An Uncomfortable Itch: Reflections of a Humanitarian Aid Worker

By Reyn Lauer

I am what people call, and what I call myself, a humanitarian aid worker. It is a part of my life that also feels awkward a lot of the time. It is like an itch.

When I am busy and preoccupied with deadlines and the craziness of being an “aid worker” I forget about that little hard to reach itch. But then there are times when something is said, a look is made, or a moment is taken to reflect, that that little itch rears itself into a full blown rash. So, here it is: I am uncomfortable with my identity as an "aid worker". I wrestle with it daily.

Sudan - Photo from Reyn Lauer 2 SCIC

For the past ten years I have worked as a project manager in primarily African countries. I lead project design, write proposals, manage implementation, measure progress, and help maintain accountability to the community, government, and donor. I am part of a team that seeks to alleviate suffering and equip communities to manage current and future challenges. This is our mandate and the identity to which we cling.

Those who work in international humanitarian work are often perceived as “Mother Teresa-like” figures, some innocent and noble humanitarian warrior who can do little wrong. As aid organizations we largely glaze over the complexities of humanitarian work. Instead we pontificate our good results, value for money, and highlight the need for further funding. We rarely underline our failures or the challenges we experience. Unlike the Hippocratic Oath of “do no harm”, our Oath is just “do more good than harm”. The fact is, failure is common, and negative unintended consequences are endemic in our projects. The waters are rarely crystal clear and almost always muddy. What we do is not so innocent.

There are a number of challenges we experience, and to discuss them all would require a few nights. Instead, I want talk about something much more personal and put myself, as an aid worker, in the centre of the spotlight.

I did not experience poverty or discrimination in Canada. For crying out loud, I am a white male from a stable middle income household and part of a completely loving family. I am wildly privileged even in Canada.

Sudan - Photo from Reyn Lauer 3 SCIC

This privileged position, however, is amplified exponentially as an "aid worker" in Africa. I make more than three times as much as my highest paid national colleague. I am much younger and more inexperienced than the vast majority of people I manage. I don't speak the local languages and have a shallow understanding of the culture and its complexities. Yet I am able to walk into the doors of all international organizations, UN organizations and diplomatic missions with little more than a knock or phone call. At donor meetings the majority of questions are directed to me and not my national colleagues seated in the same room.

It is difficult to not see this distortion under the lens of race and privilege. But the aid industry is not comfortable with talking about racism or segregation in its work. Bringing up this idea of privilege and racial identity to a group of aid workers - which I have on occasion - is followed with an uncomfortable silence. It rattles our identity, our sense of who we are. It upturns how we want to see ourselves and how we want others to see us. The power and privilege which came to me, as the international aid worker, compared to my national colleagues is difficult to reconcile or find peace with.

I have not figured it out, I have little in the way of answers. I will say, however, that I think this discomfort is a good thing. It provides necessary periods of self-reflection and introspection.

Opening dialogue with our peers, partners, and donors is critical to genuine and positive change. I have asked my colleagues to tell me when I am exerting my privilege, or when they feel the partnership has become imbalanced, even if I don't seem to recognize it myself. I want them to have the space and power to hold us accountable. I think we need to experience this awkwardness to build a better global community where the rights of one another are equal and the responsibilities of each other are possible. We are all global citizens in an interdependent world. We are not isolated actors.

Sudan - Photo from Reyn Lauer SCIC

As we live our daily lives we are making choices that affect the world. There are 3.1 million displaced persons right now in Sudan who have fled due to violence in their communities; a child has a greater chance of dying than graduating elementary school in South Sudan. These are the realities in our world, while we sit here. I believe the imbalance in our world requires people of privilege to relinquish their power, resources and opportunities. This is not all that needs to take place, but this is our responsibility and it is not easy to do.

I am not a poster child for global citizenship. I am a floundering guy who along with my family are trying to navigate the tricky waters of the world we live in. We have made some interesting stops, but often we find ourselves in the open sea with the wind howling and we have no idea where we are going. The waves of information, ethical choices, worries, risk, and doubt come crashing down. With our fingers wrapped around the ropes we yell out into that bitter wind, “How do we live in this world?”

"How do I live in this world?" I am a privileged middle class white male who is an aid worker seeking to alleviate suffering of the most vulnerable. This uneasy relationship weighs heavy, as it should, and I need to constantly evaluate, discuss and learn from my mistakes, and I hope through the process I can be a better global citizen.

Reyn Lauer is a humanitarian aid worker from Saskatoon, Saskatchewan.

Most recently, Reyn and his family lived in Sudan where he was the Program Director for FAR International, an organization he has worked with for over ten years. Reyn was awarded SCIC’s Global Citizen Award in 2015, and this is an excerpt of his acceptance speech.