In Search of Humanity: An Interview with Obie Porteous

New book by ACF staff member chronicles life and work in hunger’s hotspots.
ACF-Myanmar, photo courtesy: Khuu Para Ywar Haun.

Porteous, author of In Search of Humanity: Blogs of an International Aid Worker, has worked with Action Against Hunger in five very different countries—Tajikistan, Uganda, Democratic Republic of Congo, Pakistan, and Indonesia. He sat down with us to discuss his new book, the value of ACF’s programs, and the sheer joy of a water pump.

How did you first hear about and get involved with Action Against Hunger?

In 2003, I was finishing up college and looking for an opportunity to get involved with humanitarian work in the developing world. I had double-majored in Biology and International Studies and studied abroad in South Africa, and I was particularly interested in doing public health work in Africa. At the time, some of the most fascinating work was being done in Angola, where a peace treaty had brought an end to the decades-long civil war, allowing for new access to populations that had been suffering from epidemics of measles and other treatable diseases because they had been cut off from health services during the war. Based on my understanding of the history and political situation in Angola, I wanted to be sure to work with an organization that was committed to neutrality—helping the vulnerable no matter their ethnicity, gender, or political affiliation.

It was then that a friend of mine mentioned Action Against Hunger. She had done a summer internship during college at the New York office of Action Against Hunger, and she remembered both its strong commitment to neutrality and its impressive health programs in Angola. Action Against Hunger’s experience, professionalism, and values impressed me, so I sent an inquiry to find out about opportunities in Angola. Little did I know that they would send me to Tajikistan instead!

Why did you decide to put the writing in your blogs together into a book?

Two reasons. First, I feel like there's a lot of information out there about the persistent problems of hunger and poverty in the world, but there's not so much information about what can be done to resolve them. There are a lot of people here in the U.S. who are aware of these problems, want to do something to help, and may even make contributions to organizations like Action Against Hunger. But many times these people don't have a good sense of how their donations are actually being used to design and implement successful programs on the ground in the developing world.

Second, there are a lot of young people who would love to do this kind of work in the future, but they don't know how to get started. Some of the most enthusiastic responses I've gotten about the book so far have been from college campuses, where an increasing number of students are choosing to major in fields like International Affairs, learn foreign languages, and study abroad in the developing world. It was with these young people in mind that I decided to keep the book as personal as possible. Not only do I discuss the projects I worked on and the benefit they had, but I also talk about how I ended up doing the work that I did, what tough professional and personal decisions I had to make along the way, and what life is like for an aid worker living in a very poor and sometimes unstable environment.

What was your most memorable experience from your different assignments with Action Against Hunger?

Different experiences stand out, but all of them involve direct interactions with vulnerable people in the field. In designing a program, the most important thing is spending as much time as possible with the people who stand to benefit from it so that you can better understand their situation and get their ideas about how it could be improved. In Tajikistan, I spent a day out in the fields picking cotton with a brigade of women whose wages had not been paid in a year. In Uganda, I spent two nights in a camp of 12,000 people who had been driven from their land during the brutal decades-long conflict in the country’s north.

"The ultimate judge of the success of an humanitarian program is the difference it makes in people's lives."

The ultimate judge of the success of an humanitarian program is the difference it makes in people's lives. In Congo, the Stabilization Centers that I supplied and staffed probably saved the lives of over 1,000 severely malnourished children during the year I was there. But my most memorable experience was in the last week of that year, when I was personally involved in bringing one such child and her mother in for treatment from a remote village. In Indonesia, witnessing first-hand the sheer joy of villagers using their new water system for the first time helped make all the hard work I had put in feel suddenly worthwhile.

Based on your experiences working in the field, what are the strengths of Action Against Hunger's approach?

For me, the two things that really make Action Against Hunger stand out are its technical expertise and its presence in the field.

Through the accumulated experience of 30 years of field work in 40-odd countries around the world, Action Against Hunger has become recognized internationally as a leader in its three core areas of intervention— nutrition, food security, and water, sanitation, & hygiene. One of the great things about working for Action Against Hunger in the field is that you are able to draw on that experience. In Indonesia, for example, we were faced with a situation where all of the water sources in the area were at the bottom of steep canyons, while all of the villages were built on the top of the hills. After puzzling about how to get water from the bottoms of the canyons up to the villages without electricity or gasoline, we decided to consult with our team of technical experts back in headquarters. Sure enough, they had a solution— in Laos, Action Against Hunger had been faced with a similar situation and had successfully adapted a ram pump technology—which uses the energy from the flow of large quantities of water to pump small quantities of water up hill.

"Program staff must work closely with community members at every step of the way."

That said, no amount of technical expertise can substitute for a strong presence in the field. In order to be successful, program staff must work closely with community members at every step of the way. This is another area in which Action Against Hunger excels. The organization keeps only minimum support teams in headquarters and capital city offices, preferring to have the maximum number of staff based in the field, where they can visit project sites and interact with local leaders and community members on a daily basis. In addition, over 90 percent of Action Against Hunger staff are local, which enables the organization to have a very nuanced understanding of the contexts where it works and helps ensure the sustainability of its programs.

You describe humanitarian work as “addictive” in your book. What do you mean by that?

While most people in most jobs work to make a living that will sustain themselves and their families, humanitarian workers are usually driven by a sense of purpose—they want to help those in need and make the world a better place. These idealists are often thrust into the middle of unstable situations where hundreds of thousands of people have been uprooted by conflict or natural disaster. The stakes couldn't be higher—lives are often hanging in the balance, dependent on the quality of the work that you do. It's an explosive mix, and many humanitarian workers find themselves working 10, 12, even 15 hours a day, 6 or 7 days a week. Burnout rates are high. But many people who return home to "normal" jobs and lives have difficulty readjusting and end up finding a way to get back out to the field.

Any future plans?

I'm preparing to start work on my PhD in international and development economics. After years of working at the ground level on poverty and hunger issues, I'm now shifting my focus to larger policy initiatives that can help us build a more just, inclusive, and sustainable global society.

For More About the Book

In Search of Humanity: Blogs of an International Aid Worker

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In Search of Humanity, told through biweekly postings on the author’s private blog, offers a hopeful vision of how even the most complicated problems can be solved from the bottom up.