Why We Love Aid Workers (Hint: They’re Resourceful)


What do US Senator Tim Kaine, former Secretary of Health and Human Services Donna Shalala, US Congressman Joseph P. Kennedy III, and NBC television personality Chris Matthews all have in common? They each worked in international development, serving as volunteers with organizations like the Peace Corps and later championing economic and community empowerment back home.

Their stories convey a little-known truth about aid workers and their vocation, which every year attracts thousands of committed young professionals eager to serve the less advantaged worldwide. That truth is that aid work, while traditionally focused in the developing world, hones skills that are valuable in America, too. With hundreds of thousands of current and former development workers residing in the United States (the Peace Corps alone boasts more than 215,000 veterans), aid workers represent a tremendous asset to our workforce.

Tapping that human resource is a passion of ours at KANAVA International.

My co-founder, Carol Yee, and I have worked around the world — including in places like China, Afghanistan, and Sub-Saharan Africa — and we know all too well the harrowing challenges facing those countries and their people. Some of them are afflicted by man-made disasters, like ethnic conflict or debilitating corruption; others suffer the scourge of drought, disease, or their associated maladies — like malnutrition and devastatingly high infant mortality rates.

What they all share, though, is an inspiring resilience, best represented by individual citizens struggling to change their country’s status quo. These changemakers often work hand-in-hand with the thousands of Americans aid workers now stationed in more than 100 countries worldwide.

And these aid workers are not just early-career volunteers. Many work with the U.S. Agency for International Development and its implementing partners, which in turn recruit from the ranks of former Peace Corps volunteers. USAID consultants are seasoned professionals, some of them having served in city or state government back home, worked in the private sector, or earned expertise as doctors, educators, or agricultural specialists.

One look at the job listings at devex.com, a well-known recruiting site for aid workers, drives home the point. On any given day, there are hundreds of listings for positions around the globe, each drawing upon a set of skills — technical, cultural, linguistic — that are rare in isolation and even more so in combination.

Ultimately, though, Americans who work overseas do so temporarily, with an eye to coming home and, crucially, giving back. Some, like Kaine, Shalala, or Kennedy, become public servants. But what about the thousands of others whose names don’t make the headlines?

Cinderella Bermudez is one of them. A former Peace Corps volunteer in Costa Rica, Bermudez founded the premier cleaning company in the Washington, DC area — Maid to Clean. With more than 40 employees, the company reflects the same values that drove Bermudez’s work in Costa Rica, which included a women’s empowerment program that encouraged financial self-sufficiency. Maid to Clean is a testament to the entrepreneurial spirit of aid workers, whose skills are outmatched only by their resourcefulness. Whether they’ve worked “off the grid” in generator-powered tents or had to make-do with kerosene lamps, aid workers know how to forge opportunity from adversity — all while fostering hope.

At KANAVA International, we believe that kind of persistence and hope is exactly what we need in America’s communities today. That’s why we’re looking forward to opening an office in the coming months in the historically underutilized business zone (HUBZone) of Sault St. Marie, Michigan. Stay tuned for more exciting news about that and other upcoming KANAVA activities. And if you’re a current or former aid worker yourself, drop us a line. You can either send us your resume at recruitment[at]kanavainternational.com or share your own story by emailing us at info[at]kanavainternational.com. We’d love to hear from you!

Susan Puska 

Kanava International