How (not) to be a change maker [video + transcript]

Agnes Otzelberger
The Good Jungle
Published in
12 min readOct 2, 2019
©Leela Channer for CAUX-IofC 2019

From a young age, I knew I wanted to ‘do good’ for a living. And so I became a helper, an altruist, here to change the world — an advocate on behalf of people less fortunate than me. Here’s how it went wrong, and what surprised me in learning how we can be of service in the world.

This talk (video below) was recorded by Initiatives of Change at the “Tools for Change Makers” conference, part of the 2019 Caux Forum in Caux, Switzerland. Further down this page is a transcript of the talk.

Photo credit: ©Leela Channer for CAUX-IofC; video by CAUX-IofC


First, I want to thank all those of you here who have invited me to come and share my story. It seems to be one of those successions of events which at first look like pure coincidence, and as they unfold, seem like they were just meant to be.

Perhaps more significantly, I feel that one of the main reasons I get to be here today is a gift of trust.

I was asked to talk to you about identity.

From when I was 16 until around my mid 20s, my sense of identity was strong and clear. White and Western, brought up in Vienna, and Christian on paper, I had the privilege and blind spots of so many of us who’re never forced to spend too much time dwelling on our ethnic background. More than anything, I felt European, because my background made up of multiple European nations made me feel slightly separate from my mostly Austrian peers.

But I’m not here to speak to you of identity in a national, ethnic or regional sense.

The sense of identity I began to forge in my teens was very much about qualities I wanted to be associated with. It was strongly infused with values and with a sense of what I thought somehow set me apart from what I was surrounded by growing up. I wanted to be a generous person; I wanted to be helpful, selfless.

When I left school, “doing good” was starting to become the new currency of success for my generation of Western, middle class millennials who were learning that putting purpose before pay check brings true happiness.

It was the beginning of generation of younger people like myself avoiding getting profit driven careers, or leaving them later, in order to pursue more meaning as social entrepreneurs, charity workers, in philanthropy or international aid, corporate social responsibility or voluntourism.

So I thought I’d discovered who I was to be, and my calling, in my late teens, when I set off to Armenia to volunteer in a remote town affected by poverty and a devastating earthquake. I loved it. Feeling like I was helping people in this faraway place was extremely exciting and satisfying.

By my mid twenties, I had bagged a great position in one of the world’s leading aid agencies, a good salary, and the admiration of friends and family. I was traveling all over the world, working with amazing people.

It felt clear who I was. I had become an aid worker; a helper. I was here to change the world, an advocate on behalf of people living in poverty all over the world. A person who does good, an altruist. And also: a proud globe trotter, a so called digital nomad, living and working between countries and between airports. And: Independent. Successful. If other areas of my life felt difficult, my sense of who I was was not one of them. So much so that I expected this to be a constant throughout my life.

But by this point, I was also plagued by a nagging discomfort. As much as I loved my work and believed in fighting poverty, something felt off. Initially, I refused to listen to that voice in me. I probably knew deep down that listening to that voice was going to mean some very inconvenient truths, and difficult decisions to be made. And it took uncomfortable honesty and a long search for language to put my finger on what it was saying.

The discomfort first started to appear in our visits to our so-called beneficiaries — the people, usually in remote, rural locations in hot countries, whose lives our projects sought to improve. They’d welcome us, clapping and dancing in their Sunday best, thankful for all we’d done for them.

I felt deeply uncomfortable and out of place.

It felt bizarre to descend on these remote villages in an air conditioned 4x4, drinking pricy, bottled water in places that struggled with drought.

I was being paid the equivalent of my local colleagues’ weekly salary in my daily subsistence allowance — a small fortune intended to compensate me for the so called “hardship” of traveling away from Western comforts.

Something felt off about the way I, young and frankly inexperienced, was treated like an authority in places I had no idea about, and speaking on matters I had no idea about. I was given credit for things I hadn’t done and finding myself having cocktails in the presence of ministers and ambassadors of countries deemed in need of our help.

I also felt increasingly uncomfortable about the photographs I took on these trips. Pictures of glowing, brown faces in rural landscapes, meant to showcase just how hard they work, just how poor they are, capturing their colours and smiles in the best morning light, to give our (mostly white) donors and audiences back home that lovely, “warm glow” feeling.

I came to see my work in a new light: a clever, collective confusion, a way of keeping myself, and others, busy and trapped in the delusion that we were changing the world, when in reality we were simply helping make the status quo feel more bearable (to us). I realised I was complicit in normalising poverty, and a form of charity and philanthropy that had less to do with tackling the root causes of poverty and inequality than with making poverty and inequality more palatable.

To give an example: A few years ago, I was on my way back to Niger’s capital Niamey from Dakoro, one of the economically poorest places I’ve ever visited. Our car was being overtaken by a convoy of police escorted trucks transporting a few tons of uranium to the nearest port, Cotonou, in Benin. And so I learned that Niger, the country occupying the lowest ranks on the Human Development Index, is simultaneously one of the world’s top uranium exporters, powering up half of France at a huge cost to its own impoverished, undernourished population. What France gives in return is a few alms for the poor, and soldiers for “protection” (of the uranium).

Watching truck after truck of this precious metal vanish from Niger, all those well intentioned efforts by my organisation to help desolate people become a tiny bit less desolate began to look like a sad joke. Like putting a shiny ribbon on a bad deal for the people of Niger. And I couldn’t shake the feeling of being complicit in it.

Another programme I knew, the award-winning Banking on Change, helped over half a million people in some of the world’s poorest countries gain access to credit and, quote on quote, “better manage their money”. In 2013, a report published by ActionAid revealed the role of its donor, Barclays Bank, in enabling tax evasion in Africa.

Every year, developing countries miss out on tax revenues to the tune of hundreds of billions of dollars because of tax avoidance by big companies. Now imagine what Barclays could have achieved if, rather than enabling its beneficiaries to buy chickens, or start a petty trade business, it ceased to assist big companies in pillaging the global South without paying tax, and instead taught them to better manage their money.

But then of course, I realised, these projects, at the core, aren’t really about their so-called beneficiaries. They are about people like myself, and the customers of Barclays, and how we feel about ourselves when we do that. They help people like me feel like an altruist, or a change maker, without actually changing much at all, not in the world, and not in myself.

For a couple of years, I thought I might be able to change my organisation and our work from within. There had to be a different way. But my questions and doubts didn’t find much resonance with the people around me. I was often told I needed to “get real”, “toughen up”, keep my feelings out of my work, be pragmatic: after all, it was just a job, and it was paying the bills. But having lost my sense of purpose and motivation, I started to burn out. I had started my career enthusiastic, optimistic, patient and endlessly curious. At some point, I realised I’d become hopeless, bitter, impatient and immensely cynical about any and all human efforts to make positive change in the world. I was unwell and unhealthy, and I needed to hit the emergency break. So, five years ago, I decided it was time to leave.

And I had this great plan. I was going to continue being a successful, independent, globe-trotting, selfless, altruist change-maker by going travelling for three months, working out my plan B, and returning from these travels to hit the ground running in a new career.

You can imagine how well that went.

What really happened was: I went on a nice holiday, and then I returned and got totally lost. I panicked about income, so instead of cutting loose, I ended up doing more of the same work, as a freelancer, harbouring escape phantasies of becoming a carpenter, or a gardener — anything that would remove me from the mess of that is humanity. A few months into my search for plan B, I was floored by malaria. Then shortly after, I got sick again, only this time I realised it wasn’t malaria, but a baby — I was pregnant!

So, in a short space of time, so much changed in my life that everything I believed about myself began to crumble. I wasn’t independent any more, I was dependent and totally needy. By society’s wider standards, I wasn’t successful, but stagnating. The pretty logo on my business card that told the world (and reassured me) that I was doing well and doing good had disappeared.

I actually remember that moment when I was about to create a new business card for myself. A blank template stared me in the face, asking me who I was, and I genuinely had no idea. I was terrified. It was what you could call an identity crisis.

Then, through my partner, I met a man called Peter Koenig, who became a teacher and mentor of mine. And when I told him that I what I needed most was to find a way to stop being dependent and in need of help, that I needed to find a way to be a someone again, and to do something useful about suffering in the world. He said something like this:

“You are dependent. You are needy. You are a nobody. You are the suffering of the world. And that is wonderful!”

As you can imagine, that didn’t go down so well. In fact, I was totally furious with him. It would take me a while to discover the true wisdom of his words.

Then one day, I went to an exhibition about civil disobedience in London and I came across this statement, by a representative of an Aboriginal activist group in the 1970s:

“If you come only to help me, you can go back home. But if you consider my struggle as part of your struggle, then maybe we can work together.”

This hit me hard. And over the coming months and years, I had two painful realisations.

First, I realised that in my desire to help and rescue others, I had mistaken charity for justice, and pity for solidarity.

Unintentionally, as the rescuer, I had boxed everyone else into corresponding categories. As Hannah Arendt wrote,

“pity has a vested interest in the existence of the weak.”

Because who we are is relational. Every time we create an “I” or an “us”, we also co-create what is “not me”, a “them”, an “other”.

Because there were rescuers like myself, there had to be victims in need of my help. And because there were victims in need of my help, there had to be responsible perpetrators — the people who needed to be changed.

In wanting to be someone, important, and a good person, I was telling myself and the world an implicit story of many nobodies, of people who didn’t matter, of people who were bad.

Second, I realised that my carefully polished identity of helper and saviour of others in need was a way of avoiding my own need, my own suffering.

And paradoxically, when I managed to acknowledge and accept the parts of me that were needy and selfish, something magical happened: I was suddenly so much freer to explore what it means to be selfless and of true service to others. With a newfound lightness: because my deeds of service to others are no longer required to cover up the lie that I am never selfish.

My newborn son taught me another lesson in this: the more I managed to accept how dependent and trapped I was, the more I managed to rediscover a sense of freedom and independence.

Because the paradox is: The tighter we hold an identity, the more we declare ourselves to be something, the less of that we manage to truly be. This plays out on an individual and a collective scale. How many organisations do you know that don’t live up to their values?

With every quality we are overly attached to, we unconsciously nourish its shadow side. And conversely, with every piece of shadow that we reclaim, we are gifted the freedom to be whatever we need to be in any given moment.

And that’s what Peter was trying to tell me. He was telling me that if I wanted to be a somebody, I needed to get comfortable with being a nobody. In order to be truly independent, I needed to be OK with being dependent.

He wasn’t telling me to ditch my values. On the contrary, if I wanted to live up to my values of altruism and service, I needed to be aware of the selfish egocentric in me.

I value courage, and I can only be as courageous as I can acknowledge my fearfulness. I value integrity, and yet every day, I do things that don’t align, such as getting on a plane to be here with you. It feels better to accept this incoherence consciously and take responsibility for it, than to deny it and then get enraged at others for their environmental sins.

So it wasn’t just the job I had to quit in order move on. I had to quit my whole sense of who I am in this world, and what I am here to do. Some of that I look forward to sharing with you in Training Track 2. I’m no longer here to rescue anyone, but to take people on a journey that is also my own journey, of finding ways to stay sane and engaged in a mad world that can get us down and get me down.

Letting go of precious self-images can be hard work, and it’s not something we can ever be done with. I want to read you some inspiring words from Ram Dass and Paul Gorman, from their wonderful book “How Can I Help — Stories and Reflections on Service”, because really, I couldn’t put it any better than them:

“So often we deny ourselves and others the full resources of our being, simply because we’re in the habit of defining ourselves narrowly and defensively to begin with. Less flexible, less versatile, we inevitably end up being less helpful.


How good it can feel to regain perspective. Our feeling of confinement as narrow, limited, isolated entities begins to dissolve as we take a few steps back and recognise that […] we don’t have to be anybody in particular. We don’t have to be “this” or “that”. We are free to simply be. To taste this freedom increases our flexibility immensely, and enables us to be fuller instruments of service to others.”

So, let’s imagine the many ways we can be and show up, the people in this room, to embody the values we are here to bring forth. I believe that part of the way is to acknowledge, and hold with compassion, all the parts of us that are selfish, impure, unloving and dishonest.

As change-makers, let’s make room for all the parts of us that aren’t bringing change, but about preserving some things. And in doing so, I believe we can also unleash all the unselfishness, purity, love and honesty and change we’ve got in us.

Caux, July 15th, 2019


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