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. 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.



The Land Cruiser Effect

If you asked me to name my favourite thing about working in the humanitarian sector, I would be hard pushed to find just one thing. But if you asked me what ranks up there in the top five, I’m going to have to say the cars. No, I didn’t make a typo like the now infamous ‘bear hands’, it genuinely is cars.

I’ve always been a fan of cars; in fact, I come from good, car-obsessed stock, with a father who consults What Car for spiritual guidance more often than a religious text, and an uncle who renovates classic cars. Not every girl is so lucky to receive a Volkswagen Beetle calendar for their 14th birthday, a gift that I genuinely treasured. I would spend evenings reading through my dad’s old car magazines, and I still cannot resist the pull of a Top Gear re-run. When I was 17, I started dating a guy who had a very old Land Rover, and one day he let me drive it. I remember the pedals being huge, (‘so that you can feel them through your wellington boots,’ he assured me), the steering being stiff and the gear box a crazy revelation of sticks and levers that seemed totally unnecessary in any other car. I think that was the day that I fell in love… not with him, but with 4X4s.

And then came humanitarianism. Sure, when I was working on short term projects, arriving at the airport and climbing into the back of a UN branded Toyota Landcruiser seemed a little bit over the top for a trundle to a hotel in downtown Nairobi, but I was in heaven. I am convinced that a Toyota Land Cruiser is my spirit animal. Ready for anything, slightly uncomfortable, but capable of some very interesting things when handled properly, it’s like we were two items made to the same design specification.

When you work in the field, cars become a big part of your life, and as such, many aid workers will also share similar tales of their love for a particular brand of all-terrain vehicle. In Lisa Smirl’s book, ‘Spaces of Aid’, the SUV is one of the key spaces in which an aid worker operates, becoming not just a means to an end of delivering humanitarian assistance, but an ‘active, constitutive part of aid relations.’ And it’s true: In Jordan, my three hour daily commute meant my car became my office (complete with coffee in Bodum travel press – you know you have one); in Sierra Leone, my bumpy cross district trips with my team became our opportunity to bond and become close friends; and in Madagascar, our cross country travels became our karaoke and disco sessions.


Don’t worry, baby, you’ll always be beautiful to me. Credit: Toyota

Another thing I love is driving. As with many things I love doing, I’m not particularly good at it – possibly a touch too girl racer – but I give it an enthusiastic go. One of the most disappointing things about working in the sector is that you don’t often get to drive. This is mainly because NGOs do not trust you with their most expensive assets, which is pure torture for a girl like me, looking at a yard full of beautiful, shiny, kindred spirit Toyotas and being unable to jump into one and drive it sideways along the steepest embankment I can find. Perhaps ‘The Management’ has a point though; on one rare mission where I was able to drive, I forgot that the rest of the world drives differently to us Brits and nearly pulled out headlong into oncoming traffic. I told you that driving was possibly not my specialist skill. Once – just once – I got to drive a beauty of a Toyota 4×4 across Djibouti. It was my first time driving overseas, first time driving on the ‘wrong’ side of the road, first time driving off-road and my first time with a Land Cruiser. Yeah that’s right, I said with, it’s a beautiful moment in my head, I’m romanticising it! My colleague – at first incredulous that I even wanted to drive, then claiming that as a man, the car was an extension of his body and therefore it was his right to drive it – eventually caved in and coached me through the experience. I remember him saying, ‘so, you know now, like you feel that the end of the car is sliding?’ I nodded. ‘Mmm, that’s when you’re going too fast,’ he noted. I did later get bonus points for driving behind a rogue goat, rather than in front of it.

The problem with being the passenger is placing your life into someone else’s hands. This can be problematic in a range of circumstances, for example, when you are picked up from the airport and your driver sends text messages on his mobile phone for the entire duration of a one hour motorway journey. Or when your driver is taking you to a remote community at approximately 2,800m altitude up a one track, crash barrier-less, sandy road which doesn’t appear to be quite wide enough for your vehicle. Or when the road ahead appears to be a cliff face, but your driver shoves the car into low range and essentially makes it rock climb to the top. Actually, those last two experiences were awesome, however, the fact remains that road accidents are the biggest killers of humanitarian workers on a year to year basis. In many places, vehicle standards and even basic safety practices are woefully lacking, and many is the time that you will find yourself in a car without seatbelts. As much as bumping around in a 4X4 is fun, humanitarian work is risky enough as it is not to take basic safety precautions when travelling in cars. The one space you don’t want that magnificent metal box becoming is an interim coffin.

Sadly, in my latest deployment, the ubiquitous Uber seems to have replaced the company fleet. I suppose that this is a good thing – cheaper, more economical, provides an income to a wider pool of individuals – but I still pine for my spiritual, combustion-engined counterpart. I had been saving up for a house deposit, but after this post, come and meet me in the ‘classic 4X4s’ section of What Car Magazine.

Competition Time

Why do people become humanitarians? Is it because they are all hippy types, wanting to spread peace and love? Sure, there are some that are like that. Is it because they are altruistic souls, who think only of dedicating their life to the service of others? Possibly. Is it because they love new contexts, cultures and countries and integrating into them to learn as well as working on projects that they really feel will improve lives? I feel like we are getting a little bit colder with that one. Or is it because they are high-achieving, outgoing, ambitious, and competitive Type A personalities who thrive under high stress environments? In my humble opinion, there are definitely a lot of the latter in the general humanitarian cohort, and it doesn’t always make for the easiest working environment.

It is my opinion that roughly 90% of decision making time in humanitarianism is lost due to competition. That is, many a time, humanitarians feel the need to turn meetings, emails, Skype calls etc into pissing contests to prove they understand more about a concept or a context than their colleagues.

I am most certainly guilty of this; I have seen myself do it and I feel it in myself during meetings, scanning for the ‘ah but’ moment when I get to put the boot into a colleagues well-thought through plans and prove that I have thought about an angle of human existence that they didn’t consider when organising lunch for tomorrow’s workshop.
At first it feels exciting; all these ideas bumping around, things getting bigger, and better, and more complex, trying to cram everyone’s opinion into your work. But after a while, you crave the day when a colleague can just tell you, ‘this is a good piece of work, you’re doing well,’ instead of crapping all over your carefully thought through concept as a means to illustrate to everyone copied into the email chain just how clever and important they are.

Don’t get me wrong, sometimes it’s completely warranted; we’re not all experts, we don’t

Always right

Otherwise known as my face, 90% of the time in coordination meetings. 

all have knowledge of every element of humanitarian practice, since to do that, we would probably all need Einstein sized IQs. We’re talking about the needs of human beings after all, and let’s face it; we’re not exactly a simple or globally coherent bunch. It’s not the advice and input that I object to, it’s the attitudes and methods in which it is often dispensed. How many times have you had a good idea and raised it, only to have someone in the meeting rather too smugly outline all the reasons that it’s actually terrible and will set mankind’s development back at least 50 years? It happens at least once a week, right?

There are those who are shameless about it. One colleague in Syria would literally shout over others in meetings, declaring that she was an expert on this particular subject (it appeared she was a expert on a number of diverse and non-related issues). But as we all know, there are those who have far more devious tactics to get ahead in the race. The worst is when discussions have been ongoing around a particular project amongst a group of colleagues for some time; you’re all in agreement that it’s a great idea. But when it comes to committing these thoughts to paper, the project’s biggest advocate then decides to trash it totally, supplementing their own and – in their opinion – far superior ideas, but only because the boss is in CC and in no way should this look like a collaborative effort.

It’s not that competition isn’t healthy or necessary; it is the way that it is done that is often the kicker. You would think that as humanitarians we’d be used to dealing with people who are desperate – for food, for water, or just the sense that what we’re doing might just be effective and worthwhile – but we sometimes our desire to prove our specialist knowledge tramples over the ambitions and growth opportunities of others. And we don’t even feel remorseful, instead we feel vindicated. Satisfied. Smug.

In the past year, I have become less and less confident in my abilities as a humanitarian, despite the fact that I have gained more diverse experience in the last year than I have in my previous four years working in the sector. I think part of the reason for that is that I feel I am in competition with my colleagues, that my ideas are not enough, that my skills are only basic, and that I still have a long way to go. It can be the smallest things that throw me off: a curious glance from a colleague in my direction whilst I am explaining something to a team-mate; a meeting where I can’t make a point because other colleagues are too eager to ensure they are heard over the expense of inclusion and listening; a tut, roll of the eyes and head shake from a colleague at the back of the room whilst I am stood training at the front. Alright, that last one is just stone cold mean.

What worries me most, is if this is the attitude we take with each other – validating our own need to ‘win’, our need to be the best, our need to prove we know it all – what happens when it comes to working with disaster affected people and communities? When those people know their lives, culture and problems better than we can ever dream to, are we still going to try to prove we know it all?

Animal Magic

Working in the humanitarian field offers lots of opportunities; to travel, to work with interesting people and to get up close and personal with other inhabitants of the animal kingdom. And by that I don’t only mean the filthy man-animals you may sometimes need to share your flat with (socks that don’t bend? No-one needs that in the communal area, thanks).

When working in the field, you can roughly divide your relationship with animals into three broad categories: those you loathe, those you love and dinner.

When at home in sunny old blighty, there is an unwritten rule between loathsome creatures and people; creatures stay in their space, we stay in ours and if the former violates these rules they get a rolled up newspaper. Creatures in the field have not been given a breakdown of these rules, which means they think it is completely acceptable to get up in your grill. For example, the cockroaches that think it’s ok to have a pool party in the glass of water you keep on the bedside table to sip on during the night. The rat that thought it was completely acceptable to make a nest and have rat babies in a colleague’s suitcase, a fact that she only discovered when trying to pack to leave. Or another rat – possibly related – that thought it was acceptable to share my bed in Daadab and nibble on my legs out of what was presumably boredom at 3am. Or the snake that rudely interrupted one aid worker’s private toilet time by dropping out of the tree above her head, landing at her feet and spending a good 30 seconds sizing her up before deciding it was intruding on a private moment. 30 seconds is a very long time if you are a snake, or a human being looked at by a pissed off snake.

On the flipside, there will be an inevitable moment in every aid worker’s rite of passage where they fall in love with an animal and decide to adopt it as a pet, despite the fact that the animal is feral, a walking disease infestation or a completely inappropriate ‘pet’(here I’m thinking dik-diks, falcons and pangolins). Let me explain the pangolin one; for those who don’t know, a pangolin is an extremely endangered aardvark type creature that lives in the jungles of West Africa. Whilst living in a camp in the middle of said jungles, a local hunter came to us and asked us if we would like to buy ‘this’. ‘This’ was a pangolin and its very small baby. We asked what he would do with the pangolin if we didn’t buy it. Well, eat it of course. Herein started the dilemma; did we say yes, buy the pangolin and contribute to the illegal pangolin trade, or say no and allow an endangered creature to be eaten? So of course we bought it, put it in a box, and ran around the camp collecting things that we thought it might eat (basically anything found in the ‘loathe’ section above). The thing at least had the good sense to escape that night rather than be ‘looked after’ by people clearly with limited skills in animal rescue.

Spider Friends

Hell to the no. Creep. 

However, most aid workers fall in love with the more ubiquitous cats or dogs. Aid workers will happily dedicate disproportional amounts of money and time to ensuring their feral friend is ok and starting on the course towards healthy domestication. One aid worker in Ethiopia was so concerned about his pet cat becoming pregnant that he convinced the camp medic to treat it with human contraceptives (it was apparently a successful strategy). In Liberia, two ‘guard’ dogs that came part and parcel with a guest house ended up being the most attended to patients of the staff nurse, rather than the staff themselves.

Then there is the last and saddest category; dinner. In many places, there are none of your new fangled fridges and freezers (or the electricity to run them) for storing your food at the perfect temperature before consumption, so you make do with the next best thing – fresh meat. So fresh, that sometimes it is tied up outside the kitchen when you go in for breakfast, thus also eliminating the need for printing a menu. Sometimes, dinner comes to you from unexpected sources. During a community meeting in Sierra Leone, my team and I were presented with a goat as a mark of gratitude for our work. Thinking this was purely symbolic, and we weren’t actually going to take the goat, I put this out of my mind, until – when bouncing over a particularly large pot hole – I heard a small bleating coming from the boot. To try to appease my vegetarian guilt, I even tried to feed the thing the last of my emergency shortbread stash. It was not in the least bit interested. I made sure I was out of the area when the ‘cooking’ process started.

Sometimes the worlds of humanitarians and animals collide in unexpected ways, and – just to pre-empt you – these usually don’t end well for the animal in the story. In Guinea, an Ebola treatment centre was thrown into temporary disarray when a passing motorbike startled a group of chickens, causing one to fly over the perimeter fence and into the red zone (the high infection risk section of the centre, to which entry and exit is highly controlled). The chicken roamed around whilst staff robed up into their plague-doctor-esque protective equipment to then spend the best part of an hour chasing it around the red zone in 40 degree heat whilst basically wrapped in cling-film. Once the chicken was safely isolated in a box, a debate ensued around the fate of the chicken; How likely was it that the chicken had become infected with Ebola? Could chickens transmit Ebola? Would the plucky fowl make it out of the red zone? Such practical and philosophical questions milled around until the director of the centre reminded staff that they had actual patients who needed their attention, and therefore, could someone please just kill the chicken, incinerate it and pay the owner for his loss. These are just some of the harsh realities of working in epidemics, my friends.

Whether is a chicken, a goat, a dog or a pangolin, you’re going to end up experiencing some animal magic on your deployments. And if you don’t, content yourself that 1000s of microscopic animals will be more than happy to accommodate you, and work their magic internally for you instead.

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.

I’m Late…

Relax! I mean to celebrate Menstrual Hygiene Day! On 28th May, the humanitarian and development worlds celebrated Menstrual Hygiene Day with different events across the globe. No, you’re not mistaken, I do mean menstrual hygiene as in menstruation. As in periods. Yes, really.

Now I can imagine if you’re a non-aid-workery type who has possibly stumbled across this page in a grievous Google misspelling, you might be thinking, ‘what?!’ or ‘pull the other one,’ or even, ‘ohmygodgross’, but let’s think about this for a second: There are approximately 6 billion people living on Earth, of which roughly 3.52 billion are women (with imbalances like that, its no wonder I can’t find a boyfriend… anyhow, back to the matter at hand); Of that 3.52 billion, around 2 billion are of menstrual age. That’s one third of the world’s entire population that is experiencing a period every month. At any one time, approximately 334 million women are on their period. 334 MILLION. And yet, extremely few people seem to want to talk about it.


Ding! Incoming message from your digital vagina.

334 million eh? That’s approximately 6.68 billion disposable sanitary towels going into landfill every month – a number so long I had to turn my iPhone on its side to read it fully – assuming that all women are using disposable sanitary towels. Which of course they are not. Some women are using re-usable pads which they then need to wash after each use. Some women are using tampons. Some women are using silicone cups which collect the blood and then need to be removed, emptied and washed before reinsertion. Some women are even using versions of these cups that sync with your smart phone and give you a blow by blow of how the whole show is going down there. Digital vaginas – it’s the future, I’ve seen it. But of course, some women are using bits of old, previously used cloth that leaves them vulnerable to infections in the most sensitive part of their body. Some women are using leaves and mud. And still, extremely few people want to talk about it.

Women are disproportionally affected by disasters; often moving with their families to places that are safer, but less equipped to help them manage their periods. Imagine needing to leave your home in a rush, you don’t even think about your period, you just think about getting your children to safety. You find an empty warehouse where other families have also gathered, it’s safe and its shelter but there are no showers or toilets. A few days later, you start your period. You can’t reach the shops to buy anything, and you are cramped in with other families. There’s nowhere to wash yourself properly; you try to take a bottle of water with you outside at night to rinse yourself, but you feel like people might see you. You try using some clothes that you bought with you to absorb the blood, but you have nowhere to wash them and they are bulky to wear and don’t really stop your menstrual blood leaking onto your other clothes. You feel embarrassed that people might be able to see the blood stains on your clothes. Sounds horrible, right? But that’s what thousands of women affected by emergencies and disasters around the world face when people don’t talk about menstruation.

Recently, I went on a deployment and my luggage was lost en route. I was told it wouldn’t arrive for another two days. In the meantime, it was a public holiday in the country and absolutely no shops were open for three days. About two hours after finding out this, I started my period and had nothing – no tampons, no towels, no space-age-digital-fanny-reader – with me at all. For three days I stuffed my knickers with toilet paper which disintegrated when I bled on it, and ended up piling into little bits between my legs. I was working in IDP camps during the day where there were only chemical toilets which were dirty all around the seat and had no water inside, meaning I couldn’t rinse myself to get clean. I felt horrible, and I felt that everyone knew that I was on my period. For just a few days, I felt like I understood a bit more how a woman fleeing a disaster might feel.

The difficulty is, in many contexts where humanitarians are working – well, let’s be realistic, in nearly all cultures all around the world – talking about menstruation is taboo, disgusting, embarrassing or shameful. Even in my house, where my father is the only man amongst three women (and 6 women including the cats…) we all still feel the need to shelter him from the fact that we have active uteruses, despite him having a vague understanding that two of his own children emerged  from one. The good news is, if you’re an aid worker type, more people in the sector are talking about periods. Dare I say, it’s almost becoming fashionable; if you’re not up on your MHM (menstrual hygiene management) you might even get laughed out of the room if you profess to be a sanitation specialist. All aid workers need to start having the conversation together so that we can start prioritising women’s menstrual needs in emergencies. If we want to ensure people faced with disaster can live their lives with dignity that means making sure women have the materials, services and facilities they need to manage their periods with dignity. A belated Menstrual Hygiene day to you all, and I hope that you’ll continue the conversation.

On International Women’s Day… Where my boys at?

This week, many of my female friends have been marking International Women’s Day by sharing updates, badges and whatever else you do on social media these days to show your support for a cause. Covering your profile picture with the Suffragette flag or a giant vagina or something along those lines. One friend posted a thought that I have heard so many times, in so many countries; why is there an International Women’s Day? Why only one day to celebrate women and their achievements? Why is it a celebration when there is still not equality between women and men?

If you are a woman you are likely to receive a wage that is up to 30% lower than your male counterpart doing the same job. You are less likely to be represented in employment unions making it harder for you to ensure your rights in the workplace. You are likely to work more, for less pay, with less education and less political participation. The country in which you live may even have legal restrictions on the work that you can do. You are less likely to own your own land, even though you may take an equal (or higher share) in farming it. In natural disasters, you are more likely to die. You are almost certain to encounter some form of sexual violence (including verbal harassment) in public within your lifetime. Whilst there has been significant progress, you are still less likely to go to school, particularly secondary or tertiary education. All of this because you are a woman. International Women’s Day celebrates the social, economic, cultural and political achievements of women despite all of these imbalances and encourages us all to keep pushing for gender parity.

If you are a human being, and you think women should be treated equally to men, then congratulations, you are a feminist. The mention of the F-word makes some people come across a little strange; it makes them think that if you are one, you have to burn your bra or taste your own menstrual blood à la Greer. Apparently because I don’t want to do the last one, I have a long way to go before declaring myself a feminist, however, I trust my body to let me know the stuff it wants to keep on the inside, and the stuff it thinks I’m best off letting go. Is it a ritual rite of passage for men to scoff their own spunk to be manly? Not as far as I know, but then, I may move in some pretty sheltered circles. And as for burning bras, I’m guessing that for any woman in my situation with more than a C cup, bras are less symbols of oppression and more a safeguard against black eyes on unpaved roads. Some people think of feminism and think of a load of unwashed women, munching on tofu burgers and plaiting their unshaven armpit hair. When I think of feminism, I think of dedicated human beings that believe your genitalia shouldn’t dictate your treatment in this world.

Note that I say human beings; parity, equality, whatever you want to call it, can’t just come from women alone. If we could do it all ourselves, I reckon we probably would have managed it by now. No, we need men. That might upset some feminists to say that we need men, but we do; for there to be equality between the sexes, there needs to be at least two of them. That’s just common sense. Here, I defer to the wisdom of Caitlin Moran. In Moran’s best-selling book, ‘How to be a Woman’, she gives a great explanation of why a feminist should not be either ‘pro-women’ nor ‘anti-men’; ‘The idea that we are all at the end of the day, just a bunch of well-meaning schlumps, trying to get along… I’m just thumbs up for the six billion.’ It’s not men that feminists need to be fighting as Moran says, it’s The Man. The Man is the one responsible for perpetrating the never ending stream of images, words and influence that tells us women should be one way, and men should be another. Men suffer just as much from The Man as women do.

On my last deployment, I saw a film made by the Vogue Empower campaign called ‘Start with the Boys’. In it, boys are told over and over again, ‘stop crying, are you a girl?’

We forget sometimes that boys are also put under pressure to behave a certain way, and therefore treat women a certain way. If we want gender parity, we need to work together to allow humans to be who they are, rather than shoe-horning them into the neatly defined expectations we have of them based on their genitalia.  The strongest men see women as their equals and the strongest women don’t need to put men down to be empowered. So on International Women’s Day this year, big up to all the guys out there – women, men, and those who identify with neither – who are championing gender parity by being human and doing it well.

The Buffer Break

I’m writing this blog post a little late. And if truth be known, a little pissed. Because I am on HOLIDAY. Not just any holiday, oh no, I am on my first Buffer Break.

There comes a point in every deployment where you just want out. Maybe it’s when you’ve become tired of being the only person in your ‘hotel’ to clean the restaurant tables. Maybe it’s when you want a proper bed. Maybe it’s that if you hear/see one of more of those delightful cultural quirks such as lung-hacking pre- and post-dinner, or a long fifth fingernail for…. excavations, you may commandeer a gun from a local peacekeeper and go Columbine. Or maybe it’s just that you’re really, really tired. Humanitarian work seems to exhaust people like nothing else. It’s not just physical exhaustion bought about from long and active working days, poor diets and lack of sleep enduced by nonstop worries of earthquakes, or bombs, or mice that like to eat your clothes while you sleep or all-the-things-your-agency-could-be-doing-to-save-lives-but-are-not-in-the-donor-contract-and-the-CD-doesn’t-like-it, it’s also mental exhaustion. A friend and I recently discussed the longest we had worked on ‘maxed out mode’; it was an average of 17 hours per day, 7 days a week for 10 weeks straight. Her run was broken by being called to another emergency, mine by malaria. I imagine that the EU would have a field day slapping regulations on those kind of working hours.

Most aid workers know when it’s time to go; we all have our tell tale signs. Your patience reaches zero and you begin snapping with co-workers. Or you lose the ability to concentrate and lack motivation for your work despite there still being mountains to move. Or, like me, your level of casual swearing could qualify you for the navy, or at least Captain Jack’s skipper for sure. You can see it; your once bouncy colleague – known to brighten even the darkest of email induced bad moods – slumped over their coffee cup, calling everyone a twat.

So then go home! Take a break! See your family and friends! I hear you cry. Except herein lies the secondary dilemma; that adjusting back to ‘normal life’ can be just as tiring and painful. You are exhausted and possibly traumatised from what you have experienced, but your family and friends just see their old son/daughter/mate back again and assume you are still that bright-eyed, shiny, idealistic young thing they hugged at the airport, rather than a sleep deprived, worn out, probably hung over miscreant questioning the utility of your entire existence as an aid worker (or you know, on different points on that long sliding scale).  Many of your nearest and dearest won’t understand what life has been like for you and equally, you will not understand how your emotional crash landing back into their lives will affect them. When one aid worker posted on the Facebook group ’Fifty Shades of Aid’ that they found it hard to adjust to being back at home despite good relationships with their family, 33 others quickly identified with them and left 15 comments offering different advice. I can relate to this person’s dilemma. My inability to integrate seamlessly back into family life has resulted in me either hiding in my bedroom or shouting at my mother like a stroppy teenager on a crowded street in Llandudno; neither are options I want to see becoming the norm.


The buffer break may result in you missing a browse around your local supermarche – Credit: Telegraph

And so I am taking my first buffer break. The buffer break as a concept is well acknowledged in the humanitarian field, but I like to think I have given it a trendy ‘instagram’ label now (I can imagine the selfies now, ‘me on the beach #bufferbreak #nofilter’ #fuckoff). It is when, instead of going straight home at the end of a deployment, you go somewhere else for a little while to ease gently back into life away from the very worst things that human beings can do to each other, and back into one of family lunches, cappuccinos and haircuts. A few friends of mine have dreamt of setting up a ‘half-way house’ for humanitarians to enjoy exactly this kind of decompression stop on their murky rise up to surface normality. One friend had an amazing idea to set up a resort in Spain, with a range of activities to satiate all manners of coping mechanisms: waterfall diving for those with spare adrenaline to burn? You got it. Massage and pedicure for those knotted from computer based hunching? No problem. Drowning your sorrows in excellently made cocktails for… erm, everyone? On tap! The idea being you can do whatever it takes to shake off those last vestiges of the deployment, helping you feel ready to leave work behind and head home ready for reintegration.

I spent my buffer break doing a mix of all three of the options above. I went trekking and spent some time getting uncomfortably close to a manner of animals that would happily eat me. I also had a massage which ironed out the tangle of knots that were keeping my shoulders hunched up like Quasimodo. I drank too much wine. Alone. And then wrote a blog post (winning). I met people who didn’t care at all what I had spent my last 6 months doing, and were more interested in finding out what my recommendations were for activities for the next day. It was refreshing. It also gave me time to finish off all the obligatory reporting, emails, last minute extra pieces of work that I usually end up having to do at home and keep me with one eye on work, rather than two eyes on my wonderful family and soaking up all my limited and precious time with them.

Tomorrow is the last day of my buffer break; it might be the wine talking, but taking this break in between my two worlds has made me feel more relaxed. Mostly, it has made me feel ready and excited to get back to my family, and back to ‘normal life’. Some people may be wondering how they would know when they were ready to leave the fast-pace of deployment behind and head home. Mine came like a eureka moment when catching up with a friend. I asked her what she was doing, and she said that she was in Tesco buying a sandwich. The first thing that came to my mind wasn’t, ‘oh how dull!’, or ‘hmm, I do really need to get going and finish that report…’ or even, ‘what kind of sandwich?’ It was ‘Tesco! Man, I can’t wait to mooch around Tesco!’ And lo and behold, I am ready to head home.

Ah, L’Amour

Since it is that day again where people subscribe to the belief that their self-worth can only be measured in cards or chocolates, I suppose it’s as good a time as ever to talk about love in the field. This is a subject that I currently feel under-qualified to discuss, having never found love in the field to date (note the ‘currently’; that’s right, I’m still holding out hope). And here, I’m talking about a proper, grown-up relationship; you know, the kind that Carrie and her mob are always chasing after in shoes that would be completely inappropriate in a flooded refugee camp, rather than a quickie in the back of a Land Cruiser. More on those kind of ‘relationships’ later.

I possibly did not have the best of starts to love and humanitarianism. In fact, my new career was the possibly the final nail in my last proper relationship’s coffin. I was excited to have just landed my first role that required significant international travel; my boyfriend’s reaction was slightly less enthusiastic. In trying to turn his dream-squelching into something more positive, I suggested that he could come to visit me in far-flung and exotic destinations where we would have amazing adventures. ‘Yeah, but I don’t really want to go anywhere that’s… you know… too poor,’ was his reaction. I’m still not quite sure why I was so surprised when we called time two weeks later.

Since then, I have been resolutely single (‘victim of circumstance’ resolutely rather than ‘personal choice’ resolutely). That’s not to say that there hasn’t been any romantic interests or dalliances along the way, but they end up being too complicated by the nature of the job to stand any real chance. For example, I enjoyed some great evening-time flirting with a handsome and charming guy in Ethiopia, but the fact that we sat opposite each other in the office all day would have made taking anything further a bit awkward; imagine how a simple request to borrow his piezometer could have been embarrassingly misconstrued. Then there was the sweet, quiet guy in Myanmar where there was an underlying current of mutual attraction, but since I was his manager, that was never going to be in any way appropriate.

Then there are the further complications of living arrangements. Quite often, I have been sharing a room/tent/hut with one or more other people. I’m not sure how kids in shared rooms in university ever manage to have a sex life, but I can’t say I particularly want to let a room-mate in on the details that side of my life, especially not when they already have enough embarrassing information on just how much I grunt, drool and fart during my sleep (it’s all the hummus, I swear it).

Then there is the debate as to whether it’s better to have a relationship with someone within the sector, or someone outside of it. Getting into a relationship with someone who also works within the aid sector has it’s plus points in that they understand its unique frustrations, they accept that you can’t make any definite plans since your organisation reserves the right to send you packing somewhere new at any moment, and that you probably won’t have managed to maintain your depilation schedule whilst working in rural DRC. The problem is that they understand all of that too well, and sweet nothings become hour long rants about the inherent problems in the system. You will become like astrologers, charting your R&R schedules and plotting the times when they will mystically align so that you actually get to see each other face to face. Even then, the transport and accommodation arrangements for your ‘dates’ end up costing a small fortune. On the other hand, dating someone outside the sector means that they can stop you becoming a broken-aid-worker-record and encourage you to talk about something other than work, but they also might not understand why – from time to time – you break down in tears when you can’t find the sugar, or fly into a stomping rage when BBC news reporters present over-simplified representations of your last work station.

It can work though; I have several ‘aid-worker couple friends’ who are managing to make it work. One couple take it in turns to decide their next move; the one whose turn it is gets first dibs on applying to the place or role that they really want and the other tries to follow along, taking the turn to decide next. Another couple agreed that she would take international deployments and he would take a UK based role to look after the kids. I admire these couples who manage to make it work, but there are lots of aid-workers that don’t manage it.


Tinder is unlikely to find you the love of your life, even if you do post pictures of you being an amazing humanitarian (credit: Humanitarians of Tinder)

Recently, I was having a few whiskeys with a colleague – for purely heat-generating purposes; there was freezing fog on the river next to our hotel which had the unique design feature of glassless windows – and talk turned to relationships. He was travelling back and forth to the capital city every weekend to ensure he could keep things going with his girlfriend, and asked me whether I had a partner. When I replied that I was single, his response was, ‘Wow; I don’t think I would ever want to be international staff. All of you guys are either divorced or alone.’ Ouch. We worked out that of the seven international staff he had worked with to date, all had been single.

Maybe it’s that we’re all too in love with the job to take time to find that special person; maybe it’s that the life of travel and uncertainty makes having a relationship impossible; or maybe it’s because when we are looking for love we think pictures like those on Humanitarians of Tinder are going to boost our appeal (note: they really, really don’t). Whatever it is, happy Valentine’s day to all the single aid workers out there.

The Holy Trinity of Guilt

Working in humanitarianism often leaves you feeling guilty. You’d have to be pretty stone-cold to work in the sector and never experience it. Guilt is a feeling of having committed a wrong or failed in an obligation, and in this line of work, there are a lot of obligations since when all is said and done, what you’re dealing with is people’s lives. For me, there are three elements of my life that contribute to my state of near constant guilt of never having done enough, both at work and more generally. Oh God, I can feel my guilt welling up inside me already. That mild blasphemy brings me to the first of my own three dimensions of guilt:

The Father: Being catholic.

Catholic Guilt is totally a thing. Perhaps religious guilt more generally is a thing – I’ve heard of Jewish Guilt – but Catholic guilt is the one I have. I was bought up in a Catholic family, went to a Catholic primary school and – oh, wait for it – an all girls, convent, Catholic secondary school. With the uniforms any everything. Get your minds out the gutters and say 4 Hail Marys in penance for those thoughts. Voila. You have just experienced Catholic guilt. It’s hard to put into words, but Catholic guilt makes you feel slightly sinful about everything enjoyable. Enjoyed a beautiful meal? Yes, but think of the starving children that haven’t eaten in days. Had a bit of fun with the new flaky aid boy in town? Every sperm is sacred, you heathen and should be saved for marriage. Loving your brand new 7-billion-mega-pixel-iPad with coffee maker extension pack? Jesus gave away all his possessions, including his life to save you. Damn it! Catholic guilt leads you to question whether every one of your actions plunges you deeper into sin, or inches you a little closer to an afterlife chillin’ behind those pearly gates. You would think that working in humanitarianism – saving lives and all that – is the equivalent of a business class ticket; avoid the queues and proceed directly to the gates. But in reality, it adds more potholes to the journey as you constantly question whether you actually did any good at all.

The Son: I am a woman.

‘Show me a woman who doesn’t feel any guilt and I will show you a man,’ wrote Erica Jong. The epidemic of female guilt has now apparently reached such a scale that this generation of women has been dubbed the ‘GAT’ generation; guilty all the time. Female guilt seems to be driven by feelings of inadequacy of living up to the impossible image of the ideal woman. We should be career-driven, but not too much that we’re bossy; we should be caring but not too much that we’re doormats; we should be slim and beautiful, but also stuff our faces because there’s nothing sexier than a woman who loves her food.

Damn good job

If you can do a damn good bloody good damn good job, maybe you too can earn the title of ‘Excellent Woman’

It’s hard to navigate the minefield that leads to the elixir of the perfect woman. There is a constant pressure to prove yourself, not just for women in humanitarianism but for men too, to show that what you do is effective, innovative, transparent, participatory and a whole host of other words from IRIN’s Humanitarian Buzzword Bingo. Now we have to be the perfect woman, and the perfect humanitarian. Women tend to have more empathetic emotions than men, which means we’re generally better at putting other people first, which should make us rockstar humanitarians. The problem is we also tend to internalise faults more than men, blaming ourselves for mistakes than external factors, and that means more guilt.


The Final Straw: I am a humanitarian.

Coupled with the first two, there is the added guilt that comes as part and parcel of the humanitarian job. When you first start in the job, you feel inspired, ready to take on the world and its problems, even solve some of them single-handedly. But as you stay longer in the field, you realise that your budget and your programmes don’t even scratch the surface of the grinding poverty, trauma and need the world and the people in it inflict on each other. You feel jaded, but you also feel guilty. It was your job to make a difference, but often, aid workers can’t see any impact of their work. Sometimes, humanitarians end up damaging themselves as they enter a spiral of guilt and shame for their perceived lack of achievement, resulting in burnout and sometimes compassion fatigue, an overriding sense of cynicism and feeling that all compassionate actions are doomed to fail. Such cases are clearly extreme, but unfortunately common. Conversations around the mental health of aid workers have increased over the last year or so, however, much more needs to be done to support humanitarians to process their guilty feelings in a healthy way that enables them to continue their work with a sense of clarity and proportion.

Personally, I like a sense of  niggling guilt; it keeps me questioning the quality of my work and the decisions I take. It forces me to apologise to colleagues when stress gets the better of me and I snap. It reminds me to be patient and understanding with people who are angry, rude or challenging and whose situation I cannot understand fully, and hope that I will never have to. It makes me strive to be better at my job. And when it’s excessive, it’s also great for weight loss. But I also know when it is getting the better of me and I need to curb it before I lose myself. So, I’ll keep channeling that guilt productively, and when the wheels fall off, I’ll gorge myself on the pickled onion Monster Munch I packed for just such an occasion, because hey, there’s nothing sexier than a Catholic school girl who loves to eat.