Tuesday, February 21, 2006

The Selfish Altruist

I wish I could lay claim to the term "Selfish Altruist" but it's the title of a book I just finished regarding us humanitarians and the mess-ups that we do in the name of saving the world. The title was probably my favorite part of the book.

In December I was drinking bear and playing poker with my siser at a Mexican in Marietta, Georgia. We got to talking with our fellow players, about where we went to high school and where we lived now. When they found out that I did aid work in the Congo, it's like you could see them visualizing me with a halo above my head. They let me know just how great they thought I was for doing what I do. Even though I had a beer in one hand and was trying to bluff my way out of a bad hand. Even though this is my job, just as father is a lawyer and my mother is a teacher, and they give to charities, doing their own part to make the world a better place. But the difference is that I was perceived as making a large sacrifice. I've never seen it as that - in my mind it's more a "questionable career decision" or "temporary moment of insanity" and who doesn't have those? So I particularly like the term selfish altruist because it captures the spirit of this work. If I were a complete altruist I could sell everything I own and work here for free. Heck no. I do this work because I want to make a difference in this world and because I like the challenges and new terrain that it involves. Both of these motives are highly personal, and they come back to my own needs in the end. And in the end, compassion and altruism are much harder to hold onto in this line of work because you get quite used to poverty and you start to really understand that many factors keep people and countries pooor - and you wonder why people as individuals, communities and governments are not doing more. You see that doing good is a business with competition for resources, good and bad bosses, and late nights in the office. You wonder at what point you will stop being an optimist, because if we don't believe that things will get better, then we will be forced to see our work a failure.

Above all, I think the element of self interest is necessary. We are only as good as our work. Good intentions are the same in this work as anywhere else. To really make a difference, you need to be motivated (your own self interest, which can be competive wages, trainings, etc) and work with effective organizations (their own interests to continue to receive governent and private funding). The UN Volunteer program relies heavily on the "volunteer spirit." I can tell you right now that if someone brought up in a staff meeting that we were all going to take a significant paycut this year but that "it's not about the money, right? it's about helping people! Volunteer spirit!" we'd promptly toss that person out the window (if it didn't have bars on it). Perhaps I should just hit delete and keep on being an angel.


Blogger Taylor Walters said...

Hi Sarah,

I stumbled upon your website and wanted to say hi because it looks like we have some things in common. I work in Kamina, DRC, but am currently state-side (my boss, Bishop Ntambo Nkulu, doesn't want me living back in the interior until the dust has settled from these elections).

Feel free to drop me a line sometime.


1:40 AM  
Blogger Kingston Girl said...

Hey, Excellent post, I agree with lots of your sentiments. I work in a job that doesn't pay me the best with loads of challenges, but I enjoy it and like feeling that I am doing something. So I guess i get pay-offs in that way.

4:22 PM  
Blogger Sahara Sarah said...

Would it be that we were all paid what we were worth!

Good luck, Taylor. I'm thinking that the elections will go smoothly, but sometimes Congolese use such opportunities to vent frustrations. Always best to be safe.

6:41 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

girl, pouch me that book, will you? i'm sitting here tonight selfishly wondering how long this altruism will last:)love the motorcycle, by the way--Sara B

9:09 PM  
Blogger Louis said...

as always, you're lucid and honest about the tough subjects... and really pretty unjaded...

it's better than "the selfish misanthrope," right?

However... here in New York, scrounging foundations for grant money and living on Ramen, I've been wondering: is poverty contagious? cheers...

5:01 AM  
Blogger TheMalau said...

I am deeply grateful that someone actually has the integrity to tell it like it is, and I thank you for that Sarah. My family has worked in the paid side of the UN, but we have always been surrounded, in every country my mum worked, with volunteers, peace corps, MSF, etc, who more often than none did care genuinely for the people, but did not forget about themselves in the process either. That is just natural, I think, and healthy. If one cannot help and provide for oneself, how can one effectively and enthusiasticaly help others?

2:19 PM  
Blogger Congogirl said...

I don't have an articulate comment. But suffice it to say, you hit the nail on the head.

I need to get an RSS feed for you and 007, I don't visit often enough.

And, when are you going to sign up for LJ so you can read all my 'friends' entries?

11:32 PM  

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