Security is only skin deep?

As is my wont, I disappeared for a while. Sorry about that. A rather long and margarita filled holiday might have had something to do with it. But now that I’m back, I’m going to write something that might possibly be a bit controversial, and about a subject that provokes a lot of strong opinions.

I’m currently working in what humanitarians lovingly call an ‘insecure’ environment, which basically means, ‘place where people are trying to blow each other up and shoot each other on a day to day basis.’ Security incidents are rigorously monitored, which results in delightful half-hourly skype ‘pings’ as news of events unfold. Some field locations are ‘safer’ than others; I put safer in quotation marks since the location considered safest, and the location of the head office, is the one which receives the majority of security incidents, but hey, I’m not a security professional so maybe there’s some secret equation that I don’t know about. Some locations are more remote and closer to front lines between armed groups. I work in one such of these field offices, and there is one other such field office in the North.

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Maybe we should just stick more signs on people and things to make them safer? [credit: ACT Alliance]

This week two of our team have been asked to change their locations to the Northern field office. Sad to see them go, I asked if they had been told why they needed to move; was it lack of staff? Was it particular programming that required their specific skills? No, it was because they are both African. When I asked why that was the deciding factor, both told me, seemingly unfazed, that the Northern field office is not considered safe enough for European (white) international staff to stay overnight. I’m not sure whether this is the right way to say this, but I felt offended on their behalf. I asked them if it bothered them that the organisation felt it needed to protect white staff more? Neither seemed to see it that way, with one almost seeing it as a badge of honour to be asked to work in a more ‘dangerous’ field environment.

I tried to figure out why this decision had been made. Both my colleagues explained to me that white international staff in the Northern regions are more of a target because a) they stand out more in a country where the population is predominantly black and b) because they’re assumed to be Americans and no one is a particular fan of the tangoed-scrotum that is Donald Trump (to be fair, most places around the world were not big USA fans even before Mr Cheeto graced the Oval Office). For the first reason, of course, yes, you stand out more if you are markedly different from the crowd around you. In some countries you can blend in more by adapting your behaviour or by adopting certain pieces of local clothing – I for one enjoyed rocking an abaya and hijab in Yemen, no one could see I was wearing gym shorts and a sports bra underneath, or that I hadn’t washed my hair in 4 days – but changing your skin colour is not something you can readily do. Unless you’re Michael Jackson. However, apparently other non-white and non-black international staff are ok stay in this same location. Wait, a light skinned Pakistani member of staff is better able to blend in effortlessly? I’m not convinced. Coupled with the fact that local people here can recognise if you come from their town or not, and even if you are from their state or not with a cursory glance, or at least the second you open your mouth, your skin colour is not necessarily going to help you blend in. Like a Scouser wandering in Manchester, people will know you are not part of their crew pretty quickly. As for the second reason, we hit a stumbling block with one of my colleagues who is black and American. Apparently she is also not allowed to work in that location despite meeting the ‘blending-in-skin-colour wise’ requirement, because when she speaks it will make it obvious she is an outsider. If that’s the case, the same is also true for all international African staff  (update to NGO security personnel: last time I checked there was no singular, pan-continental language called ‘African’….)

The second debunking of white staff being more at risk came when I did a bit of research to find that there have been no attacks specifically targeted at white international staff in this area. Nor have there been specific targeted attacks on NGOs for that matter. What there has been is plenty of opportunities for ‘wrong place wrong time.’ I’m almost certain that those types of incidents are not correlated to skin colour, except perhaps when you pack a place with staff of a particular skin colour and then the shit hits the fan…. When I raised this I was told, ‘ah, but there are more radicals there, people who would just stab you for no reason.’ Ok, well that makes me feel much happier that my friends are going to work there….?! The strange thing is that white international staff travel to this location on a regular basis – they just don’t stay overnight – so if random stabbings really were a big concern, maybe we shouldn’t send anyone at all?

I’m sad to say that this deployment has not been the only place I have been to where security rules vary by the colour of your skin or the nature of your passport. I’m not saying that the NGO world should disregard specific threats against individuals or against particular nationalities; all I hope for is a little more equality in the value we place on any of our colleagues’ lives. I don’t like being wrapped in cotton wool because I am white, because I am a woman or for any of the other bullshit reasons that get floated around, not because I long for danger or want to expose myself to risk, but because my non-white colleagues, my male colleagues, my non-international colleagues are being told that these risks are acceptable for them based on stereotypes and I don’t believe that’s fair. You could argue that humanitarian work would be paralysed if these types of decisions were not made, but is it not better to be honest about the risks to all staff and allow individual choice on what risks are and are not acceptable?  Either that or we could just send in Kendal Jenner with a Pepsi first and then we would all be safe.

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Babies

On a long drive recently, I was informed by a (ahem, male) colleague of mine that I was simply wasting time by not having children, and more depressingly, that my life up until the point of having children will just be ‘messing around’. According to this font of all reproductive wisdom, I would never understand life truly until I pushed a watermelon sized object out of my vagina. Hmm. Why do conversations like that always take place in cars, when you can’t escape? That’s why 90% of parents decide to do the contraceptive talk when in the car – ‘oh god, she put the child locks on! Make it stop! Did my mother just say ‘spermicidal lube’, holy mother of god, make it end!’

Of course there are a million things wrong with my colleague’s assertion, yet the more I thought about it, the more I thought that the humanitarian projects I have worked on have been a bit like bringing a child into this world. Parents bear with me on this one, but here are the seven ways that I think managing a project in a humanitarian mission is like becoming a parent:

  1. You don’t realise what you’ve taken on until it arrives:

Much like new parents beaming at their little bundle of joy in the hospital and carefully strapping said bundle into its car seat bound for family life, so too does the new humanitarian worker beam at their new contract and carefully strap themselves into their airplane seat not really sure of what is about to come next. After three weeks of crying, puking, pooing and sleepless nights the reality of signing that new contract in Tchad finally dawns on you. This is not how it looks in magazines when Angelina Jolie does it (yes, that statement works for both parenting and humanitarian-ing).

  1. It keeps you awake at night:

I’ve done this before when babysitting my nephews; you put them to bed after bouncing them around for hours in front of mad creatures re-creating your last acid trip on children’s television and you feel relieved when you are finally able to close the nursery door and rest. But from time to time, you want to just pop in and take a peek at them, sleeping soundly. Then there are those other nights where there is no rest, and your baby just cries and cries and no amount of bouncing or tripping will help them settle.  So too the humanitarian project; you manically run around to finish everything you need to do before curfew/before the generator packs up or just so that you can have an evening to rest, but you can’t help taking a little peek at your laptop to see whether your work plan is still on track. Sometimes, like the slumbering babe, everything is well and you can just stand and admire your creation, but more often than not, you spot something that needs some more work, like a baby that senses the smugness of their parents and decides now is the time to get their first tooth.

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Babies. Projects. Same same. 

  1. When you’re new you consult all the books:

We all have those sprogged up friends who have shelves of baby books; the What to Expect when you are Expecting, good parenting guides, or Gillian McKeath’s macrobiotic baby guide or other such nonsense. Most new parents go crazy, checking up every small hiccup or baby snuffle in a book hoping that the answer lies within. Likewise, spot the new humanitarian worker, pouring over their copies of Engineering in Emergencies, All in Diary or Sphere Handbook to find the answer for every blip in the project cycle.  When you’ve had two or three babies – or projects –  you rely less on the books and realise more it’s about common sense, like don’t drop the baby on its head, or don’t distribute mattresses that are bigger than your emergency shelters. For the more experienced, the books are more for when things are going really wrong, like, ‘help! My refugee camp is built on impenetrable rock’, or, ‘help! My child seems to have homicidal tendencies’.

  1. You show it off to everyone, but bitch about it when you’re on your own

No matter what their child does – pooing on a priceless rug, biting the postman, or looking up a stranger’s skirt – most parents will still claim that their child is perfection embodied. Except maybe when alone together and their little miracle is safely tucked in bed, they might acknowledge that today little Toby was a right dickhead. So too does the humanitarian wax lyrical about their project to donors and country management in reporting, claiming it is the most successful and effective project that has ever been thought of, ever. Except outside of those reports, they might acknowledge that really the whole thing is a bit shit, and they’re not really sure it will contribute anything to society after all.

  1. You argue with your partner about the best way to raise it

Two people bringing up a child are bound to have some clashes over the right way to raise it. One of you may want to follow new school ideas, such as never saying the word no or raising your voice; the other might find it hard to use ‘indoor voices’ when little Toby decides to throw your iPhone down the toilet. Likewise with a jointly managed humanitarian project, the two managing it will likely clash on certain points; for example, one of you may want the camp planning to be an organic process, with a jumble of facilities all over the site, whereas the other might find driving their desludging truck through where someone ‘organically decided’ to place their tent a bit of a bind.

  1. Nothing hurts as much as when you leave it/it leaves you

Most parents find the experience of having a newborn baby being utterly reliant on them a true test, but one that they find exhilarating. The same goes for a humanitarian worker with a new project; there is a certain joy in a project being completely reliant on your management and leadership. However for both parents and humanitarians, there comes a point when the child or the project has grown up, and you start to wish it could just do more by itself already. Eventually that point comes where your baby doesn’t really need you anymore. Parents talk about empty nest syndrome; humanitarians talk about burn out, handovers and decompression time.

  1. After all the pain and suffering you went through with the first one, you soon decide you want another.

 

Oddity Log: Somewhere in February

So it’s February, nearly the end of February in fact, but it feels like New Year’s Day was just a moment ago. Things are moving fast in the field. No longer am I sweating in the head office of my current response, instead now I am sweating in the middle of nowhere and living in a house made of plastic sheeting. Moving into said plastic house was a moment of great joy after spending a few weeks in a tent, sharing one half of it with another colleague. Don’t get me wrong, there are no ill feelings, but my new plastic cube is mine and mine alone. That means I can snore, fart, and scratch where ever I want during the evenings without fear of mentally scarring a team mate. As we moved into our new tarpaulin des-res, my colleague commented that now we were pretty much copying the IDPs in the camp where we work, who are also sleeping under tarpaulin, except we have electricity and access to WiFi, so I guess that makes us IDP+.

I have two weeks left before I go on a break and I’m definitely starting to feel the impact of running at full pelt for the last eight weeks. I sometimes think my productivity on each deployment is bell-curved in shape. When I’m on holiday, my brain is like a little old lady that you see pottering around town, stuck in third gear with a trail of frustrated motorists behind her. It’s in no hurry you see. But coming back into a deployment, I need to shift into top gear again, convincing that granny to put on a Stig-style helmet and jumpsuit, and thrash the living day lights out of a Kia Sportage (which, come to think of it, is probably also a fitting metaphor for my own rather average and non-descript physique).  As a result, the curve starts low, compounded perhaps by the fact that on average I spent my first two weeks just cleaning up the shit of whoever covered for me or my teams well intentioned but inappropriate budget choices. That and I usually can’t remember how to actually do my job…

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The scientifically verified Bell Curve of Humanitarian Effectiveness. 

After a week or two, productivity starts picking up; you’re back in the swing of things and starting again to move things forward. The bell curve is starting to reach its peak, and when it does, oh boy, you can tell that I am cranking out project activities with the same frequency as Kim Kardashian posting naked selfies (does she still do that? Please replace with another, more appropriate simile if she’s started to wear more clothes).  At this point in the deployment I am feeling like a fucking rockstar, nothing can bring me down. Except severe exhaustion from being such a fucking rockstar. It’s at that point that the curve starts to fall back down again; as a holiday appears – at first like a mirage – on the work planner horizon, my internal Stig starts taking off his helmet and jumpsuit and reaching for the twinset and slippers instead. It’s also the point at which I will start calling all my team mates the wrong names, mix up dates, say things like, ‘who is travelling in the carrots today?’ when I mean cars, it just happens I was thinking about my lunch whilst trying to form sentences.

I’m at that point now, but my break is so tantalisingly close. I just have to convince my inner Stig to keep his helmet on for just a few more weeks. Until then, apologies in advance if your name for the next fortnight is Teapot.