Oskar Schindler was the greatest aid worker of all times

Author: Duke Miller, hardened aid worker and author

Aid Leap outlines problems and then offers solutions and that is the professional way. Yet, year after year, we are confronted with the same old difficulties requiring wheel reinventions. Refugees die, money is chased, programs collapse, agencies and governments position themselves, wars continue, stars fly in, and R. Kipling smiles. We are caught in a continuous loop of assessments, proposals, M&E reports, coordination meetings, and training workshops created by donors, headquarters, and paid consultants.

When was the last time you met a really happy and satisfied aid worker?
I have an observation. Try not to judge me too harshly. Most aid workers should be subversives. I make this statement only with the finest intentions that a good bottle of tequila can engender. My sentiments are absolutely glowing.

I see a “Books” tab on the Aid Leap home page. I suggest the administrators add “Schindler’s Ark” to the list. Draw your own conclusions from the book, but in my opinion Oskar Schindler is the greatest aid worker to have ever lived. (Apologies to Fred Cuny, but if he was still around, I think he’d agree.)

Talk about bad agencies to work for; Schindler’s couldn’t have been any worse.
Program activities: fooling Nazis.OS
Security: nonexistent.
Goals and Objectives: fuzzy, but intense.
Budget: none, except misappropriated assets and expendables.
Mandate: nope.
Project replication: difficult.
Implementing partners: yes, but they didn’t know it.
Implementation strategy: on the fly, every day.
Salary: unpaid volunteer.
Accomplishments: hero of humanity and 1,200 lives.

Maybe none of us will ever be in Schindler’s class, but that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t try. You need to notice how your country/donor/agency policies play out around you. Sometimes those guidelines will be wrong or inefficient or stupid and they will make you angry and frustrated. At some point you might consider yourself as part of the problem. If that happens, then congratulations—don’t quit, go to work. Yeah, I mean really go to work.

I once knew an old guy who helped get refugees out of East Berlin. He was famous in certain circles. Here is a summation of what he sent me off with right before a particularly messed up assignment: ‘Despite the odds, work with what you’ve got. Sometimes enemies can be allies. Have a reputation for honesty, but lie artfully. Be political. Use your luck and daring. Concentrate on individuals. Don’t be overwhelmed by the enormity of what you face. Start small, but think big, and always keep moving.’

The last thing he said to me was, “You need to read about Oskar Schindler.”

A few weeks later, the man with all that advice, died. I went out and bought the book. It became my bible. If you haven’t looked hard at the life of Oskar Schindler, then maybe you should. It will help next time your brain begins to freeze at a donor conference or when you wake up in the middle of the night and your cot is soaking with sweat and you think, this is totally impossible.

6 thoughts on “Oskar Schindler was the greatest aid worker of all times

  1. Great article. Schindler makes me think of the border guard who helped my father escape Czechoslovakia when the Communists took over in 1948. The border guard like Schindler worked for the enemy but acted as a humanitarian saving lives on his own initiative not part of an organisation or government agency.

  2. Duke Miller’s two books – Living and Dying with Dogs and Handbook for the Hopeless, How to Get a Job in a War Zone and Hallucinations – were both inspired by his years as an aid worker. In these books you begin to understand that sometimes good people do bad things and visa versa. Plus they are brilliantly written. Loved this post!

  3. Great post, Duke. I especially like the part about wondering if you’re part of the problem, and, if so, going to work for real. A good thing for everyone to keep in mind.

  4. Pingback: Saturday Morning Reading #49 | A Pett Project

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