Categories of Aid Worker

This last week, I attended a training (and I also went a-dashing; my manager must have read my last blog and taken the non-too-subtle hint implied in the title). I was overjoyed to spend my week with fifteen other humanitarians, all of whom were mad as a box of frogs.

You know that saying, the one that bosses boom out with a slap on the back trying to be funny, or slightly nervous HR ladies murmur on your first day in a new office, ‘You don’t have to be mad to work here, but it helps!’ That is the motto of the humanitarian world. Something is a little bit funny in the minds of humanitarian workers; their internal wires were fused too far away from the brakes and far too close to the big red button with the sign saying ‘do NOT push’. As a result on any deployment you are likely to encounter some very, delightfully odd people.

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You don’t have to be mad to work here, but it helps! Credit: Tumblr

Some examples? OK, well there was the engineer in Dadaab who spent all of his wages on importing the biggest widescreen TV I have ever seen so that he could watch British Premier League matches. Not so odd? He did this at the expense of having any other furniture, so all games were watched sat on a bare concrete floor. Then there was the engineer who would help me with late night write-ups of discussion groups by using a different voice or accent for each respondent. How we had Scottish, Welsh and Russians in a Somali refugee camp I have no idea. Or the engineer in Djibouti who commandeered my driving licence to hire a Land Cruiser to drive through a salt lake, despite the picture showing a brown-haired female, rather than a blonde, bearded man. Wait… I’m seeing a pattern developing here…

There is a long-established and well recognised categorisation of aid workers that labels individuals as missionaries, mercenaries or misfits. Or perhaps it’s more of an evolution than a categorisation… but I know a few people that skipped the first two stages if that’s the case. If you’re a missionary, you’re likely to be a new starter, full of over-zealous gleam and hope that you can change the world without that nasty business of getting eaten by the locals (that’s ACTUAL missionaries, like years ago. It rarely happens now). You will preach the good word of Sphere to the non-believers (like militaries and governments) recruiting enthusiastic devotees to worship at the shrine of the Cluster (coordination meetings in an upmarket hotel). But, after a period of dedication, your faith may start to waiver. Your prayers for assessment data, flexible funding and prompt decision making go unanswered and you cry alone in the darkness (because the solar lights are being held in the port until the overlords will them out). It is at this point, you may begin to transform into a mercenary. Mercenaries are the aid workers going through the motions. They’re highly skilled with great experience, but with perhaps a tad too much of both which leaves them feeling jaded. These are your cynical bastards; they’re unlikely to find one element of a programme they can’t complain about. However, for the true mercenary, money and status are their primary motivators, and countless crushed wings of little missionary butterflies twitch under their boots whilst they stomp their way to fulfill selfish ambitions, losing sight of the bigger picture. Woah, ok, got caught up a bit there. However, not all aid workers end up that way (hurrah); some become misfits. Misfits have got the experience, got the devotion, but might be a couple of sandwiches short of a picnic. These are the best kinds of humanitarians; they care, but they don’t take their own life too seriously. They immerse themselves into the job and the context, often with the result of extremely poor fashion judgements. Sometimes, misfits are called ‘lifers’, because they’re in the sector – or more accurately in the field – for life. The hallowed desk job holds no allure for the misfit.

On the training I attended, surrounded by wonderful oddballs, we mused on the ‘types’ of humanitarian workers. We were in the pub after a day of being shot at, driving into minefields, tackling sucking chest wounds, and – in general – having a bloody awesome day, discussing how much fun it had all been (I hasten to add that this was all simulated. There was no military attack in rural Shropshire last week. The pub wasn’t simulated though; that shit was real). It struck us then that most normal people would not consider simulated shootings, minefields and sucking chest wounds as a fun Thursday. We wondered what drove us to seek out those experiences. One of the group explained that once he had been posted to Tanzania, and spent his entire deployment on edge because it was ‘too nice.’ One of the collective surmised, ‘I think that’s just aid workers, you’re either unstable or you become that way.’

I’m not sure what type of aid worker I am. My faith has certainly wavered too far for me to be a missionary, but I like to think that my main motivator is still the humanitarian imperative of wanting to save people’s lives and ease their suffering. I guess that leaves me with misfit. I’m happy with that.

I’m Bored.

Close on the heels of those misty-eyed looks from strangers when admitting what you do for a job, is the assumption – by those same strangers – that your life consists of endless helicopter rides, trekking across mountains, surviving on WFP rice rations or passionately shouting down a telephone, ‘Damn it man, we need those latrine slabs and we need them now!’ whilst ISIS storm your compound.

The truth is; aid work is not always exciting.

Whenever I stop to re-assess my job (which recently has been more than a healthy amount), I am reminded of those memes that people make that go along the lines of, ‘what my friends/parents/society/tax-man (that last one for aid workers is probably lounging under a palm tree waving two fingers in the air) think I do’, with a final ‘what it’s really like’. What would you think is the final picture for humanitarians? Digging with bear hands into an earthquake collapsed building? Trekking across a mountain covered in bags of plumpy nut? Pointing with an air of authority whilst holding a clip board and wearing a multi-pocketed, multi-logo embossed gilet? No. Nothing quite so exciting. For humanitarianism, the ‘what it’s really like’ usually consists of a person holding their head in despair whilst surrounded by piles of paperwork and an open laptop displaying the swirly circle of doom on Google chrome.

Bored

That’s not what its really like… that man needs more empty coffee cups and less hair. 

Don’t get me wrong, humanitarianism is exciting for the most part. Its high-stress, high-octane, problem-solving awesomeness.  There are the opportunities to work with incredible people, and to travel to places you would never ordinarily see, not even if you booked your last holiday with Exodus. But that’s not all day, every day.

A lot of time will be spent in meetings. So many meetings. I once spent so much of my week in meetings, my team thought I had been kidnapped. A bit more time is spent shackled to a laptop staring bleary eyed at spreadsheets wondering why finance has coded all the payments for water trucking under ‘kitchen ware’. A bit more time will be spent signing things. If you work in any role where you have budgetary authority, you’re likely to dedicate at least 10% of your entire working time being chased around the office by team mates equipped with blue pens, but woefully inadequate knowledge of budget codes.

But no part of aid work, and I mean literally, no part, beats the boredom of “working from home.” I am currently “working from home”. It is force of habit for me to write this in quotation marks, since everyone knows “working from home” entails lying in your pyjamas on the couch watching Homes under the Hammer whilst occasionally checking your work emails on your phone (praise the lord for mobile technology; it saves having to be anything other than horizontal whilst “working from home”). As a rapid response person, my job is supposedly sees me dashing around between countries, but sometimes there is nowhere to dash to, so instead you sit on the sidelines like the slightly strange kid that always got picked last for the rounders team (ah, memories).

There is still work to be done; however, that work is often so mind-numbingly, spirit-crushingly boring it can induce a level of existential angst hitherto unconsidered by the average humanitarian worker, particularly those who thrive on the go-go-go of an emergency environment. It is during these periods that I have a tendency to become very emotional, especially when my opportunities to go back to the field get cancelled. Sometimes my parents hope they can cure my boredom with small consolation prizes, leading to interesting new realms of sibling rivalry:

Me: ‘Do you like my new pyjamas?’ My sister: ‘I want new pyjamas!’ My Mum: ‘Well, when your deployment to Yemen gets cancelled, you can have new pyjamas too’

I canvassed opinion on Aidwork Oddity’s new Facebook page (that’s right, we’re on Facebook! Self-plug!) and apparently, if I can get through working at home without eating too many biscuits, I’m already crushing it. Within the last two weeks, I don’t think there has been a biscuit on the Tesco aisle that I haven’t sampled. Don’t worry, I did take them to the till and pay for them first.

I suppose I should look on the positive side: I’ve been able to catch up on A LOT of day time telly when waiting for work inspiration to strike, including Jeremy Kyle. Watching that programme exposes viewers to a lot of conflict and distressing sights, like ill fitting tracksuits, so I guess I found it vaguely comforting. My manager tells me I should enjoy the time working on the go-slow to relax and prepare for my next deployment; it bodes well for our working relationship that she clearly hasn’t yet figured out that I’m a highly-strung workaholic occupying a normal person body suit.

Until there is more news about where I’m going next, I’m stuck in a working from home boredom hell. I’ve got to pray that a space opens up for dashing somewhere pretty soon. If I have to do a second round of the biscuit aisle, I’m not sure I’ll fit in the airplane seat.

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How to Build a Humanitarian #4: New Digs

Now that you managed to drag your belongings a few thousand miles, you’re going to need somewhere to put your suitcase while you go off to save the world. Based on my own experiences to date, I am pleased to offer you this fine selection of humanitarian properties for your perusal:

 

Property one: The Guest House

Key features: Multiple bedrooms, eccentric layout, sense of deluded grandeur.

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‘Are you trying to tell me, old chap, that your place doesn’t have a medieval wine cellar?’ Credit: AidworkOddity

The Guest House is an actual house, maybe even with a garden, and has the potential to go in one of two directions, each closely associated with how far up the pay scale you are. The first is ridiculously grand, possibly previously owned by someone who made their money doing seriously bad things (like diamond mining, or slavery) and now inhabited by those of P4 status or above. This style of guest house will often have outbuildings inhabited by a myriad of ‘staff’ designed to serve the inhabitants – and most likely their wife and bratty children’s – exacting needs. The more likely scenario for you – the fledgling aid worker – is an old, rambling, probably mildewed and frayed around the edges house which you share with a minimum of four other colleagues, one of whom will resolutely refuse to leave their bedroom for any form of socialisation. The property may have resident dogs and/or bats, one of which will almost certainly become pregnant during your stay there. This style of property also has at least one utterly bizarre room, of which no-one can determine its original purpose. Your house is likely to be miles away from anywhere convenient and other colleagues and friends and probably coupled with a shambolic fleet team who pick you up for grocery shopping at 1:30 am.

Property two: The Apartment

Key features: Your neighbours are MSF and your office

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Excellent, this apartment comes with a parking space! Credit: AidworkOddity

The apartment is ideal for the fledgling aid worker. Small enough that you can get to know your flatmate(s) really well; which is either fantastic, and you become inseparable buddies, turning even a run of the mill yoga session into a four hour hysterical laughathon, or means you spend very little time in your own apartment because the person you live with is an out and out weirdo. The saving grace for the second inevitability is that the cool guy from logistics and that pretty hot food security man live just upstairs and love nothing more than when you rock up with some wine, whiskey or your latest attempt at cooking with local produce. If you get bored of hanging with your own colleagues, chances are that some folks from other NGOs also inhabit the same apartment block, because there is nothing that security advisors love more than putting theirs and other people’s eggs in one easily targetable basket. The downsides of the apartment are that it may also be only one flight of stairs up from your office, adding new depth of meaning to the phrase ‘chained to your desk’. It is also unlikely to be finished, and carries a high probability of a strange Turkish man showing up at 11:30pm wanting to install central heating.

Property three: The Container

Key features: similar to those of the tent, with the added bonus of at least being able to hear when someone is falling into your walls.

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The Deluxe Model: Complete with grass roof to promote even more spaces for pests to breed. Credit: AidworkOddity

Available exclusively in cohabitation models, unless you are someone very senior or are very good at feigning intense psychological distress at the thought of being in the same room as others, the container is exactly what it says on the tin (Haha). A shipping container on concrete blocks with some beds put inside. The space underneath the container is where the magic happens; sure, it may become infested with rats, or the preferred breeding and birthing site for feral cats, but it can also come in handy as a hiding space if your compound is attacked by ne’er-do-wells.

Property four: the Tent

Key features: Forget about ever being able to have sex or masturbate. Unless you can do it really quietly and with minimal noise against nylon walls. Or you enjoy being watched.

New Digs

Home sweet home: Just watch out for snakes. And mice. And floods. Credit: AidworkOddity

Available in single habitation or, more likely, cohabitation models, the tent is really the best way for the aid worker to get in touch with their surroundings. Unfortunately, their surroundings sometimes include snakes that like to burrow under the tent and bite toes through the groundsheet the following morning. Or mice that shit in your vent flaps leading to a delicate shower of droppings each time you need some more air. More savvy tent owners have learnt to keep all belongings suspended above ground level to ensure their survival against inevitable flooding. Their standardised designs can also make finding your own tent a little tricky, especially if you have been enjoying a few drinks with friends in the evening. One wrong turn can find you inadvertently face to face with the penis of a man you are due to train on M&E the next day.

Mystery property: The Hospital Floor

Key features: Sanitary, but only if the cleaner remembered their dilutions correctly…

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Chuck us a sleeping bag, I can’t handle this commute a day longer. Credit: AidworkOddity

What the mystery property lacks in privacy, comfort and psychological reassurance, it makes up for by its astounding proximity to your workplace; excellent for avoiding that lengthy commute in the mornings. The kitchen is a plastic bag with some overly crispy baguettes and laughing cow cheese, which is perfect for those who don’t have time to clean a larger space. A possible downside is a clause in the agreement that requires residents to pack up their bedding before 6am each morning to allow consultations to take place. Ear plugs or noise cancelling headphones essential.