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Home arrow Sociology arrow Humanitarian ethics : a guide to the morality of aid in war and disaster

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Individual Mixed Motives

It would be inaccurate to overstate the motivational force of humanitarian conviction in the tens of thousands of people who work in humanitarian operations around the world. Not unnaturally, many humanitarian workers have mixed motives for doing what they do. Some do it in order to find themselves as well as to help others. Some do it for the money and the lifestyle. Some do it for a change and a challenge. Others do it because it provides well-paid and relatively safe employment in a vicious war. Many continue to do it because they do not know what else to do. Most people probably do it for a mixture of these reasons.

The particular psychological motivation of expatriate humanitarian workers from the West has long been recognized to have a broad range of drivers that reach back into heroic fantasies of medieval chivalry, foreign adventure, military daring and medical self-sacrifice. There is a rite of passage element to humanitarian voluntarism. Many expatriate aid workers set out to prove themselves just as much as they do to prove the principle of humanity. There is no doubt that narcissism plays a part in such a quest, alongside the attempt to understand who one is and who one could become in a testing trial of some kind. But not everyone is neurotic, and some of the best international workers are young people who seek adventure in a less complicated way and bring exceptional energy and interpersonal skills to very challenging settings. Many older people take to the profession at a different time of transition in mid-life as a rite of middle passage. At their best, the age and experience of midlife humanitarians brings wisdom and stability as well as energy to a humanitarian programme. At their worst, mid-life expatriate humanitar?ians can bring cynicism, alcohol dependency and interpersonal chaos. This strong element of personal rites of passage in humanitarian work is no different from people testing themselves in business, medicine, policing, the army, sponsored runs or fast cars at critical junctures in their life. But it is a significant dynamic that shapes the field and can give agencies additional volatility.

The vast majority of humanitarian workers who are national rather than international staff have mixed motives too. Working for their own communities, they also combine humanitarian conviction and a sense of challenge with more self-centred goals of salary, job security, technical training and career advancement. In a damaged or deteriorating economy, humanitarian agencies are generally high payers and good employers, which can make recruitment into the sector a plum job. The frequent glass ceiling that can prevent national staff from taking the top jobs is a constant frustration, but can also be a relief in authoritarian societies in which taking responsibility and standing out from the crowd can be dangerous.

This variety of motivations across the humanitarian sector is significant because it means that while the profession presents itself as primarily an ethical pursuit it is also strongly influenced by other personal incentives that drive humanitarian individuals and create an accumulation of vested interests that are embedded within its institutions.

 
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