Archive for the ‘Aid + Development’ Category

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.)


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.

Rocket induced hole

July 16, 2009

It’s caption competition time. The writer of the best caption gets a bit of shrapnel engraved with one of rud’s finest bon mots.


To give a bit more detail; this is why it is generally a bad idea to build a health post, school, veterinary clinic or anything else within a hundred meters of a police station. Rockets do not seem to be very accurate.

Often times, when looking for a bit of land, the government will offer something close to one of their buildings saying ‘oh yes, it will be very safe here.’ Yeah right, you just want to shine in our reflected glory. Or the military will see what a nice job we’ve done with the place and want to move in next door.

On the sign outside another of our buildings, also close to a police camp, someone had added ‘Re’ where it read ‘Constructed by…’, so many times had it been damaged in the cross fire and repaired.

Afghanistan: my part in its downfall*

July 5, 2009

It’s been two years to the day since I first arrived in Kabul. As part of my anniversary celebrations I’ve been dwelling on the impact I’ve had on this country (egotistical of me I know, but then blogging seems to do that to me). Here are ten random things I’ve done to change the world around me:

1.Living in a house modest by many expat standards but that has still helped lead to a huge rise in house prices in Kabul, benefiting a few but forcing out many more from affordable housing in their own city.

2.Tempting qualified Afghans out of service to their own government with hugely better pay at an INGO

3.Failing to build the capacity of those people, in a position that will be filled by another expat rather than someone I have trained to replace me.

4.Failing to even have the common decency of learning the local languages, and having only the scantiest knowledge of a country on which I am experimenting with ill-informed development projects.

5.Taking a large cut of the budget of those development projects as my salary, most of which I will take home with me.

6.Treating my life as more valuable than those of my staff

7.Drinking in an Islamic country and generally being a bad influence as well as an example of the debauchery and gross-oppulance of the West. Not good for long-term cross-cultural understading that one.

8.Flying about too much and demanding electricity from the generators and generally contributing to a lot of carbon emissions in a country that will probably be devastated by climate change.

9.Eating scarce food when others around me starved

10.Bitching about all and sundry, how various policies will lead to the downfall of this country, but doing nothing to suggest better alternatives.

*With an affectionate nod to Spike Milligan for the title.

Protect the aid worker

June 18, 2009

There is a campaign to get 2010 marked as “The Year to Protect the Humanitarian Aid Worker.”

A worthwhile cause to be sure and no quibbles from me, but I cannot entirely suppress a little snigger.

There was a campaign slogan from Amnesty International to ‘Protect the Human’ that struck me as a nice play on the more traditional ‘Protect the Whale’ kinda deal. The evolution of important things to protect from Orangutans to Aid Workers is flattering.

Aid workers are more often in the role of protecting others; there is a whole sub-species specialised in and dedicated to protecting the rights of refugees and the displaced, children, women, the elderly and disabled.

But it seems we too have joined the ranks of the endangered (for evidence, read this (pdf)  report) and general wretched of the earth, and so it is time to act!

Buy the badge, drop your loose change in the bucket and sign the petition. Forget the fundraising pictures of doe-eyed, fly-ridden African kids; we need mug-shots of dead Aid Workers. Draft codes and laws setting forth our rights to intervene in the name of goodness (oh, they exist already you say?) and protection against the unethical use of pictures of dead Aid Workers. Write to the Sudanese government demanding a little r-e-s-p-e-c-t!

But just one year?! Don’t we at least deserve a decade? And since I principally need protecting from bad drivers, dodgy airplanes and the Taliban (plus changes in currency exchange rates, insurance premiums, bad managers, the whims of donors, stomach bugs and cirrhosis), how, pray tell, am I to be protected?

What’s more, is it fair and right to objectify Aid Workers in such a fashion? I’m not sure I care for the use of the definite article in the campaign title. We are all individuals with different needs. Who has the right to offer me their protection, to speak on behalf of all Aid Workers?

Seriously, no disrespect to the Stephen D. Vance Foundation. I salute you, and may even sign your pledge. It might be a start to also get international aid organisations to themselves do more to protect their national staff, who bear the brunt of all attacks. Or how about a year of actively demilitarising aid? (I have no idea how.) But anyways, ‘Protect Me!’

Pre-emptive aid strike

June 16, 2009

From air strikes to aid strikes, my, the US military keeps itself busy.

KABUL, 16 June 2009 (IRIN) – The US military has stepped in with humanitarian aid supplies in a bid to outflank a brewing conflict over grazing land between Afghan Kuchi nomads and ethnic Hazaras in a district in Wardak Province, some 30km from Kabul.

According to a statement by the US military, representatives of 15-20 Kuchi families agreed not to encroach on pasture land in Daimirdad District after receiving sacks of beans, sugar, flour, rice and tins of cooking oil, and the promise of more aid in future.

“Three weeks ago, we went to Daymardad [Daimirdad] and it was a very positive step for us. The Kuchi elders said they would not migrate [to the area] if they were given food, water and vaccination supplies for their animals,” Joe Asher, a US military officer, was quoted in a statement as saying.

The statement said tents, water and veterinary supplies would be distributed in future so that Kuchis do not need to enter the contested area.

“We hope this demonstrates that we’re saying `hey, we’re taking the steps to alleviate your problems,'” said the 12 June statement.

“The Kuchis won’t have to move their livestock, because they will have what they need,” the statement added.

Over the past few years, disputes over access to public pasture land between Kuchis, who are Pashtun nomads, and ethnic Hazaras, who live in central parts of the country, have often led to armed clashes.

I’m blown away by that and at a loss for suitably disparaging and despairing words. The IRIN report goes on to explain why well enough for me to leave it there.

Enough rain already

May 14, 2009

I glanced at the reports about the damage done by flooding in the last few weeks (41 killed, hundreds of homes and thousands of acres of land destroyed ), but none of it was in ‘my’ areas so I didn’t really need to worry.

Flood map

After last year’s drought, I was welcoming the weather systems that have been sweeping over the country, dropping more rain than usual across the north and central highlands and giving us some short but sharp thunderstorms in Kabul. It was beginning to get a bit boring, but I told myself it was for the best.

But no. It’s gone too far this time.

Floods have hit a corner of one of ‘my’ provinces. Nobody killed but from the reports we’ve had so far, over a hundred jeribs of farm land destroyed and some 100 houses, plus roads wiped out and animals killed. Piddling compared to other disasters, but try telling that to the folks up to their arses in mud. Some people have lost every little thing they had, with nothing left for them and their families to live on and no hope of a harvest this year.

We’re doing what we can in response, though the roads are so bad getting enough food aid there is no easy task. Then there’s Mullah Troll-Under-the-Bridge, ‘taxing’ trucks that pass by. And the one small plane in the whole country that can reach the area is still being repaired after it crashed the last time it tried to land there. The usual fun and games.

Tricks of the trade

May 12, 2009

One day after the job position was announced, I was told ‘We can’t find any good person. But I have a cousin in Pakistan who can come.’ Ah, yes, well we might have to think about that…

Many managers are accused of recruiting only people from their tribe or ethnic group. Luckily we have a fairly broad mix, so no one group dominates, but that doesn’t stop the accusations. I know of some international NGOs where all the senior Afghan managers come from the same village, and all the drivers are related.

We of course have policies to try and prevent nepotism. To get round such problems, person X from NGOX may make a deal with person Y from UN agency Y: neither can employ their own relative, but they can ‘swap’ relatives without anyone knowing, both agreeing to employ the others’.

There are similar tricks when it comes to purchasing. There is a constant horde of people wandering the shops of Kabul getting the requisite three or more quotations for international organisations, buying everything from printer cartridges to cars.

To make everyone’s life easier, many shops will write out three different quotations on different bits of stationery, with three different signatures, and one quotation just a little bit less than the others. They make sure they get the sale, and the purchasing officer gets an easier ride or a little kick-back.

These examples pale into insignificance compared to much of the corruption that goes on. But they are perhaps interesting in the simplicity with which rules can be circumnavigated.

[Coincidently, this arrived in my inbox just after writing here: Assessment of Corruption in Afghanistan (pdf), from USAID.]

Afghanistan, coming to a stage near you

April 22, 2009

If you live in London, where there’s a series of plays on about Afghanistan over the last 150 years.

It looks interesting. (One day I’ll learn how to embed videos here. Once I’ve learnt all about remote satellite imagining, Digital Elevation Models and the Shuttle Radar Topography Mission – my pet project of the moment.)

The thing that caught my eye was the play about aid workers (a thing that caught my eye last year as well with the wonderfully titled play ‘Think Global, Fuck Local’) and this from the Guardian:

[Playwright Richard Bean’s] Afghanistan play, On the Side of the Angels, part of the Great Game season examining the country’s history from 1842 to the present, looks set to be similarly uncompromising in its challenge to conventional liberal values. The play examines the role of western NGOs in Afghanistan. It is, he says, “about the cultural imperialism debate. What are we doing there? Are we interested in democracy or should aid workers simply be trying to raise living standards? Most people in the west would like to see NGOs building girls’ schools and encouraging women’s rights, whereas these are exactly the projects to attract the ire of the Taliban and local warlords.”

The central problem of the short play concerns a dispute between rival Afghan families. A solution is brokered by a western NGO worker – but at the price of a 10-year-old girl being married off to a 50-year-old man. Nicolas Kent, artistic director of the Tricycle, says: “It takes, shall we say, a fairly acerbic view of NGOs and their policies.”

Now I’m all up for acerbic views of NGOs and welcome anything that takes the gloss off aid work to engage in serious debate, and hope this play actually does so. But a western NGO worker actually out in a village negotiating a solution? Nah, that’s just silly. They’d be sat behind a desk demanding photos of the wedding from an Afghan to send to their donor.

Alas, I won’t be able to go along and make snide remarks about how ‘I lived in Afghanistan for two years, actually, and you know, well err, really, I don’t think your portrayal of the country really does justice to the complexities of the situation, you know?’

Money (that’s what I want)

April 15, 2009

Obviously I’m not paid enough, but I try not to complain. Our Afghan staff don’t think they’re paid enough either, and often do complain.

Salaries are, unexpectedly, a bit controversial. Or at least a complicated question. There is a huge discrepancy between expat and national salary scales, but that is of course right and just and not for me to comment on.

Compared to other similar INGOs, our national staffs’ wages are a little above average, but that’s little comfort for them. Compared with USAID and its myriad of contractors, ours are a pittance. It can make finding and retaining suitable staff a pain in the arse.

One of my guys applied for job with such a contractor. I only found out through a friend of a friend, who happened to be the person looking to recruit him. Talking about it with them in the bar one night, I wasn’t best pleased but was grudgingly happy to think he might get a better wage even if I did lose a valuable person. The going salary would be nearly double. There is though some USAID policy that means they should only pay 5% more than what a person is currently earning, if they are doing the same job. So would I mind signing something to say my guy’s salary was just a wee bit higher than it actually is? I wasn’t going to stand in his way but I wasn’t exactly chuffed. Luckily for me, he didn’t get the job.

There is often confusion in Afghanistan about what an NGO is and what is a for-profit organisation or private company. Our staff sometimes compare our salary scales with those of ‘NGOs’ that are actually multi-billion dollar private companies. We try and pay a fair wage but there’s no way we can compete with those, yet struggle to explain the differences between the numerous outfits.

It’s easy to think they should just be bloody well grateful to have any job at all, but of course I never would.

While the NGOs have trouble with the contractors and companies, the government has trouble with the NGOs. The Director of a small government unit I met recently would be paid around 100 dollars a month. The average junior civil-servants’ wage is apparently around 50 a month. My staff’s salary is about four-times that of the government Director; the salary he would have had with the private company about eight-times as much.

Which doesn’t exactly help the government recruit and retain suitable staff, or avoid corruption. It doesn’t help me quell my staffs’ gripping about their salaries either, but maybe that’s because they think I’m paid too much.