Drowning

April 21, 2010

Harry Rud is no longer an aid worker in Afghanistan. He’s a bean-counting text bitch in an international NGO’s headquarters in London. It’s a long way from the hari rud. It might be the death of him.

Life’s sweet. Going to see plays and exhibitions, bookshops I want to eat, restaurant menus to study, friends old and new, the certainty of abode allowing the excitement of planning. Proper breakfasts with toast, a pot of coffee and the Saturday papers. I am feeling incredibly fortunate.

I’m still on a river too. Well, a canal that spills into the Thames.

I’m feeling less sure about life in HQ. There’s just not the same comedy value in an open-plan office as there is in watching expats trying not to get kidnapped in the wild, for one. A sudden attack of dysentery while driving through a mine-field has so much more story-telling potential. And yet the ‘when I was in…’ stories, mine and others, are even more tedious than before.

I read blogs from far off lands and feel a twinge of envy. I remember curling up in an old wicker rocking chair in my garden in Kabul on hazy evenings, watching those birds. For a moment, I almost miss them.

The biggest thing going on in my new office is the daily delivery, and cross-departmental theft, of the milk. And we work in Haiti. All I do is demand and consume information from overseas country offices. Numbers and stories which are never good enough and are just grist to the mill anyway, ground up and fed to the donor. It’s a decent job with some nice folk, but only a few months in and I’m too cynical for my own good.

It’s been a frustrating week and I feel the need to bitch is all. There’s a post-it note curling on my computer that reads ‘at least you can walk to work’. It’s an important reminder.

I’m not ready to kill off hari rud completely, but don’t expect much from him. He’s too busy bragging about all the time he spent as this kick-ass aid worker in Afghanistan.

The joys of interviews

March 23, 2010

One organisation went to the trouble of paying for my travel to an interview. Where they made the mistake of asking me something about participation. This happened to be around the time of my post-grad exams, so I’d been busy brushing up on my theory, critiquing all of the development industry’s most beloved buzzwords. ‘Participation? Well its basically a crook of shit, isn’t it?’ was my considered response. (Didn’t get it.)

A time before that I was asked by a very nice table of people ‘How would your friends describe you?’ Ye gods, I mean come on, where do they get these from? An on-line dating agency? ‘Well, they’d probably say I’m a bit of a grumpy old git, downright unsociable in fact. Not much of conversationalist, not much to look at neither. Those weren’t their exact words but its what they was getting at the other night. Fact is, that’s why I’m applying for this job in Somalia…’

As I recall, I was actually stupid enough to say something along the lines of ‘Well it would depend who you asked I guess…’ I don’t recall how I finished my no doubt rambling response, but I like to think it was along the lines of ’cause I owe Dan fifty quid and I think he’s pretty pissed off, but then I’m fairly sure Lucy’s sweet on me so I reckon she’d put in a good word.’ (Didn’t get it.)

That was in the days before I realised they did actually have a book of these stupid questions that they’d just ask you at random, which meant it wasn’t a bad idea to practice a few set pieces beforehand (‘My colleagues would describe me as honest, reliable, enthusiastic and, err, what was that other adjective you used in the person specification?’)

Then last year I was back from abroad and applying for a job at home in an organisation’s headquarters. Where, after the interview, I had to do a test, plonked down at a desk in the middle of a large open-plan office. Mosquitoes, noisy generators, freezing cold, bombs going off outside, snipers: these are the kinds of distractions I’m used to at work. I’m not open-plan office trained. Instead of doing something to a logframe as I should’ve done, I spent the entire time reading the cards and post-it notes on whoevers desk it was I was borrowing, peaking over the partition at the soulless room around me and the woman discreetly tapping away on Facebook. (Didn’t get it, and went back to Afghanistan.)

Praise be for telephone interviews, which tend to be more common in the humanitarian field with people working all over the shop. For then you get to have a copy of the job description in front of you, look things up on the internet as you go along and write down all your clever answers beforehand. These you just read out while sipping your cocktail by the side of the pool or scratching your arse in bed, which is obviously a much more civilised way of doing things. (Got those ones.)

Winter in the Jardin Villemin

February 25, 2010

One of the joys of my last job in Afghanistan was getting to know my team. Of them all there was one young man in particular, let us call him Q, who was a pleasure to work with. (Before continuing, let me note that the use of the past tense does not suggest his demise.) Not particularly well educated, he had a curiosity and intelligence that put him beyond many his senior. It wasn’t always the case. He had been kidnapped with an expatriate member of staff and held for almost a month, forced across the mountains under the threat of death. Unsurprisingly, he had been severely knocked by the experience and it took him a long time to recover. To see him re-engage and build up his confidence was a good sight.

Last year he married, and was charmingly full of love. He was taking on more responsibility at work, and as I prepared to leave I was keen to recommend him to my manager and replacement, fearing to lose him from my department were he promoted but knowing he deserved it. In my last few days in Kabul it was decided that he would travel to France to attend a board meeting and some training courses. Within the organisation this signified great praise, and trust. Discussing it with my manager we felt that, recently married as he was, with much to look forward to, he would not abscond.

Not long after that meeting and I was walking up the Canal Saint-Martin in Paris on a bright free day and happened to pass the Jardin Villemin. It was here that several dozen Afghan asylum seekers had been camping out until they were forced out by the police, who were still conspicuously present when I strolled by. France is not known in Europe for having the most compassionate attitudes to asylum seekers and refugees. As in the Jardin Villemin, the state prefers to let them fend for themselves, until they become a public nuisance.

Some time later, and Q was in Paris. Where he did a runner. Hearing this I sent him an innocuous email asking him how his trip had been. Fantastic, said Q. But while in Kabul he had been threatened by people unknown who told him to do jihad and to spy on the kafirs and inform them of their movements. So he was not going back.

I did not believe him. It didn’t add up; this man’s background, a story that sounded too well angled to expatriates’ fears, plausible with no possibility of proof. And I was angry with him. For betraying my and the organisation’s trust, for making it harder to get visas for his Afghan colleagues to travel to Europe for training, for leaving his wife and family, and for what I felt to be his naivete in trying to seek asylum, not fully realising the new world of torment opening up to him in places such as the Jardin Villemin. I had spoken with him and many others back in Afghanistan about the difficulties facing asylum seekers in Europe, trying to tell them that the streets are not paved with gold as many seemed to think. It always felt like they never believed me, but I thought Q had more sense.

Unkindly, I did not hide all of these thoughts in my reply to Q. I told him I thought he had made a stupid mistake. Without saying I did not believe him, I told him the authorities were very unlikely to believe his story, and asked aloud if it would not be better to spend the next years with his family rather than struggling to survive in a foreign and unfriendly land. I tried to assure him that my (brutal) honesty was from a friend who cared for his well being, but he was not best pleased.

The intensity of his reply took me aback. An unpleasant part of me wondered if it was partly due to his realising the situation he had put himself in. The rest of me had to guiltily admit that no, I did not know what it was like to be kidnapped and to face death and to be threatened and to be followed and no, I did not know that when he had gone they had, he wrote, phoned his wife and threatened her and she was taken sick and had to go to hospital then moved back to her parents’ house in a different city.

[edit]

I didn’t know how to reply to that. I moderated my response, said I did not think he was a bad person but was simply worried for him. Which is true. I haven’t heard from Q since then. Someone else told me he was going to try and get to Scandinavia, which would be a fairly sensible move considering. How a person sans papiers gets from France to Scandinavia I have faint idea. Or maybe he is sleeping under a bush in the Jardin Villemin. Wherever, I wish him well.

ReliefWeb addict

November 24, 2009

My name is hari rud, and I am a ReliefWeb addict.

For those not in the know, ReliefWeb “is the global hub for time-critical humanitarian information on Complex Emergencies and Natural Disasters,” a website bought to you by the good people of the UN’s Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs. They have all sorts of useful information about people starving, living with AIDS or having their houses blown away by a hurricane.

Serious stuff. But the most important bit of ReliefWeb is its Vacancies page. They don’t give the data in their annual statistics report, but I’d wager a month’s unemployed salary that this is the most visited part of the site. What they do tell us is that in 2008 they posted 14,910 job adverts on behalf of NGOs, IOs the UN and, increasingly, those hard to name for-profit development companies. ReliefWeb is your one-stop shop for finding a job.

Albeit a job in some of the world’s less common tourist destinations. They do a map of where all the vacancies are. One look at this should make most sensible people wanting to start out in relief work think again. For example, at the time of writing, there are 104 vacancies in Afghanistan, and one in Barbados. Kind of wish I’d studied tourism at university now. But as I didn’t, and as the whole being ‘in between jobs’ thing is starting to wear a bit thin, I just have to have my daily fix.

Even when I had a job I’d regularly have a look at the vacancies page. In part, it’s good stress relief when you’re having a bad day and want to storm out of the office shouting ‘so long suckers!’ but have to make do instead dreaming about that next job, somewhere with better beaches and fewer bombs. It is also, I reckon, one of the best ways of seeing what’s really going on in the humanitarian world.

ReliefWeb publishes all sorts of spurious press releases issued by the humanitarian industry showing what fantastic work is being done. Elsewhere, there are an increasing number of outfits that try to do a slightly more subjective assessment of different organisations, things like Charity Navigator  and Intelligent Giving (as an intern I was once tasked with finding the easiest way of increasing my organisation’s rating on one of these things). But for accurate ‘time-critical humanitarian information’ what you want is to regularly study the ReliefWeb vacancies page.

An earthquake in South Asia? Seismographs not needed; just watch the number of vacancies posted shoot up.

Wondering what such and such an organisation’s work is like in Sudan? Check out their history of vacancies there. If they’ve been constantly re-advertising a Country Director position for the last two years, it’s a fair sign they’ve been having a spot of bother one way or another.

Meanwhile, an organisation that posts nothing but unpaid internships might not have quite the professional approach you were looking for.

Interested to know who’s won that big call for bids, or who’s given in and taken all that proffered USAID money? Well just have a look see who’s advertising for a dozen new project managers and technical specialists.

Keen to know what the next big development fad is that’s about to take off? Keep an eye out for a sudden spate of Value Chain or DRR or Climate Change Advisors.

It’s also great for keeping track of people one once know: ‘wow, they’re advertising his job, thank god they’ve finally got rid of him…’

Some adverts are just wonderfully bizarre. Management International Systems, one of those new breed of big-buck development contractors, is currently advertising for a Junior Cold Fusion Developer. They may be part of Coffey International, but I’m still surprised they’re going in for experimental nuclear fusion.

Cherie Blair, wife of war-criminal-in-waiting Tony, is advertising for an admin assistant. At first I thought it was to help arrange her next magic crystal healing session but turns out she’s started an organisation to help female entrepreneurs. Who’d of thought.

Want to follow in the footsteps of Columbus? MdM are after a consultant for an exploratory mission to Haiti. Which begs the question, what would have been the course of 15th Century European exploration if carried out by over-paid, under-TOR’ed consultants?

The variety of jobs on offer is sometimes startling. Are you a gynaecologist? Have you always wanted to work in Afghanistan? Then apply here today!  Know how to communicate with mosquitoes and get them to change their nefarious ways? Well this acronym are after a malaria behavioural change specialist.  Know how to defuse an unexploded bomb without just kicking it (or getting someone else to kick it)? MAG need you!  Someone else is looking for a surfing trainer in Indonesia, which sounds more fun.

And I swear I once saw the UK Government advertise for a Butler for its Kabul Ambassador. Prior experience of organising entertainment for heads of state, ironing flack-jackets and keeping the G&Ts cool when the generator packs up was essential. I sadly can’t find that one in the archives, but truly, it wasn’t far off.

As a ReliefWeb addict, through careful study of the subtle signs, one can trace the changing contours of the industry, the successes and failures, the money and where it’s going. Bit like seeing into the Matrix or something.

Afghan election roundup

November 5, 2009

For those of you who, like me, are wondering what the hell just happened with the elections in Afghanistan, here is a simple recap of recent events:

Elections happened (Yay for democracy!)

Karzai won (well done old chap)

They were fraudulent (Doh!)

General dithering over what to do next (um, well, err…)

Some votes were recounted (one, two, three…)

Karzai lost (ohh)

A second round was suggested, along with some changes to the procedures to reduce likelihood of fraud (hear hear)

Karzai agreed to a second round but declined to make said changes (hold on a minute…)

Abdullah realised he could both avoid an embarrassing defeat and still look really cool, in fact look like the only person with an inch of credibility in the whole show (not saying much), by declining to participate in a second round of fraudulent elections (scab!)

Karzai figured that since it was now a one-horse race he may as well forgo the vote rigging part and just win (all bets are off)

Karzai won (Hey, I think I’m getting the hang of this…)

International community stood around scratching their heads looking a little shocked (um, well, err…)

The whole process has had all the ‘legitimacy’ of a celebrity UNHCR ambassador caught killing refugees, boiling them down to make glue and sniffing it. All that money and all those people who died – including some of those in last week’s attack on the UN in Kabul, plus many more foreign soldiers and many more Afghan civilians and civil servants – were for what exactly?

Can we just pretend none of this ever happened? For the first time I found myself thinking maybe foreign troops should pull out; they’re being taken for a ride by the government they’re there to support. On reflection I still don’t, as the rural poor would be the ones to suffer the consequences the most. But ye gods, it’s all befuddlingly depressing. Foreigners trying their damndest to shape the course of events, and failing miserably; Karzai demonstrating a lack of honesty and honour worthy of a much better fucking politician than he is; while the UN dithered and appeased so much they surely loose all semblance of their hard-won credibility in the eyes of most Afghans.

Maybe none of this really matters. Maybe Karzai is just as useless as any other but he does at least have the benefit of having won more votes cast than any other, and no on really expected otherwise. Maybe, as an AREU paper suggests, the elections have changed the political landscape at the local level, providing a peaceful means of changing the balance of power.  Maybe a large chunk of Afghanistan’s rural population had the political nous and foresight to see through the whole thing from the start and won’t be greatly perturbed by these parlour games.

Things will muddle through one way or another as they always do, but a great deal of damage has been done to all concerned in the process, not least the UN.

Oh for those halcyon days

November 2, 2009

Sad, bad news for the international community in Kabul last week: Five UN staff members were killed when their guest house was attacked in the early hours, plus three Afghan policeman and the attackers.

Walking through safe London streets when I heard the news and for the first time since I’ve returned home, I wanted to be back in Kabul. A strange reaction I know, but it is easier to find out who has been killed when you only live down the road and so the anxiousness of uncertainty seems that much less. I wanted, selfishly, to be in the thick of it, amongst friends in the same boat. (Several people I chatted with in Kabul, much more sensibly, are increasingly keen to get the hell out.)

I remember the mood this time last year when three internationals were killed within a week in Kabul and another was kidnapped. It was grim. From what I hear now it is again, doubtless only more so given everything else.

Thoughts and prayers to the families of those killed, and good vibes to old friends sticking it out.

Domestic clashes

October 10, 2009

Afghanaid discussion 3992719891_9ec724b602

One of the (many) challenges of having moved from Afghanistan to Britain is suddenly having to have an opinion on, and argue about, the question originally posed by The Clash: should (foreign forces) stay or should they go now? Being in Afghanistan the answer seemed obvious enough, or irrelevant enough, as not to have to bother thinking about: trouble either way but, contra The Clash, if they go it would be double.

Obvious, because if foreign troops pulled out, all hell would break loose and make life for rural Afghans considerably worse. Irrelevant, because when one’s work focuses on humanitarian relief and development the military side of things isn’t one’s main concern. Plus, one is far too busy planning the next party and swapping stories of daring-do to have time to analyse anything.

In the UK though, the focus is on the images of returning body bags, which obviously puts a slightly different spin on things and generates a whole lot of debate. Its domestic-centric approach doesn’t hold much interest for me but it does mean I now have to buck up my act and think of some clever things to say while propping up the bar.

So the recent BBC radio debate came in handy. As did a discussion put on by Afghanaid  that I went to this week (a small part of which was also covered by the BBC. Both of these programmes are only available for a limited time.)

I thought the Afghanaid one would focus more on the elections but the presence of General Richards swayed things back to the military. I wanted to try and change the direction a bit with a question following on from Captain Cat’s superb post about the corruption of the IEC and the poor showing of UNAMA and danger to its credibility, but never got the chance.

I hadn’t come across Francesc Vendrell before but for me he was the star of both shows. He argued that the elections are an indictment of our (western) democratic credentials and we, having paid for them, cannot sit silently by. Instead, the international community should demand a recount of 25% of votes cast as the EU have suggested, with an interim government to take over until further elections next spring; either a run-off or a re-run of the presidential vote.

Dawood Azami seemed to agree, but pointed out the challenges of holding another election: money, weather, security, the probability of even lower turnout, and all with no guarantee that they would be any better.

Horia Mosadiq then asked aloud if we can expect even worse fraud in the 2010 parliamentary elections, when a whole jolly bunch of miscreant warlords and others will be jostling for power. A good question, with a disturbingly predictable answer. Something to look forward to.

I’m listening to the BBC debate as I write, so this is going to be like a live commentary:

Bloody hell but the Stop the War Coalition piss me off. Once upon a time I marched through London with a Stop the War placard in hand. Now I’d be tempted to march in protest against them over Afghanistan.

‘National interest has got to be the bottom line’ or some such was the final word, by someone. No god damn it no. (In a 45 minute programme that’s all the live commentary I can manage. Slow typer, and too busy listening.) Now I just need to think of a way of explaining why without appearing like a callous, war-mongering bastard. So far, outbursts along the lines of ‘so what if more than 200 British soldiers have died in eight years? You know how many died in three months of the Falklands, or how many Afghan civilians have been killed in the last year?’ haven’t been winning me many friends.

[Photo from Afghanaid’s Flickr thing]

Salam

September 21, 2009

Eid mubarak and peace be upon you for the international day of peace.

Peace day? God but the UN are a bunch of hippies.

I guess blogging will continue here but probably not so often, at least for a while, so don’t hold you breath.

Becoming an ex-expat

September 14, 2009

The transition from expat to ex-expat is not easy. This is supposed to be a moderately civilized country I’ve moved to but it’s seemed far from it in my first week back.

Getting off the plane I looked high and low for someone I could pay a pittance to pick up my bags, but no one was to be found. I had to push the trolley myself, huffing and puffing with indignity.

Once through customs I tried calling my driver. His phone wasn’t working. After several more futile attempts I was about to call the head of logistics to complain when I realised I no longer had a driver and he was several thousand miles away anyway. Instead, I was forced to rough it with the mob and get the bus.

Back home, I dumped my dirty clothes in a corner. Two days later and they were still there! I couldn’t for the life of me think what the cleaner was playing at, but she seemed to have disappeared.

I shipped a few things home. In Kabul I’d given them to the logistics chap and got him to sort it out. He never told me I’d have to wait at home for them to be delivered. The first day the package was due I assumed the guard would take care of it. Seems he’s run off with the cleaner. I only found out when a friend spent half an hour knocking on the door. I finally went to see what was going on, and was told (by my strangely annoyed friend) I no longer had a guard. This has proved continually troublesome as I obviously can’t be expected to take my door keys with me everywhere I go.

Letters from the bank have been piling up. I emailed the finance department asking if they could spare a few hours to go through them all and got a most curt reply. They had the insolence to suggest I do it myself! When I did go down to the bank and the manager treated me like some poor beggar I was simply incandescent with rage.

Taking the dog for a walk one afternoon and I was getting a little parched. There was a farm house down the track so I thought I’d just drop by but was given a most unfriendly welcome. Downright hostile in fact. When I told them that if they weren’t even going to slaughter a sheep for me the least they could do would be to make me a cup of tea the farmer pulled out a shotgun. I was aghast and told them in no uncertain terms (while running away) that I thought their behaviour deeply at odds with the culture of hospitality I had come to expect of their kinsmen.

I had to console myself after that with a glass or two in the village inn. Naturally I didn’t have any of the local currency with me, but I really didn’t expect them to make such a fuss about it. I admit things got slightly out of hand but there was no need to call the police. I tried explaining to the officer that everything was perfectly all right as I wasn’t a Muslim and so of course I was allowed to have a drink, but the law was simply insufferable.

Dragged off to the police station I finally got to make a phone call, but all the bloody embassy did to get me out of my plight was to laugh at me.

By the time I extricated myself from that little mess I felt rather washed up, so I’m now planning my next R and R. Somewhere with servants and corrupt police, I think.

Hell’s teeth

September 5, 2009

Zibahkhana, or Hell’s Ground in English: Pakistan’s first gore flick, with possibly the best advertising posters ever.

ZKposterB

zibahkhana-hell-s-ground-burqaman-poster-88-p


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