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

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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.

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.

Did the Humanitarian Summit change anything?

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

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

Angy badger

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Animal Magic

Working in the humanitarian field offers lots of opportunities; to travel, to work with interesting people and to get up close and personal with other inhabitants of the animal kingdom. And by that I don’t only mean the filthy man-animals you may sometimes need to share your flat with (socks that don’t bend? No-one needs that in the communal area, thanks).

When working in the field, you can roughly divide your relationship with animals into three broad categories: those you loathe, those you love and dinner.

When at home in sunny old blighty, there is an unwritten rule between loathsome creatures and people; creatures stay in their space, we stay in ours and if the former violates these rules they get a rolled up newspaper. Creatures in the field have not been given a breakdown of these rules, which means they think it is completely acceptable to get up in your grill. For example, the cockroaches that think it’s ok to have a pool party in the glass of water you keep on the bedside table to sip on during the night. The rat that thought it was completely acceptable to make a nest and have rat babies in a colleague’s suitcase, a fact that she only discovered when trying to pack to leave. Or another rat – possibly related – that thought it was acceptable to share my bed in Daadab and nibble on my legs out of what was presumably boredom at 3am. Or the snake that rudely interrupted one aid worker’s private toilet time by dropping out of the tree above her head, landing at her feet and spending a good 30 seconds sizing her up before deciding it was intruding on a private moment. 30 seconds is a very long time if you are a snake, or a human being looked at by a pissed off snake.

On the flipside, there will be an inevitable moment in every aid worker’s rite of passage where they fall in love with an animal and decide to adopt it as a pet, despite the fact that the animal is feral, a walking disease infestation or a completely inappropriate ‘pet’(here I’m thinking dik-diks, falcons and pangolins). Let me explain the pangolin one; for those who don’t know, a pangolin is an extremely endangered aardvark type creature that lives in the jungles of West Africa. Whilst living in a camp in the middle of said jungles, a local hunter came to us and asked us if we would like to buy ‘this’. ‘This’ was a pangolin and its very small baby. We asked what he would do with the pangolin if we didn’t buy it. Well, eat it of course. Herein started the dilemma; did we say yes, buy the pangolin and contribute to the illegal pangolin trade, or say no and allow an endangered creature to be eaten? So of course we bought it, put it in a box, and ran around the camp collecting things that we thought it might eat (basically anything found in the ‘loathe’ section above). The thing at least had the good sense to escape that night rather than be ‘looked after’ by people clearly with limited skills in animal rescue.

Spider Friends

Hell to the no. Creep. 

However, most aid workers fall in love with the more ubiquitous cats or dogs. Aid workers will happily dedicate disproportional amounts of money and time to ensuring their feral friend is ok and starting on the course towards healthy domestication. One aid worker in Ethiopia was so concerned about his pet cat becoming pregnant that he convinced the camp medic to treat it with human contraceptives (it was apparently a successful strategy). In Liberia, two ‘guard’ dogs that came part and parcel with a guest house ended up being the most attended to patients of the staff nurse, rather than the staff themselves.

Then there is the last and saddest category; dinner. In many places, there are none of your new fangled fridges and freezers (or the electricity to run them) for storing your food at the perfect temperature before consumption, so you make do with the next best thing – fresh meat. So fresh, that sometimes it is tied up outside the kitchen when you go in for breakfast, thus also eliminating the need for printing a menu. Sometimes, dinner comes to you from unexpected sources. During a community meeting in Sierra Leone, my team and I were presented with a goat as a mark of gratitude for our work. Thinking this was purely symbolic, and we weren’t actually going to take the goat, I put this out of my mind, until – when bouncing over a particularly large pot hole – I heard a small bleating coming from the boot. To try to appease my vegetarian guilt, I even tried to feed the thing the last of my emergency shortbread stash. It was not in the least bit interested. I made sure I was out of the area when the ‘cooking’ process started.

Sometimes the worlds of humanitarians and animals collide in unexpected ways, and – just to pre-empt you – these usually don’t end well for the animal in the story. In Guinea, an Ebola treatment centre was thrown into temporary disarray when a passing motorbike startled a group of chickens, causing one to fly over the perimeter fence and into the red zone (the high infection risk section of the centre, to which entry and exit is highly controlled). The chicken roamed around whilst staff robed up into their plague-doctor-esque protective equipment to then spend the best part of an hour chasing it around the red zone in 40 degree heat whilst basically wrapped in cling-film. Once the chicken was safely isolated in a box, a debate ensued around the fate of the chicken; How likely was it that the chicken had become infected with Ebola? Could chickens transmit Ebola? Would the plucky fowl make it out of the red zone? Such practical and philosophical questions milled around until the director of the centre reminded staff that they had actual patients who needed their attention, and therefore, could someone please just kill the chicken, incinerate it and pay the owner for his loss. These are just some of the harsh realities of working in epidemics, my friends.

Whether is a chicken, a goat, a dog or a pangolin, you’re going to end up experiencing some animal magic on your deployments. And if you don’t, content yourself that 1000s of microscopic animals will be more than happy to accommodate you, and work their magic internally for you instead.

How to Build a Humanitarian #5: Do you Speak Humanitarian?

NB: Novice humanitarians may wish to refer to Google for definitions of the acronyms mentioned in this blog post. Aidworkoddity will not be held responsible for any dodgy web histories occurring because of this post.

Most people trying to get into the humanitarian sector are convinced of the need for language skills; surely the ability to speak French, Spanish or Arabic increases your desirability to organisations who may want to send you to an emergency hotspot where your skills can allow you to better integrate with local communities. Well, sure, yes, that’s a handy thing to have, but more important is the ability to speak humanitarian.

The humanitarian world has its own special language, mostly consisting of an endless stream of TLAs. Aid workers are busy people; they are so busy saving lives, advocating for human rights and trying to find a reliable alcohol producer whose wares won’t send them blind that they don’t have time to type or talk fully. To help them communicate better in the midst of their busy-being-important-ness, they rely on abbreviations and acronyms.

For a start, most INGOs are so busy that they can’t even fully pronounce their own names; DRC, NRC, MSF, IMC… then there is the whole gamut of UN agencies, who are probably not as busy, but still like to abbreviate so that they can look busy; UNOCHA, UNICEF, UNHCR, UNDP, UNFPA. Some of them like to confuse matters by not even putting the UN in front – WHO, ILO, FAO… And lord help you if you have to also work with the ‘black’ UN and have a UN Mission in town, then that’s another UN acronym to learn. And if you have donors (which you do… stop laughing at all the rest of us MSF) then, boy oh boy, are you in for an acronym wonderland; DFiD, OCHA, USAID, SIDA, SDC, JICA, KOICA and even D-FAT-D (yes, pronounce it Dee-fat-dee. Yes, it could be the name of an 80’s rapper).

Acronyms-Not-Everyone-peq106Then there are the actual sectors and specialisms within humanitarianism itself; are you going to CAR to do WASH or EFSL? Are you interested in MEAL or MPSS? Is your background in IYCF or MCH? And of course, each sector has its own dictionary worth of acronyms for the fledgling aid worker to learn. When Aidwork Oddity was a mere trainer of humanitarians, each training would start with pasting a flipchart on the wall called ‘acronym buster’; guaranteed it would be completely filled by the end of session two.

Humanitarians seem to want to make acronyms of everything, even when it’s not really necessary. One aidworkoddities contributor expressed her annoyance that others in her office were clearly too busy WFH that they couldn’t even type fully their current working location (the couch?) Sometimes, humanitarians are so busy they can’t even spare the additional nanosecond to say goodbye; it’s not cold to sign an email BR, you have to understand, it’s just that if this person actually takes the time to write ‘best regards’ fully, 5,000 Burundian children may actually die there and then, so try not to take offence.

Occasionally, the proliferation of acronyms can lead to some interesting outcomes. When reviewing a proposal once, I noted with interest that a member of the WASH team had suggested that: ‘all IDPs will be provided with appropriate IEDs as part of hygiene promotion.’ Well, it’s an interesting approach to hygiene promotion, I’ll give you that, but I think they might be a bit happier – and we would all feel a bit safer – if we gave them IECs instead. Then there was some confusion about the true nature of the Diplomatic Transfer Facility (DTF) in Yemen. It turns out it was a safe area for UN staff to live, rather than an homage – as supposed by one American colleague – to the Jersey Shore acronym of Down to Fuck. Although…?

The use of TLAs in aid work has become so prolific that there are even smart phone apps to help novice aid workers navigate coordination meetings. Within the UN alone, there is so much jargon, that there has been a UN Jargon buster created that searches through acronyms and phrases from multiple different UN agencies. For anyone without the app and a coordination meeting looming ahead, take advice from those in the sector pre-mobile internet; nod knowingly, wait 5-10 seconds then make a note of the acronym so you can Google it later. You need to wait so that it’s not completely obvious that you have no idea what LMMS stands for.

However, it’s not only the acronyms that will confuse the hell out of you; it’s the general language of the humanitarian world. If you’re unsure whether a proposal will be accepted, just bung in a few more humanitarian buzzwords – sustainability, resilience, innovation, accountability, transparency, stakeholders – and you’ll be guaranteed a yes from an acronymed donor. If you don’t know whether your new approach is going to work, maybe you need to have a workshop on your ToC. And if you get invited to a three way bilateral, just say no, there’s clearly something more sinister going on there.

So forget about buying endless Rosetta Stone CDs and attending your fancy language classes to get ahead in the humanitarian world. Just show that you know your CAPs from your ACAPs, your CERFs from your NERFs, your AWD from your VBDs and your CHAPs from your EMMAs and you’ll fit in just fine.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Emotional

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Categories of Aid Worker

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

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

Categories

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

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

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

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

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

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.