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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Syria: Five Years On

Apologies, dear readers, that I am behind on my posts. This is because – as you well know if you read my last post – I am on holiday, and so have less aid-work worries than I usually do. Except yesterday, I took a boat trip. On this boat trip, we got into some choppy waters. The boat climbed up and crashed down like a poorly designed roller-coaster at a street funfair, and we cheered and whooped and clapped that it was so much fun to be crashing over the waves.

But it got me thinking about the thousands of people crossing the Mediterranean at the moment in search of safety or a better life, or both. Even though it was fun, the wave surfing was a little scary, uncomfortable and nauseating. I thought of having to spend not 10 minutes, but perhaps 10 hours in a boat less sturdy than mine and across waves much rougher than mine. The thought terrified me.

This month marks the fifth anniversary of the start of the Syrian crisis. I worked in Syria for the all too brief period of 9 months a few years back. When I first started, I was given a full security briefing. Our security advisor was warning us of Al Nusra front as being the main threat against foreign workers and generally causing mayhem, then, as if overnight, security warnings took a darker turn. Al Nusra were not the only bad guys any more, it was a group called ISIL. Where I was working, the area outside the camp was a battleground between ISIL and the Free Syrian Army. During my time there, one of our members of staff went missing for three days; when he returned to work, he explained that ISIL had come to his town, rounded up all the men and taken them for questioning about their faith at gun point. Another time, my team and I narrowly made it across the border into Turkey as a fire fight broke out around us for control of the border crossing. The camp where thousands of innocent, terrified Syrians sought shelter was targeted by suicide bombers twice; the week after I left my deployment, one was successful. A supposed safe haven full of innocent men, women and children escaping fear, violence and uncertainty. The bomber killed 40 of them.

One day, my team and I were assessing some water tanks installed for new arrivals. As we were doing so, the noise of a plane hummed in the distance. I have never seen a change in atmosphere happen so quickly; women screamed for their children to come back into the tents; men shouted the imminent arrival of the aircraft to each other, desperate to shelter and protect their families. I’m not sure I had truly understood the horror that people had lived through until that point.

Once on our drive out of the camp, my Syrian colleague told me, ‘It’s ok for you, you get to leave.’ It was possibly the first time I allowed him to see my distress. I was so focused on presenting detachment and professionalism, that my feelings spilled over from this small remark. I was invested, boots to head, with him, with them, with this camp and the dysfunctional little town it had become. But what made me fall apart was that he was right; if things became too much for me, I could request to leave. And in the end, that’s what I did; not because of the war, not because of ISIL, and not because emotionally I was spent, even though I was; because I no longer trusted my organisation to lead a well organised response.

I understand the concerns of Europeans being reticent (putting it nicely) to allow the wave of predominantly Syrian refugees into their countries. We went through something similar when the size of our humble little camp tripled within two weeks due to heavy bombardment in Aleppo. Yes it was chaos, but it was worth it to offer the smallest amount of hope to people so desperate to feel safe.

Last year I hoped we would not see another, and it saddens me to think that it is only since the crisis is knocking on Europe’s doorstep that it can no longer be ignored. Whilst it makes me sad to think it has come to this to force the world’s hand into some kind of concrete action, I hope it finally does. Imagine for a second that it was you and your family; imagine the noise of the planes; the shaking of your house when a bomb lands nearby; leaving your home, belongings, your history in order to keep your children safe; imagine that the only route you see open to you is a rough journey across a choppy sea with no assurance at the end. If you could imagine that, you would remember the Syrian anniversary and call for greater support of Syrian refugees. Let’s hope that there is not a 6th anniversary.

Equality is not always realistic. Perhaps fairness is?

Recently I read an article on the Guardian’s Development Professional’s Network entitled, ‘How can we fight inequality if we live as privileged expats?’ The gist of the article is that aid workers cannot promote equality when their lives in the places they work are hugely privileged compared to those of the people they work with. Now, usually I don’t really feel moved to make a comment on articles from this network, despite there being many well written, funny and cringeworthy-truthful accounts written there,  but this one just… got to me. Not because I disagreed with its content; far from it, I think there is some element of truth in it. Instead it was its failure to present any solution or alternative. It merely seemed like a diatribe against the pampered humanitarian worker. As someone who has spent the last two months freezing in earthquake damaged hotel rooms and washing her knickers in ice water, I struggled to see my pampered existence in the same terms as laid out by this article. For me, the article summed up a bad habit that should be added to ‘stuff expat aid workers like’; complaining – usually about how tough their myriad of philosophical dilemmas are – without suggesting any practical steps to overcome address them.

I think what jarred with me about the article is its black-and-whiteness. The world it presents of humanitarianism is one that I have encountered in some circumstances, but certainly not in all. Yes, there are some agencies that allow their international staff outrageous ‘compensation’ packages for working in a country other than that of their home, however, there are plenty of circumstances where life is tough for humanitarians and they don’t have the creature comforts so ubiquitously inferred by this article. I think of friends of mine who have worked in South Sudan or in Ethiopia for extended periods of time; the ‘perks’ so lavishly described in the article are simply not available there – except maybe the Land Cruiser, but I would like to see them travelling through rocky desert in a Vauxhall Astra – even if the organisation had the funding (unlikely given these emergencies’ neglected status) to provide them for staff. Colleagues there were living in tents, washing in a bucket, eating what was available, rather than 5* hotels, power showers and foie gras.

If I think of my own experiences, my home, ‘household staff’, transport, and additional perks have been everywhere on the scale from tent-none-none and nothing to nice apartment-a (one) cleaner-a very comfortable SUV (handy, because I spent most of my 3 hour daily commute working in it) and a literally outrageous per diem, which I had no idea what to do with. The point is, there is not a ‘standard’ lifestyle for aid workers, and certainly not every deployment is a cushy as Secret Aid Worker makes out.

Yes, it is true that international staff enjoy privileges above affected populations and, perhaps more avoidably, local colleagues. Some of the comments for the article seek to find an explanation: that there is the need to ensure staff health (medivac-ing anyone usually costs a bloody fortune), welfare and security so that humanitarians can perform their roles effectively; that humanitarians like other economic migrants are – at least for some part – in the roles they are because they are professional and seek good pay and conditions;  that regardless of the industry, there will be those that ‘play the system’ for all the perks that they can get. The second problem with this article is that it makes no attempt to outline solutions to these issues.

Our world is essentially unequal. Humanitarianism knows that, and hence theoretically at least bases all of its response on an assessment of need rather than your political, economic, religious or ethnic status and the equality that infers on you outside the emergency. To me, this article is raising the wider issue of ‘will it ever be the case that there will be equality in the world?’ I am not well enough versed on the political/ economic/ philosophical elements of that huge question to offer a solution here; however, I do believe that humanitarianism can do its bit to make the world a little bit fairer. Fair means ensuring that colleagues employed in cleaning roles for offices or staff houses are paid a fair wage, treated with courtesy and respect for doing their jobs. Fair means extending a comparable package of benefits (including medical cover) to local based staff as well as internationals. Fair means ensuring that wages within large international NGOs are globally set and adjusted for local economic conditions so that you know a colleague doing the same job as you in Country X, or even in the office 200km from yours is receiving the same reimbursement as you and the quality of your work is expected to be the same. Some of the comments note that funding is swallowed up in providing this fancy lifestyle to international workers, but if we want NGOs to have fair working environments, inevitably, some funding will need to be channelled into providing what could be termed ‘essential’ benefits for staff (e.g. medical insurance which is so often lacking for local based staff). Perhaps if we can’t be equal, we can be responsible and we can be fair.