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.

The question I most dread… ‘So, what do you do for a living?’

My name is A and I’m an aid worker.

Apologies for the dramatic entrance, but similar to making that brave decision to admit your alcoholism to a room full of strangers, telling others outside of my working context that I work as a humanitarian aid worker is not something that I feel comfortable doing.

I’ve been working in humanitarian organisations for over four years now, slightly longer if you count the obligatory ‘internship’ roles photocopying executive meeting minutes and living in a toad infested basement flat in London living off baked beans. That was my start in aid work; a job that was as close to working ‘in the field’ as making sure the self-service tills don’t go on the wonk in Tesco. It lasted for three months with an international NGO based in London. And it was paid. The zenith of fledgling aid-worker foot-in-the-doors. Except it wasn’t paid that much, and being a Northern lass, I had to move to London, live in the aforementioned toad hole, walk the four miles to work at least twice a week to save on bus fare, and cut my food budget to £10 per week just to cut it.

Mercifully, the fate-wielding denizens of the aid world rewarded me for my three months of penitence with a 6 month contract at a small NGO, with a survivable salary. Perhaps the unpaid internship is a kind of litmus test; I truly believe that if you can survive in London on next to no money, you will have the resourcefulness to at least make a damn good attempt at working in remote and hostile environments. I won’t bore you with the rest, save to say I am now well and truly in the mystical ‘field’ that downy lipped male and female students of International Law, Conflict Studies and Disaster Management degrees see tantalisingly ahead of them.

So why so shy about the job? It’s not the telling per say, it’s the reaction. Once, I went shopping with my mum on a break between deployments. I disappeared into the changing room only to come out to find the shop assistant looking at me like a unicorn in a Cath Kidson skirt. ‘Your mum has just told me what you’re doing…’ [cue furious glance at mother] ‘…and I just think you’re so wonderful to do that.’

Unicorn Man

Aid workers are not unicorns… some of them don’t even have magic powers

Whilst of course it is lovely to hear that people are appreciative of what you do, it feels a little disingenuous to allow myself to buy into any kind of ‘saviour complex’ when aid work is paid and very much professionalised. Of course not all reactions are so embarrassingly amenable. Once in a nightclub a guy I was convinced I was going home with reacted with, ‘Ugh, you’re not one of those people that fundraise for orphanages are you? It’s like you just get other people to pay for your holidays to exotic places.’ Taxi. For one.

The reason I flinch before telling people what I do is that everyone has an opinion on it. There’s none of the glassy-eyed incomprehension evoked by saying you’re a ‘process and systems analyst’ followed by a swift move onto number of siblings. By its nature, aid work is in the headlines that people read every day; from earthquakes in Nepal, to conflict in Yemen, to the largest number of refugees in Europe since the Second World War. Based on their reading that day people can see you as anything from a do-gooder, a missionary, an accessory to war mongering or a diverter of funds from those in your home country that also need support. The truth is aid workers are just normal people trying to negotiate a sector with a lot of strange quirks, frustrating oddities and unique complexities hoping they can help a few people that need it along the way, and a bit like Major Tom in his spaceship looking down at planet Earth, I often struggle to figure it out. This blog is my observations of it and attempts to explain it, in my own words, as a normal person navigating a not so normal world.