Syria: Five Years On

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Buffer Break

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

Guest Blog 1: Happy Thinking Day

The blog below is the first in what I hope will become a regular occurrence; a guest blog from a fellow aid worker. If you have a story you want to share, send it to


Today is World Thinking Day. That might not mean much to you, unless you are one of over 10 million worldwide members of Girlguiding. You know the guides; girl guides, girl scouts, the Blue Knicker Brigade (no connection to the UN, also of blue knickered-brigade fame) and other less flattering names. What is the first thing that comes to mind when you think of them? Baking cakes? Sewing? Selling cookies? Other activities involving ovens and a lot of sugar? For me, the first thing that comes to mind is gratitude. Thank you Girlguiding, for being the organisation that gave me the skills I needed to work in humanitarianism.

Here, I am not referring to an ability to cook, clean or sew (although I did make a Victoria sponge on an open fire in Jijiga. Impressive, eh? It didn’t taste so great though) but instead to Girlguiding’s ability to challenge young women and support them to develop their confidence to become whatever they want.

Guiding gets a bad rap in the UK.  It’s seen as a bit geeky, or a bit like a younger version of the Women’s Institute (hence all the cake references, I guess…) but for me, it was a haven. To have somewhere to go where I could really be myself was like paradise to an 11-year old, slightly awkward girl. But more than that, the skills I learnt as a Guide and as a leader within the organisation have been invaluable in my current career. On my first ever Guide camp, it rained. I’m from Manchester, so when I say it rained, IT RAINED. The downpour was so heavy and consistent that we had to dig trenches around our tents to stop them from flooding. I remember my slightly panicked Guide leader saying, ‘It’s not always as bad as this! You will try camping again, won’t you?’ But I was already in my element. Little did I know at that point in time that over ten years later, I would be using the same trench building skills to ensure I had a dry bed for the night in Dadaab, or to help Syrian families in Jordan divert floodwater from their tented homes. When I became a leader and started taking my own girls to camp, my default role was First Aider, which included the glamorous task of emptying the chemical toilet. Perhaps it was the nostalgic smell of faeces in the morning that initially spurred my desire to work on water and sanitation projects…  It also meant that I became less squeamish and learnt to keep a cool head when girls vomited, accidentally mistook their hand for the wood they were chopping with the axe, or sustained puncture wounds from discarded nails by climbing on the woodpile. On second thoughts, I got a little squeamish on that last one. I learnt I enjoyed being outside, I could cope without a wash every day, I didn’t mind being cold and damp, or hot and bothered if it meant I could do something a bit out of the ordinary.

I also owe to Guiding a skill that I use every day in my role as a Community Mobiliser; facilitation. At 16, my Leader encouraged me to apply to be part of a group of young women that organised a national youth conference. Here, I learnt to facilitate sessions in which participants tackled issues both within and outside of Guiding, shaping the direction of the organisation. At 19, I did this at a World Youth Forum, with participants from all over the world, having my session simultaneously translated into French. Stick that in your mock UN. These incredible experiences made me confident that I didn’t need to know all the answers to be able to bring about a change, that the collective ideas of people could give solutions that I, or – fast-forwarding to my current role – my humanitarian organisation could never think of alone. My experience in Guiding formed my core approach to my work.

Later on, I was selected to work with a group of young women to deliver a short development project in Bangladesh, and then another a year later in Belarus. My experiences in both places remained so vividly in my mind – that poverty shouted at you from every corner in Bangladesh, and that Belarus was a starker side of Europe that I didn’t dream existed – that they made my everyday work in an office seem meaningless, a feeling that stayed with me for nearly ten years. When I decided to act on my feelings and move into the humanitarian sector, Guiding again came to my support and gave me my break. Through contacts, I was able to link up with a charity in Madagascar to develop a hygiene promotion training for – guess who – Guide and Scout leaders. In many countries, Guides are a driving force for development. Margaret Mead once said, ‘Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world; indeed, it’s the only thing that ever has,’ and I think about this every time I think of Guides around the world tackling problems like health, education, the environment and women’s rights and empowerment. Except there’s 10 million of them – 10 million! 64,000 in the UK alone – and if a small group of people can change the world, imagine what 10 million active, engaged and empowered women wearing blue knickers can achieve.

I bet by now you are thinking, ‘well, I went to Guides and the most we did was cook a marshmallow on a tea light.’ I hear that a lot – especially marshmallows and tea lights – but my experience in the organisation is not unique. There is a common thread that runs through mine and my guiding friend’s stories; the support of other women who see your potential and want you to grow, and give their time, their effort and their support for you to do just that.

On World Thinking Day, members of the World Association of Girl Guides and Girl Scouts take time to think of each other and reflect upon what being a Guide means to them. This Thinking Day, I reflect back on my career in humanitarianism and I see just how much I have to thank Girlguiding for. So thank you to my sisters in Guiding that pushed me, challenged me and believed I could do it; that never told me, ‘you can’t’ or ‘don’t try.’ I owe you my career. I am thinking of you all today – happy Thinking Day.

Ah, L’Amour

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

How to Build a Humanitarian #3: We are Ready for Take Off!

Packed bags? Check. Tickets and visa? Check. An air of smugness that you are on your way to change the world whilst everyone else around you is on the way to irrevocably damage their skin in Marbella? Super check.  You are finally on your way; so begins a life of dashing from one emergency to the next, travelling the world and channelling that effortless, celebrity ’12 hours plane fresh’ chic whilst doing so.

There is the preconception that jobs involving a lot of air travel are glamorous. They are, most definitely, not.

Unless you can swing yourself a UN job with an accompanying blue passport, the average humanitarian worker will accumulate an equal amount of stress in travelling to their new work destination as they do living in said location for an extended period. That’s because you’re not going where the world wants to go – unless you’re currently working on the refugee crisis in Greece, in which case, all other aid workers are jealous of you – you’re going to the field. There are no sun loungers in the field, and your cramped, smelly 12 hour flight will be the first step in making you realise that.

Firstly, you realise that there are airlines out there that you had never even heard of before. I recently had the joy of travelling with Royal Air Maroc, the national airline of Morocco, that well known luxury airline carrier… Prior to taking my flight, my humanitarian buddies prepped me by regaling their stories of their special experiences with the airline; being given used blankets full of someone else’s biscuit crumbs being just one of them. The flight itself was absolutely fine, but the meal had to be the worst airline meal I have ever encountered, even worse than when terrible turbulence meant my croissant ended up in my neighbour’s hair on an Air Brussels flight. When my ‘vegetarian option’ arrived – a vegetarian aid worker? I know, I’m a walking cliché – it consisted of three slices of carrot, three green beans, three slices of courgette and a bread roll. Sure, it can be tricky to get flavours right in pre-packaged food, but really, that is just pure laziness.

To make my experience all the more special, I came back from a toilet visit to find a knarled, dry, old lady’s foot perched on my arm rest. She seemingly thought it was ok to put her trotter through the gap in the seats to rub her fungus filled digits where my elbow should be perched. Barely disguising my horror, I asked her – politely – if she could move her foot. She did. By around 5 cm. There were two ways this was going to go: either I had to suck it up and share my seat with the foot, or I had to throw myself out of the plane. Instead, I opted to be honest, asking her if she could remove her foot completely as it made me feel uncomfortable. To my surprise, she smiled and took her foot away. So there are nice people in the world; or maybe people are only nice after they’ve marked your territory with their crusty feet. Possibly the same applies to armpits, drooling heads and excessive body mass, because all of these things have invaded my personal space on a plane at some point during my travels.

For all that grumbling, sometimes the impossible happens. You reach the gate and the attendant tells you that your seat has been changed and your new boarding pass has a single digit number. Ultimate score – the absolutely free upgrade. This has only ever happened to me once, and I’m not even sure how it happened; maybe the airline took pity on my 24-hours-travelled-so-far state, but whatever the reason, it. Was. Awesome. Yet, even there, I encountered a dilemma. This being the first time I had ever travelled business class, I wanted to rinse that experience for everything it was worth. Fully reclining chair? Yes please. Champagne with my meal. Damn right. Bradley Cooper as my in-flight entertainment? Don’t even ask; just bring him with the champagne. However, an overwhelming part of me felt like I had to behave as if I was born for business class: ‘Oh this is de rigeur dah-ling! One would never dream of flying any other way! Come on Bradley, be game!’ Needless to say I wasn’t fooling anyone; by the time I requested my 5th glass of champagne, everyone on the right side of the curtain had my card marked as a first timer.

The flight is just the start. When flying to Sierra Leone, my organisation sent me a 4 page (4 PAGE!) document on how to navigate Lungi airport without ending up in prison, in hospital or dumped somewhere in the sea. When arriving at Tacloban in the Philippines, the baggage carousel was typhoon-damaged and the replacement was a general scrum when the bags were unloaded. Airports in the field tend not to come with electricity, organisation or manners, another stark reminder that this is not Club Tropicana, and the drinks are most definitely not free (in fact, they’re probably banned).

But, budding aid worker, you made it; you have arrived and now the real work begins.

How to Build a Humanitarian #2: A Tidy Little Package

So you finally made it in and you’re heading off on that all important first field deployment. The first challenge encountered by any novice humanitarian is that of packing the necessary ingredients for survival into a suitcase that may need to conform to an extremely low weight allowance; the allowance on some UNHAS flights is 16 kilos. That is approximately the weight of my hiking boots and half a bottle of shampoo. For some flights they even weigh you whilst you hold your suitcase, but at least you can always blame that extra Christmas weight on the ‘resource manuals’ you’re lugging half way across the world.

The challenge comes from striking the balance between wanting to look tough and taking the bare necessities for clothing and bathing only, and that – wherever you are moving to – may become your home for anything between three months to three years. I have made both mistakes of packing too lightly and packing as if I was emigrating. For my first deployment, I packed as if I would need to transport all my belongings on my back at a moment’s notice (it was a war zone after all), only to arrive to a relatively comfortable apartment where my flatmate had stationed at least two pair of high heels on the shoe rack. Not to be fazed, on my next deployment, I packed some more frivolous items – a ‘going out’ top, a pair of heeled sandals, mascara (I take that last one back; it is not frivolous. It is the only item that prevents near constant accusations of ‘oh, you look ill/so tired’) – only to have them lie unloved and unused for my two month deployment because… well, I didn’t get too many opportunities to hit the clubs in Sudan.

Then comes the decision: one case or two (or even, yes I have seen it, three or four). Again, I have tried solo-casing and multiple-casing, and there again I can’t seem to get it right. If I bring multiple cases, usually the reaction from co-workers is, ‘Oh my god, how long are you planning to stay for?!’ If I bring one case, the reaction is, ‘is that it?!’ One sure fire way to win is to seek out another traveller who has more luggage than you and stand next to them, that way you’ll always look to be travelling light(er).

The Guardian ran a series last year entitled, ‘Humanitarian workers; show us what you’re packing’ which asked aid workers to share the contents of a typical set of luggage. A friend of mine at the time suggested that I write in, but at that point, I hadn’t yet honed my packing prowess. In fact, I still haven’t, but here are some useful hints for packing that I can pass along:

  1. Electricals: I tend to find that roughly 30-40% of my bag is taken up by electricals; work laptop, personal laptop (my work laptop isn’t allowed fun life-essential software like iTunes), hard drive(s), mini speaker, kindle, iPhone, epilator (for those areas where a decent waxing service is nowhere to be found). This might seem a little strange since most places may not have a decent supply of electricity, but as our lives become more and more digitalised, so does my suitcase. At some point someone will invent a device that can do all of these things together (an epilating iPhone? I could be the next Steve Jobs…) so that I can reclaim more space for…
  2. Food: I don’t care how much you enjoy the local cuisine, there will come a point on your deployment where you will just need something in your mouth that reminds you of home. Hopefully that will be an item of food and not anything more sinister. Another 10-20% of my case is taken up with my emergency snack supply, a selection of food items from home that require minimal cooking but provide maximum comfort. Usually crisps. I love crisps. There is a word of warning with this however; with limited snacks comes great responsibility to ration these for the times when you genuinely need them. Otherwise you will gorge yourself on the first night and remain in a taste bud wasteland for the remainder of your deployment.
  3. Clothes: These now make up a surprisingly small percentage of my case, maybe about the same as food, however, they are the item that have taken me the longest to perfect. The trick is to pack clothes that work for the context, the climate and the work, AND that say serious aid worker by day, party by night. As you can imagine, very few women’s clothes outlets cater to a market so niche. The one item of clothing you absolutely need is a scarf. It’s a towel, a blanket, it covers your head, it acts as a sarong, and, most helpfully, it can act as a scarf.
  4. Toiletries: being a woman with female relatives, I have a box at home that is full of a random accumulation of travel size toiletries. No one is actually sure where they came from, but one thing is for certain, however many I use, the content of that box never actually seems to decrease. This is a handy thing, since it means I can bring just enough to tide me over until I can purchase full size equivalents in the country I am travelling to. Sometimes this plan goes terribly wrong and I end up washing my hair with Dettol soap for eight weeks.
  5. Photos: No matter where I am going I bring pictures of my family and friends. I know that I could look at these on Facebook, but it’s not the same. Sometimes, these photos never even make it out of my bag (usually this is in deployments where there are no walls to stick them up on), but it is comforting to have them there.

So pack well, aid-work padawan. And don’t forget that scarf.

The Holy Trinity of Guilt

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

The Father: Being catholic.

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

The Son: I am a woman.

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

Damn good job

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

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


The Final Straw: I am a humanitarian.

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

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

How to Build a Humanitarian #1 Do you want this? I mean, REALLY want this?

If we’re going to talk about the oddities of aid work, then the process of actually becoming an aid worker is probably a good place to start. In the normal world – bear with me on this one; as we stare down the still smoking barrel of the 2008 financial crisis I know job seeking for many people around the world is no longer ‘normal’. Suspend your disbelief for just a short period of time – the process goes something like: person wants job; person searches for said job; person finds and applies for job; person is interviewed and is successful; person rejoices briefly, then comes to realise this is not what they expected at all and the process begins again.

So you want to be an aid worker? Great! Start your search… except there is no job listing on Total Jobs for ‘humanitarian aid worker’.  So where do you start?


Your ability to remain charming whilst demolishing cakes might just land you that dream job…

A large part of getting into the humanitarian sector is navigating the ‘Catch 22’ situation. The Catch 22 situation is explained thus: you want a humanitarian job, but all the roles require you to have experience. You can’t get any experience because no one will take you on in a humanitarian organisation without any. When I first tried to enter the mystical world of humanitarianism, I was fairly confident about my transferable skills; I had managed people, I had managed projects, I had worked as part of an international team, I’d even done the whole volun-tourism thing, god damn it! But there was never any biting when I cast my rod into the humanitarian jobs pond. I was undeterred; I had previously worked for recruitment companies and so I pestered every organisation I applied to for feedback on my applications and where I was going wrong. Luckily, one replied and set me straight. ‘Humanitarianism is a very professionalised field,’ they told me, ‘most of our applicants have undergraduate or masters degrees in a subject related to the sector, such as development studies or international relations.’ On my last check, a BA in Media Studies wasn’t going to cut it. Strike 1.

Then there is the route of the – usually unpaid – internship. When I finally plucked up the courage to leave my secure job and head back to university to study the thing I actually wanted to do, the hot topic between classmates was how to get an internship at an organisation that could inch you closer to the elusive field. One discussion we often had was around how the majority of humanitarian internships were unpaid or poorly paid, and located mainly in London, thus pricing a lot of students (who had just spent all their available moola on a hugely expensive degree course and therefore were looking to lessen the figures behind that minus sign on their overdraft as quickly as possible) out of the market. We discussed how those students that were being priced out – typically from more working class or lower middle class families, typically northern, typically bright, able and ambitious – from getting that first step into the humanitarian sector by the lack of remuneration and the high costs of living in London. Strike 2.

Then there is the old chestnut, ‘it’s not what you know, but who you know’ and in my case this turned out to be my golden opportunity. Having helped people previously to find their dream job as a recruitment consultant, I knew that networking could play a big role in helping to get a foot in the door. And I networked my arse off, even with people that didn’t want to be networked with (quite a lot actually). I spoke to everyone and anyone that might know of an opportunity and then one day, after a conference, I sat stuffing a muffin into my face and chatting absent-mindedly with one of the presenters. Apparently my muffin stuffin’ abilities impressed, or perhaps a little of what I said between mouthfuls, because after a few weeks, she contacted me and offered me a trial field role. Home run.

Speaking to a friend of mine recently, he told me the thing that annoyed him most about telling people what he did was that their reaction was typically, ‘I’m thinking of doing what you do, you know? I’d really just like to go out there and help people.’ It annoyed him, because he, like me, had worked, studied, scrimped and saved for years to finally get into an international humanitarian job, and that for people to think it easy was utterly infuriating. So, if becoming an aid worker is what you want to do, excellent, I applaud you, come and join this crazy ship, but just be sure you want it enough to jump through the hoops to get there.

Equality is not always realistic. Perhaps fairness is?

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

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

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

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

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