For an honest day’s labour

There are times when I dream of being back planting trees again: monotonous, back-breaking labour, row after row of saplings into frozen soil. Singing out loud and out of breath (and out of tune) to keep the rhythm going through damp fields, trying to keep pace with my brother the professional. Resting at the end of a line, looking back at what will one day be sun-dappled woodland.

And to do it here, in this barren landscape where there is not a tree in sight. To see the fruit’s of one’s labour so clearly and to know you have left a positive mark on the earth. Now that would be job satisfaction.

In my glamorous aid worker’s life I am more likely to get a paper cut than blisters. For me, such things happen on paper while others make them real. Spreadsheets are more my domain than fields. I miss the physical involvement, an honest day’s work.

At best, my work involves sitting in a mosque or someone’s house drinking tea and asking silly questions about villagers’ lives, or who owns that bit of land and if there would be enough water to irrigate those trees. Or, at a later stage, walking under shady boughs taking photos to illustrate the report for a donor I’ll write back at my desk. For most of the time in between, though, I’ll be sitting in meetings doodling, or starring fuzzily at spreadsheets wondering why the numbers don’t add up.

The allure of the physical is strong. To be doling out food aid to grateful others, digging a well or building a clinic – an activity that causes a simple, visible result.

This is the instant gratification of ‘humanitarian action.’ I suspect it is how most people in the West conceive aid work, the vision of doing something useful that draws people to volunteer in Africa.

I also suspect it is this vision, and sense of obvious achievement, that makes the military eager to roll up their sleeves and get digging, that makes soldiers keen aid workers. Rationalised as ‘hearts and minds’ operations, there is also that feeling of ‘I built that school, and it is a good thing.’

Which often it is. I want to be planting trees myself, not criticising the altruism of soldiers or volunteers.

But sometimes it isn’t. There is a large girls’ school in Ghor that gives me pangs every time I see it. A US military project, though it might well have been any NGOs’, it was never finished for some reason, and for two years has been slowly crumbling while the girls remain in cramped quarters elsewhere.

What’s more, the actual construction is only a part of any project. First there are questions of land ownership, community consultations and agreement, availability of raw materials, coordinating with local authorities, finding the funds and so on.

Then there is finding qualified teachers, and the resources to pay them, and to purchase books and materials, and to develop a coherent education system and curricula that makes this not just a single school, but part of a coherent educational system.

And it is rarely the expensive expatriate aid worker doing the hard labour, but locals, who are much better at it than us soft-fingered foreigners anyway, and who need the cash income more than Western volunteers need the experience.

So I’m stuck with my spreadsheets and emails. Any development project exists as much on paper as it does in reality, and it takes hard work to build and maintain that reality on paper.

But I’m loosing the thread of my thoughts as I stare out the window at a mud brick wall and the barren mountains beyond. I would like to go and plant a few trees. 


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