Are Aid Workers Flexible to the Point of Breaking?

Being too flexible can really push your limits. Dagmara Ventresca

Written by  September 13, 2016

What's the true cost of "adaptability"? 

In the field of international development, we are often told that we need to flexible. Everyone needs to be flexible—employees, volunteers, and organizational partners. We write the word on our resumes, on our online profiles and say it in interviews because we know that working abroad must require flexibility. But what exactly does that mean? How flexible are we really and how flexible do we need to be?

Working abroad means that we have to listen, observe and be open-minded. We are asked to accept that everything we just learned could change next week or even tomorrow. Of course, in some ways this is what makes working abroad an interesting challenge and amazing learning experience. On the other hand, it is also what sometimes prevents development professionals from being able to effect actual change. By being too flexible, we may end up accepting everything we are presented with—which is not necessarily the healthiest approach to cultural exchange or for the job before us.

I have heard "this is Bolivia" more times than I can count. This admonition is apparently supposed to help us deal, but I see it as an excuse masquerading as reason.

Many professionals have heard (and maybe even themselves have said) "this is Africa"—or in my current case, "this is Bolivia." I have heard this more times than I can count. This admonition is apparently supposed to help us deal with and accept the reality of a specific situation or place. As someone who has worked abroad a bit, I see it as an excuse masquerading as reason. I feel like it is insulting to local people who are working hard to change such perceptions, as well as insulting to workers who have given their time—and sometimes their entire lives—to sharing their skills in this field.

While working abroad, workers are also often confronted with "Imposter Syndrome," a fear that we are ill-equipped, ill-prepared and inadequate to be sent abroad to help solve problems that most often are impossible to solve. We live with a fear of being seen as the "expert" from the West or from the North, sent by some charitable organization to "fix" things that, in reality, are complex and intersectional. These fears are understandable and not entirely unfounded. You may be seen this way. You may be asked to do things you are not comfortable with. Yes, you may need to be flexible, but you may also need to learn to say no. Your mental and physical health may depend on your refusal to be flexible in order to accommodate someone else’s comforts and desires. Your ability to be flexible could lead to harmful stress and even burnout and, in the end, the only person to suffer will be you.

Depending on the tasks assigned and location of your placement, take the time to observe and really listen to your coworkers and work partners. Never think that you cannot pose ideas, solutions, or challenges and never underestimate local people and their ability to do the same. The best part of working abroad is learning from others and leaving something of value when you return home. Being too flexible could potentially inhibit this exchange and prevent actual progress.

Nowadays, the word "flexible"—like the word "internship"—makes me suspicious. Just like internships have become synonymous with free labour and exploitation of our ideas, time and energy, the word flexible has come to mean nearly the same. Being flexible has come to mean that you can be asked to do tasks you were not hired to do, work longer hours and put up with numerous hassles—all with a smile on your face. To be flexible now means you should do everything asked of you without getting bent out of shape about it.

While I would suggest that working abroad (and in some cases at home) requires a level of adjustment and compromise, I do not think it should ask us to be so flexible that we break our backs in the process.

What do you think?

The views expressed in this blog are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect those of Cuso International.

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Published in Volunteer Abroad Blogs
Izabela Wlodarczyk

Izabela Wlodarczyk is currently volunteering with Cuso International in La Paz, Bolivia as an Organizational Strengthening and Marketing Advisor. Originally from Poland, Izabela has worked in Canada, South Africa, Indonesia and Mexico on various international development projects as a consultant and editor.

Website: https://www.facebook.com/travelwithinvitaveritas/

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