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Citizens of aidland: Exploring the subjectivity of aid workers in the field

By Eleanor Brooker, Helena Buckley, Mikael Chaudary, Karolina Duskova, Elena Marian, Jake McGratten, and Rebecca Seaford

‘Aidland’ refers to a world of aid or development work. It is driven by good intentions and encompasses the hidden problems that are associated with aid (Harrison, 2013: 263). ‘Aidland’ refers not only to processes and possible consequences of specific people doing aid work, but it is also helpful in understanding the individual positions and feelings of people conducting the actual help – such as self-doubts of aid workers, fear of failing as a professional, racism, hierarchies and power relations within aid work structures (Harrison, 2013: 265).

Through the concept of Aidland, the subjectivity of experts and professionals in aid work becomes visible, bringing to light the individual lived experiences of aid workers. It is not just the recipients of aid who are often homogenised as a category, but also those who deliver aid. The importance of mapping Aidland is that it underscores the internal differences of the category of ‘aid donors’, which refers to both individual actors as well as organisations (Harrison, 2013: 270) . Looking at aid workers as individual actors with personalities and different hopes, fears and intentions allow for a much more expansive study of aid work. Former aid workers wrote much of the work published about Aidland after their retirement (Harrison, 2013: 272). Therefore, it is self-reflective and nuanced, rather than generalising, and creates an image of Aidland as it is seen through the eyes of aid workers.

Inhabiting Aidland undoubtedly implies moral responsibility. The anthropologist Anne Meike-Fletcher argues how engagements and practices of international aid workers can be understood as forms of ‘moral labour’, a term she defines to be the moral practices that many aid workers will go through in their work and personal lives (Fechter, 2016: 228). She based her research on ethnographic fieldwork in Cambodia and looks into the ways that morality matters in aid, by situating it in the context of those whose livelihoods are concerned with aid work internationally. Usually, the correlation between ‘moral sentiments’ and ‘performance as aid workers’ is seen as binary, and yet more often than not, the lives of these morally aware ‘passionate professionals’ are based on an amalgamation of both (Fechter, 2016: 229).

She also looks into a term called ‘moral distress’ which refers to the problems that arise with regards to the entanglements on the professional margins (Fechter, 2016: 234). For instance, some aid workers are unable to achieve their aims due to the scale of the task in hand, or because of the broader organisational constraints that are in place (Fechter, 2016: 234). These daily problematic entanglements serve to alter the internal dispositions and challenge the individual subjective moralities of aid actors.

Tensions may present themselves when dogmatic themes such as religion and spiritualism underscore aid work. Chika Watanabe’s paper is an ethnographic piece about a Japanese aid organisation called the Organization for Industrial, Spiritual and Cultural Advancement (OISCA) working in Myanmar. The work this organisation did focused on training local people to become aid workers. While the organisation purported their ideology as being universalistic, this Shinto perspective had undertones of nationalism, as the idea of living harmoniously with nature was identified as being a Japanese value (Watanabe, 2014: 658).

Working together was crucial to the development of the workers and shared intimacy was felt by both those training and those being trained. This brings up in sharp relief the following questions – what happens when non-Japanese places or actors have to navigate these seemingly localised perspectives? Does it require a reorientation of external dispositions to accommodate and enact this specific ethic?

An example of this tension is how new development areas were determined after a seemingly supernatural event; a sudden downpour following the visit to a Buddhist statue resulted in a different area of land being chosen for development. Although the reason was never officially justified, there was an implicit understanding that the new area was chosen due to this transcendental ‘sign’ (Watanabe, 2014: 663).

It is easy to imagine how a secular aid worker who joined OISCA may feel conflicted about relying on such signs, and it begs the question of how far are aid workers expected to set aside their convictions during aid projects. This friction materialised as older founding members who adhered to Shinto beliefs became increasingly at odds with more secular elements of the organisation, including younger trainees, stakeholders and the Japanese government (Watanabe, 2014: 659).

Watanabe’s paper highlighted how the structures of the organisation could take agency away from the individual actors. The structures that OISCA had were replicating historic imperialist ideology of Japanese superiority (Watanabe, 2014: 666). These colonialist structures affect the individual actor, as many of them were from Myanmar and through living and working within these structures they become subsumed in the belief that they are inferior.

Does focusing too much on lived experience mean we miss the big picture?

The particular interactions between aid donors fundamentally shape the social fabric of Aidland and aid recipients are framed by structures of power in a variety of localities and encounters. It is not possible to have a clear understanding of the workings of Aidland unless we first attempt to reconcile the disparities between aid donors and aid recipients. This then enables us to identify and remedy the possible causes of the problems that emerge. In order to secure the future of Aidland, it is crucial to know who inhabits it and understand their experiences. 

We conclude that it is essential to look at both the individual and the collective organisation to develop a full understanding of Aidland. As Watanabe’s ethnography demonstrates, overlooking internal conflicts of citizens of Aidland can result in the individual agency of the aid workers being undermined.


Bennet, M M. & Eberts, S (2015) ‘The experiences of short term humanitarian aid workers in Haiti’, Mental Health, Religion & Culture, 18(5), 319-329

Fechter, A-M (2016) ‘Aid work as moral labour’, Critique of Anthropology, 36(3), 228–243.

Harrison, E. (2013) ‘Beyond the Looking Glass? “Aidland” Reconsidered’, Critique of Anthropology, 33(3), 263–279.

Watanabe, C. (2014) ‘Muddy Labor: A Japanese Aid Ethic of Collective Intimacy in Myanmar’, Cultural Anthropology, 29(4), 648-671. doi: 10.14506/ca29.4.04.