Category Archives: Ideas

Jacaranda Time

The blossoms fall
The purple against blue sky
Makes me think of you
You who aren’t and who were
You in London and Berlin and New York
You who have never been
Forgotten memories undiscovered
Daydreams that never happened

Another year goes by
Another season of jacaranda blossoms

You who aren’t and who were
You who have never been

Another year goes by
Another season of jacaranda blossoms

On Altruism and Motivation

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.


“Old friends, old friends, sat on the park bench like bookends… time it was, and what a time it was, it was a time of innocence, of confidences…” Simon and Garfunkel, Old Friends/Bookends

Sitting at dinner at a nice restaurant in Rosebank, Johannesburg, chatting about life and choices and freedom. It’s been so long. So much has gone. There is something about long friendships that provides a breathing space. I suppose it’s the length of time you’ve known a person that makes the current crisis seem fleeting now.

I have found myself thinking about the DRC a lot recently. I find myself – a smell, a melody, a taste – remembering/reliving walking down a dusty street in Bunia towards the place with the delicious whole fish and chips (was it the same place with the nutella?) and the cafe with the coffee and omelettes with cheese. There was a post office along the road. A once-functional post office. What an odd thing to remember, now? Memories of compounds and an abandoned house and sewing machines and a UN convoy. And a post office. I read an article today about MONUSCO in Bunia.

My world fell apart again last week. So much like before. Before when I was supposed to go to Russia. So much like the time they postponed my Korea trip on a whim. So much like all the other disappointments. I had a conversation with a friend the other day. She’s been going through a rough time and I assumed that she would get it. She listened and cared and tried to figure out where my disappointment fell on her ladder of what-we’re-supposed-to-care-about. On her scale of things, this disappointment didn’t really register. It was something I might be sad about but nothing of particular concern. In her ordinary world, I’m supposed to be okay.

So much has happened since that DRC trip. So many places, so many people. One of the people I walked the dusty streets of Bunia with is getting involved in a media enterprise that might, for the better, change the way we understand reporting. Two others are working on amazing areas of study. I know I contribute, I know I’m not doing nothing, particularly in the past six months, but I find myself longing, hoping, wishing, a-prey to disappointment and anger and a deep sense of urgency that says this is not enough.

I live in a world, now, far more populated by the characters of these kinds of emergencies. And I love every minute of it. But sometimes, when things go wrong, when life gets complicated, I’m reminded of that little inner voice that longs for that. Do you know what I remember? One of the things I wrote about, in the journals I learnt to keep because I had a friend who taught me the value of recording every day, was the moment I first walked into a compound. There is something mythical and mystical about an NGO compound for someone in my field. It represents, I suppose, the life we’re all hoping one day to lead. This one, when we accidentally found it (we were looking for something else entirely) was a place where someone was growing basil. I remember the couches on the porch and the small prefab rooms and the telecoms equipment and the fact that someone was growing basil.

When I came back from the DRC, I talked about the emptiness. In a situation of crisis, in a situation of disappointment, that emptiness returns. I remember the day we got back to Uganda from the DRC – back to civilization. I remember taking a hot shower and sitting down with a beer and not being able to articulate what I was feeling right then. It felt like coming back from the brink.