The Displaced Nation

A home for international creatives

RANDOM NOMAD: Aaron Ausland, NGO Research Director & Development Practitioner

Born in: Eugene, Oregon (but raised in Plains, Montana, a town of 1,200)
Passport: USA*
Countries, states, cities lived in: Washington (Yakima, Tacoma, Spokane): 1989-95; Alaska (Anchorage): 1995-97; Bolivia (Bañado de la Cruz & Santa Cruz): 1997; 1998 – 2002; Washington (Seattle): 2002-03; Massachusetts (Cambridge): 2003-05; Guatemala (Guatemala City): 2004; California (Duarte): 2006-10; Colombia (Bogotá): 2010 – present.
Cyberspace coordinates: Staying for Tea | Good Principles and Practice of Community-based International Development (blog); @AaronAusland (Twitter handle); Aaron Ausland at Huffington Post (column)
*My passport is only three years old, but multiple entries to about 40 countries filled it right up and I’ve had to add more pages. By the end of this year, I will have slept somewhere other than home about 190 of the 365 nights.

What made you leave your homeland in the first place?
My late first wife and I wanted to make a difference in the world and were particularly passionate about issues of justice, peace, and poverty. After graduating from university, we decided that maybe the best place to match our greatest gifts with the world’s greatest needs was in the public policy arena. We thought it would be good to represent a view on behalf of the marginalized — those uninvited to the table where policy decisions are made that nevertheless affect their lives in profound ways. In particular, we were thinking of illiterate poor persons living in underdeveloped countries ruled by bad or incompetent leaders and subjected to all the crap that comes with weak institutions of governance.

But we realized it would be pretty lame to run off to graduate school straight out of undergrad and then find some job in a policy think tank or as a Congressional aide in the hopes of working our way up to having a place at the table with a mind to represent these unrepresented views when we really hadn’t a clue what they were.

So we made a three-year commitment with the Mennonite Central Committee to go live and serve in a Bolivian village with people who fit this description.

We were young, hopeful, idealistic, earnest, and naïve. I can say that I’m not so young anymore.

Is anyone else in your family a “displaced” person?
I have a brother who served in Iraq for a couple of years, but he now lives about a hundred meters from our dad’s house in Yakima, Washington. I’m really the only one in my family who has chosen a lifestyle for which the question “Where are you from?” generates a confusing jumble of explanation rather than a simple city-state combo. 

Unless you count my son, Thiago. He’s six and is definitely more “displaced” than me. He literally speaks of living in two different “worlds.” In one “world” he speaks Spanish, has a home and school in Colombia, where his sister was born, and has family in Bolivia (his mother is Bolivian). In the other world” — where he says he is really from — he speaks English and has friends in California and a large family on my side including a whole set from my late first wife. Yesterday he told his mother: “My brain is confused, I don’t know where I should live. All my friends are in California, but my cousins are in Bolivia, and I go to school in Colombia and have friends there, too.” Poor little nomad.

Describe the moment when you felt most displaced.
For me the question was “How the hell did a small town boy from Montana end up here?” Physically, at that moment, “here” was a stainless steel operating table in a dark and empty hospital room in Santa Cruz, Bolivia. But more profoundly, “here” was a situation so far from my expectations, I was literally struggling to connect the dots and figure out how I had gotten myself there. I was 25 years old. Somewhere in a ravine a hundred miles away lay the broken body of my wife. A few hours earlier, the public bus in which we were riding had missed a turn on the narrow, winding road that passes through the Andean foothills and tumbled 1,000 feet into the dark.

She and I had gone to Bolivia with a long-term vision of our lives together, and now I was here, in a foreign land, alone, the slate of the future wiped clean. It was so profoundly disorientating, I just kept coming back to the question: “How did I get here?” Maybe it was a way to push off the searing emotional pain that would come with facing into my new reality, but the question wouldn’t go away. What sequence of events and decisions led me here? Did I make a mistake?

I remembered scenes from my idyllic boyhood in small-town Montana when my whole world was contained in a 100- mile radius and a handful of friends and family members. How had the world gotten so big, so uncertain, so complicated? And what was I doing wandering around in it like a lost child? How had I gotten here?

Much later, I would decide that I hadn’t made any mistakes. My first wife and I had made decisions based on a set of values that we held in earnest and I continue to hold. The fact that those decisions led to tragedy does not diminish the certainty of those values — it just means that those who hold them are not exempt from catastrophic loss that come to all who live.

I know you were probably hoping for a funny anecdote about crazy food or wacky cultural misunderstanding, but this is my one true displacement story.

Describe the moment when you felt least displaced.
Nowadays, I feel a sort of indifference about the whole location thing, to be honest. Whether I’m living in Cambridge attending the Kennedy School of Government, or setting up a new home in Colombia, or sitting where I am at this moment at an outdoor bar in a hotel in Bamako, Mali, I feel neither particularly at home nor particularly displaced. Feeling at home has a lot less to do with place than it used to, and it’s often unpredictable. I can feel more at home in Albania when I have a good macchiato and an Internet connection to video Skype with my children than I might in a hotel in Atlanta after a missed flight, with a dead computer battery. I can feel more at home when I’m sharing a beer with a fellow expat I’ve just met in rural Cambodia than I might sharing a beer with an old friend I grew up with who never left Montana.

I’ve experienced profound moments in my adopted homelands — from becoming a widower, to getting married, to rejoicing at the birth of my daughter, to undergoing major medical treatment. In each of these, it was the people who surrounded me that made me feel at home, and the uniqueness of the event that made me feel displaced. The location or culture has ceased to hold much power over my perception of self at particular moments.

You may bring one curiosity you’ve collected from each of your adopted countries into the Displaced Nation. What’s in your suitcase?
I’ll bring my wife from Bolivia, my son from the USA, and my daughter from Colombia. They are certainly a curious bunch, but I can’t live without them.

You’re invited to prepare one meal based on your travels for other Displaced Nation members. What’s on the menu?
Well, the cuisines of places like India, Thailand, Ethiopia, and Mexico are always worth sharing. The rich complexities that have come from centuries of experimentation with combinations of local flavors as well as some exotic additions from old trade routes are heritage gifts to the world. But, I’m sure someone will bring a few dishes from these parts into the Displaced Nation, so maybe I’ll bring some less likely ones such as the rich Malian sauce made in part from the boiled fruit of the baobab tree; the surprisingly filling chicken hearts strung on a kabob, flavored with soy sauce and charcoal smoke, sold on the streets of Bolivia; or maybe a lesser known dish from Mexico — the corn smut omelet made with cuitlacoche, a purplish fungus that grows on corn; or maybe I’ll just bring the beer…

You may add one word or expression from the countries you’ve lived in to The Displaced Nation argot. What will you loan us?
I think I’ll pass on this one. Pole sana (so sorry!) as we say in Swahili. Actually, maybe that’s a good one. Pole (pronounced POH-lay) doesn’t have an exact English equivalent — it’s used to say you empathize and understand someone’s problems, without the connotation of inferiority that “I pity you” might have.

This month we are looking into “philanthropic displacement” — when people travel or become expats on behalf of helping others less fortunate than themselves. Do you have a role model you look up to when engaged in this kind of travel — whose words of advice you cherish?
I’ve never really had a specific role model for philanthropic displacement. That said, I’ve always been impressed with people who make long-term commitments to live among the people they wish to serve and voluntarily forego access to comforts and safety they might otherwise enjoy.

There are some famous examples like Mother Theresa, but the ones that have had the biggest personal impact on me are unknowns — volunteers and professionals I’ve met and worked with along the way. Such people taught me how to live with a kitchen stocked with just 12 items — that’s counting the spices. They taught me how to bring my water up from the river in the morning and hang it in a tree from a bucket painted black so that the sun would heat the water throughout the day, in preparation for a warm evening bucket shower. I learned how to capture rain water, how to build dry latrines, how to trust local medicinal practices, how to enjoy silence, how to walk the equivalent of a marathon a day to visit local families, how to sit and unhurriedly share tea over conversations that circle around rather than cut to the chase, how to embrace simplicity as a virtue… I also forgot how to complain and remembered to be grateful in the midst of scarcity.

Most of my role models didn’t do anything spectacular — they didn’t invent microfinance or the treadle pump, they didn’t negotiate peace accords or write a best seller. But the way they displaced themselves so thoroughly, the way they embraced their local communities with such authenticity — this had a big impact on how the communities valued their presence and their contribution, and on me.

Voluntourism is said to be the fastest growing segment of the travel industry (itself one of the world’s fastest growing industries). Do you think this kind of travel can help the uninitiated understand the problems our planet is facing?
No, not really. It’s not that I think voluntourism is unequivocally a bad thing, but I just don’t think you can expect people to gain a very accurate understanding of complex problems under such circumstances. In fact, I think it’s more likely to leave them with a distorted understanding. There is a saying I picked up somewhere that goes something like this:

Travel to a new place for three weeks and you can write a book, travel for three months and you can write an article, travel for three years and you’ll likely have nothing to say.

There’s just something about a short and intense exposure that seems to set very strong ideas into the minds of those who’ve experienced it. But their ideas are biased by the specificity, narrowness, and brevity of that experience.

For example, someone who has had a high-impact experience volunteering in an orphanage for a week may feel they know more about the issue than people who haven’t had that experience. In fact, they may actually know less due to the biases they have picked up. It’s like believing you know something about the average person in a country from a single observation.

Sometimes, people know just enough to be dangerous; they mistake their shallow knowledge for an actual understanding of some enormously complex problem, and they act on it in ways that are ultimately irresponsible.

The truth is, the problems facing our planet are complex and we should all be grateful for the specialists who have dedicated their lives to understanding and addressing them. Doing something serious about addressing these problems will require professionals, not hobbyists; lifers, not tourists.

Again, it’s not necessarily a bad thing to pass through as a tourist, but with regards to your question here, we need to guard against self-deception. I’ve taken a few tours of a number of hydro-electric projects across the Western USA. I think they are really interesting. But, I know better than to believe I know the first thing about harnessing the power of water to generate electricity while balancing the ecological, economic, legal, social and political interests of farmers, consumers, industry, and the environment.

Likewise, you can’t take a two-day tour of an urban slum in Kenya and think you understand poverty, urban migration, economic development, or whatever other angle one might give such a tour.

For a broader scope of my thoughts on voluntourism, I encourage you to see my blog posts:

Readers — yay or nay for letting Aaron Ausland into The Displaced Nation? Tell us your reasons. (Note: It’s fine to vote “nay” as long as you couch your reasoning in terms we all — including Aaron — find amusing.)

img: Aaron Ausland in Mexico City (he’s the suit!). While on a lunch break from her work conducting a month-long operations audit of an NGO office, Aaron happened upon a lucha libre wrestling match putting on an outdoor show, and decided it would be amusing to pose with the star luchadore.

STAY TUNED for tomorrow’s installment from our displaced fictional heroine, Libby, when we get to find out whether she’s recovered from eating her mother-in-law’s undercooked Thanksgiving turkey. (Not keeping up with Libby? Read the first three episodes of her expat adventures.)

If you enjoyed this post, we invite you to register for The Displaced Dispatch, a round up of weekly posts from The Displaced Nation, with seasonal recipes, book giveaways and other extras. Register for The Displaced Dispatch by clicking here!

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9 responses to “RANDOM NOMAD: Aaron Ausland, NGO Research Director & Development Practitioner

  1. How Matters (@intldogooder) December 1, 2011 at 1:00 pm

    It’s always a joy to read Aaron’s blog and connect with him professionally and personally. Yay indeed.

  2. December 1, 2011 at 1:11 pm

    I found Aaron’s story incredibly inspiring and impressed that he was able to work his way around to continuing the life commitment he began after the tragedy of losing his first wife. His story is also representative of many expats/internationals/displaced nationalists’ situations, down to the slightly confused child exhibiting classic TCK feelings. (Don’t forget to share the old ‘the pie of love gets bigger with each addition to your family’ concept.) I respect his points on voluntourism and agree we need dedicated lifers and others willing to commit siginificant time and energy to the various causes and needs of the developing world. However I’d rather folks work to make a one or two week (or month) voluntourism gig more worthwhile to the host country AND include a little education on the pros & cons rather than discourage people who are sincerely trying to learn and see things from a different perspective. Thumbs up.

    • stayingfortea December 3, 2011 at 4:05 pm

      Thanks for the thumbs up. I would like to clarify, btw, that I don’t mean to discourage people from doing the 1-2 week voluntourism thing, so long as they do it thoughtfully and ask really good questions to and about the operator that’s sending them. But, I was asked to respond to a specific question, which is whether such an experience can help the uninitiated understand the problems our planet faces, and, well, as you can see from my response, I don’t think that we should look to such experiences to accomplish this well. That said, there are plenty of potential positive outcomes from participating in a well-designed volunteer experience either at home or abroad. Through my work with the Krista Foundation for Global Citizenship ( I explicitly encourage such volunteer engagement – granted these aren’t volunteer vacations, these are 1-3 year commitments, but the point it is, I’m a fan of getting out there in the world, getting your hands dirty, stumbling forward and learning where and how you can plug in – “matching your greatest gifts with the world’s greatest needs.”

      • ML Awanohara December 3, 2011 at 5:19 pm

        Thanks for that clarification. I have to say that the one thing holding me back from voting “yay” for your Displaced Nation citizenship is my fear of your finding the rest of us rather amateurish compared to your good self in our approach to displacing ourselves to other parts of the world.

        On your point about how the task of helping others is best managed by pros, I’m reminded of the debate I used to hear ad nauseum when living in Japan — between country experts who thought no one could understand Japan except themselves (after all, they’d spent 7 years mastering the language and living like locals, and in quite a few cases had become more Japanese than the Japanese), and scholars who thought they could do cross-cultural comparisons that included Japan (what’s the big deal?).

        While I learned to respect what the Japan experts had to say, I also suspected that they sometimes exaggerated the country’s mysteriousness to keep the rest of us out. The upshot was “orientalism” — and a stereotyping of Japanese people as inscrutable.

        I guess what I’m saying is that if a 1-2 week stint in a developing country would help the non-expert to see that the problems are complicated (thus that experts have a lot to contribute) but that the people are nevertheless people like us and worth getting to know — then perhaps it’s not such a bad thing?

        What’s more, an intelligent outsider can sometimes provide a fresh perspective. When the anthropologist Ruth Benedict was sent to Japan by the U.S. War Office of Information during WWII, she ended up producing The Chrysanthemum and the Sword, a work that was widely praised (including by Japanese) at the time for getting a lot of things right about the culture (and explaining it to Americans). It continues to be read to this day…

        My three cents! 🙂

        • stayingfortea December 3, 2011 at 9:38 pm


          We are all amateurs, nomads, people on a journey toward greater understanding. I’m not one to judge, though I am one caution. I’m not what some call an “Aid Elitist”, but I get where they come from. A 1-2 week stint can be very good for the voluntourist – it almost always is – that’s not the real question or concern for me though. Where I have raised cautionary flags on my blog is around the question of the impact on the host community. These sorts of things can be done very well and they can be done very poorly – harm can be committed on the “beneficiary”, making the whole thing very extractive and self-serving. We need to be careful we don’t externalize the costs of our enlightenment.

          I’d like to point you to two bits of writing. First “A Moderate Elitist” (, where I make the case that we listen to the concerns raised by the aid elitists, but let’s remember that we all started somewhere, probably on a 1-2 week volunteer trip.

          “I think a case for competence can and should be made, but I don’t see the value in embracing elitism. Every aid professional started somewhere and I bet most of us made mistakes that would make us cringe today. But, what if instead of being mentored into professionals and allowed to learn from our mistakes, some aid elitist had bashed us upside the head and told us we should take our good intentions elsewhere and leave development and aid to the pros? What we should be doing is encouraging competence with a healthy measure of grace and humility.”

          Second, the conclusion to my series on service ethics “Staying for Tea – Conclusion” (, where I provide a light example from real life of harm in the unexamined quest to do good, where good intentions clearly fail to be enough. And at the same time, I clearly side with those who are willing to go and serve others.

          “We should not be paralyzed by the fear of committing errors, but we should be self-conscious and think critically about how we go about serving others. Taking the time to submit our community service to a few principles should help us to avoid doing harm and, with God’s good grace, may help us be part of a positive process of transformation.”

          I hope this puts me in better standing with you. I try my best to approach my work with a mix of professionalism and humility, to see it as both a job and a calling, a task and a privilege. I want the desires of others to serve and help to be welcomed and embraced and encouraged, and at the same time I want to see them challenged to reflect carefully on their motivations and consider the possible range of results of their actions before they jump in unprepared with naught but their good intentions.

          • ML Awanohara December 4, 2011 at 12:07 am

            Not to worry, you will always be in good standing with me. Like others here, I am profoundly moved by your story. What’s more, I appreciate your willingness to engage with us on the questions surrounding voluntourism.

            As you’ve probably gathered by now, most Displaced Nation “citizens” aren’t aid workers or development pros. Yet we do have experience of traveling the world and immersing ourselves in other cultures. It feels quite natural for us to take an interest in this new phenomenon of “voluntourism” — which wasn’t around when most of us had our first international travel experiences. But unlike you, we’re still trying to wrap our minds around it…and I’d warrant that for some of us, this has been the first real chance to debate many of the issues that you write about so eloquently in your blog, Staying for Tea.

            I found very interesting the example you provide in your “conclusion” post — of the church youth groups traveling thru a poor village in a van and throwing footballs and coins out the window at the street kids. As you write:

            The need to have fun, take pictures and bring home amazing stories from an exotic place defined the agenda more than the values, resources and contextual reality of those being served, to which little interest was shown.

            A case where too much weight was placed on the “tourism” side of the experience, too little on the “volunteer”?

            I’d like to think that those of us who’ve been repats (repeat expats) have reached a stage where we understand what it means to be culturally sensitive — I know I felt repelled when reading that story.

            By the same token, I haven’t a clue what kinds of aid methods work best — so would be the last one to start telling anyone what they should do.

            As you may know, our blog was dedicated to the theme of global philanthropy throughout the month of November. You might say that the Displaced Nation has taken a virtual tour of “voluntourism” — which I for one have found highly illuminating.

            Something Jennifer Lentfer said a couple of weeks back has stuck with me:

            Helping is hard. Unfortunately, there aren’t any simple solutions to aiding the poor.

            I also keep thinking of Kathleen Colson — she wrote a travel yarn for us about her recent trip to Kenya, where she led a safari (yes, the safari participants toured the Nairobi slums!) before turning her attention to the BOMA Project, a microenterprise organization she founded in 2005. Kathleen said that efforts on the healthcare front had been more successful than efforts like hers to raise the standard of living — and she’s been trying to work out why.

            Sometimes I think we haven’t made much progress since Victorian times — that we continue to see saving Africa and the rest of the developing world as the “white man’s burden.” But at least we’re wrestling with the questions of what the best methods are — as your example also demonstrates.

            I hope you keep fighting the good fight against that pernicious combination of ignorance and arrogance, which sinks so many foreign affairs initiatives undertaken by this country. And should I ever venture out on a voluntourist vacation, I’ll do my best to fight it as well! 🙂

  3. tinatinde December 2, 2011 at 4:21 pm

    What an insightful and compassionate man Aaron Ausland is! I am very sorry about his loss, and am inspired by his resilience and wisdom. I put the story on my Facebook wall with a strong recommendation and have tweeted it. It was easy to relate to his analysis of nomadic life, and he explains it explained so well, Having studied in Montana I feel a connection to the state and its people and will send the story to my alma mater’s (University of Montana) newspaper The Kaimin. Thank you Displaced Nation for introducing us to Aaron!

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