Sexism on Steroids


Do you need me to explain the picture further? Wait, let me find a man to help me… (credit: Dilbert)

Like me, one of my sister’s friends is an ardent feminist. She works in a male dominated sector, and frequently posts examples of everyday sexism she encounters in her work on Facebook. Recently, these have included such gems as, ‘someone just offered to help me because “It’s a male thing.”’; ‘Just had an entirely unplanned full-on rant at my boss about sending men to all our industry events… AM I INVISIBLE?’; and my personal favourite, ‘Give an idea. Wait for a 20 minute pointless debate. Hear someone else give the exact same idea to universal approval. Make your own gender assumptions here.’

Many women reading this post will be acutely aware that although women have made great strides towards equality, there is still a long way to go. The subjection of women to a set of outdated, social and cultural norms in western culture is so entrenched in our individual and societal fabric that sometimes we don’t even recognise it. Sometimes women do it to themselves without even realising, as I did last week asking for some ‘big strong men’ to carry a 50kg box for me because of, ‘my weedy girl arms.’ However, what has really struck me in my latest deployment is just how much sexism impacts on my everyday work as a humanitarian aid worker, and how much harder I have to work to achieve outcomes with communities and authorities than my male colleagues.

Over the last few weeks, I have been assessing and setting up programme activities in a new area in West Africa. Part of this work is meeting local government and traditional authorities and community representatives. All of these figures – without exception – have been men. Consider now the dynamic of having to influence, negotiate and coordinate with a group of men who ordinarily never – or at most very rarely – consult with women on decision making, let alone a woman who is a complete stranger to the whole system. I consulted with women about their level of influence in community decision making structures and the response was that sometimes they would raise their opinions with their husbands, but not – it seems – any further than that.

You might now think, ah, well, it’s the ‘stranger’ aspect, nothing to do with what is – or rather what isn’t – between your legs, but when I compare the reception that a male colleague received, there was no denying it was a question of sex, and not of origin. I introduced my male counterpart to one of the traditional leaders. I had visited the leader twice before and our conversations had been cordial, friendly and welcoming. On my third visit, this time with my male colleague, instantly the atmosphere changed; I was barely spoken to, my male colleague was showered with compliments (apparently for just being able to say hello and sit in a chair) and instead, I was told to go to look at the leader’s horses, the inference being, to leave the men to talk.

Having worked with communities for several years, I am very conscious of the role of culture and tradition in gender dynamics, and of trying my utmost to set aside my own preconceptions of respect and gender relations when working in a different context to my own upbringing. What never seems to be taken into account by organisations, though, is just how much harder female aid workers have to work in these contexts to develop mutually respectful working relationships with male authority figures, and to be taken seriously by them. It bothers me, that a male colleague gets points for just showing up whereas I have to work extremely hard to validate my place at the table.

There are times when being a woman in a particular working environment is downright dangerous; when I was working in Northern Syria, representatives from the local government, various armed opposition groups and my male colleague shook hands after a successful meeting to site a new IDP camp. Unthinking, I offered my hand around in the group as someone who had also shared in this decision making and success. The group froze the atmosphere suddenly frosty and the meeting adjourned rapidly. In the car travelling back, my Syrian colleague told me, ‘That was so irresponsible; you never offer your hand to a man in this place. What if someone from ISIS saw you? You’ll get us all killed.’ Part of me would still like to believe he was over-reacting, but this is the world female aid workers operate in, where sharing as an equal in a gesture of success with men can be a fatal mark against your name.

The difficulties of operating in male dominated environments out in the field might be one thing, but then female aid workers also have to deal with this mess at home as well. There are a lot of articles detailing sexist treatment at the hands of male colleagues in the sector, and despite the fact that there are more women working in humanitarianism than men overwhelmingly, the top level positions are held by men. At a conference I attended earlier in the month, the inter-agency group for WASH took their places at a table for Q&As, and there was not a single female amongst them. My current deployment is also exposing me to this ‘in-organisation’ sexism; one of my male colleagues feels the need to copy other men – sometimes individuals who are completely irrelevant to the conversation at hand – into emails to me so that they can more fully explain the content to me.

It appears that the discrepancies between male and female aid workers extend to their relationships outside of work as well. In late night discussions with two male colleagues, we discussed our ‘extra-curricular activities’ over the past year. For them, telling a woman about their job seemed to make them irresistible; a magic bullet capable of making any woman see their sensitive caring side. For me, there have been five – yes, five – separate occasions where an interested man had cut all contact after he found out what I did for a living, and this is only in the past year. For women, perhaps male humanitarians conjure up images of strong men saving babies akin to an Athena poster from their youth; for men, maybe female humanitarians conjure up images of independent and career driven women who won’t be around to make your dinner in the evening. I don’t think there was ever an Athena poster for that.

In my own world of cripplingly low self esteem, it has been all too easy to dismiss the sexism I’ve experienced around my job as my own fault – I was doing it wrong; I wasn’t professional enough; people didn’t take me seriously; I just wasn’t good enough at my job to get the results that seemed to come so easily to my male colleagues – but such occurrences have become too frequent for me to continue blaming myself for overwhelming inequality. Since humanitarian organisations pride themselves on factoring gender equality and gender dynamics into their programmes, let them not forget that the needs and efforts of female staff too are different to that of their male colleagues. Organisations need to recognise it, and celebrate that female humanitarians persevere despite the odds.


How to Build a Humanitarian #6: Pick the Right Threads

Now you’re in the field, you want to make sure that your clothes set the right tone; you’re neither strutting your stuff down a Milan catwalk, nor are you readying yourself for a weekend with Bear Grylls.  So how to strike the perfect balance? To give you some ideas, here are some of the common stylings favoured by humanitarians in the centres of fashion that are Jijiga, Port Au Prince and Baghdad…


Wait a second… I have that shirt… why don’t I look like that? Credit: Pintrest

The Stylista:

It doesn’t matter where you are based – be it a cushty head office with shopping complex access, or a temporary camp in the middle of absolutely nowhere – you can guarantee there will be a stylista. A stylista is a guy or a girl who looks effortlessly stylish every. Bloody. Day. Whilst everyone else looks like a cat that accidentally got caught on a washing machine spin cycle – all creased and mangled and matted – the stylista will look like they just stepped out of a changing room with a personal ‘field ready’ shopper. When you study their wardrobe, it’s basically the exact same as yours, it just that somehow, in the mud and the dust and the general filth, they manage to make it look so much better. Sometimes it’s through just small, thoughtful additions like carefully selected dangly earrings, leather work boots with winkle picker toes, or a perfectly coiffed do, but my god, do they look hot. Everyone wants to be a humanitarian stylista; many are called, few are chosen.


The Shirt and Slacks:

A common ‘look’ amongst humanitarians, particularly British ones, or those that had some kind of military/public school exposure. Every day is a new set of chinos and a new shirt, and for ladies, an obligatory scarf (remember HTBH #2 though, a scarf is on your essential packing list, even if only to help you fit in with the Shirt and Slacks crew if you need to). Sometimes the Shirt and Slacks posse try to cross-over with the Stylistas, thinking that the addition of a pair of Converse will win them some bonus points. They won’t.


The Cultural Cross Over:


It’s great, Steve, really it is; I’m just not sure the District Emir will think it’s appropriate for our meeting… (Credit: Harem Pants)

Now I am all for international staff wearing the clothes of their homeland with aplomb and style in whichever location they are working (cultural sensitivities observed of course), but the Cultural Cross Over is not that. This look is all about taking an item of clothing from a culture that is not your own, and wearing it in a whole different context regardless of its appropriateness, but thinking that, ‘well, this is how they wear it in Afghanistan,’ means it’s also appropriate in remote Nigeria. Hareem pants with elephant print picked up on a lad’s holiday in Thailand worn in Yemen? Shalwar Kameeze bought when ‘finding oneself’ in India worn in Greece? West African wax print head wraps worn in a WASH Cluster meeting in Loughborough? A note to the Cultural Cross over crew; it might look good (might being the operative word) when you are in the place that your new threads come from, but apply transference with caution.


The ‘All my non-logo t shirts are in the wash’:

Otherwise known as MSF.


The Multi-pocketed Moron:


No. No. No. No. NO.

The multi-pocketed gilet is scourge of the humanitarian fashion scene. No one really knows how these monstrosities made their cross over from the world of trout fishing to international aid work, but they did and it appears they’re sticking around like the lonely CEO at the Christmas party. The multi-pocketed moron is usually a first timers, or very keen to be associated with a particular organisation – probably because it’s their first time working for any humanitarian organisation. This fashion group go for the practical approach – think hiking boots (when there are no hills), zip off Craghopper trousers (when it’s culturally inappropriate to expose ankles), and sweat wicking mosquito (and women) repellent shirts, possibly with the addition of a Tilley style walking hat. I’m almost certain that there has never been an individual that has at least one item in every single pocket of those things at one time. Possibly the most infuriating thing about the multi-pocketed moron look is that stylistas can pull it off.

Oddity Log: Somewhere in October

It’s been an interesting old week. And I mean interesting in the British use of the word.

Technically, its week two of a new deployment, but since I spent the first week stuck in the capital reading and preparing for one donor meeting, I don’t really think that counts. In the end it turned out that the donor representative was a guy that I had met previously in Sudan, and upon meeting each other at 2pm in a coffee shop, we rapidly concluded that the meeting would have been much better scheduled for 7pm in a pub.

This week, I travelled to my ‘nearly’ field base. I say nearly because it’s the nearest current field base to an area that I am going to assess and try to set up another. But really, the first one is not actually functional. My assessment was delayed because there were no cars, then there was no money, and now it appears we’re not even sure whether the place I am going to work is actually safe for anyone to work in at all. Coupled with that the office has run out of every possible useful thing like paper, printer ink, wifi and oh, I already said money, right? So things are frustratingly slow.

It’s really bloody hot. I am really annoyed about this because when I was last home, I met up with a friend who I’ve only ever seen on deployments before. His reaction on seeing me was, ‘Wow! You look great! It’s so nice to see you in your normal clothes!’ When I jokingly asked if that meant I always looked like shit on deployments, he responded, ‘Well… yes.’ So after that, I tried extra hard to pack a wardrobe that walked that narrow line between ‘field-practical’ and ‘Banana Republic model’. But now, it’s so bloody hot that I want to discard any notion of clothes and sit naked, preferably in some kind of wind tunnel constructed from standing fans, in an homage to a Britney Spears video circa 2003.

Add to that I’ve been on my period and this week it’s been a particularly nasty little fucker. Every so often my reproductive system likes to remind me that my perceived control of my own body is an illusion and that in fact, she’s the boss, by smacking me about with a god-awful one. So I have been enjoying the delights of trying to rapidly, noiselessly sort myself out in the poorly soundproofed toilet attached to the WASH office, without the aid of toilet paper or a bin. Yes, I said next to a WASH office (cue face palm emoji). In fact, me and my manager brainstormed a wish list of things we needed for the office, and toilet paper only came in at number 6 because we are such dedicated humanitarians items for programme function come higher than items for personal hygiene… When I wasn’t running to the loo every two minutes, worried that the inordinate amount of sweat off my arse was in fact leakage, I was sat trying to be nice to people whilst feeling like the Highways Agency was building a new motorway bypass on my lower spine.

I got some bad news this week. A friend and old time flame of mine from some years back had passed away, and although I wasn’t very close to him anymore, it shocked me to think of someone so young and full of life ceasing to be. It made me think a lot about my life and what I’m doing…. would I really look back at this week and think, ‘yeah, I was rocking that shit, I was living my dream’? I feel like for the last month or so I have been treading a line close to a full on breakdown… or at least several prolonged biscuit binge eating sessions. I’m so near tipping over into hiding under duvet territory that I’m not sure how much yoga, meditation or ‘positivity themed’ memes are going to right me up again.


Not the kind of positivity I was looking for, NHS. 

Alongside my 99 other problems, a boy adds one. There is a guy I like, who also likes me, but it’s just not happening. It might be the 6000 miles separating us. It might be the lack of internet connectivity to have a decent conversation and then again, it might be that he’s not actually bothered to ask me how I’m doing in my new post. The answer – in case you are wondering – is ‘not as well as I would be doing if you were actually bothered/interested/at the same stage as me in the relationship forming stakes’. So I am also dealing with my own disappointment that its auf wiedersehen to another eX-Factor hopeful, and hello to the temporary – possibly reproductive system driven – low state that comes with wondering whether you will ever actually have a meaningful relationship when you don’t stay in one location for more than three months.

It’s weeks like this, I’m reminded of the part in one of the Harry Potter’s where Ron claims, ‘One person can’t feel all that at once, they’d explode’, and Hermione quips, ‘Just because you’ve got the emotional range of a teaspoon doesn’t mean we all have’. In this scenario I like to think that Mr. eX-Factor is the emotional-intelligence-deficient teaspoon. I need to give myself a bit of credit, I haven’t exploded yet. To be honest I feel more like on the edge of melting into a sweaty puddle. And as for all of the other nagging stuff that tinkers with my brain when I’m trying to sleep on a mattress on the floor of my Funding Manager’s hotel room… I’m sure it will quieten when I get busy, and instead find another, completely unrelated circumstance in which to reappear, making me look like an utter lunatic. Oh, I do look forward to that day. Until then, I might have to keep a stock of biscuits nearby, just in case.

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?

Did the Humanitarian Summit change anything?

I was planning to write a blog post about the Humanitarian Summit – held on 23-24th May in Istanbul – in the lead up to the actual event, but like so many half-hearted bloggers… I forgot. Now this probably doesn’t bode well for the Summit that I forgot to write about it, but I was thinking and talking about it a lot in the weeks leading up to it taking place. A few things happened in those weeks that made me think about the Summit and whether it was the pivotal moment of humanitarianism that it was hyped up to be.

Firstly, there was the dramatic withdrawal of MSF less than 20 days before the Summit. Now, most humanitarians are aware that MSF aren’t always the most collaborative of NGOs. In fact, during a conversation about the possibility of electronically tagging all aid workers for the sake of easier coordination, a friend and I likened MSF to the one rogue

Angy badger

MSF – the rogue angry badger in the crowd of other badgers (credit: freyafaulkner)

specimen who would – upon release into the wilds – immediately find a stick and prise off the tag, like an obstinate badger or a cat that refuses to wear its glittery collar. However, there is no denying the force of MSF’s voice; as a humanitarian agency they are fearless, they are at the front line and they hold firm to their principle of bearing witness to natural and man-made atrocities as well as responding to them. When they released their statement explaining they would not attend the summit whilst hospitals were being bombed and refugees turned away, there was a collective gasp across the humanitarian world. Their reasons? They did not believe the Summit would address fundamental weaknesses in the humanitarian system, and they did not believe the Summit would hold attending state leaders to their responsibilities to protect their own citizens.

Secondly, there were a series of reports and articles issued in the run up to the Summit with titles such as ‘remake the humanitarian system’ or ‘is the humanitarian system broken?’ calling for major changes to the system. Helpfully, the articles and papers took diametrically opposite views: One paper, ‘Time to Let Go’, released by ODI, sees the ‘formal system’ – the UN, INGOs, ICRC and IFRC – as self-interested and unwilling to diversify, echoing many of the sentiments rising in the lead up to the Summit that the humanitarian system is ‘broken’. Others, including ALNAP and Marc DuBois, claimed that ‘broken’ is an unhelpful label, claiming that placing responsibility for changing what is essentially the political way of the world and who holds the cash, should not have to be something that INGOs have sole responsibility for changing, and noting that the purpose of humanitarian action is ‘to fix the human being, not the system’.

It’s telling that the word most mentioned by participants – recorded by IRIN – for the Summit was ‘expectation’. What were we expecting? That the Summit would cure humanitarianism’s woes and bring forth a new era in which humanitarian and development actors drink tea under rainbows rather than scowling at each other over separated funding streams? That the Summit would influence the only G7 member in attendance – Angela Merkel – to get on the blower to Dave, Obama and her mate Vlad to say, ‘hey guys, this summit made me realise we’ve got to stop messing other people’s countries up and then not really caring what happens, apart from whether they still want to buy our guns’? Or that the same Angela Merkel would call up the different leaders of the EU to say, ‘hey guys, let’s cut refugees some slack, right? I know we’ve got our own issues, but hey, we’re kinda mixed up in causing theirs… you should have heard the chats I just had with Dave and Vlad!’?  Perhaps we should be expecting a bill for Angela Merkel’s phone calls (It makes me giggle childishly to think that Angela Merkel starts her conversations, ‘hey guys’, and maybe ends them with the high-pitched ‘byeeeeee!’ – the curse of all professional women).

The summary video on the Summit’s website looks a bit like a BBC attempt at mashing together a summary of a G7 Summit meeting, a UN conference and a United Colours of Benetton advert. If  there was a clip of Beyonce singing ‘I was here’, they would have nailed it, but instead they opted for some dubious actor types carrying what appear to be bin bags around a conference room. One interviewee notes that this is the moment to put together a plan to really do things differently; another says it’s their opportunity to speak to people face to face, not as a beneficiary but to be seen as mothers, sisters, brothers. I wonder how much time they had to address their concerns directly to one of the handful of world leaders who attended the conference… One says he hopes this time we would not only commit, but hold ourselves to those commitments.

So what did we commit ourselves to? Apparently over 1,500 different things. I really hope they have a stellar programme manager on board because setting that work plan is going to be a nightmare! But, let’s go back to our expectations, did we achieve anything? Well, we didn’t get much in the way of political commitments to end conflicts because… well, no one with any power to do that really showed up (no, I’m not forgetting Angela. Thanks Angela). We didn’t get a better deal for refugees, but we are ‘going to pursue a new approach’, which is sufficiently vague to hopefully keep people quiet for a bit until they realise it doesn’t mean anything. What about the rainbows and tea? Well, we have now a new way of working that will break down silos between development and humanitarian action, but the problem is, everyone spent too much time at the side events and sneaking out to sightsee in Istanbul and forgot to articulate what that actually is.

I am probably being too flippant; there were gains made in the Humanitarian Summit – commitments for more locally driven responses (including a Grand Bargain to give 25% of aid to local responders rather than INGOs) and a commitment to give more for education in humanitarian crisis – but after months of planning, millions of dollars and an extremely high telephone bill for Merkel, we still have the question, so what’s next?

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.