So, I’m an aid worker

george clooney in a safari vest

I’ve spent a long time arguing that I’m not an aid worker. I do my job in an office; I’m not on any kind of front line. I am not an emergency responder, and I don’t put my life at risk for my job. I’ve always said that I work in international development. I have never thought of myself as someone who “works in aid.” I work in global health, on health systems strengthening. When I’m not doing donor reporting, I don’t think all that much about the source of the funds for my work.

But the fact is, it’s kind of presumptuous to say that I work in international development. As Lee Crawfurd pointed out in response to my last blog post, aid and projects implemented with aid funding are one part of international development. Economic and trade policy are other, more important parts. You can, and do, get development without aid. I’m pretty sure you don’t get it without economic growth.

Lee elaborated on his point in an email to me:

“Policy reforms by the US and UK governments on non-aid issues could have substantially bigger impacts upon the lives of the global poor than all of the aid in the world. We should not be content with just doing aid well, and we should not be giving the impression to the public that they can just donate something and then forget about it.”

So, since I work on aid-funded projects, in my own little corner of trying to promote international development, there’s no real way around it: I am, in fact, an aid worker. When you work exclusively in aid, it’s easy to forget what a small part of the whole you are. (I decided not to edit the last post to fix my language, because if I am going to make sloppy mistakes in public, the least I can do is leave them out there so other people can avoid repeating them.)

Another useful thing that came up in my last post: Matthew Greenall reminded us that there are actually two metastories about aid, not just one. I was writing about the positive metastory. There is also the negative frame: aid doesn’t work, aid can never work, either because everything is too screwed up for any intervention of any kind to make a difference or because all the actors providing aid are stupid and incompetent. We’ve seen that metastory a lot about Haiti.


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