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The Perils of Saving the World

August 15, 2009 the world might sound good on paper, but it really interferes with your social life. For one, people don’t know how to react to you. At a party, when everyone starts off with the usual “so what do you do for a living?” telling them I work for an international humanitarian organization usually elicits a few now very familiar responses. The first, obviously enough, is ignorance, at which point I usually try to mumble definitions of ‘NGO’ and ‘humanitarian’, while also looking for the nearest fire exit to escape the burning conversation that this initial matchstick of ignorance has set fire to (because let’s face it, I’m not adding you on Facebook if you’re part of the muesli-eating-gurdian-reading-white-worried-and-well and don’t know what the word ‘humanitarian’ means).

The second response is to feign immense interest and give you ‘much respect’ for ‘doing the right thing’. But seriously, I don’t need much respect, because what I do is not black or white. From the outside, it might seem like us humanitarians are completely moral people who are always ‘doing good’, but the reality is the world of humanitarianism is fraught with contradictions. Many of us spend so much time thinking and rethinking what we do, because while it might seem wholesome on the outside, there is a lot of negative repercussions caused by the ‘industry’ of humanitarianism that is rarely mentioned or talked about outside of the humanitarian circle. For example, are we actually helping, or is our presence prolonging a conflict?

Another response, which is usually confined to close friends, is hidden resentment. I had a friend who would get drunk and go on long rants about how it wasn’t just me who was saving the world, but she was also saving the world in her own way. She was a clown. Literally.

If friendly social situations bring out this awkwardness, one can only imagine what it would be like if your boyfriend was saving the world from 9-5. I’ve been called a dreamer, a bourgie Orientalist, and someone with very deep messiah-complex issues.

My old partners have had varying responses—and very few have really been able to come to terms with it. One of my first partners—an investment banker—was so intimidated by the idea that I had somehow ‘devoted my life to good’ (which is a flawed cliché, by the way), he used every opportunity to trivialize my job and interests, often referring to me and my colleagues as hippies that won’t just let things be. Once the joke got old and I confronted him about it, it dawned on me that the reason he was so belittling of my profession was because he felt immensely intimidated because there were other motives besides money that drove my passions.

Another ex of mine had the completely opposite response. He placed me on the highest pedestal of morality—I was an angel coming from heaven to save the world—my motives were all pure and innocent and I could do no wrong because I had devoted my life to ‘do good’. This bled into everything else I did in life—he would scrutinize my every action for signs of immorality. While I do have morals, I am not driven by some utopian vision that it is only I that is saving the world. I’m definitely try to change it, hopefully for the better, but isn’t that what every single person does—whether they are conscious of it or not?

The reality is though, ‘saving the world’, for the most part, often involves sitting in front of a computer—be it in Barcelona or Baghdad, writing up policy documents, strategy and reflection papers, and logistical spreadsheets about food and non-food distributions and program planning. Sure, there is an element of danger and excitement which many other jobs lack (I have to sign a paper accepting the risk of appearing in my very own al-Qaeda beheading video, for example), but in terms of saving the world, I’m not convinced what I do does anything more for the world than what anyone else does. I may be changing the world by meeting tribal sheikhs in Yemen and discussing humanitarian principles with them, or assessing health clinics in Najaf, but at the same time, my boyfriend—an account manager for an in-flight entertainment company by day and a DJ by night, is similarly changing the world in his own way. Unlike me, he has the power to influence what millions of people are watching 8 hours a day on long-haul flights across the world, and dictating what people dance and sing along to in London nightclubs—and he’s fully aware of this power. Now that’s some big influence over people.

Finally, there’s one more response, which is by far my favorite, and one I have only encountered once. The first and so far only person who has had such a response has been my masseur, who, upon telling him I worked for an international humanitarian organization in warzones stopped writing, looked up from the chart in his hands, and said “hmmm, that sounds stressful.”

Tell me about it.


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