What I Learned from Letters I’ve Written Never Meaning to Send

I just finished reading Letters I’ve Written Never Meaning to Send by J. who’s known in the aid industry as an experienced humanitarian who co-created the popular website Stuff Expat Aid Workers Like and also writes at Aid Speak. His new book is a collection of essays sharing lessons he’s learned from his more than 20 years working all over the world, in a similar vein as Chasing Chaos by Jessica Alexander except much less narrative but much more quotable. I read the book in one day and highlighted the pages more than any other book that I’ve recently read. That doesn’t mean that it’s the best book I’ve recently read, but there were a lot of tidbits that stood out to me as making a lot of sense and I’ve always appreciated J.’s sense of wit and honesty when talking about aid work. Here are a few of my favorite pieces of wisdom:Letters I've Written - Cover

I genuinely struggle to understand how, in so many areas of life, we are so quick to say, “Do it right, or don’t do it at all.” Yet when it comes to the very complex, high stakes endeavor of alleviating poverty in the context of another culture we casually shrug off misguided attempts to “help” as perfectly acceptable because at least the person did something. Seriously?

I’m not suggesting that we should publicly take down the nice lady at the neighborhood BBQ who talks about how she went to build a church in Mexico. But at the same time, let’s understand that bad aid which goes unchallenged simply turns into more bad aid. Unchallenged bad aid – even bad aid implemented by super nice, well-meaning people – further entrenches and perpetuates those stereotypes about poverty and the poor and what it takes to address, if not fix, it all.

Give me the Khmer Rouge, or the Taliban, but rescue me from the marketers, fundraisers, and NGO bureaucracy.

No, the hardest part of this job is simply dealing day after day with the crushing weight of a system that fundamentally lacks real incentives for getting right what it claims as its core purpose. And by the same token, the most dangerous part of this job is not armed militants, or bad drivers, or blood parasites. No, the most dangerous part of this job is the humanitarian world itself. It will eat your soul if you let it.

It is important to understand and articulate in as many words that being a good person does not qualify one to be a competent humanitarian, any more than being an effective aid worker qualifies one as a good person.

And my favorite:

And for me, the essence of staying sane here comes down to how successfully one maintains the balance of perspective between what is and what is possible.

Although it may seem like it from that selection of quotes, the book is not all jaded cynicism but actually does offer some hopeful, positive analysis of the importance of aid work. I just guess those are the particular parts that got effectively into my head space at the time of reading. I’ve really appreciated being able to read these accounts from writers like J. lately who have a great deal of experience in the aid world and can write intelligently about its pitfalls and failures as well as its true potential when done well. I enjoy reading their accounts, but also, the more that I do read, the less I feel in their world. I’ve never considered myself an aid worker, I just happen to do work within a context that frequently crosses paths with theirs or even causes our paths to occasionally align. But I am certainly not one of them. And the more that I read and think about it, the more it becomes difficult to even consider myself part of that greater category of humanitarianism where development falls into the same family as aid, a sister industry, with perhaps a very similar big picture goal of improving the conditions of life for people living in very difficult situations of poverty, conflict, or injustice. For a while I was starting to comfortably consider myself part of that second, sister world to aid, which might not get written about quite as much because it’s less adventurous, but still I can relate to much about what is written finding the parallels in the cross cultural difficulties that present themselves to those of us who do work “in the field” of the non-Western world. At the most basic level, I can inarguably consider myself an expat alongside both aid and development workers and because of that we maintain some sort of intrinsic commonality in which we can all share an understanding of helping people unlike ourselves that allows us to cast each other knowing looks and eye rolls at the absurd and inexplicable parts of our lives that others will never understand. No matter what our day to day work looks like there are many aspects of life that we share simply because we do not have typical 9 to 5 office jobs surrounded by people like ourselves.

It could be argued that I’m in the world of international development because I founded an international nonprofit organization and led it for 4 years, and have worked for multiple others. But the more that I dig into the intricacies of what this life means for me and others in seemingly similar positions, the more I’m finding that development was never my goal or my original reason for entering into this work but rather simply a vehicle for me to further explore my art. My art, the original impetus for many other things that have stemmed from it: involvement in schools, businesses, social institutions, is really the only motivation that has ever driven me to pursue the things that I do. It just so happens that where I find the most inspiration for that art is in the lives of those who are working to change society for themselves and those around them. So development work has become a logical vehicle to explore that art becoming inextricably tied to both aid and mission work and a number of other things. But still to call myself an aid worker, or a development worker, still seems to not quite fit what I do or am attempting to do. When I read accounts of those like J. or Alexander or talk to those who I know through cluster meetings or nonprofit conferences, I always find that their reasoning for entering this domain as well as their reasons for staying in it are much different from my own. I never set out to be part of this world. I never studied nonprofit management or international relations or aid or development, and I never set out to be an expat that would function as an integral part of an international community working towards development and the improvement of living conditions for marginalized populations. I haven’t learned this sort of language by studying it and pursuing opportunities through the UN or USAID or any large NGO’s because I wanted to make a difference or help people. I wanted to make art and started buying plane tickets and exploring opportunities that would inspire that art in cross cultural contexts that weren’t currently expressed through the art that I was seeing. Through that process, it has been impossible to avoid distractions and side roads to my original intentions causing me to fall into this world of vague humanitarianism which is where I now find myself alongside the likes of J. and Alexander and so many others who haven’t published books but have done enough incredible work to merit it if they wanted.

The fact is that I’m at a crossroads where discerning where I fit into this web of people who work in countries different than that of their nationality has become essential in deciding next steps. It has become essential in evaluating the value of my previous steps. My next step could easily be into the wet cement of humanitarianism which looks good to the people on the outside but clearly also has the power to “eat your soul if you let it” as J. writes. Or I could choose to forge a different path, one that is a hybrid of humanitarianism and art, and all the other things that make up who I am, one that feeds the soul, rather than eating it. It may be a path that doesn’t have a map, but it’s one that feels more natural than that of strict aid or development which so many others that I respect and admire have taken. I have come to love and appreciate this lifestyle which mirrors theirs, but I have not come to love the methods and outcomes that most people assume this lifestyle requires. I think that there are other ways to live life cross culturally without necessarily being a humanitarian, an aid worker, or a development worker. Not that those are bad things, some times I wish I could be them, but I don’t think they embody the complete solution. And, no, neither do I know what the complete solution is. But I do think that each of us looking honestly at the convictions that led us into this type of life has to be part of that solution, and J.’s book has helped me start to do that.

So I recommend that anyone else who is even remotely connected to the aid world or thinking about becoming connected to it in some way, read this book. It’s an easy read and you’ll definitely come away more informed.

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