Hazards of Humanitariansim

When I eschewed life in America’s corporate world, I didn’t really know what I wanted to do. I just knew that what I was doing (i.e., TV ad sales and marketing) was leaving me unfulfilled, and feeling more than a bit lost and adrift. I couldn’t seem to take solace in a paycheck, nor find excitement a world predicated on fantasy and consumption. I walked away from a job that most people would consider themselves very lucky to have. Hell, I know that I was very lucky to have it, and will forever be grateful for the opportunity. But there’s something powerful and unshakable about feeling like there was more to do, more to see.

I’d always loved traveling, and at least part of the frustration I felt whilst living and working in the United States was attributable to the restrictions doing so placed on travel opportunities: one can only see so much of the world with only two weeks’ vacation each year, and it makes the other 50 weeks feel like a prison cell. When I left my career and life in the U.S. behind, part of me thought it would be temporary, that I’d get out and see a bunch of the world, then throw in the towel and return home, satiated, and ready to fall in line. This May marks 6 years living overseas, and I can’t say with any level of honesty that I see an end in sight.

The first year abroad was spent largely traveling, but also living in Cambodia and teaching English to pre-school and kindergarten Khmer children. Though I loved it, I always knew that teaching was a bandaid: it allowed me to pay the bills and afford to keep the adventure going. It was in Cambodia that I first really experienced the “third world” and its challenges. You’d see women with newborn children panhandling on the streets, a dirty piece of cardboard serving as a crib; farmers that had lost their arms to unexploded ordinance from the Viet Nam War; street kids huffing glue for a temporary escape from a life more miserable; girls that were more than likely victims of trafficking working in go-go bars; and on, and on. It was mind blowing seeing a place so diametrically opposite from where I grew up that it’d’ve been easier to believe it was on another planet than that we as a species had allowed life to evolve in such drastically different ways.

After a year in Cambodia, I knew that I needed to seek out a professional opportunity that utilised my experience and interests (i.e., communications) in a development capacity, or, short of that, at least in some context in which people benefitted from the work I was a part of in a real, tangible way. This led me to India, where for the past 4 years I’ve acted as communications lead and project manager for a design research firm working in emerging markets and directly with at-risk populations. The beauty of the practice I’m a part of is that the approach is universal: engage with people to understand their lives and challenges, then create interventions/solutions that are valued and sustainable. This affords access to a whole host of social issues. Though I’ve primarily been engaged, and interested, in work in the water and sanitation sector, I’ve also been able to contribute on projects around financial inclusion, education, and nutrition.

I remember thinking that the most challenging part of this work here would be engaging with people in India’s slums, which are home to many of the end-users and beneficiaries we work with. I’d never seen a slum let alone visited one, so there was a palpable sense of dread when the first opportunity arrived. That first visit involved spending the entire day talking to people about their lives and challenges, specifically through the lens of sanitation, or lack thereof as the case was. It was indeed an overwhelming experience, but not for the reasons I assumed: my thoughts were focused solely, and perhaps solipsistically, on the sensory overload i was expecting; the sights and, more importantly, smells were my focus and fear, nothing else. What I was unprepared for, and largely still am even years later, was the anger that I felt at the injustice of it all: it’s just so patently unfair that so many people are forced to live in such conditions, in absolute squalor, for no reason other than someone else’s greed outweighs their desire for a better life.

If there is any silver lining in this, though, it is the inspirational way in which a majority of the people in India’s slums I’ve met approach life. They make the most of a dire situation and do so quite often with a smile on their face. My Mother is wont to say that the poorer the person, the more generous they are. This inverse proportionality certain rings true here; people are willing to do anything for you, and give anything to you provided they are able to do so; we could all learn a great deal from this. The environments may be atrocious, but people make the most of it, and this helps offset the challenges of working on projects in such contexts, if only marginally.

Last October, I started working on a new project that makes working in the sanitation sector of India’s slums look downright cushy: developing tools for monitoring and tracking severe acute malnutrition (SAM) in children across Africa.

The project kicked off with a week-long design workshop in Bamako, Mali. Most of the activities were done in an air-conditioned hotel conference room, but we did spend a full day engaging with villagers in their homes, and visiting community healthcare centers and hospitals where SAM kids were being cared for. We met with three mothers at one such center, and in my notes I observed that the children appeared to be 6–9 months old, no more. It turned out that the youngest was 3 years old. Seeing kids in a bad way has always bothered me far more than anything that happens to adults, due to their fundamental innocence, but this was a whole new level. Little ones dying simply and solely because they lacked the requisite nutrients to survive is quite simply unacceptable.

Above and beyond the work we were doing, the setting itself brought with it plenty of anxiety. Mali suffered a civil war only a few years ago and is largely an unstable state today, with a significant Al-Qaeda presence in its northern states. We stayed in a hotel loaded with peacekeeping troops, received security briefings (though we largely ignored the “no go” list when taking in Bamako’s nightlife), witnessed armored vehicles and tanks on the roads, and had to advertise on our vehicles that we were not carrying guns in case any rebel group stopped us. Leading up to the trip I had many a sleepless night, and had more than a few panic attacks. After departing Mali and arriving in India, the joy we felt from surviving the experience was tempered when, only a few weeks later, a hotel down the road from where we stayed in Bamako was attacked by terrorists and over 20 people killed.

The next part of this project is to test the tools we have developed in South Sudan, which will require being in-country for 3+ weeks. We’ll be in a “city” called Aweil, which is waaaaaaaay too close to the Sudan border for comfort. Thankfully, though, we will be bunking at a UN compound and surrounded by troops, and will be flown in on a World Food Programme helicopter. Once there, we’ll spend the bulk of our time visiting villages and hospitals to see our tools in use and to refine them based on feedback and observations. That means nearly a month of interacting with kid’s literally at death’s door, which will make our time in Bamako seem like a vacation.

The challenge in working in a “humanitarian” capacity is that there’s no limit to the work that needs to be done, and this work is most in demand in very difficult contexts. What’s almost bizarre about it all is that you start chasing after more and more challenging work the longer you continue; the intensity of the experience needs to be ever-increasing in order to remain as engaging. Part of it is to keep testing yourself and part is to keep peeking around corners to see more and more of the world, but at least some of it, the core of it, is to try and address a problem with such immediacy that everything else needs to be put on the back-burner.

I am absolutely terrified of what’s to come in South Sudan, across the board. I’ve never been to a war zone and, for all intents and purposes, that’s pretty much what we are willingly walking right into, only unarmed and lacking any military training whatsoever. I’ve said before to people that if anyone has to experience something, than we should all have to; that it’s not acceptable to ignore something simply because it does not impact you directly. This has led many to outright call me a sanctimonious jack*ss, but I take solace in the fact that at least I’m trying to practice what I preach. This time around, I think I may have bitten off way more than is chewable. Time will tell, of course, but I do know that there is no way on Earth I can pass on this opportunity. Or at least not without regretting it for the rest of my life.

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