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…


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:


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:


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.


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.

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.

New digs 4

‘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

New digs 3

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.

New Digs 2

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…

New digs 5

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.


How to Build a Humanitarian #3: We are Ready for Take Off!

Packed bags? Check. Tickets and visa? Check. An air of smugness that you are on your way to change the world whilst everyone else around you is on the way to irrevocably damage their skin in Marbella? Super check.  You are finally on your way; so begins a life of dashing from one emergency to the next, travelling the world and channelling that effortless, celebrity ’12 hours plane fresh’ chic whilst doing so.

There is the preconception that jobs involving a lot of air travel are glamorous. They are, most definitely, not.

Unless you can swing yourself a UN job with an accompanying blue passport, the average humanitarian worker will accumulate an equal amount of stress in travelling to their new work destination as they do living in said location for an extended period. That’s because you’re not going where the world wants to go – unless you’re currently working on the refugee crisis in Greece, in which case, all other aid workers are jealous of you – you’re going to the field. There are no sun loungers in the field, and your cramped, smelly 12 hour flight will be the first step in making you realise that.

Firstly, you realise that there are airlines out there that you had never even heard of before. I recently had the joy of travelling with Royal Air Maroc, the national airline of Morocco, that well known luxury airline carrier… Prior to taking my flight, my humanitarian buddies prepped me by regaling their stories of their special experiences with the airline; being given used blankets full of someone else’s biscuit crumbs being just one of them. The flight itself was absolutely fine, but the meal had to be the worst airline meal I have ever encountered, even worse than when terrible turbulence meant my croissant ended up in my neighbour’s hair on an Air Brussels flight. When my ‘vegetarian option’ arrived – a vegetarian aid worker? I know, I’m a walking cliché – it consisted of three slices of carrot, three green beans, three slices of courgette and a bread roll. Sure, it can be tricky to get flavours right in pre-packaged food, but really, that is just pure laziness.

To make my experience all the more special, I came back from a toilet visit to find a knarled, dry, old lady’s foot perched on my arm rest. She seemingly thought it was ok to put her trotter through the gap in the seats to rub her fungus filled digits where my elbow should be perched. Barely disguising my horror, I asked her – politely – if she could move her foot. She did. By around 5 cm. There were two ways this was going to go: either I had to suck it up and share my seat with the foot, or I had to throw myself out of the plane. Instead, I opted to be honest, asking her if she could remove her foot completely as it made me feel uncomfortable. To my surprise, she smiled and took her foot away. So there are nice people in the world; or maybe people are only nice after they’ve marked your territory with their crusty feet. Possibly the same applies to armpits, drooling heads and excessive body mass, because all of these things have invaded my personal space on a plane at some point during my travels.

For all that grumbling, sometimes the impossible happens. You reach the gate and the attendant tells you that your seat has been changed and your new boarding pass has a single digit number. Ultimate score – the absolutely free upgrade. This has only ever happened to me once, and I’m not even sure how it happened; maybe the airline took pity on my 24-hours-travelled-so-far state, but whatever the reason, it. Was. Awesome. Yet, even there, I encountered a dilemma. This being the first time I had ever travelled business class, I wanted to rinse that experience for everything it was worth. Fully reclining chair? Yes please. Champagne with my meal. Damn right. Bradley Cooper as my in-flight entertainment? Don’t even ask; just bring him with the champagne. However, an overwhelming part of me felt like I had to behave as if I was born for business class: ‘Oh this is de rigeur dah-ling! One would never dream of flying any other way! Come on Bradley, be game!’ Needless to say I wasn’t fooling anyone; by the time I requested my 5th glass of champagne, everyone on the right side of the curtain had my card marked as a first timer.

The flight is just the start. When flying to Sierra Leone, my organisation sent me a 4 page (4 PAGE!) document on how to navigate Lungi airport without ending up in prison, in hospital or dumped somewhere in the sea. When arriving at Tacloban in the Philippines, the baggage carousel was typhoon-damaged and the replacement was a general scrum when the bags were unloaded. Airports in the field tend not to come with electricity, organisation or manners, another stark reminder that this is not Club Tropicana, and the drinks are most definitely not free (in fact, they’re probably banned).

But, budding aid worker, you made it; you have arrived and now the real work begins.

How to Build a Humanitarian #2: A Tidy Little Package

So you finally made it in and you’re heading off on that all important first field deployment. The first challenge encountered by any novice humanitarian is that of packing the necessary ingredients for survival into a suitcase that may need to conform to an extremely low weight allowance; the allowance on some UNHAS flights is 16 kilos. That is approximately the weight of my hiking boots and half a bottle of shampoo. For some flights they even weigh you whilst you hold your suitcase, but at least you can always blame that extra Christmas weight on the ‘resource manuals’ you’re lugging half way across the world.

The challenge comes from striking the balance between wanting to look tough and taking the bare necessities for clothing and bathing only, and that – wherever you are moving to – may become your home for anything between three months to three years. I have made both mistakes of packing too lightly and packing as if I was emigrating. For my first deployment, I packed as if I would need to transport all my belongings on my back at a moment’s notice (it was a war zone after all), only to arrive to a relatively comfortable apartment where my flatmate had stationed at least two pair of high heels on the shoe rack. Not to be fazed, on my next deployment, I packed some more frivolous items – a ‘going out’ top, a pair of heeled sandals, mascara (I take that last one back; it is not frivolous. It is the only item that prevents near constant accusations of ‘oh, you look ill/so tired’) – only to have them lie unloved and unused for my two month deployment because… well, I didn’t get too many opportunities to hit the clubs in Sudan.

Then comes the decision: one case or two (or even, yes I have seen it, three or four). Again, I have tried solo-casing and multiple-casing, and there again I can’t seem to get it right. If I bring multiple cases, usually the reaction from co-workers is, ‘Oh my god, how long are you planning to stay for?!’ If I bring one case, the reaction is, ‘is that it?!’ One sure fire way to win is to seek out another traveller who has more luggage than you and stand next to them, that way you’ll always look to be travelling light(er).

The Guardian ran a series last year entitled, ‘Humanitarian workers; show us what you’re packing’ which asked aid workers to share the contents of a typical set of luggage. A friend of mine at the time suggested that I write in, but at that point, I hadn’t yet honed my packing prowess. In fact, I still haven’t, but here are some useful hints for packing that I can pass along:

  1. Electricals: I tend to find that roughly 30-40% of my bag is taken up by electricals; work laptop, personal laptop (my work laptop isn’t allowed fun life-essential software like iTunes), hard drive(s), mini speaker, kindle, iPhone, epilator (for those areas where a decent waxing service is nowhere to be found). This might seem a little strange since most places may not have a decent supply of electricity, but as our lives become more and more digitalised, so does my suitcase. At some point someone will invent a device that can do all of these things together (an epilating iPhone? I could be the next Steve Jobs…) so that I can reclaim more space for…
  2. Food: I don’t care how much you enjoy the local cuisine, there will come a point on your deployment where you will just need something in your mouth that reminds you of home. Hopefully that will be an item of food and not anything more sinister. Another 10-20% of my case is taken up with my emergency snack supply, a selection of food items from home that require minimal cooking but provide maximum comfort. Usually crisps. I love crisps. There is a word of warning with this however; with limited snacks comes great responsibility to ration these for the times when you genuinely need them. Otherwise you will gorge yourself on the first night and remain in a taste bud wasteland for the remainder of your deployment.
  3. Clothes: These now make up a surprisingly small percentage of my case, maybe about the same as food, however, they are the item that have taken me the longest to perfect. The trick is to pack clothes that work for the context, the climate and the work, AND that say serious aid worker by day, party by night. As you can imagine, very few women’s clothes outlets cater to a market so niche. The one item of clothing you absolutely need is a scarf. It’s a towel, a blanket, it covers your head, it acts as a sarong, and, most helpfully, it can act as a scarf.
  4. Toiletries: being a woman with female relatives, I have a box at home that is full of a random accumulation of travel size toiletries. No one is actually sure where they came from, but one thing is for certain, however many I use, the content of that box never actually seems to decrease. This is a handy thing, since it means I can bring just enough to tide me over until I can purchase full size equivalents in the country I am travelling to. Sometimes this plan goes terribly wrong and I end up washing my hair with Dettol soap for eight weeks.
  5. Photos: No matter where I am going I bring pictures of my family and friends. I know that I could look at these on Facebook, but it’s not the same. Sometimes, these photos never even make it out of my bag (usually this is in deployments where there are no walls to stick them up on), but it is comforting to have them there.

So pack well, aid-work padawan. And don’t forget that scarf.

How to Build a Humanitarian #1 Do you want this? I mean, REALLY want this?

If we’re going to talk about the oddities of aid work, then the process of actually becoming an aid worker is probably a good place to start. In the normal world – bear with me on this one; as we stare down the still smoking barrel of the 2008 financial crisis I know job seeking for many people around the world is no longer ‘normal’. Suspend your disbelief for just a short period of time – the process goes something like: person wants job; person searches for said job; person finds and applies for job; person is interviewed and is successful; person rejoices briefly, then comes to realise this is not what they expected at all and the process begins again.

So you want to be an aid worker? Great! Start your search… except there is no job listing on Total Jobs for ‘humanitarian aid worker’.  So where do you start?


Your ability to remain charming whilst demolishing cakes might just land you that dream job…

A large part of getting into the humanitarian sector is navigating the ‘Catch 22’ situation. The Catch 22 situation is explained thus: you want a humanitarian job, but all the roles require you to have experience. You can’t get any experience because no one will take you on in a humanitarian organisation without any. When I first tried to enter the mystical world of humanitarianism, I was fairly confident about my transferable skills; I had managed people, I had managed projects, I had worked as part of an international team, I’d even done the whole volun-tourism thing, god damn it! But there was never any biting when I cast my rod into the humanitarian jobs pond. I was undeterred; I had previously worked for recruitment companies and so I pestered every organisation I applied to for feedback on my applications and where I was going wrong. Luckily, one replied and set me straight. ‘Humanitarianism is a very professionalised field,’ they told me, ‘most of our applicants have undergraduate or masters degrees in a subject related to the sector, such as development studies or international relations.’ On my last check, a BA in Media Studies wasn’t going to cut it. Strike 1.

Then there is the route of the – usually unpaid – internship. When I finally plucked up the courage to leave my secure job and head back to university to study the thing I actually wanted to do, the hot topic between classmates was how to get an internship at an organisation that could inch you closer to the elusive field. One discussion we often had was around how the majority of humanitarian internships were unpaid or poorly paid, and located mainly in London, thus pricing a lot of students (who had just spent all their available moola on a hugely expensive degree course and therefore were looking to lessen the figures behind that minus sign on their overdraft as quickly as possible) out of the market. We discussed how those students that were being priced out – typically from more working class or lower middle class families, typically northern, typically bright, able and ambitious – from getting that first step into the humanitarian sector by the lack of remuneration and the high costs of living in London. Strike 2.

Then there is the old chestnut, ‘it’s not what you know, but who you know’ and in my case this turned out to be my golden opportunity. Having helped people previously to find their dream job as a recruitment consultant, I knew that networking could play a big role in helping to get a foot in the door. And I networked my arse off, even with people that didn’t want to be networked with (quite a lot actually). I spoke to everyone and anyone that might know of an opportunity and then one day, after a conference, I sat stuffing a muffin into my face and chatting absent-mindedly with one of the presenters. Apparently my muffin stuffin’ abilities impressed, or perhaps a little of what I said between mouthfuls, because after a few weeks, she contacted me and offered me a trial field role. Home run.

Speaking to a friend of mine recently, he told me the thing that annoyed him most about telling people what he did was that their reaction was typically, ‘I’m thinking of doing what you do, you know? I’d really just like to go out there and help people.’ It annoyed him, because he, like me, had worked, studied, scrimped and saved for years to finally get into an international humanitarian job, and that for people to think it easy was utterly infuriating. So, if becoming an aid worker is what you want to do, excellent, I applaud you, come and join this crazy ship, but just be sure you want it enough to jump through the hoops to get there.