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(2021-2022) The Personal Experiences of Aid Work

by | Nov 27, 2021 |

Written by Lucy Anderson, Leela Boyton, Sally Mosand, Sophie Richards, Abigail Tilston, and Xanthe Tsapparelli

Aims and Objectives

The aim of this lesson is to discuss how aid workers experience their work, and what drives them to pursue a profession of ‘doing good’. This lesson serves to introduce students to the industry of aid and the discipline of anthropology.

The main goal is to explore development work through the perspectives of the workers themselves, and demonstrate how the expectations of aid differ from the reality of the work. This allows students to begin questioning the intentions of aid organisations.

The personal experiences of workers make visible the reality of contradictions within aid practices, and the relationship between workers and the flawed greater structures of aid. Humanitarians are faced with impossible decisions daily, such as deciding who survives in crisis situations, and this moral and emotional labour creates inner turmoil. Understanding these challenges allows students to evaluate greater processes of aid and begin thinking critically about how we help others and why. Students must consider how aid processes work in practice, and how ‘good’ intentions can still lead to the harm of aid recipients.


Draw on the work of Peters (2016) to provide students with an insight into how aid workers may differentially experience their work. Peters provides the ethnographic example of development work in Angola, demonstrating the distinctions in experience between local and international workers. The hierarchical inequalities in the development industry are shown, detailing how local workers may have to conceal particular skills in order to conform to industry expectations of them as ‘local’.

Fechter’s (2016) work will help students understand one of the main motivations behind doing aid work: compassion. The reading provides insight into how aid workers may experience their work as ‘moral labour’, which points to their ethical struggles to ‘do good’ in the face of structural, organisational, and other constrains. This reveals how compassionate motivations are not enough to produce desired positive outcomes.

Mittermaier (2014) explores Islamic voluntarism in Egypt. They offer a more nuanced evaluation of the motivations behind aid work, demonstrating that individual aid workers understand themselves as going beyond pure compassion. They argue that aid workers may endeavour to help others but simultaneously receive personal gratification and religious value from their work. This will give students a broader understanding of alternative motivations for providing aid and will allow them to evaluate if intentions are as important as the act of giving aid.

Resources and Preparation

The class must have a projector and computer in order to show the video to the students. There must also be WiFi and at least one in every six students should have a smartphone to play the Kahoot. The class will also need printouts of the Oxfam blog post.

In preparation for the class, ensure that students have the relevant background knowledge to build upon, by asking if they know about aid, humanitarian work and the work done by major charities (such as Save the Children). It is also important for teachers to consider ways of encouraging students to connect with and care about aid work. This could be done by naming different charities and what they do, then showing them charity adverts and campaigns to get them familiar with aid work. It would also be useful to discuss the differences between international aid organisations and ones based in the UK, to demonstrate the differences between international and national aid.

Four-part plan


Start by establishing clear lesson objectives: ‘to understand the importance of why people choose to do humanitarian aid work’ and ‘to learn why anthropology provides a good framework for looking at humanitarian aid work’. Then gage students’ understanding of the topic using a short mind-mapping activity.

In small groups (of 4 to 6 students), ask them to create a bubble map of why people might choose to do humanitarian aid work and then ask some students to share their answers.

Activity 1: Handout and TedTalk video

Provide a handout of this Oxfam blog post (Oxfam 2018), describing what an aid worker has learned through their own experiences. This allows students to read a personal account of aid from a worker in a major organisation.

Show a video of humanitarian aid workers explaining what it means and what it is like to be an aid worker. Teachers have the choice between two videos. The first video tells real stories of an aid worker working closely with victims of sexual assault. The second is an overview of aid, lamenting how one person does not change the whole world, but how important aid is for the recipient. The teachers can decide if they feel the class is capable of watching a video containing stories of sexual assault and rape. This video allows students to see an engaging account of the difficulties and importance of aid work.

Activity 2: PowerPoint & Group Discussion

Display a short PowerPoint presentation that introduces the anthropology of aid work. Explain how anthropologists evaluate big concepts like aid through the experiences of individuals, in this case the aid workers.

The presentation will then outline Fechter’s (2016) work on the role of compassion in aid work and Mittermaier’s (2014) work on the role of religious duty to present clear motivations that may encourage people to become aid workers. We will then explore the difficulties that aid workers may face, as well as discussing if intentions for doing aid matter, or if outcomes matter more.  After this, ask the students to split into the same small groups for further discussion. They will then add to the mind-maps they have already started.


Finish by having a Kahoot in the small groups with simple questions about aid work and anthropology to sum up what the students have learned. The Kahoot will have a one-minute time limit, with no bonus points for answering quickly, so that the students can discuss why they think answers are the most applicable. There is no wrong answer to most of the questions, but the answers will encourage further student discussion. However, there is a mix of simpler questions, to clarify the students’ understanding.


Example of Kahoot


Fatema, I.T., (2018) ‘Five things I’ve learned being a humanitarian aid worker’, Available at: (Accessed: 10/11/2021).

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

Ikanda, F.N. (2020) ‘The Role of Somali Kinship in Sustaining Bureaucratic Governance around Dagahaley Camp in Kenya’, Ethnos. DOI: 10.1080/00141844.2020.1773894.

Kilborn, E., (2017) ‘What makes a humanitarian’, Available from: (Accessed: 08/11/2021).

Mittermaier, A. (2014) ‘Beyond Compassion: Islamic Voluntarism in Egypt’, American Ethnologist, 41(3), pp. 518–531.

Peters, Rebecca Warne (2016) ‘Local in Practice: Professional Distinctions in Angolan Development Work’, American Anthropologist, 118(3), pp. 495–507.