I remember on an evening at a backpackers in Mozambique, years ago, arguing about altruism with some of the brightest people I know. I took the unpopular line – I still do: I don’t believe in altruism. Oh, I’m sure there are a few people out there – perhaps mostly religious, although I know my non-religious friends would contest that – for whom altruism is a great driver. For the rest of us, I don’t think it’s a real motivation and certainly not a long-term driver of our actions.
This is not a particularly popular position in the space in which I work, of course. But I hold by it. I don’t believe that every aid worker is motivated by pure good will. Not for nothing, but I’ve met a good number over the past couple of years and they, for the most part, are pretty comfortable – at least out of the public eye – with the fact that they have myriad and complex reasons for doing this work. We’re not just all in this, to steal a phrase from J, to save brown babies.
Personally, I’m motivated by being involved in something I think is making things different for the better. No, that’s not the same as altruism. I don’t want to do whatever the “leadership” thinks is right. This is not the army. I get immense satisfaction from doing things that I consider, based on my own (extensive and by this time pretty nuanced) reading of the situation, might make a significant or at least a measurable difference. And I’m willing to take pay cuts and position cuts and screw with the prettiness of my CV to do it.
Because otherwise, what’s the point?
This is something many managers seem to struggle with. Despite my best efforts, I find myself surrounded by well-meaning people determined to protect those aspects of work they seem convinced are necessary to “induce productivity”, to “motivate” (as if inducement was necessary, which presumption is itself indicative of a fundamental misunderstanding of the situation) – job security, stability, someone caring about my needs, etc. In their desperate haste to protect and control, they miss the big picture – that I care about (and can understand) the big picture.
No matter how many different ways I explain it, they cannot get their heads around the fact that I know the risks and accept the possibility of failure and I still want to do it. Because otherwise what’s the point? For some reason no amount of arguing or evidence or, when things become so frustrating that I’m tearing my hair out, crying, seems to help. It’s funny, I can persuade donors to invest large sums of money in what I personally consider stupidly risky projects, but getting my own friends and colleagues to believe that I want to take a risk is beyond my powers of persuasion.
Perhaps there is something about NGO managers, particularly because I am female and perceived as much younger than I am. I am constantly told what to do because it’s good for me (in the long-term, you know, once you’re past this little flutter about this particular thing…) and because they “care”. Perhaps it’s my fault because I tend to be conciliatory and, frankly, nice, in order to get things done. I am. I spend 90% of my time gently urging people to do the things they promised to do, so that something actually gets done. Is that a fault? A weakness? Do they not realise how angry I am all of the time? Do they simply write off the actual, visceral anger, when it appears, as having a bad day?
I’m not a nice person and I’m not an altruist. I’m a (now fairly highly) qualified and experienced professional. I resent being wrapped in cotton wool and I resent being treated as though I don’t understand the choices I am making. Something that could make the sector better and #reshapeaid would be treating every single aid worker as a grown-ass adult professional and expecting them to live up to that, instead of, as managers (and I am one myself), assuming altruism and assuming that altruism makes people too stupid to understand their own risks, responsibilities and choices.
It’s not altruism, it’s a career choice – and your infantilising protective instinct is getting all over my carefully considered decision to give up corporate salaries and easy living in order to do something real.