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.”