Elon professor's new book amplifies the voices of the world's aid workers

"Aid Worker Voices" by Tom Arcaro draws from survey responses from more than 1,000 aid workers stationed around the world. 

Elon Sociology Professor Tom Arcaro has drawn from the expansive insights of more than 1,000 development aid workers around the world to produce “Aid Worker Voices,” a new book that tells the stories of their challenges, triumphs and motivations. 

"Aid Worker Voices" by Tom Arcaro draws from an extensive survey of more than 1,000 global development aid workers. 
The book consolidates several years of work by Arcaro, who during the past year has produced blog posts inspired by the results of these surveys that are now transformed those posts into “Aid Worker Voices,” published through Arcaro’s Carpe Viem Press. The nearly 300-page book is now available on Amazon as a paperback or Kindle edition. 

“Aid Worker Voices” is the intersection of multiple interests — Arcaro’s role as director of Project Pericles at Elon, a program helps instill students with a sense of social responsibility and civic concern, and his growing interest in global development aid and those that work in the field. “Over the years, I’ve gotten more and more immersed in development aid material and literature, and reading more and more about development aid workers,” Arcaro said. 

That led him to the book “Missionary, Mercenary, Mystic, Misfit,” a book by a veteran professional humanitarian worker who goes by the pen name J.  The work of fiction about global aid workers in Africa attracted Arcaro’s attention, and eventually led him to connect with the author. That connection led Arcaro to work with J on the development of a “fairly long survey” centered around the lives of aid workers, and setting out to see what insights the responses produced. 

Arcaro said he was overwhelmed by the volume of respondents to the survey, which was made available online for about eight months, as well as the depth of the responses that aid workers provided. “The people that responded are the real deal — these are the aid workers with a lot of experience,” Arcaro said. “I was just amazed at the thoughtfulness that some people put into their answers.”

Many took the time to write a “short essay” in response to some survey questions, with Arcaro saying he heard from some that “it was cathartic to do the survey because no one had ever asked them about these things before.”

Arcaro digested the survey responses, and used the findings to produce a series of blog entries that were then molded into the chapters of “Aid Worker Voices.” Among the areas explored are the motivations workers as they entered the field, their thoughts on bureaucracies and aid organizations, how faith enters into their work, the impact of their gender on the work they do and how they are received, and issues surrounding race and identity. 

Arcaro also dives into the challenges aid workers might face explaining the work they do to those that aren’t involved in the field and why those who have changed careers left this line of work. Arcaro also used the insights he gained from the survey to look at the future of the development aid sector. 

“There were some gold nuggets to be found in this thing,” Arcaro said of the survey. 

Work on the book led Arcaro to collaborate with a former student, Becca Price ’01, who is a senior program operations manager for the RTI International, a nonprofit based in Research Triangle Park that uses research and technical services to address a broad range of global challenges. Price connected with Arcaro after reading an article by Arcaro about the results of the survey in The Guardian, and was “very integral” to the production of the book, Arcaro said, by offering valuable feedback as the book was coming together. 

Price said the insights from the survey resonated with her given how well they reflected her own experiences in the field of global development aid work. “His passion about everything struck me — he really wants to put a voice to this very important work,” Price said. 

Her experiences — being falsely considered a spy, having difficulty explaining to family members the work she does, among others — were reflected in the survey responses and in the book, Price said. It’s a welcome volume for those now working in the field, she said. “Everything I was reading, I thought to myself, I can relate to this,” she said. 

Along with finding an audience among current aid workers and those looking to enter the field, Arcaro believes the insights found in the book will have a broad appeal as well. 

“It was just fun and frankly an honor to read all of what they had to write,” Arcaro said. “It was an honor that they took the time to respond so thoughtfully.”