1. You will save the world.
The NGO work I did had quite an outreach as we worked with 16 partners across Indonesia, from Sumatra to West Timor. We conducted education, health, and nutrition programs for thousands of people ranging from newborns to 21-year olds. But consider that there are 400 million children worldwide living in extreme poverty and that “Poor nutrition causes nearly half (45%) of deaths in children under five — 3.1 million children each year” (WFP statistics on hunger 2013), you really can’t save the world.
But you can strive to make it a better place.
2. Everyone you meet will be saints.
In humanitarian work, you will find people with an extraordinary ego believing they are heroes and cowboys. Once I was based in Jakarta for a mission in Indonesia and, like most expats, I hung out with other expats. These expats might be humanitarians, but they might also be bankers, traders, or students. One day, I was invited to an informal party with delegates from a diplomatic mission when I met Olivier. He openly explained me that he chose this life because he was paid much more than in his country, he had (nearly) no tax to pay, and he was enjoying the most amazing holidays in Bali.
He was fluent in English, French, and Spanish and said he was trying to build up a career to work in prestigious international organisations. Of course everyone is entitled to choose their lifestyle, but when you choose to work in humanitarian and diplomatic fields, I question these motivations.
However, you will also meet people who have dedicated their lives to others.
3. Nothing too bad will happen to you.
When it’s 40-degrees Celsius, 80% humidity, and you’ve had diarrhoea for three days while sleeping in a “hotel” full of cockroaches, you just feel shit. In Indonesia, we had to travel to Atambua which is a village in West Timor. To get there we took a flight from Jakarta to Lombok, then a Cessna from Lombok to Kupang, and then an eight-hour drive to Atambua. Of course I got sick in Atambua, a village with no hospital or reliable transportation. I was hours, maybe days away from a decent hospital and had no antibiotics or rehydrating salts with me. I thought I might die there.
Yet, overcoming is one of the beauties of traveling.
4. Everything will work out because you have the best of intentions.
Locals sometimes wonder why a westerner has come to their country to help them. If you encounter this, work integration can be very challenging. On another mission to Java in Indonesia, I realised that my local colleagues didn’t understand why I was employed because the management didn’t give clear guidelines to everyone. As we were travelling to remote villages our partners didn’t speak English and my colleagues had to translate interviews. I didn’t always get the right information and tension would build up. In the end, we found a way to make it work despite the poor management of the project.
Use the opportunity to learn about yourself and others.
5. You will feast on the fantastic local food.
When you’re on a mission deep in the field you might end up being served the dish reserved for honorary guests. When I was in Palembang in South Sumatra, Indonesia the team met with the chief of a village who invited us for lunch. After a two-hour flight and a six-hour drive, I was starving and dreamt about some tasty local food. We got served a soup of lamb bones and strips of crispy chicken intestines on the side. Yum!