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.

hilux_invincible_a

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.

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.

MHM

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.

Why is it such a crime to be an emotional humanitarian?

I’m an emotional person. My star-sign is Cancer, who are apparently notoriously emotional; all crabby and feisty claws on the outside with a soft underbelly, vulnerable to harsh words and fishmonger’s knives. For as long as I remember I’ve been that way; it’s a part of myself that I have found hard to accept as anything but weak for a very long time.

Humanitarians don’t cry. Humanitarians see other people suffering all day long and remain impassive. Humanitarians listen to strangers, their co-workers, their lovers and their friends describe the turmoil and the torment they have suffered at the hands of others, and the hands of Mother Nature, and in people’s stories and remain impassive. They have a job to do, and that job is professional. There’s no room for crying. To cry is to be emotional, and to be emotional is to be unprofessional, and to be unprofessional is to fail.

One evening, a colleague of mine and I stood on a balcony in Madagascar admiring the beautiful views across the rooftops of Antananarivo. After a few moments I noticed tears falling down his face. I asked him what was wrong, and he told me that he was thinking that it wasn’t fair for a country with such beauty and with such inspiring, intelligent people as our Malagasy colleagues to know such poverty; For its people to be denied opportunities that they so richly deserved simply because of the failings of their systems, their climate and their leaders. He was crying because the world was unfair on a colossal level and Madagascar screamed the fact into his face for the first time in his life.

A friend once told me how she had undertaken anthropology work in Vietnam. She recalled days sat with women describing their lives during the war and their lives now, and she wept as they told her their stories. She told me that some of the stories they told her made her feel so desperate to take their pain away, so saddened about the cruelties men can inflict on each other, there was no other way to process the information except through her tears.

I cried when a mother in Syria carrying her child came over to me to ask if I could provide baby milk. I told her that I couldn’t but asked how old her child was so that I could refer her to a service that could support her. She told me her child was three, but her 3-year old was smaller than my one year old nephew. Her baby was skinny, disinterested in interaction and terribly pale. With my colleagues we walked them to an infant and young child feeding clinic – the only one we knew of – which was closed for the day. As the mother walked away from me, I felt as though I had been punched and I cried, because I couldn’t be professional and do my job to help.

I cried after undertaking an assessment in Liberia of the worst slum I have ever seen in my life. I was asked to provide emergency sanitation for families quarantined as possible Ebola contacts. I worked with colleagues through the night to devise a response plan and pass it through the various echelons of decision making. I cried when I was told no, we could not respond, because of larger organisational considerations that I was not – and would not be – party to.

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If you want to be a humanitarian, best get yourself a stunt double for the emotional parts (credit: memegenerator)

I cried when after months of work supporting Jordanian colleagues to design and create a children’s club, I was invited to a caravan one afternoon to find 30 small boys, dressed in uniform t-shirts and hats enjoying a game about water conservation. I was overwhelmed with joy, both for the children who loved their t-shirts but were too busy enjoying the activities to talk to me much, and for my colleagues who saw their hard work translate into something powerful and real.

These people – including myself – were not unprofessional, nor were they weak. They were being human. Because I cry, I’m labelled as being ‘too emotional’. I’ve been given this feedback multiple times by the same person; my manager. It seems that if I connect emotionally with the work I’m doing – out of sorrow, out of frustration, out of empathy, or out of sheer joy – I’m not performing well in my job.

I accept that I am an emotional person, and I also know that I’m fucking strong. I will fight my corner like a one-eared tom cat, and the corner of people I love – hell, the corner of people I’ve only met once on an assessment – until I’m so frustrated by apathy, bureaucracy and ineptitude the only outlet my feelings can manage is through hot and angry tears running down my face. If you’ve bought me to tears you can bet that you have exhausted the very last of my strength and resilience. Congratulations.

Too often I hear from colleagues that displaying their emotions is considered negative, and too often I hear that emotions rise up when individuals are so frustrated with their situation, there is no other outlet. A friend told me recently at an event that she didn’t want to do any presentations, because if she did she, ‘may start crying out of sheer frustration and anger.’ How is this perceived a healthier situation than a few tears?

There has been significant attention paid over the past couple of years to the state of humanitarian workers’ mental health, and the amount of support they receive for processing distressing sights, sounds and stories every day. Not surprisingly, most studies have found that they do not receive adequate support, but in a context where to connect and display emotions is deemed to be weak, or even unprofessional, it is unsurprising that many humanitarians keep their emotions locked down, only to have them explode at a later and – most likely – highly inappropriate point in time.

We need to stop the culture of associating emotion with weakness. Of course we must maintain professionalism, but we should remind ourselves that we too are human beings, and human beings are emotional buggers who need to feel listened to, appreciated and sometimes need to have a little cry. We are experts at writing guidelines to ensure we respect the emotions of the people affected by conflicts and disasters we work with, but we seem to fail at translating those to each other. If I ever found myself requiring humanitarian assistance, I would want to speak with someone who tried to connect to how I was feeling, rather than a cold, emotionless, humanitaro-bot.

The clue is in the title. Humanitarian. Our emotions are the things that connect us to the people around us. If we don’t have that, what do we have?

Categories of Aid Worker

This last week, I attended a training (and I also went a-dashing; my manager must have read my last blog and taken the non-too-subtle hint implied in the title). I was overjoyed to spend my week with fifteen other humanitarians, all of whom were mad as a box of frogs.

You know that saying, the one that bosses boom out with a slap on the back trying to be funny, or slightly nervous HR ladies murmur on your first day in a new office, ‘You don’t have to be mad to work here, but it helps!’ That is the motto of the humanitarian world. Something is a little bit funny in the minds of humanitarian workers; their internal wires were fused too far away from the brakes and far too close to the big red button with the sign saying ‘do NOT push’. As a result on any deployment you are likely to encounter some very, delightfully odd people.

Categories

You don’t have to be mad to work here, but it helps! Credit: Tumblr

Some examples? OK, well there was the engineer in Dadaab who spent all of his wages on importing the biggest widescreen TV I have ever seen so that he could watch British Premier League matches. Not so odd? He did this at the expense of having any other furniture, so all games were watched sat on a bare concrete floor. Then there was the engineer who would help me with late night write-ups of discussion groups by using a different voice or accent for each respondent. How we had Scottish, Welsh and Russians in a Somali refugee camp I have no idea. Or the engineer in Djibouti who commandeered my driving licence to hire a Land Cruiser to drive through a salt lake, despite the picture showing a brown-haired female, rather than a blonde, bearded man. Wait… I’m seeing a pattern developing here…

There is a long-established and well recognised categorisation of aid workers that labels individuals as missionaries, mercenaries or misfits. Or perhaps it’s more of an evolution than a categorisation… but I know a few people that skipped the first two stages if that’s the case. If you’re a missionary, you’re likely to be a new starter, full of over-zealous gleam and hope that you can change the world without that nasty business of getting eaten by the locals (that’s ACTUAL missionaries, like years ago. It rarely happens now). You will preach the good word of Sphere to the non-believers (like militaries and governments) recruiting enthusiastic devotees to worship at the shrine of the Cluster (coordination meetings in an upmarket hotel). But, after a period of dedication, your faith may start to waiver. Your prayers for assessment data, flexible funding and prompt decision making go unanswered and you cry alone in the darkness (because the solar lights are being held in the port until the overlords will them out). It is at this point, you may begin to transform into a mercenary. Mercenaries are the aid workers going through the motions. They’re highly skilled with great experience, but with perhaps a tad too much of both which leaves them feeling jaded. These are your cynical bastards; they’re unlikely to find one element of a programme they can’t complain about. However, for the true mercenary, money and status are their primary motivators, and countless crushed wings of little missionary butterflies twitch under their boots whilst they stomp their way to fulfill selfish ambitions, losing sight of the bigger picture. Woah, ok, got caught up a bit there. However, not all aid workers end up that way (hurrah); some become misfits. Misfits have got the experience, got the devotion, but might be a couple of sandwiches short of a picnic. These are the best kinds of humanitarians; they care, but they don’t take their own life too seriously. They immerse themselves into the job and the context, often with the result of extremely poor fashion judgements. Sometimes, misfits are called ‘lifers’, because they’re in the sector – or more accurately in the field – for life. The hallowed desk job holds no allure for the misfit.

On the training I attended, surrounded by wonderful oddballs, we mused on the ‘types’ of humanitarian workers. We were in the pub after a day of being shot at, driving into minefields, tackling sucking chest wounds, and – in general – having a bloody awesome day, discussing how much fun it had all been (I hasten to add that this was all simulated. There was no military attack in rural Shropshire last week. The pub wasn’t simulated though; that shit was real). It struck us then that most normal people would not consider simulated shootings, minefields and sucking chest wounds as a fun Thursday. We wondered what drove us to seek out those experiences. One of the group explained that once he had been posted to Tanzania, and spent his entire deployment on edge because it was ‘too nice.’ One of the collective surmised, ‘I think that’s just aid workers, you’re either unstable or you become that way.’

I’m not sure what type of aid worker I am. My faith has certainly wavered too far for me to be a missionary, but I like to think that my main motivator is still the humanitarian imperative of wanting to save people’s lives and ease their suffering. I guess that leaves me with misfit. I’m happy with that.

I’m Bored.

Close on the heels of those misty-eyed looks from strangers when admitting what you do for a job, is the assumption – by those same strangers – that your life consists of endless helicopter rides, trekking across mountains, surviving on WFP rice rations or passionately shouting down a telephone, ‘Damn it man, we need those latrine slabs and we need them now!’ whilst ISIS storm your compound.

The truth is; aid work is not always exciting.

Whenever I stop to re-assess my job (which recently has been more than a healthy amount), I am reminded of those memes that people make that go along the lines of, ‘what my friends/parents/society/tax-man (that last one for aid workers is probably lounging under a palm tree waving two fingers in the air) think I do’, with a final ‘what it’s really like’. What would you think is the final picture for humanitarians? Digging with bear hands into an earthquake collapsed building? Trekking across a mountain covered in bags of plumpy nut? Pointing with an air of authority whilst holding a clip board and wearing a multi-pocketed, multi-logo embossed gilet? No. Nothing quite so exciting. For humanitarianism, the ‘what it’s really like’ usually consists of a person holding their head in despair whilst surrounded by piles of paperwork and an open laptop displaying the swirly circle of doom on Google chrome.

Bored

That’s not what its really like… that man needs more empty coffee cups and less hair. 

Don’t get me wrong, humanitarianism is exciting for the most part. Its high-stress, high-octane, problem-solving awesomeness.  There are the opportunities to work with incredible people, and to travel to places you would never ordinarily see, not even if you booked your last holiday with Exodus. But that’s not all day, every day.

A lot of time will be spent in meetings. So many meetings. I once spent so much of my week in meetings, my team thought I had been kidnapped. A bit more time is spent shackled to a laptop staring bleary eyed at spreadsheets wondering why finance has coded all the payments for water trucking under ‘kitchen ware’. A bit more time will be spent signing things. If you work in any role where you have budgetary authority, you’re likely to dedicate at least 10% of your entire working time being chased around the office by team mates equipped with blue pens, but woefully inadequate knowledge of budget codes.

But no part of aid work, and I mean literally, no part, beats the boredom of “working from home.” I am currently “working from home”. It is force of habit for me to write this in quotation marks, since everyone knows “working from home” entails lying in your pyjamas on the couch watching Homes under the Hammer whilst occasionally checking your work emails on your phone (praise the lord for mobile technology; it saves having to be anything other than horizontal whilst “working from home”). As a rapid response person, my job is supposedly sees me dashing around between countries, but sometimes there is nowhere to dash to, so instead you sit on the sidelines like the slightly strange kid that always got picked last for the rounders team (ah, memories).

There is still work to be done; however, that work is often so mind-numbingly, spirit-crushingly boring it can induce a level of existential angst hitherto unconsidered by the average humanitarian worker, particularly those who thrive on the go-go-go of an emergency environment. It is during these periods that I have a tendency to become very emotional, especially when my opportunities to go back to the field get cancelled. Sometimes my parents hope they can cure my boredom with small consolation prizes, leading to interesting new realms of sibling rivalry:

Me: ‘Do you like my new pyjamas?’ My sister: ‘I want new pyjamas!’ My Mum: ‘Well, when your deployment to Yemen gets cancelled, you can have new pyjamas too’

I canvassed opinion on Aidwork Oddity’s new Facebook page (that’s right, we’re on Facebook! Self-plug!) and apparently, if I can get through working at home without eating too many biscuits, I’m already crushing it. Within the last two weeks, I don’t think there has been a biscuit on the Tesco aisle that I haven’t sampled. Don’t worry, I did take them to the till and pay for them first.

I suppose I should look on the positive side: I’ve been able to catch up on A LOT of day time telly when waiting for work inspiration to strike, including Jeremy Kyle. Watching that programme exposes viewers to a lot of conflict and distressing sights, like ill fitting tracksuits, so I guess I found it vaguely comforting. My manager tells me I should enjoy the time working on the go-slow to relax and prepare for my next deployment; it bodes well for our working relationship that she clearly hasn’t yet figured out that I’m a highly-strung workaholic occupying a normal person body suit.

Until there is more news about where I’m going next, I’m stuck in a working from home boredom hell. I’ve got to pray that a space opens up for dashing somewhere pretty soon. If I have to do a second round of the biscuit aisle, I’m not sure I’ll fit in the airplane seat.

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How to Build a Humanitarian #4: New Digs

Now that you managed to drag your belongings a few thousand miles, you’re going to need somewhere to put your suitcase while you go off to save the world. Based on my own experiences to date, I am pleased to offer you this fine selection of humanitarian properties for your perusal:

 

Property one: The Guest House

Key features: Multiple bedrooms, eccentric layout, sense of deluded grandeur.

New digs 4

‘Are you trying to tell me, old chap, that your place doesn’t have a medieval wine cellar?’ Credit: AidworkOddity

The Guest House is an actual house, maybe even with a garden, and has the potential to go in one of two directions, each closely associated with how far up the pay scale you are. The first is ridiculously grand, possibly previously owned by someone who made their money doing seriously bad things (like diamond mining, or slavery) and now inhabited by those of P4 status or above. This style of guest house will often have outbuildings inhabited by a myriad of ‘staff’ designed to serve the inhabitants – and most likely their wife and bratty children’s – exacting needs. The more likely scenario for you – the fledgling aid worker – is an old, rambling, probably mildewed and frayed around the edges house which you share with a minimum of four other colleagues, one of whom will resolutely refuse to leave their bedroom for any form of socialisation. The property may have resident dogs and/or bats, one of which will almost certainly become pregnant during your stay there. This style of property also has at least one utterly bizarre room, of which no-one can determine its original purpose. Your house is likely to be miles away from anywhere convenient and other colleagues and friends and probably coupled with a shambolic fleet team who pick you up for grocery shopping at 1:30 am.

Property two: The Apartment

Key features: Your neighbours are MSF and your office

New digs 3

Excellent, this apartment comes with a parking space! Credit: AidworkOddity

The apartment is ideal for the fledgling aid worker. Small enough that you can get to know your flatmate(s) really well; which is either fantastic, and you become inseparable buddies, turning even a run of the mill yoga session into a four hour hysterical laughathon, or means you spend very little time in your own apartment because the person you live with is an out and out weirdo. The saving grace for the second inevitability is that the cool guy from logistics and that pretty hot food security man live just upstairs and love nothing more than when you rock up with some wine, whiskey or your latest attempt at cooking with local produce. If you get bored of hanging with your own colleagues, chances are that some folks from other NGOs also inhabit the same apartment block, because there is nothing that security advisors love more than putting theirs and other people’s eggs in one easily targetable basket. The downsides of the apartment are that it may also be only one flight of stairs up from your office, adding new depth of meaning to the phrase ‘chained to your desk’. It is also unlikely to be finished, and carries a high probability of a strange Turkish man showing up at 11:30pm wanting to install central heating.

Property three: The Container

Key features: similar to those of the tent, with the added bonus of at least being able to hear when someone is falling into your walls.

New Digs 2

The Deluxe Model: Complete with grass roof to promote even more spaces for pests to breed. Credit: AidworkOddity

Available exclusively in cohabitation models, unless you are someone very senior or are very good at feigning intense psychological distress at the thought of being in the same room as others, the container is exactly what it says on the tin (Haha). A shipping container on concrete blocks with some beds put inside. The space underneath the container is where the magic happens; sure, it may become infested with rats, or the preferred breeding and birthing site for feral cats, but it can also come in handy as a hiding space if your compound is attacked by ne’er-do-wells.

Property four: the Tent

Key features: Forget about ever being able to have sex or masturbate. Unless you can do it really quietly and with minimal noise against nylon walls. Or you enjoy being watched.

New Digs

Home sweet home: Just watch out for snakes. And mice. And floods. Credit: AidworkOddity

Available in single habitation or, more likely, cohabitation models, the tent is really the best way for the aid worker to get in touch with their surroundings. Unfortunately, their surroundings sometimes include snakes that like to burrow under the tent and bite toes through the groundsheet the following morning. Or mice that shit in your vent flaps leading to a delicate shower of droppings each time you need some more air. More savvy tent owners have learnt to keep all belongings suspended above ground level to ensure their survival against inevitable flooding. Their standardised designs can also make finding your own tent a little tricky, especially if you have been enjoying a few drinks with friends in the evening. One wrong turn can find you inadvertently face to face with the penis of a man you are due to train on M&E the next day.

Mystery property: The Hospital Floor

Key features: Sanitary, but only if the cleaner remembered their dilutions correctly…

New digs 5

Chuck us a sleeping bag, I can’t handle this commute a day longer. Credit: AidworkOddity

What the mystery property lacks in privacy, comfort and psychological reassurance, it makes up for by its astounding proximity to your workplace; excellent for avoiding that lengthy commute in the mornings. The kitchen is a plastic bag with some overly crispy baguettes and laughing cow cheese, which is perfect for those who don’t have time to clean a larger space. A possible downside is a clause in the agreement that requires residents to pack up their bedding before 6am each morning to allow consultations to take place. Ear plugs or noise cancelling headphones essential.