The future of development aid workers

In summer 2012 I travelled to Africa to research the future of development aid. Here are my observations. 

European development aid organizations are facing dramatic changes that might redefine the role of young job seekers. While interest amongst college graduates is high, vacancies are rare. German aid worker Bernhard Meier zu Biesen and 28-year old Olga Almqvist, who just kicked off her career, share some very different views on the future of their profession.


Sometimes, Olga Almqvist does not know whether what she sees is real. For example, when she orders a pizza and takes a look at the box where she can choose between blaming a traffic jam, bad weather or a kidnapping for the delay in delivery. The young woman was even more astonished last year when she attended a famous carnival together with friends being dressed as viruses or chlorine-bottles. Only later she realized that her friends wore their unusual costumes to counter their fear of cholera and other diseases. 28-year old Olga Almqvist would like to laugh about those stories, just like her German friends. But laughing is difficult in a country like Haiti – and it is especially hard for her as a development worker.

When she came to Haiti in 2010, pizza boxes and carnival were the things she thought about least. Six months before her arrival a gigantic magnitude 7.0 earthquake had devastated the Caribbean country: 230 000 Haitians died, 190 000 houses collapsed, 30 hospitals crumbled. Haiti had turned into a country that was buried under 19 million cubic meters of rubble. Back then, development aid workers that were arriving in the crisis zone in masses did not ask themselves: How can we rebuild this country? Even before the earthquake, more than half of Haiti´s population did not have access to clean water. Hence, the question for many development workers was rather: How do we build up this country at all? Trend towards local employees There is no clear answer. Increasingly, development aid itself changes with more local employees playing a significant role in the process.

This altering self-perception has imposed a new task for western and European helpers: They have to redefine their own work. Olga Almqvist is one of them. She analyses the long-term effects of agricultural projects supported by German NGO “Welthungerhilfe” (World Hunger Help), one of the major international development aid organizations. “Our donors back in Germany expect us to provide an honest feedback whether our work meets the aims we have set ourselves”, Almqvist explains. Olga Almqvist and her colleagues do not have to be born adventurers. Instead, the right academic career might be sufficient as well. Almqvist succeeded in landing a job after having attended Sciences Po Paris´ Poitiers campus. Later, she pursued a master´s degree in International Relations on the Paris campus. “Being proficient in one or two foreign languages is a must for would-be volunteers”, she says. “Some development workers just want to travel the world” Although there is no ideal way into a steady employment, luck is an important factor given the fact that vacancies are rare. For example, in Germany only 100 development aid jobs are offered per year with lots of them being only temporary appointments. Competition amongst applicants is tough. “Lots of young aid workers just search for an interesting career that is socially valuable”, explains Anne-Meike Fechter, professor at British Sussex University. She has spend years researching the different constraints aid workers are facing. According to her, different paths can lead into the profession. “And originally, some development aid workers just wanted to travel the world and consequently slowly grew into their current profession“, she adds. “In the academic world, the debate about development work in general was concentrated on the help itself – and not on the helpers. But this is currently changing”, says Fechter.

New attention towards the personalities working in the profession might provide new opportunities. The more traditional NGOs are questioning themselves, the more the visions and ideas of young colleagues could be demanded. “This is because development aid can only be successful if the organizations´ employees find optimal conditions”, says Fechter. Still, heavy bureaucracy, concerns whether western aid actually changes something for the better, and the life far from home complicate the work of volunteers.

Last workday in Rwanda

Bernhard Meier zu Biesen has never had problems living thousands of kilometres away from home. For the last 40 years he was worked in the business, has learned French in Timbuktu, Swahili in Tanzania, and Arabic in Damascus. “And now my brain has run out of capacity”, he says while laughing, leaning back and lighting his cigarette. When he looks out of his office window in Kigali, Rwanda´s capital, Meier zu Biesen can watch the red dust spinning around a dirty palm tree. Since April 2011 the German volunteer has headed the “Welthungerhilfe” office in Kigali. Today is his final workday. In the evening, Meier zu Biesen is going to board a plane which will take him to Germany within eleven hours. When he first arrived in Tanzania in the 70s, things were different. Back then, he even employed and flew in German carpenters because local specialists were simply not-existent. “But all this has changed. German volunteers are increasingly overtaking the role of objective, independent and neutral observers and coordinators who can stimulate developments”, he says.

He views himself as kind of a “software-developer”: “We have to enable as many Africans as possible to attend good schools and universities so that they can solve their problems on their own.” According to Meier zu Biesen, the western development industry is facing a major shift. Traditional development work is condemned to disappear, but the importance of help for self-help and economic co operations is increasing instead. Meier zu Biesen does not sound melancholic when he is talking about these changes. He has seen it coming and he has hoped for it to happen. “Already today, lots of Asian NGOs and experts offer economic and agricultural development aid to lower prices than lots of European organizations”, says Meier zu Biesen. He gets up from his chair. Meier zu Biesen still has a lot to pack before boarding the plane.

Asked about his own future, he laughs. “At the end of an assignment I have never known what to do next. And within 40 years that has never been a problem. I am sure I am going to find something to do.” His employer – the German “Welthungerhilfe” – has set itself the aim to make itself redundant. If hunger would end, a “World Hunger Help” would not be needed any longer. Consequently, Bernhard Meier zu Biesen cannot think about his retirement, yet. There is still a lot of work ahead of him and his young colleagues.

The original article appeared on in December 2012. The research trip on which this article is based took place during summer 2012. Photo Credit: Oscar Lebeck


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