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Staying Put

March 20, 2011

Thanks in no small part to a growing body of pop-aid literature, of which Three Cups of Tea is but one example, the general non-aid-insider public seems to think that this is all some grand adventure. They seem to think that our jobs are about – you know – drinking three cups of awesome cardamom chai (the kind that would cost $5 in a trendy South Asian restaurant in lower Manhattan or Northeast DC) with village elders in ruggedly beautiful places with crisp, clean air and bright-eyed children, thereby demonstrating our good will and solidarity and winning their trust…

The reality is that aid work is 99% supremely unsexy office work, usually carried out in supremely unsexy settings. Like offices. For every hour that I spend drinking tea with the noble savages, I’ll spend at least a month dealing with what Cynan very aptly describes as, “a grind of everyday issues and actions”, regardless of whether I’m in my cubicle in North America or under flickering fluorescent light somewhere in “the field.”

That’s J. at Tales from the Hood, myth-busting about aid careers. The whole post is worth a read, as is pretty much everything he writes.

I don’t think he’s lying or exaggerating about the reality for most people in humanitarian work, maybe even more so in emergency relief than in development (although this is just a hunch). To be honest though, it’s a very small part of my reality. Don’t get me wrong — I usually spend at least two full days a week in the office, dealing with budgets, reports, evaluations, and project planning. Most evenings are spent in front of the computer dealing with these tasks as well. But most of the time, I’m “in the field” (whatever that means). I’m in villages for workshops and visiting women in their homes. Delivery of services, research, and evaluation all rest on a foundation of friendships that grow with face-time between our staff and the women we serve. We don’t usually drink tea, opting instead for thick coffee laced with sweetened condensed milk or coconut water straight out of the coconut (I hope you’ll forgive us for being a few years behind the trends).


When I went home to Boston in October, I felt this incredible pressure to know what was next, but when I looked critically at how I was trying to make decisions, I didn’t like what I saw. When I moved to Battambang, it wasn’t as a career move, I came because I loved Battambang, I loved  my friends here, and I saw an opportunity to join the community for some very cool projects. The aid and development field was a good fit for me, but the professional aid sector seemed quite distant from the work I was doing, and I wasn’t particularly concerned with the big agencies or trends beyond how we could learn from their work.

A year later, I found myself thinking about “professional development” and how to build my resume. I was looking at jobs with big international development agencies all over the world, trying to imagine myself doing research on microfinance loans to women in Delhi, or working with a team on maternal health education in Nairobi. I was stressing about not having experience with STATA or SPSS, and wondering how quickly it would take to rehabilitate my French language skills. The new job was supposed to make me a competitive candidate for a Master’s degree. And the Master’s was to get better jobs of course, and the better jobs would no doubt have me based in larger cities, managing English-speaking staffs, visiting villages instead of living within them. I would also probably have to wear heels.

Maybe that’s what most careers in international development look like. So I maybe don’t want a career in international development after all. And yet… Something still felt not quite right about staying in my current position or looking for a similar one elsewhere. My job right now as a program coordinator is one that should eventually be filled by local staff, and that transition is already taking place. To keep a foreigner as the head of the program would undermine the program’s integrity and respect for the community, by perpetuating the myth of foreigners’ higher competency and holding back our capable staff. There are things that I have brought to our programs that most Cambodian women could not have offered, based on my educational experience and access to writing and research from around the world. By now though, our team is well-trained and have the skills and confidence to manage the program without me. To allow myself to remain the program coordinator just because it made me happy would be disingenuous and unjust. I kept looking, searching for job openings, fellowship opportunities, and cities or programs that were new and exciting.

Everyone had advice: Get back to school as soon as possible before you forget how to write. Go to London and do a Master’s in one year so you can get back in the field. A Master’s in Public Health isn’t enough; if you want to have an edge, you should supplement it with at least one more Master’s. Don’t think about graduate school until you’re ready — get out of Cambodia and get more experience. Work with one of the big aid agencies. Apply for a Fulbright in El Salvador, India, South Africa. Stick around Cambodia and work for the UN to make good money and great contacts. Take your current project, especially the social enterprise, to scale. Stop this fluffy feel-good health education nonsense and go get a nursing degree so that you can do something tangible. Stage a sit-in at Partners in Health’s Boston office until they’ll hire you.

The advice was all well-intentioned and ultimately very useful, mostly because it helped me realize exactly what I didn’t want to do. There were a few things that I realized unequivocally:

1) I never want to treat my time in Battambang as a career stepping stone. To do so would feel like it was cheapening the relationships that have been central to my time here thus far.

2) I would not move to a new country for less than two years, and I would not take a job that did not prioritize learning the local language. “People before programs” is our mantra at the Romero Center, and I want to take that commitment with me to whatever work I do.

3) The voices I want to pay the most attention to in my discernment process are those of the women around me in Battambang.

4) I’d love to study more, but I want to wait until I’m so excited to be back in the classroom that I can’t imagine anywhere else I’d rather be. A Master’s is too expensive and too valuable to do just because it’s next on my list.


So I’m staying. I’ll be moving into my own place, a rented room next to Theary and baby Jeremy. I have been incredibly fortunate to find consulting work with local and international NGOs, doing research on best practices, monitoring and evaluation, and Khmer to English translating. Much of this work will be done behind a desk, but it will keep me in villages all the time as well. I won’t have to wear heels. I’ll still be around the Romero Center every day, but only officially working there halftime, and focusing exclusively on staff development, big picture program direction, and fundraising.

I’m scared of becoming a lifer. Not that there’s anything wrong with that — many of the ex-pats I know who have been here for seven, ten, fifteen years are brilliant and seem to be genuinely happy in Cambodia. There’s so many more things I thought I would be doing at this point in life though. I want to work in El Salvador, live in a social justice community home with my college friends, get back in the classroom and spend days straight in the library, take cooking and photography courses, walk to a bookstore and yoga studio, be in a place where dating is more than a remote possibility. A wise-beyond-her-23-years friend recently told me that she thinks our 20s are about learning to let doors close. I’m not sure that I’m ready to let those doors lock shut yet; I hope that they represent opportunities that I may be able to explore later on. For now though, my life is here and I can’t imagine anywhere I’d rather be.


4 Comments leave one →
  1. Jen Wilson permalink
    March 20, 2011 10:39 am

    Meg, you are great. I absolutely loved reading this. Every time I try to think about what I want to be doing next year (or in five years..) I find a way to distract myself. Usually with a beer and the Rolling Stone with Snooki on the cover. You have inspired me to work a liiiittle harder on this discernment thing. Or perhaps just to pick up the Justin Bieber issue instead. Time will tell…

  2. adrienne permalink
    March 21, 2011 4:44 pm

    congrats on the decision! so exciting.

  3. Linda permalink
    March 24, 2011 3:13 pm

    you inspire me!!!!


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