Security is only skin deep?

As is my wont, I disappeared for a while. Sorry about that. A rather long and margarita filled holiday might have had something to do with it. But now that I’m back, I’m going to write something that might possibly be a bit controversial, and about a subject that provokes a lot of strong opinions.

I’m currently working in what humanitarians lovingly call an ‘insecure’ environment, which basically means, ‘place where people are trying to blow each other up and shoot each other on a day to day basis.’ Security incidents are rigorously monitored, which results in delightful half-hourly skype ‘pings’ as news of events unfold. Some field locations are ‘safer’ than others; I put safer in quotation marks since the location considered safest, and the location of the head office, is the one which receives the majority of security incidents, but hey, I’m not a security professional so maybe there’s some secret equation that I don’t know about. Some locations are more remote and closer to front lines between armed groups. I work in one such of these field offices, and there is one other such field office in the North.

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Maybe we should just stick more signs on people and things to make them safer? [credit: ACT Alliance]

This week two of our team have been asked to change their locations to the Northern field office. Sad to see them go, I asked if they had been told why they needed to move; was it lack of staff? Was it particular programming that required their specific skills? No, it was because they are both African. When I asked why that was the deciding factor, both told me, seemingly unfazed, that the Northern field office is not considered safe enough for European (white) international staff to stay overnight. I’m not sure whether this is the right way to say this, but I felt offended on their behalf. I asked them if it bothered them that the organisation felt it needed to protect white staff more? Neither seemed to see it that way, with one almost seeing it as a badge of honour to be asked to work in a more ‘dangerous’ field environment.

I tried to figure out why this decision had been made. Both my colleagues explained to me that white international staff in the Northern regions are more of a target because a) they stand out more in a country where the population is predominantly black and b) because they’re assumed to be Americans and no one is a particular fan of the tangoed-scrotum that is Donald Trump (to be fair, most places around the world were not big USA fans even before Mr Cheeto graced the Oval Office). For the first reason, of course, yes, you stand out more if you are markedly different from the crowd around you. In some countries you can blend in more by adapting your behaviour or by adopting certain pieces of local clothing – I for one enjoyed rocking an abaya and hijab in Yemen, no one could see I was wearing gym shorts and a sports bra underneath, or that I hadn’t washed my hair in 4 days – but changing your skin colour is not something you can readily do. Unless you’re Michael Jackson. However, apparently other non-white and non-black international staff are ok stay in this same location. Wait, a light skinned Pakistani member of staff is better able to blend in effortlessly? I’m not convinced. Coupled with the fact that local people here can recognise if you come from their town or not, and even if you are from their state or not with a cursory glance, or at least the second you open your mouth, your skin colour is not necessarily going to help you blend in. Like a Scouser wandering in Manchester, people will know you are not part of their crew pretty quickly. As for the second reason, we hit a stumbling block with one of my colleagues who is black and American. Apparently she is also not allowed to work in that location despite meeting the ‘blending-in-skin-colour wise’ requirement, because when she speaks it will make it obvious she is an outsider. If that’s the case, the same is also true for all international African staff  (update to NGO security personnel: last time I checked there was no singular, pan-continental language called ‘African’….)

The second debunking of white staff being more at risk came when I did a bit of research to find that there have been no attacks specifically targeted at white international staff in this area. Nor have there been specific targeted attacks on NGOs for that matter. What there has been is plenty of opportunities for ‘wrong place wrong time.’ I’m almost certain that those types of incidents are not correlated to skin colour, except perhaps when you pack a place with staff of a particular skin colour and then the shit hits the fan…. When I raised this I was told, ‘ah, but there are more radicals there, people who would just stab you for no reason.’ Ok, well that makes me feel much happier that my friends are going to work there….?! The strange thing is that white international staff travel to this location on a regular basis – they just don’t stay overnight – so if random stabbings really were a big concern, maybe we shouldn’t send anyone at all?

I’m sad to say that this deployment has not been the only place I have been to where security rules vary by the colour of your skin or the nature of your passport. I’m not saying that the NGO world should disregard specific threats against individuals or against particular nationalities; all I hope for is a little more equality in the value we place on any of our colleagues’ lives. I don’t like being wrapped in cotton wool because I am white, because I am a woman or for any of the other bullshit reasons that get floated around, not because I long for danger or want to expose myself to risk, but because my non-white colleagues, my male colleagues, my non-international colleagues are being told that these risks are acceptable for them based on stereotypes and I don’t believe that’s fair. You could argue that humanitarian work would be paralysed if these types of decisions were not made, but is it not better to be honest about the risks to all staff and allow individual choice on what risks are and are not acceptable?  Either that or we could just send in Kendal Jenner with a Pepsi first and then we would all be safe.

Babies

On a long drive recently, I was informed by a (ahem, male) colleague of mine that I was simply wasting time by not having children, and more depressingly, that my life up until the point of having children will just be ‘messing around’. According to this font of all reproductive wisdom, I would never understand life truly until I pushed a watermelon sized object out of my vagina. Hmm. Why do conversations like that always take place in cars, when you can’t escape? That’s why 90% of parents decide to do the contraceptive talk when in the car – ‘oh god, she put the child locks on! Make it stop! Did my mother just say ‘spermicidal lube’, holy mother of god, make it end!’

Of course there are a million things wrong with my colleague’s assertion, yet the more I thought about it, the more I thought that the humanitarian projects I have worked on have been a bit like bringing a child into this world. Parents bear with me on this one, but here are the seven ways that I think managing a project in a humanitarian mission is like becoming a parent:

  1. You don’t realise what you’ve taken on until it arrives:

Much like new parents beaming at their little bundle of joy in the hospital and carefully strapping said bundle into its car seat bound for family life, so too does the new humanitarian worker beam at their new contract and carefully strap themselves into their airplane seat not really sure of what is about to come next. After three weeks of crying, puking, pooing and sleepless nights the reality of signing that new contract in Tchad finally dawns on you. This is not how it looks in magazines when Angelina Jolie does it (yes, that statement works for both parenting and humanitarian-ing).

  1. It keeps you awake at night:

I’ve done this before when babysitting my nephews; you put them to bed after bouncing them around for hours in front of mad creatures re-creating your last acid trip on children’s television and you feel relieved when you are finally able to close the nursery door and rest. But from time to time, you want to just pop in and take a peek at them, sleeping soundly. Then there are those other nights where there is no rest, and your baby just cries and cries and no amount of bouncing or tripping will help them settle.  So too the humanitarian project; you manically run around to finish everything you need to do before curfew/before the generator packs up or just so that you can have an evening to rest, but you can’t help taking a little peek at your laptop to see whether your work plan is still on track. Sometimes, like the slumbering babe, everything is well and you can just stand and admire your creation, but more often than not, you spot something that needs some more work, like a baby that senses the smugness of their parents and decides now is the time to get their first tooth.

babies

Babies. Projects. Same same. 

  1. When you’re new you consult all the books:

We all have those sprogged up friends who have shelves of baby books; the What to Expect when you are Expecting, good parenting guides, or Gillian McKeath’s macrobiotic baby guide or other such nonsense. Most new parents go crazy, checking up every small hiccup or baby snuffle in a book hoping that the answer lies within. Likewise, spot the new humanitarian worker, pouring over their copies of Engineering in Emergencies, All in Diary or Sphere Handbook to find the answer for every blip in the project cycle.  When you’ve had two or three babies – or projects –  you rely less on the books and realise more it’s about common sense, like don’t drop the baby on its head, or don’t distribute mattresses that are bigger than your emergency shelters. For the more experienced, the books are more for when things are going really wrong, like, ‘help! My refugee camp is built on impenetrable rock’, or, ‘help! My child seems to have homicidal tendencies’.

  1. You show it off to everyone, but bitch about it when you’re on your own

No matter what their child does – pooing on a priceless rug, biting the postman, or looking up a stranger’s skirt – most parents will still claim that their child is perfection embodied. Except maybe when alone together and their little miracle is safely tucked in bed, they might acknowledge that today little Toby was a right dickhead. So too does the humanitarian wax lyrical about their project to donors and country management in reporting, claiming it is the most successful and effective project that has ever been thought of, ever. Except outside of those reports, they might acknowledge that really the whole thing is a bit shit, and they’re not really sure it will contribute anything to society after all.

  1. You argue with your partner about the best way to raise it

Two people bringing up a child are bound to have some clashes over the right way to raise it. One of you may want to follow new school ideas, such as never saying the word no or raising your voice; the other might find it hard to use ‘indoor voices’ when little Toby decides to throw your iPhone down the toilet. Likewise with a jointly managed humanitarian project, the two managing it will likely clash on certain points; for example, one of you may want the camp planning to be an organic process, with a jumble of facilities all over the site, whereas the other might find driving their desludging truck through where someone ‘organically decided’ to place their tent a bit of a bind.

  1. Nothing hurts as much as when you leave it/it leaves you

Most parents find the experience of having a newborn baby being utterly reliant on them a true test, but one that they find exhilarating. The same goes for a humanitarian worker with a new project; there is a certain joy in a project being completely reliant on your management and leadership. However for both parents and humanitarians, there comes a point when the child or the project has grown up, and you start to wish it could just do more by itself already. Eventually that point comes where your baby doesn’t really need you anymore. Parents talk about empty nest syndrome; humanitarians talk about burn out, handovers and decompression time.

  1. After all the pain and suffering you went through with the first one, you soon decide you want another.

 

Oddity Log: Somewhere in February

So it’s February, nearly the end of February in fact, but it feels like New Year’s Day was just a moment ago. Things are moving fast in the field. No longer am I sweating in the head office of my current response, instead now I am sweating in the middle of nowhere and living in a house made of plastic sheeting. Moving into said plastic house was a moment of great joy after spending a few weeks in a tent, sharing one half of it with another colleague. Don’t get me wrong, there are no ill feelings, but my new plastic cube is mine and mine alone. That means I can snore, fart, and scratch where ever I want during the evenings without fear of mentally scarring a team mate. As we moved into our new tarpaulin des-res, my colleague commented that now we were pretty much copying the IDPs in the camp where we work, who are also sleeping under tarpaulin, except we have electricity and access to WiFi, so I guess that makes us IDP+.

I have two weeks left before I go on a break and I’m definitely starting to feel the impact of running at full pelt for the last eight weeks. I sometimes think my productivity on each deployment is bell-curved in shape. When I’m on holiday, my brain is like a little old lady that you see pottering around town, stuck in third gear with a trail of frustrated motorists behind her. It’s in no hurry you see. But coming back into a deployment, I need to shift into top gear again, convincing that granny to put on a Stig-style helmet and jumpsuit, and thrash the living day lights out of a Kia Sportage (which, come to think of it, is probably also a fitting metaphor for my own rather average and non-descript physique).  As a result, the curve starts low, compounded perhaps by the fact that on average I spent my first two weeks just cleaning up the shit of whoever covered for me or my teams well intentioned but inappropriate budget choices. That and I usually can’t remember how to actually do my job…

bell-curve

The scientifically verified Bell Curve of Humanitarian Effectiveness. 

After a week or two, productivity starts picking up; you’re back in the swing of things and starting again to move things forward. The bell curve is starting to reach its peak, and when it does, oh boy, you can tell that I am cranking out project activities with the same frequency as Kim Kardashian posting naked selfies (does she still do that? Please replace with another, more appropriate simile if she’s started to wear more clothes).  At this point in the deployment I am feeling like a fucking rockstar, nothing can bring me down. Except severe exhaustion from being such a fucking rockstar. It’s at that point that the curve starts to fall back down again; as a holiday appears – at first like a mirage – on the work planner horizon, my internal Stig starts taking off his helmet and jumpsuit and reaching for the twinset and slippers instead. It’s also the point at which I will start calling all my team mates the wrong names, mix up dates, say things like, ‘who is travelling in the carrots today?’ when I mean cars, it just happens I was thinking about my lunch whilst trying to form sentences.

I’m at that point now, but my break is so tantalisingly close. I just have to convince my inner Stig to keep his helmet on for just a few more weeks. Until then, apologies in advance if your name for the next fortnight is Teapot.

Guest Blog: Beauty in the Bush

We are very excited to announce our second ever guest blog on Aidwork Oddity! If you have thoughts, musings, stories or rants you would like to share, just drop us a line at aidworkoddity@gmail.com, follow us on facebook: Aidwork Oddities, or get us via the twittersphere: @aidworkoddity

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We’ve all had those moments of despair when trying to reach beauty nirvana. That terrible haircut, bleach job or wax/burn-your-skin-off moment when attempting to become the paragons we see in Vogue. For aid workers living in the field, the compulsion to feel more aesthetically pleasing, even for just 20 minutes, is a strong one. Somehow, despite the hundreds of bad experiences, horror stories from our fellow humanitarians and nightmares of our own of trying to beautify ourselves, we continue to trail the wax-strip, popped zit, gloopy mascara filled road, hopeful that this time will be different and a veritable Cara Delevigne will come strolling out of the tent each morning.

Once, in Nepal, I attempted to get what I thought was a basic leg wax.  I dared to ask if they did bikini line waxing and received a cold, ‘no’, a clear look of disgust and a disapproving look up and down. After being shown to the delightful ‘treatment room’ (a bed in the basement of a hotel) I settled back, but was soon confused by the feeling that the woman was working both legs at the same time. Propping up, I saw two women down there. One for each leg? No. Rather, I had one waxing the leg and the other following the wax with threading, her teeth working the thin string to get those strays from my kneecaps. The worst thing was I wasn’t even that shocked by it, considering the other beauty nightmares I’ve had on my travels…

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Me 90% of the time on deployment

I clearly hadn’t learned from that time in India when they promised me that they do ‘white girl hair’ and I sat in a salon in tears pulling out over-bleached chunks of fluff as they fell from my scalp. Nor the time a year later when I taught a young Indian immigrant who didn’t speak a word of English what a Brazilian was in the back of a pedicure shop in Kampala. That delightful experience ended in a delicate scissor operation to try to cut out globs of wax that had clumped together and hardened in an area you really don’t want to be using blades. Even these two experiences didn’t stop me from inviting a friend for a pedicure in Ouagadogou, where her little toenail was completely clipped off, and the foot soak baths smelt clearly of rot.  A few years later, having forgotten the Indian hair salon and desperately wanting to feel fresh for an attempt at a romantic R&R, I yet again left a hair salon in tears sporting tiger stripes of bright blonde in my hair. My attempt at romance ended with him escorting me to various hairdressers whilst I tried to blend the yellow patches. Not the start that either of us had in mind.

I had hoped that my previous experiences would stand me in good stead for my current predicament of travelling with my partner. When you’re single in the field, it’s easier to let body hairs run riot – the likelihood is anyone who sees them is only going to see them once (ok, a couple of times… ok, four times a week until one of you leaves the deployment), and is quite likely also so sex-starved that they also won’t care. But when you have a longer term partner, especially in the first few months, you start to care whether your legs are silky smooth. When we arrived to our new homestead, I opened my bag in the 46 degree heat only to find all my wax strips had melted together. With no razor in sight and seven long weeks of cohabitation on the cards, I pulled out my tweezers and got at my armpits holding a flashlight between my teeth. Desperate times.

I keep telling myself I’m getting better at keeping to a beauty routine; half my luggage weight is skin creams and conditioner to try to reduce the sun’s traumatising impact on my ageing skin and greying, brittle hair. However, I still spend more time checking that the chocolate I buy is sealed inside the paper so if/when it melts in transit it can be refrozen and rescued, than I do making sure I have essentials like nail clippers, or oil to remove wax when I accidentally stick the strip facing the wrong way up on my inner thigh. Maybe this is because I opt for those locations far away from any swimming pools, romantic encounters or skin-baring (although, wearing a hijab in Yemen was a good opportunity to sneak extra oil in my unwashed hair without notice, hoping to provide some respite to my South-Sudan split ends). Or maybe I like to keep things a little risky with local, ‘natural’ approaches to beauty, such as that time in Mauritania someone convinced me that a paste made from flour and water was the best solution to stop in-growing hairs….

Lying back in that basement ‘beauty parlour’ watching two women both wax and thread my leg hairs, I realise that, much like any NGO applying for UNICEF funding, I have placed disastrous past experiences outside of the realm of decision-making consciousness, and choose instead to steadfastly repeat the same activity over and over hoping for a different outcome. That, my friends, is surely the definition of insanity.

Humanitarian Resolutions

I took a break from my current deployment over Christmas and New Year. As I enjoyed celebrating the arrival of 2017 in that most traditional of ways – falling asleep in front of Jules Holland’s Hootenany – I decided that this year was going to be the one in which I finally became a professional, consummate humanitarian, rather than the rambling ball of confusion I have been to date. Having reached the last day of the first month of the year (which in itself is depressing considering my sum total lack of work/weight loss/fitness improvements/fabulous hair/meditation/non stop sexathons with Ryan Gosling achievements to date) I thought I would review those resolutions I have already managed to break so thoroughly, Humpty Dumpty would look like a child’s jigsaw in comparison:

1. Staying calm when dealing with Logistics

Ah logistics. I know you are busy, my friends. I know you have four programme teams demanding on your time. I know you have less staff than you would like at the moment. But that still doesn’t explain why my procurement request for mobile phones – which I see everyday being sold in the local market- has been sent to Holland for review by an underpaid intern who will need to ask seven managers that prioritise their lunch breaks before it can be approved. I’m also at a loss why I seem to be covered in dust and blanket fluff within 5 minutes of starting work each day having lugged bales of stock into pick up trucks, whilst you nod at me from behind a clipboard wearing a Ralph Lauren shirt.

2. Staying calm in coordination meetings

I was doing relatively well with this one, until MSF starting shouting about a lack of action by partners on a particular issue at a coordination meeting early in the month. In my current deployment, I love MSF and I hadn’t shouted at anyone in at least three hours so it just felt right to join in. It was even more rewarding that our collective shouting was targeted at UNICEF, who are nearly always fair game for a bit of shouting at. So I broke that resolution, but I blame MSF for it. And then OCHA called me as I was travelling home to recommend completing the 5Ws (yes that’s right, there’s bloody 5 of them now) as the solution to the said issue. I mean, when someone is offering it to you on a plate, it would be just rude not to take the shouty opportunity.

I had also wanted to remain a neutral, calm, figure of serenity and wisdom at such meetings, however during the first five minutes I rolled my eyes so violently during an update from WHO that I lost a contact lens.

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Just the thought of resolutions brings on my rage… (credit: Calvin and Hobbes)

3. Staying calm… just generally

I would estimate around 80% of my waking hours this year have been spent in some form of rage.

4. Getting a solid 8 hours

Of sleep would be great. Of sex would be better. Of absolutely nobody talking to me would be heaven.

5. Not using alcohol/ smoking/ recreational drugs/ other forms of mild substance abuse as a coping mechanism

During January, me and my housemate have consumed 6 crates of beer, two bottles of whiskey, 4 bottles of wine and 2 bottles of vodka. So much for dry January. I have drank so many coke zeros that the town I am working in actually had a shortage that the vendor said was caused by my twice a day habit. During a training this month, I sniffed a permanent marker when I thought no one was looking.

6. Cook more healthy food and don’t rely on the cook’s limited menu

I’m writing this whilst digging into my 24th plate of Indomie instant noodles from the hotel kitchen. I cooked once in January; it was a chilli made with re-hydrated soya pieces. It was as delicious as it sounds.

So it looks like I’ve not been too successful in becoming a paragon of zen humanitarian effectiveness so far this year, but hey, at least I didn’t start my year by cutting funding to support women’s reproductive rights, banning ‘bad dudes’ from entering the US, or building oil pipelines and walls… so I’m one up. I did attempt a terrible fake tan though so perhaps it is a draw.

Sexism on Steroids

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Do you need me to explain the picture further? Wait, let me find a man to help me… (credit: Dilbert)

Like me, one of my sister’s friends is an ardent feminist. She works in a male dominated sector, and frequently posts examples of everyday sexism she encounters in her work on Facebook. Recently, these have included such gems as, ‘someone just offered to help me because “It’s a male thing.”’; ‘Just had an entirely unplanned full-on rant at my boss about sending men to all our industry events… AM I INVISIBLE?’; and my personal favourite, ‘Give an idea. Wait for a 20 minute pointless debate. Hear someone else give the exact same idea to universal approval. Make your own gender assumptions here.’

Many women reading this post will be acutely aware that although women have made great strides towards equality, there is still a long way to go. The subjection of women to a set of outdated, social and cultural norms in western culture is so entrenched in our individual and societal fabric that sometimes we don’t even recognise it. Sometimes women do it to themselves without even realising, as I did last week asking for some ‘big strong men’ to carry a 50kg box for me because of, ‘my weedy girl arms.’ However, what has really struck me in my latest deployment is just how much sexism impacts on my everyday work as a humanitarian aid worker, and how much harder I have to work to achieve outcomes with communities and authorities than my male colleagues.

Over the last few weeks, I have been assessing and setting up programme activities in a new area in West Africa. Part of this work is meeting local government and traditional authorities and community representatives. All of these figures – without exception – have been men. Consider now the dynamic of having to influence, negotiate and coordinate with a group of men who ordinarily never – or at most very rarely – consult with women on decision making, let alone a woman who is a complete stranger to the whole system. I consulted with women about their level of influence in community decision making structures and the response was that sometimes they would raise their opinions with their husbands, but not – it seems – any further than that.

You might now think, ah, well, it’s the ‘stranger’ aspect, nothing to do with what is – or rather what isn’t – between your legs, but when I compare the reception that a male colleague received, there was no denying it was a question of sex, and not of origin. I introduced my male counterpart to one of the traditional leaders. I had visited the leader twice before and our conversations had been cordial, friendly and welcoming. On my third visit, this time with my male colleague, instantly the atmosphere changed; I was barely spoken to, my male colleague was showered with compliments (apparently for just being able to say hello and sit in a chair) and instead, I was told to go to look at the leader’s horses, the inference being, to leave the men to talk.

Having worked with communities for several years, I am very conscious of the role of culture and tradition in gender dynamics, and of trying my utmost to set aside my own preconceptions of respect and gender relations when working in a different context to my own upbringing. What never seems to be taken into account by organisations, though, is just how much harder female aid workers have to work in these contexts to develop mutually respectful working relationships with male authority figures, and to be taken seriously by them. It bothers me, that a male colleague gets points for just showing up whereas I have to work extremely hard to validate my place at the table.

There are times when being a woman in a particular working environment is downright dangerous; when I was working in Northern Syria, representatives from the local government, various armed opposition groups and my male colleague shook hands after a successful meeting to site a new IDP camp. Unthinking, I offered my hand around in the group as someone who had also shared in this decision making and success. The group froze the atmosphere suddenly frosty and the meeting adjourned rapidly. In the car travelling back, my Syrian colleague told me, ‘That was so irresponsible; you never offer your hand to a man in this place. What if someone from ISIS saw you? You’ll get us all killed.’ Part of me would still like to believe he was over-reacting, but this is the world female aid workers operate in, where sharing as an equal in a gesture of success with men can be a fatal mark against your name.

The difficulties of operating in male dominated environments out in the field might be one thing, but then female aid workers also have to deal with this mess at home as well. There are a lot of articles detailing sexist treatment at the hands of male colleagues in the sector, and despite the fact that there are more women working in humanitarianism than men overwhelmingly, the top level positions are held by men. At a conference I attended earlier in the month, the inter-agency group for WASH took their places at a table for Q&As, and there was not a single female amongst them. My current deployment is also exposing me to this ‘in-organisation’ sexism; one of my male colleagues feels the need to copy other men – sometimes individuals who are completely irrelevant to the conversation at hand – into emails to me so that they can more fully explain the content to me.

It appears that the discrepancies between male and female aid workers extend to their relationships outside of work as well. In late night discussions with two male colleagues, we discussed our ‘extra-curricular activities’ over the past year. For them, telling a woman about their job seemed to make them irresistible; a magic bullet capable of making any woman see their sensitive caring side. For me, there have been five – yes, five – separate occasions where an interested man had cut all contact after he found out what I did for a living, and this is only in the past year. For women, perhaps male humanitarians conjure up images of strong men saving babies akin to an Athena poster from their youth; for men, maybe female humanitarians conjure up images of independent and career driven women who won’t be around to make your dinner in the evening. I don’t think there was ever an Athena poster for that.

In my own world of cripplingly low self esteem, it has been all too easy to dismiss the sexism I’ve experienced around my job as my own fault – I was doing it wrong; I wasn’t professional enough; people didn’t take me seriously; I just wasn’t good enough at my job to get the results that seemed to come so easily to my male colleagues – but such occurrences have become too frequent for me to continue blaming myself for overwhelming inequality. Since humanitarian organisations pride themselves on factoring gender equality and gender dynamics into their programmes, let them not forget that the needs and efforts of female staff too are different to that of their male colleagues. Organisations need to recognise it, and celebrate that female humanitarians persevere despite the odds.

How to Build a Humanitarian #6: Pick the Right Threads

Now you’re in the field, you want to make sure that your clothes set the right tone; you’re neither strutting your stuff down a Milan catwalk, nor are you readying yourself for a weekend with Bear Grylls.  So how to strike the perfect balance? To give you some ideas, here are some of the common stylings favoured by humanitarians in the centres of fashion that are Jijiga, Port Au Prince and Baghdad…

stylista

Wait a second… I have that shirt… why don’t I look like that? Credit: Pintrest

The Stylista:

It doesn’t matter where you are based – be it a cushty head office with shopping complex access, or a temporary camp in the middle of absolutely nowhere – you can guarantee there will be a stylista. A stylista is a guy or a girl who looks effortlessly stylish every. Bloody. Day. Whilst everyone else looks like a cat that accidentally got caught on a washing machine spin cycle – all creased and mangled and matted – the stylista will look like they just stepped out of a changing room with a personal ‘field ready’ shopper. When you study their wardrobe, it’s basically the exact same as yours, it just that somehow, in the mud and the dust and the general filth, they manage to make it look so much better. Sometimes it’s through just small, thoughtful additions like carefully selected dangly earrings, leather work boots with winkle picker toes, or a perfectly coiffed do, but my god, do they look hot. Everyone wants to be a humanitarian stylista; many are called, few are chosen.

 

The Shirt and Slacks:

A common ‘look’ amongst humanitarians, particularly British ones, or those that had some kind of military/public school exposure. Every day is a new set of chinos and a new shirt, and for ladies, an obligatory scarf (remember HTBH #2 though, a scarf is on your essential packing list, even if only to help you fit in with the Shirt and Slacks crew if you need to). Sometimes the Shirt and Slacks posse try to cross-over with the Stylistas, thinking that the addition of a pair of Converse will win them some bonus points. They won’t.

 

The Cultural Cross Over:

hareem-pants

It’s great, Steve, really it is; I’m just not sure the District Emir will think it’s appropriate for our meeting… (Credit: Harem Pants)

Now I am all for international staff wearing the clothes of their homeland with aplomb and style in whichever location they are working (cultural sensitivities observed of course), but the Cultural Cross Over is not that. This look is all about taking an item of clothing from a culture that is not your own, and wearing it in a whole different context regardless of its appropriateness, but thinking that, ‘well, this is how they wear it in Afghanistan,’ means it’s also appropriate in remote Nigeria. Hareem pants with elephant print picked up on a lad’s holiday in Thailand worn in Yemen? Shalwar Kameeze bought when ‘finding oneself’ in India worn in Greece? West African wax print head wraps worn in a WASH Cluster meeting in Loughborough? A note to the Cultural Cross over crew; it might look good (might being the operative word) when you are in the place that your new threads come from, but apply transference with caution.

 

The ‘All my non-logo t shirts are in the wash’:

Otherwise known as MSF.

 

The Multi-pocketed Moron:

gilet

No. No. No. No. NO.

The multi-pocketed gilet is scourge of the humanitarian fashion scene. No one really knows how these monstrosities made their cross over from the world of trout fishing to international aid work, but they did and it appears they’re sticking around like the lonely CEO at the Christmas party. The multi-pocketed moron is usually a first timers, or very keen to be associated with a particular organisation – probably because it’s their first time working for any humanitarian organisation. This fashion group go for the practical approach – think hiking boots (when there are no hills), zip off Craghopper trousers (when it’s culturally inappropriate to expose ankles), and sweat wicking mosquito (and women) repellent shirts, possibly with the addition of a Tilley style walking hat. I’m almost certain that there has never been an individual that has at least one item in every single pocket of those things at one time. Possibly the most infuriating thing about the multi-pocketed moron look is that stylistas can pull it off.