When safety becomes sabotage

I’ve written a few different pieces about love, lust and romance in the humanitarian field and recently, I had an experience that made me think a lot about myself and how I think about these things. I met up with somebody for an, erm, ‘extended date’ – let’s call it that.

Now I’m one of those people for whom this kind of thing is – like Ron Burgundy – kinda a big deal. Partly because I have been single for around seven years, and have learnt to so masterfully avoid any situations where romance may potentially on the cards, any convent would skip me straight past novice stage; and partly because I. Do. Not. Do. Dates. Or at least do not do them well. Ask any of my exes, and I’m pretty sure only one of them will recall a date. That’s because I only ever went on one date. With one of them. The rest just seemed to merge from snogging in a nightclub to relationship by some kind of osmosis process that I don’t quite understand. So please imagine my terror at the prospect of facing a four day date.

In actuality, I had a lovely time; my date was wonderful, but me? I’m pretty sure I was terrible because I was so terrified about each second going well, I never relaxed, never let my guard down and never just let myself be me. Well, no, that’s a lie; when I was really pissed I was possibly too much of myself all at once which is probably just as terrifying.

On the last night, I did something that is a bit of a trademark for me. I drank too much and the pressure of hiding myself got too much, and my true feelings came forth in a burst of tears and crazy. I guess in a strange way it was a good thing to let all of those worries come out, but I wish it had been in a more controlled way, a bit like how characters in American sitcoms can so effortlessly verbalise their internal maelstroms in a neat two-minute scene before the credits. I’d like to think that it didn’t ruin the rest of our time together, but it wasn’t really something that I’d had on my ‘plan for a successful romantic weekend’.

Back at home I thought through the ‘date’ a bit more and started to come to the realisation that from minute one, I’d purposefully sabotaged the opportunity for myself – and continue to try to sabotage it – for a number of reasons. Firstly, I assumed that someone else couldn’t be interested in me for me, because I’m not good enough for that. Now, I’m not saying that because I want you to all like my Instagram account and send me life-affirming messages on twitter… that is just my default. I know it is, I’m working on it, I’ve got a therapist, let’s not do the ‘oh but you’re this and you’re that!’ dance. When it comes to relationships, low self-esteem is a pretty destructive mindset, and it led me to making some pretty insulting assumptions, like the only reason someone would want to see me after a year apart was for a quick lay. I’m forever grateful to my date for telling me that they were pretty insulted by that assumption which carelessly tumbled out during my emotional landslide. I’m sure there are a lot of people who are like that, but this person was very clearly not, and I chose to ignore all the signs that showed me that, because it was easier to paint them as the ‘bad hombre’. Then I wouldn’t have to deal with my own issues, and it could all be someone else’s fault that it didn’t work out, rather than my own for sabotaging something good. And let’s face it, blaming someone else makes it easier to sleep at night, right?

Secondly, I assumed that life is like fucking Disney. It’s not. People are complicated things (see above) and they take time to figure out. And maybe when you’ve figured them out, you realise that maybe they’re not one of the few stood at the top of the hill with you;

Friends

Not everyone gets to be at the top of the mountain. That’s just logistics. (Credit: Waitbutwhy.com)

maybe they’re floating in the middle, maybe they’re so far into the fucking foothills they might as well be at sea level, the point is you don’t know until you take the time to get to know them. With some people that might be 5 minutes, for others that might be 5 years, but chances are if there’s something that keeps you circling each other for that long, there might be something; maybe there is a part of you that they understand. For example, I spoke on the phone with one guy for 18 months before we finally met up and admitted we liked each other as more than friends and wanted to be more. I didn’t see that as strange – it felt like a natural progression – it just took both of us that long to open up properly. With my date, I’d assumed that I would meet this person and fireworks would go off, and we would be planning our next trip together by day two. In reality, there were lots of mini-Disney moments –sweet words, well-timed kisses – that I missed because I was looking for the musical scene with singing teapots. The point is, relationships are going to look different each time, so don’t expect what we are all sold by the television and films – sometimes that happens, but most of the time it’s a lot of awkward silences and red wine until you figure each other out.

Thirdly, I did the one thing I had vowed never to do, and that was to try to be someone else because I thought the ‘pretend-person’ was better than my actual self. I did this in my last relationship, I think in reaction to his over-confidence, my lowering self-esteem and his growing disinterest in me. Rather than admit something had changed and the relationship wasn’t fulfilling my needs anymore, I assumed I was what had changed – I’d become boring and dull – and so I tried to compensate. The problem was the more I compensated the more I totally forgot who I actually was and the less I became the person he was attracted to at the very beginning. I assumed if I pretended to be what he and others wanted me to be, everything would be ok, that I would be happy, and I managed to hide myself so well under layers of ‘everything to everyone’ generic blandness that I went missing for several years, and I needed a therapist to hand me a map back to my reality. Since this recent trip was the first time I’d felt like a dating situation was a ‘big deal’, I think I defaulted to what I did the last time I felt like something was a ‘big deal’. I assumed I should be some perfect incarnation of myself (whoever that is), that things should be perfect from moment one and it bought back my old coping mechanism of hiding myself. Recently, a friend of mine made me into a terribly geeky, but rather fitting, WASH metaphor; he said that I was like base rock over an aquifer… (I told you, bear with me). At first, I’m tough and impenetrable; you know there’s good stuff inside, but you don’t know how to get at it without applying some serious effort. But once you have and pushed through all the resisting bits, all the good stuff comes rushing out all at once like an artisanal well, and keeps coming. He also suggested that for this reason I was unsuitable for manual drilling… take that as you will, but it’s scarily accurate. A positive step for me though is that I admitted I was hiding parts of myself in order to be what I thought my date wanted, and that I know I was doing that now. Moving forward I should expose more of the parts of myself that I worry about others seeing, because that’s actually where all the good stuff is. It’s ok to be a human with faults and imperfections, because when you are wanted in spite of those – or because of those! – that’s when you know you have found someone special.

So what happens now? I don’t know, and that would usually terrify me… no wait, it still does terrify me, but I’m seeing that as a positive thing. I want to challenge myself to open up to someone, and for me – whatever happens with this person – I think I’ve found someone that I can try that with, and for that I will be forever grateful.

Advertisements

Guest Blog: Beauty in the Bush

We are very excited to announce our second ever guest blog on Aidwork Oddity! If you have thoughts, musings, stories or rants you would like to share, just drop us a line at aidworkoddity@gmail.com, follow us on facebook: Aidwork Oddities, or get us via the twittersphere: @aidworkoddity

————————————————————–

We’ve all had those moments of despair when trying to reach beauty nirvana. That terrible haircut, bleach job or wax/burn-your-skin-off moment when attempting to become the paragons we see in Vogue. For aid workers living in the field, the compulsion to feel more aesthetically pleasing, even for just 20 minutes, is a strong one. Somehow, despite the hundreds of bad experiences, horror stories from our fellow humanitarians and nightmares of our own of trying to beautify ourselves, we continue to trail the wax-strip, popped zit, gloopy mascara filled road, hopeful that this time will be different and a veritable Cara Delevigne will come strolling out of the tent each morning.

Once, in Nepal, I attempted to get what I thought was a basic leg wax.  I dared to ask if they did bikini line waxing and received a cold, ‘no’, a clear look of disgust and a disapproving look up and down. After being shown to the delightful ‘treatment room’ (a bed in the basement of a hotel) I settled back, but was soon confused by the feeling that the woman was working both legs at the same time. Propping up, I saw two women down there. One for each leg? No. Rather, I had one waxing the leg and the other following the wax with threading, her teeth working the thin string to get those strays from my kneecaps. The worst thing was I wasn’t even that shocked by it, considering the other beauty nightmares I’ve had on my travels…

beauty

Me 90% of the time on deployment

I clearly hadn’t learned from that time in India when they promised me that they do ‘white girl hair’ and I sat in a salon in tears pulling out over-bleached chunks of fluff as they fell from my scalp. Nor the time a year later when I taught a young Indian immigrant who didn’t speak a word of English what a Brazilian was in the back of a pedicure shop in Kampala. That delightful experience ended in a delicate scissor operation to try to cut out globs of wax that had clumped together and hardened in an area you really don’t want to be using blades. Even these two experiences didn’t stop me from inviting a friend for a pedicure in Ouagadogou, where her little toenail was completely clipped off, and the foot soak baths smelt clearly of rot.  A few years later, having forgotten the Indian hair salon and desperately wanting to feel fresh for an attempt at a romantic R&R, I yet again left a hair salon in tears sporting tiger stripes of bright blonde in my hair. My attempt at romance ended with him escorting me to various hairdressers whilst I tried to blend the yellow patches. Not the start that either of us had in mind.

I had hoped that my previous experiences would stand me in good stead for my current predicament of travelling with my partner. When you’re single in the field, it’s easier to let body hairs run riot – the likelihood is anyone who sees them is only going to see them once (ok, a couple of times… ok, four times a week until one of you leaves the deployment), and is quite likely also so sex-starved that they also won’t care. But when you have a longer term partner, especially in the first few months, you start to care whether your legs are silky smooth. When we arrived to our new homestead, I opened my bag in the 46 degree heat only to find all my wax strips had melted together. With no razor in sight and seven long weeks of cohabitation on the cards, I pulled out my tweezers and got at my armpits holding a flashlight between my teeth. Desperate times.

I keep telling myself I’m getting better at keeping to a beauty routine; half my luggage weight is skin creams and conditioner to try to reduce the sun’s traumatising impact on my ageing skin and greying, brittle hair. However, I still spend more time checking that the chocolate I buy is sealed inside the paper so if/when it melts in transit it can be refrozen and rescued, than I do making sure I have essentials like nail clippers, or oil to remove wax when I accidentally stick the strip facing the wrong way up on my inner thigh. Maybe this is because I opt for those locations far away from any swimming pools, romantic encounters or skin-baring (although, wearing a hijab in Yemen was a good opportunity to sneak extra oil in my unwashed hair without notice, hoping to provide some respite to my South-Sudan split ends). Or maybe I like to keep things a little risky with local, ‘natural’ approaches to beauty, such as that time in Mauritania someone convinced me that a paste made from flour and water was the best solution to stop in-growing hairs….

Lying back in that basement ‘beauty parlour’ watching two women both wax and thread my leg hairs, I realise that, much like any NGO applying for UNICEF funding, I have placed disastrous past experiences outside of the realm of decision-making consciousness, and choose instead to steadfastly repeat the same activity over and over hoping for a different outcome. That, my friends, is surely the definition of insanity.

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.

resolutions

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.

Sexism on Steroids

dilbertmansplainers

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

stylista

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

The Stylista:

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

 

The Shirt and Slacks:

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

 

The Cultural Cross Over:

hareem-pants

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

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

 

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

Otherwise known as MSF.

 

The Multi-pocketed Moron:

gilet

No. No. No. No. NO.

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

Oddity Log: Somewhere in October

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

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

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

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

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

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

nhs-positivity

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

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

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

Did the Humanitarian Summit change anything?

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

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

Angy badger

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

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

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

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

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

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

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