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.

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.

Humanitarian Resolutions

I took a break from my current deployment over Christmas and New Year. As I enjoyed celebrating the arrival of 2017 in that most traditional of ways – falling asleep in front of Jules Holland’s Hootenany – I decided that this year was going to be the one in which I finally became a professional, consummate humanitarian, rather than the rambling ball of confusion I have been to date. Having reached the last day of the first month of the year (which in itself is depressing considering my sum total lack of work/weight loss/fitness improvements/fabulous hair/meditation/non stop sexathons with Ryan Gosling achievements to date) I thought I would review those resolutions I have already managed to break so thoroughly, Humpty Dumpty would look like a child’s jigsaw in comparison:

1. Staying calm when dealing with Logistics

Ah logistics. I know you are busy, my friends. I know you have four programme teams demanding on your time. I know you have less staff than you would like at the moment. But that still doesn’t explain why my procurement request for mobile phones – which I see everyday being sold in the local market- has been sent to Holland for review by an underpaid intern who will need to ask seven managers that prioritise their lunch breaks before it can be approved. I’m also at a loss why I seem to be covered in dust and blanket fluff within 5 minutes of starting work each day having lugged bales of stock into pick up trucks, whilst you nod at me from behind a clipboard wearing a Ralph Lauren shirt.

2. Staying calm in coordination meetings

I was doing relatively well with this one, until MSF starting shouting about a lack of action by partners on a particular issue at a coordination meeting early in the month. In my current deployment, I love MSF and I hadn’t shouted at anyone in at least three hours so it just felt right to join in. It was even more rewarding that our collective shouting was targeted at UNICEF, who are nearly always fair game for a bit of shouting at. So I broke that resolution, but I blame MSF for it. And then OCHA called me as I was travelling home to recommend completing the 5Ws (yes that’s right, there’s bloody 5 of them now) as the solution to the said issue. I mean, when someone is offering it to you on a plate, it would be just rude not to take the shouty opportunity.

I had also wanted to remain a neutral, calm, figure of serenity and wisdom at such meetings, however during the first five minutes I rolled my eyes so violently during an update from WHO that I lost a contact lens.

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Just the thought of resolutions brings on my rage… (credit: Calvin and Hobbes)

3. Staying calm… just generally

I would estimate around 80% of my waking hours this year have been spent in some form of rage.

4. Getting a solid 8 hours

Of sleep would be great. Of sex would be better. Of absolutely nobody talking to me would be heaven.

5. Not using alcohol/ smoking/ recreational drugs/ other forms of mild substance abuse as a coping mechanism

During January, me and my housemate have consumed 6 crates of beer, two bottles of whiskey, 4 bottles of wine and 2 bottles of vodka. So much for dry January. I have drank so many coke zeros that the town I am working in actually had a shortage that the vendor said was caused by my twice a day habit. During a training this month, I sniffed a permanent marker when I thought no one was looking.

6. Cook more healthy food and don’t rely on the cook’s limited menu

I’m writing this whilst digging into my 24th plate of Indomie instant noodles from the hotel kitchen. I cooked once in January; it was a chilli made with re-hydrated soya pieces. It was as delicious as it sounds.

So it looks like I’ve not been too successful in becoming a paragon of zen humanitarian effectiveness so far this year, but hey, at least I didn’t start my year by cutting funding to support women’s reproductive rights, banning ‘bad dudes’ from entering the US, or building oil pipelines and walls… so I’m one up. I did attempt a terrible fake tan though so perhaps it is a draw.

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.

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‘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

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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…

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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.