A few people have asked me of late how I came to this line of work. Curiously, they have all been soldiers, in passing conversations at airports or bars. Why did you join the army? I always want to retort. Instead my stock and deliberately vague reply is that it’s a job much like any other and one I just sort of, err, drifted into.
One man, a cut and polished English officer, was particularly dissatisfied with this. He seemed to expect me to say how I wanted to help the poor or something of similar ‘do-gooding’ sentiment. Yet it’s my aversion to such sentiment that makes it a difficult question to answer. For sure, I’d rather not be an arms dealer say, and I get mighty pissed off with the hypocrisy and inequality of this world, but I am often ambivalent about the political and sometimes even moral ‘good’ of much development work.
When I was first offered a job abroad I prevaricated. What right did I have to assume I could go over there and help? To know what that ‘good’ was for people I’d never met before and of whom I had no understanding? And that I actually could, that I had the skills and experience to do so? Who, I asked, did I think was? The hubris of idealism worried me. I tried saying something of the sort to my then boss. Rather than telling me to just shut up he quoted some lines of Hamlet that have stuck with me:
Thus conscience does make cowards of us all,
And thus the native hue of resolution
Is sicklied o’er with the pale cast of thought,
And enterprise of great pith and moment
With this regard their currents turn awry
And lose the name of action.
But how Shakespeare helped get me into this line of work isn’t the sort of thing that’s easy to explain while hustling in line at the departures desk at Dubai, waiting to board a plane to Kabul at four in the morning. And that’s only the beginning of my anxious reasoning about pursuing a career in international development.