British Anthropologist Studies Lives of Western Aid Workers

Anne-Meike Fechter, a social an­thropologist, says she came to Cambodia in order to study a large, but often ignored and misunderstood group of people: aid workers.

Ms Fechter, a lecturer at the British Sussex University who is visiting Phnom Penh to talk about findings she published in a new book, argues that more attention should be paid to foreigners with de­velopment jobs and lives here.

Despite a lot of research into development as a discipline, no­body has looked at the people who actually give aid, she said. In order to do just that, Ms Fechter interviewed more than 50 Western aid workers with experience in Cam­bo­dia for a project in 2009 and 2010.

Interviewees had mixed motivations for doing aid work in Cam­bo­­dia, which included trying to make a difference, establishing a career and having adventures, she said. “It’s really wrong to as­sume that people who get in­volved in this kind of work are saints, and there’s no reason why we should expect that.”

However, aid workers were of­ten put under moral pressure and at­tacked for having “freewheeling lifestyles,” she said.

“Aid workers are depicted as quite stereotypical saintly figures and then reviled for living it up.”

In contrast, such high expectations did not apply to social workers and nurses who work in their own countries, she noted.

Many aid workers themselves felt uneasy about having comfortable lifestyles and “making a living out of poverty,” she added. Aid workers can earn high salaries and jet around the world based on the premise that they are assisting a lot of people who are poor, she said. “If you are a development expert, you can do very well out of poverty.”

At the same time, aid workers may also lose touch with people they are supposed to help, she ad­ded. “It’s worth really dragging [the issue] out into the open and having a discussion that is not judgmental or apologetic.”

Ms Fechter’s findings were published in her coedited book “Inside the Everyday Lives of Develop­ment Workers: The Futures and Challenges of Aidland.”

 

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