How to Build a Humanitarian #5: Do you Speak Humanitarian?

NB: Novice humanitarians may wish to refer to Google for definitions of the acronyms mentioned in this blog post. Aidworkoddity will not be held responsible for any dodgy web histories occurring because of this post.

Most people trying to get into the humanitarian sector are convinced of the need for language skills; surely the ability to speak French, Spanish or Arabic increases your desirability to organisations who may want to send you to an emergency hotspot where your skills can allow you to better integrate with local communities. Well, sure, yes, that’s a handy thing to have, but more important is the ability to speak humanitarian.

The humanitarian world has its own special language, mostly consisting of an endless stream of TLAs. Aid workers are busy people; they are so busy saving lives, advocating for human rights and trying to find a reliable alcohol producer whose wares won’t send them blind that they don’t have time to type or talk fully. To help them communicate better in the midst of their busy-being-important-ness, they rely on abbreviations and acronyms.

For a start, most INGOs are so busy that they can’t even fully pronounce their own names; DRC, NRC, MSF, IMC… then there is the whole gamut of UN agencies, who are probably not as busy, but still like to abbreviate so that they can look busy; UNOCHA, UNICEF, UNHCR, UNDP, UNFPA. Some of them like to confuse matters by not even putting the UN in front – WHO, ILO, FAO… And lord help you if you have to also work with the ‘black’ UN and have a UN Mission in town, then that’s another UN acronym to learn. And if you have donors (which you do… stop laughing at all the rest of us MSF) then, boy oh boy, are you in for an acronym wonderland; DFiD, OCHA, USAID, SIDA, SDC, JICA, KOICA and even D-FAT-D (yes, pronounce it Dee-fat-dee. Yes, it could be the name of an 80’s rapper).

Acronyms-Not-Everyone-peq106Then there are the actual sectors and specialisms within humanitarianism itself; are you going to CAR to do WASH or EFSL? Are you interested in MEAL or MPSS? Is your background in IYCF or MCH? And of course, each sector has its own dictionary worth of acronyms for the fledgling aid worker to learn. When Aidwork Oddity was a mere trainer of humanitarians, each training would start with pasting a flipchart on the wall called ‘acronym buster’; guaranteed it would be completely filled by the end of session two.

Humanitarians seem to want to make acronyms of everything, even when it’s not really necessary. One aidworkoddities contributor expressed her annoyance that others in her office were clearly too busy WFH that they couldn’t even type fully their current working location (the couch?) Sometimes, humanitarians are so busy they can’t even spare the additional nanosecond to say goodbye; it’s not cold to sign an email BR, you have to understand, it’s just that if this person actually takes the time to write ‘best regards’ fully, 5,000 Burundian children may actually die there and then, so try not to take offence.

Occasionally, the proliferation of acronyms can lead to some interesting outcomes. When reviewing a proposal once, I noted with interest that a member of the WASH team had suggested that: ‘all IDPs will be provided with appropriate IEDs as part of hygiene promotion.’ Well, it’s an interesting approach to hygiene promotion, I’ll give you that, but I think they might be a bit happier – and we would all feel a bit safer – if we gave them IECs instead. Then there was some confusion about the true nature of the Diplomatic Transfer Facility (DTF) in Yemen. It turns out it was a safe area for UN staff to live, rather than an homage – as supposed by one American colleague – to the Jersey Shore acronym of Down to Fuck. Although…?

The use of TLAs in aid work has become so prolific that there are even smart phone apps to help novice aid workers navigate coordination meetings. Within the UN alone, there is so much jargon, that there has been a UN Jargon buster created that searches through acronyms and phrases from multiple different UN agencies. For anyone without the app and a coordination meeting looming ahead, take advice from those in the sector pre-mobile internet; nod knowingly, wait 5-10 seconds then make a note of the acronym so you can Google it later. You need to wait so that it’s not completely obvious that you have no idea what LMMS stands for.

However, it’s not only the acronyms that will confuse the hell out of you; it’s the general language of the humanitarian world. If you’re unsure whether a proposal will be accepted, just bung in a few more humanitarian buzzwords – sustainability, resilience, innovation, accountability, transparency, stakeholders – and you’ll be guaranteed a yes from an acronymed donor. If you don’t know whether your new approach is going to work, maybe you need to have a workshop on your ToC. And if you get invited to a three way bilateral, just say no, there’s clearly something more sinister going on there.

So forget about buying endless Rosetta Stone CDs and attending your fancy language classes to get ahead in the humanitarian world. Just show that you know your CAPs from your ACAPs, your CERFs from your NERFs, your AWD from your VBDs and your CHAPs from your EMMAs and you’ll fit in just fine.

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