A year ago I was coming to the end of my 14-month residency in Gaza Camp, a Palestinian refugee community about 45 km north of Amman. I was physically and emotionally exhausted, waking up early each day to make the hour and half commute by bus to Salt – where I worked full time for the Holy Land Institute for the Deaf – and then returning to Gaza Camp in the evenings to run men’s training sessions at the community fitness center I had co-founded in January 2010.
Receiving a modest salary from my full-time job that barely allowed for subsistence living, I’d always be shocked when I’d come into Amman to hang out with expatriates who were in the development sector. The difference between their lives and mine, and the disconnect between them and the beneficiaries of their organizations, drove me to spend one slow day at my office knocking out my first (and so far only) published piece of writing. It was supposed to be a tongue-in-cheek critique of the lifestyles of your average expat aid worker, with the general point being that such individuals tend to enjoy their high salaries, perks, and partying a bit too much considering the nature of their work. The post is #35 on the blog’s site and is on the site’s top 20 list (out of 142 at present). While initially receiving some backlash and accusations of drinking too much haterade, the post is one of the most commented on in the site, with experienced development workers offering their own views on development sector expatriate culture.
Now I am writing on the other side. No, I did not go on to get a well-paid job at the UN or at an NGO, though certainly not through lack of trying; as I learned, my Arabic language skills and project management experience can’t compete with a non-Arabic speaker with a Master’s Degree in refugee or development studies. After an intensive period of applying anywhere and everywhere, I finally did get a good job in the unlikeliest of businesses: public relations. Abandoning (for now) dreams of travelling the globe with the US State Department or Save the Children, I now write copy for some of the biggest corporate entities in Jordan (and surprisingly, find it very engaging). I live in a simple apartment in Amman, but overall my quality of life has increased dramatically since returning to the capital city. Life is good.
This brings me back to a memory from the days when I had just begun building the fitness center at the start of 2010 . . . I was in Amman visiting friends and happened to find myself at dinner with a four other Americans: a reporter, a business consultant, a Fulbright scholar, and a development worker. The conversation turned to incomes with a lively debate ensuing about how much people were making. I don’t remember the exact figures, except that everyone at the table was making significantly more than the average Jordanian. The debate turned to how the development worker and Fulbrighter were making as much those in the private sector. The argument of the reporter and consultant was that private sector employees like themselves could provide tangible, measurable benefits for their employers vs. the somewhat hazy criteria for success in development or the Fulbright program. How can you attach a dollar figure on the work of Fulbright scholar, for example? How can you do this for a development worker?
Chiming in, I expressed my opinion that development workers in Jordan seemed to be a bit overpaid. I will never forget the response of the young humanitarian (I use the term loosely). She replied that her salary was appropriately high because “you can’t help other people when you’re not happy.” Happiness, she went on to explain, is directly tied to quality of life. Soon after, we finished dinner and she drove off to her apartment in her 300 JD per month rental car (only slightly less than the average monthly Jordanian salary) which she was provided as a perk for her job working with one of Jordan’s many refugee communities.
This young woman’s statement was considerably vexing for me. Attracting young, enthusiastic applicants to perform gritty (yet sexy and appealing), overseas humanitarian assignments does not require waving money at them. Look at the Peace Corps, which (mostly) young, idealistic Americans flock to despite receiving a monthly stipend that is at – or even below – the host country’s average salary. I would even go as far as to say that high salaries have a paradoxically negative effect on development work; resume-building opportunists are attracted to these positions for the money and not for the mission. Passionate, though less qualified (on paper) applicants – like I was – aren’t competitive. The result; a development sector dominated by highly paid humanitarian mercenaries, moving from contract to contract looking for the highest paycheck. The disparate levels of income and quality of life between the expatriate aid worker and the beneficiaries of their organization becomes so great that these Western transplants cannot relate – in any way whatsoever – to the vulnerable and impoverished populations that donors are trusting them to assist.
I am living comfortably in Amman now. Memories of life in Gaza Camp are fast becoming a distant memory. So has my passion for humanitarian work. I couldn’t get funding for a second installment of last year’s children’s summer camp. Meh, maybe it’ll happen, maybe it won’t. What about that planned career training seminar with the Gaza Camp Community Development Office? Or those non-life threatening medical cases I was going to try to find sponsors for? Not enough time.
It is easy to ignore poverty when you’re living the good life. When Gaza Camp was my home – when I was struggling through two winters with no heater, eating nothing but eggs for days on end because meat or chicken was out of my budget – those were the days when I was most passionate about my work in the camp. The days when I was cold, miserable, cleaning my fitness center’s roof gutters in the rain and sleet (to prevent flooding), working 14-hour days. Yes, an email entreaty to my mom for help would have landed me a plane ticket home and the end of my misery. But I never sent that email, and I suffered along with the residents of the community I hoped to assist. I had four solid walls and a roof to sleep in and food to eat every day, and in this regard I was infinitely better off than many of the families in my neighborhood.
So when I think back to that dinner with that young, chipper humanitarian mercenary explaining the link between quality of life and helping others, I must ever so politely disagree. I would know.