I have a mission in July.
Mission is what all of the NGOs I’ve worked for call going in the country for which they do work. Mission is leaving the office, but it is only a mission when you go to a ‘developing’ country – it is just a work trip when you go to London, or Paris.
Mission inevitably brings to mind religion, and Christian missionaries leaving the comfort of their countries to spread the Good Word to people that might not be too keen in listening and missionaries often ended up being killed. And then became martyrs.
Mission evokes danger, self-sacrifice, of being better that other humans that just have regular jobs and that do not go to mission.
Michaël Neuman, in his paper Dying for humanitarian ideas: Using images and statistics to manufacture humanitarian martyrdom, explains it very well: aid workers are painted like heros because they willingly go, just like Christian missionaries, and work in dangerous situations.
And while Neuman discusses mostly about MSF, a lot of development work is not as dangerous as working in a war-torn country. And yet, there is still that aura of self-sacrifice that comes hand in hand with the sector and missions.
A few years ago, I was working for an organisation I shall not name (for obvious reasons). We all had to travel to Mexico because of an event we organised, and the NGO gave me a letter to travel with:
I was all of a sudden going on a humanitarian mission – and immediately my family and friends regarded me as this selfless hero, who was putting herself in a dangerous situation because she wanted to help the disenfranchised. This was not the case, as I sojourned in one of the most luxurious hotels in Mexico, with a spa and piano bar. And my life, despite working more hours than the clock, was never in danger. Yet it was still a mission. And it was probably a mission just because an organisation was sending its workers to a country that was not in the West.
When I speak to friends and colleagues who also work in development, they all use the word mission when they refer to work outside of Europe or North America: and it doesn’t matter if the mission was not dangerous, or if it entailed staying in a luxury hotel. There is always that underlaying understanding that you are there to do something holier than just your job. You are not traveling to go somewhere, you are travelling on a humanitarian mission.