The most exciting thing I’ve ever done was catching a flight from Sydney airport in February 2000 to start my first job as a technical adviser on an aid project. Finding a job like that had been a goal for a long time. Now it was finally happening.
It was the middle of a hot Australian summer and most of the people at the airport were in shorts and singlets and thongs or skimpy dresses. Three airline meals later, when I arrived in Vienna in the European winter, the contrast was dramatic. Here everyone was in thick winter coats and boots. My first impressions of Skopje in Macedonia, and then Pristina in Kosovo, were equally memorable.
I wrote it all down in my diary, and sent it off in emails home.
The first job led to others, and Kosovo led to Afghanistan and then a long list of other countries. Each place was a new source of excitement and wonder. The diaries started piling up.
Some of them documented history as it happened—the first democratic elections in Kosovo, and in Afghanistan, and the political crises in Ukraine and the Philippines.
Some dealt with the perennial problems of foreign aid—the projects that floundered, the local doctors lured by high salaries to give up medicine and work as interpreters, the effects of government corruption and donor incompetence.
And all of them provided first hand accounts of the many challenges facing ordinary people in the countries I visited.
I decided to turn these diaries into a book for several reasons.
I wanted to share the excitement I felt each time I arrived in a new country to try to solve a new set of problems. Many people do the type of work I do, but very few ever write about the experience.
I also wanted to help people understand the causes of poverty and underdevelopment, and what needs to be done to address them. Simply sponsoring one child, or sending food in a crisis is not enough. It requires major social and political change. Foreign aid can’t achieve this on its own, but it can provide the tools a government needs to solve its own problems.
The book is also, partly, a response to the people who have asked how they too can find a job in international development. I don’t have the answer to that. In my case the opportunity to work in this field came almost out the blue. But I hope the book might help them by giving them better insights into what aid work is really like.