Help me help the victims of Darfur's genocide.
January 29, 2007 1:32 AM   Subscribe

I want to *go* help the people of Darfur.

(please bear with me)

I'm sick of corporate America (and more than a little tired of America itself) and I've decided I want to help people who really need it, not suits that don't. To that end, I want to move to Africa and help the victims of the genocide in Darfur. Here's what I have to offer:

- 28yo, single, Caucasian, healthy, fit American male
- BS in Marketing / Business Management
- 5 years experience in retail / fashion merchandising (buyer)
- 2 years experience (to current) in Business Consulting

I'd like to think that my business acumen could in some way help me find a decent position in logistics of directing international aid, or something to that effect, however my primary motivation here is not necessarily to find the best job. I do need to make enough money to a) survive and b) pay a few bills (student loans, a little CC debt) back in the US in the meantime. As long as I can be responsible with those matters, I'm not that concerned about my paycheck / quality of life when I get there. My main motivation is to work hard and know that I am helping people in serious need - whether its behind a desk, a fork-lift, a food-station, or a doctor. I am open to the actual location of where I go (Chad, Sudan), but I want to know that I'm at least helping the victims of the genocide, or perhaps even ideally helping create the movement to end it (although I realize it will likely be the former). pointed me to this list, and my plan at this point is to start circulating the resume and making calls, trying to find the right people and right positions to apply for. As far as organizations go I'm particularly interested in the IRC.

I am wondering if there's anyone out on the green who has been to the area in any capacity (working, volunteering), or who might know someone who has that they can point me towards. My current work has taught me the importance of connections, so I am first off looking to make the right ones.

Secondly, I'm open to any general advice that can be offered to someone with my aforementioned desires. Travel guidance, things to take along, what to expect, how to stay safe, particular organizations to investigate, etc..

Thanks, and feel free to respond via allkindsoftime at g mail.
posted by allkindsoftime to Work & Money (14 answers total) 22 users marked this as a favorite
Hey man. awesome stuff.

Having done a bit of aid work in war torn countries myself (and still doing so in a sort of part-time manner) I've learned that debt = bad. I know you're probably eager to just get going with your plans right now, but if it's in any way possible, get rid of that debt before you go. It will alleviate the fear/frustration of not knowing if/when you'll get paid again (since many orgs are volunteer based) and wondering if you'll be able to satisfy your loan peoples.

Aside from this, just do as much research as you can - but know that any research materials you come up with will always be slanted. Just remember to expect the unexpected. Understand and recognize that things in that part of the world simply do not in ANY WAY operate like you've come to expect in western nations - be they bribes, cultural expectations, sickness, perceptions of time/priorities, the list goes on.

I guess the bottom line is be flexible, and make sure that you have as many of your ducks in a row as possible back home before you consider venturing out in to the world. it's a wild place out there.

Feel free to contact me and ask any further questions you may have.

Good luck!
posted by quadrinary at 1:41 AM on January 29, 2007

Peace Corps.
posted by Brittanie at 1:42 AM on January 29, 2007

Best answer: I've done humanitarian NGO work in the occupied territories and my other half has been to Sudan twice with Medicines Sans Frontieres.

You've not got direct experience but from what she's told me you might make the cut as a country administrator. I understand that logisticians tend to need experience; understandable when you think that the profile of your learning curve might be measured in lives.

Another thought: although you've not got legal experience consider looking for a job as a humanitarian affairs adviser. There won't be many and competition will be fierce but these positions involve taking testimony from survivors of human rights violations and putting together situation reports and other documentary output.

People in Aid is worth a look but reliefweb will be a crucial resource for you.

Consider my response here. You may very well do more aggregate good taking your exceptionally valuable professional skills to somewhere where they would be directly applicable such as Kenya rather than trying to re-tool yourself into something that, presently, you're not - a humanitarian professional. All compassionate people can empathise with your disillusionment and desire to help in the most fucked up place in the world but in terms of allocation of resources you may well find that the utility that you are able to leverage is infinitely greater working for the likes of VSO than doing endless situation analyses in Khartoum which are ignored by the outside world.
posted by dmt at 2:35 AM on January 29, 2007

Best answer: Good advice above. I would add two things. First, most "humanitarian" or "relief" or "development" work involves very little direct service to the needy. Mostly it is paperwork, endless meetings, more paperwork, donor-driven projects, etc. Most agencies employ relatively few foreign staff, because they are expensive, and lots of host country nationals, so you would likely be hired more as a manager and less as someone who is directly working with, say, refugees. This is worth knowing, because many idealistic people become very frustrated and disillusioned with development work because of this exact issue. In their imaginations they were going to be providing direct service to grateful needy people; when they see the reality of a job where their time is spent filling out reports that no one reads, taking inventory of misused equipment, etc....

Second, just like any industry, you get into development work through connections, and by interning/volunteering, or via specialized courses of study. You may well find a job directly (particularly, as dmt suggests, in a non-conflict zone where business expertise would be particularly appreciated), but more likely you will need to find a way to volunteer for six months, and then apply for jobs with that experience under your belt. (It isn't just for petty reasons that many development jobs require 2+ years of living in a similar setting --- many people from the developed world just can't hack the cross-cultural and other difficulties of living in a place like Chad, and hiring people who quit after a month is expensive. You need to prove that you are adaptable to living in a place where you walk past malnourished children --- whom you will never help --- every morning on your way to the air conditioned office, where bureaucracy moves according to its own logic, and where you have the shits for the third time this month.)

The advice to get rid of your debt (at least credit card; student loan debt has pretty good repayment terms) is really good. If your phone and internet access goes out for three months, or your paycheck gets misrouted to Sidney Australia instead of Sidney Nebraska, you don't want to have to be worrying about your loans going into default.
posted by Forktine at 5:20 AM on January 29, 2007 [2 favorites]

Best answer: On rereading what I wrote, I might have sounded more discouraging than I meant to be. So how to make this happen for you: Organizations like the Peace Corps and VSO have served for decades as bridges into development work. You will not be sent directly to a conflict zone, but you will get the experience and make the connections that will allow you to have a career in development (or, just as importantly, learn that it is not the world for you).

Alternately, religious organizations will often substitute fervor for experience (with both good and bad results); religious groups have also been out front on Darfur issues in the US. If you or anyone in your family is active in any church, I would suggest pursuing that connection vigorously.

Good luck!
posted by Forktine at 5:30 AM on January 29, 2007 [1 favorite]

Best answer: I'm African, and in my opinion, where you can help best is not in the war regions. As a person, what is your goal? You want to save the world, or do you want to save a few people? Answer: You cannot save the world, stick with saving a few people. Does it make a difference if this in darfur or if it is in Botswana? No, it does not.

Darfur is prominent in the news, but that is just because it's what the western media has picked up on as their personal pet baby. It's not the only place that needs help.

Given your experience, the most effective way you can help the world is by volunteering to _teach_ in one of the medium income african countries such as Cameroun, Kenya, Congo, Zimbabwe, etc.

The extremly poor african countries do not need you! You come there with your special needs, unable to deal with the situation, no background in hard living, and you will be nothing but a liability. Go where it's not about the basics, but where people are at the next step.

My parents are both aid workers, and have been living in Africa for 25 years, helping. I've watched highly motivated foreigners come and go, and those who are least useful are the starry eye idealists who think their presence is enough to help.

No, actually go do something.

Go teach in the Congo. Teach the teachers. Come up with new methods to teach.

Another interesting project my parents recently got involved in: Teach the local craftsmen how to _make_ and use modern tools. Woodworking tools, metal work tools.

There is so much that can be done, but you have to be targeted and effective.
posted by markesh at 6:15 AM on January 29, 2007 [17 favorites]

I've seen volunteerism from the point of view of a person in need, and while it's commendable that you would like to volunteer, I have to agree with what Markesh has already said - if you really want to help, think about going to a country that could use teachers. And I've also got to agree with those who said to pay off your debt first (with the possible exception of student loans; you can probably get a deferment for those.)

I know plenty of people who would like to go to Darfur (and similarly in-need places) and would do so for little or no pay - room and board, essentially. And many of them have quite a history of volunteer experience and often they have degrees in areas more conducive to the work needed.

I don't think there's anything wrong with being a starry-eyed idealist, as long as pragmatism later comes to the forefront. But you should, in all honesty, ask yourself why you should be the one doing humanitarian work at a payrate that allows you the luxury of paying off debt, when there are people equally (at the very least) qualified to do it for almost nothing, and in many cases to subsidize their own work (in other words, there are people even willing to pay their own expenses to help who get turned down.)

I don't think it's selfish to want pay, as such - but having seen the benefits and detriments of volunteers and volunteer agencies from the point of view of a 'victim', I would generally feel that any field relief organization which can afford to pay its workers - especially those with "basic" western skills (such as a marketing degree, as opposed to something like a medical degree) enough money to pay off bills at home to be taking food / assistance from those who need it. This, for the simple reason that there are, as I've already mentioned, plenty of highly-skilled people willing to do it for less.

Teaching in a desperate country is not as "romantic" perhaps, but that's why there's a big need. Or put your marketing and business acumen to work by raising money for a good cause at home where the money is. But at the very least, you should consider volunteering at home so that you at least have *some* credibility. I've no way of knowing that you wouldn't be the best relief person ever, but your letter reads more like you're looking for an escape than anything else. And if I were a relief agency, I would suspect that the rigours of life and disorganization and hopelessness in working in a warzone would soon make you feel that your previous American business life was a sort of wonderful, opiated dream. And 99.9% of the time, the relief agency would have made a good call!

Perhaps a good place to start would be one of those "charity vacations" wherein you pay to volunteer for a few weeks in a rough place - at least that would give you some sense of how you'd manage in a war zone.
posted by Dee Xtrovert at 6:55 AM on January 29, 2007

I'm mostly with markesh, but if you really want to make a difference in Darfur, specifically, then work at home to make political changes that can help. Get knowledgable about what your government has promised to do for Darfur and set up a watchdog group (or join an existing one) to make sure it does so. Contact people who are working there and help make sure that their stories and analysis make it to the American public and policy makers.

Please don't go on a "charity vacation". Doing something is not always better than doing nothing, and in my experience and opinion, many of the "charity vacation" companies do more harm than good in the communities they work in. If you really want to go to Africa, look into VSO or UNV. A really important thing to look for, to make sure that the organization actually does something good and effective, is that it looks for *skilled* volunteers.
posted by carmen at 8:46 AM on January 29, 2007

I have to add a tag about the idealist cause. I didn't want to shoot you down in my first post, but after being in and out of Afghanistan for the past 7 years, I've seen many people come with crazy expectations/desires only to see them leave discouraged and depressed 6 months later. It's a tough balance to find (idealism vs. reality) but taking a route suggested by markesh or Dee Xtrovert is probably your best route.

Case in point: I had three friends who wanted to teach in Afghanistan (during the Taliban era) but couldn't get into the country so they taught in Pakistan for a year instead. Bottom line - Pakistan, being a FAR more developed country was still too much for them. They left after that year never wanting to return, and glad they took that route instead.

Anyway, looks like the other folks here have given the same perspectives i have and more. I hope you can figure all this out for yourself!
posted by quadrinary at 9:04 AM on January 29, 2007

I don't have any advice about working in Darfur; however, you might want to look into having your student loan payments deferred for a period of time while your working in Africa. I had my loans deferred when I quit my job to move to California. It's quite easy to do (generally you can get a deferment or forbearance pretty easily if your income is taking a big hit because of a lower paying job). Getting a deferment or forbearance on the loans might make things easier for you.
posted by bananafish at 10:47 AM on January 29, 2007

oops apostrophe error. I meant "you're working in Africa." doh!
posted by bananafish at 10:51 AM on January 29, 2007

Maybe with your fashion business experience you can work on helping to develop the African textile industry?
posted by footnote at 11:09 AM on January 29, 2007

I volunteer as a tutor with a Sudanese refugee group in Washington state. If you're interested in doing work with immigrants in the US rather than going to Africa, here are some east coast organizations that may be able to point you to work you can do locally:
posted by lemuria at 12:26 PM on January 29, 2007

(Whoops, you already know the IRC...well, that's their New York volunteering page, at least.)
posted by lemuria at 12:28 PM on January 29, 2007

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