that aid workers be tough-as-nails lifers who preface their sentences with things like “When I was in Goma…,” but I seriously question that conventional wisdom. I don’t doubt that experience is important, but is it really as important as it’s made out to be?

I would argue that there is also something to be said for the clarity of fresh minds, unclouded by years of toil and painful ethical compromises. Ditto for how poorly-connected rookies are.  Most people view this as a deficiency, but I see a silver lining. Relatively ignorant of the petty rivalries, nepotism, grudges, and cliques within the aid world, we are less likely to base important decisions on these things. Moreover, younger aid workers –at least the ones I know– have been schooled in the latest theory from the get-go, are  aware of and extremely sensitive to the dominant aid/development critiques and controversies, and don’t look at these through scratched lenses of organizational loyalty.

Again, I’m not arguing that field experience isn’t important –that would be myopic, offensive, and unfair to the many, many awesome pros out there– but merely that aid agencies should rethink how they weight previous field experience relative to a job candidate’s other assets.

Conventional wisdom holds that all newbies with no conflict zone experience will disembark at the airport and promptly wet their pants at the sight of bombed out buildings or gun-toting teenagers or the absence of Dunkin Donuts –or whatever.

This is absurd.

I personally know someone who had her first field experience was Darfur in 2008 and adjusted quickly, and another person who freaked the hell out in Bosnia –in 2007! (Ok, our mine awareness and unexploded ordinances training was a bit over the top in terms of gory videos –I mean, really, who “takes mines lightly”?– but I digress.)

Some personality types are better suited to high stress environments than others, some even thrive on certain kinds of stress.* Is it really that difficult for recruitment officers to figure out what kind of person they are dealing with during the interview phase?

There is no way to be certain how someone will react when plopped down in a war zone or somewhere without any modern conveniences for the very first time, but couldn’t selection mistakes be reduced through more rigorous and blunt questioning?

Obvious? I thought so, until I began my job search.

When I was doing interviews this spring, never once was I asked, “How are you under stress?” or, even more to the point, “How do you think you would handle worms in your gut? How about armed men stopping your car? Crapping in coarse shrubbery by the side of a lonely road?  Do you get upset if you can’t shower for days on end and start to stink?”

It’s always fashionable to trash idealism, and to conflate it with naivete, but couldn’t the aid world use more idealism –so long as it is well-informed and cautious?

Some pro’s to hiring us tender young things:

– You can pay us a lot less (great for the recession!)

– We’re idealists, but also highly self-critical and willing to question aid orthodoxy.

– We’re generally single and without dependents, making hardship deployments less tricky.

– We’re accustomed to crappy living conditions and don’t expect to be pampered. For some people I know, a creaky guesthouse with a broken shower would be an upgrade from sharing a one-bedroom with two other people and sleeping a couch that smells of old beer.

– We seek out innovation and we’re tech savvy.

– We’ll work ourselves into the ground to prove our worth.

– We’re young and strong, and thus less likely to give out physically.

Maddeningly, the trend I have observed recently is cash-strapped aid agencies firing their entry-level employees and retaining those at the top with large salaries while critical programs go understaffed.

I sincerely hope this changes, but I won’t count on it.

*:::Waves hand in the air:::

8 thoughts on “Why cash-strapped aid agencies should hire rookies: A rant

  1. the best way to get a job as a 1st timer, and convince them you have what it takes, is to go there. GO to these places you want to work in. worked for me! they’ll hire you in country, and pay you less, but that seems like what you are after

  2. I agree on the induction courses. Posted about it here: http://www.theroadtothehorizon.org/2009/06/practical-tool-for-humanitarian-workers.html

    I also agree that aid agencies are not sufficiently plugging into the opportunities “fresh” graduates bring. Certainly now that many agencies are getting cash strapped, they tend to lay off the new staff, on short term contracts, which are often the younger ones, which are the seeds for the future.

    In this post, I highlighted the struggle an aspirant aidworker had, and how he succeeded by perseverance:


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