Posts Tagged ‘aid work’

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.

Typologies and transits

January 12, 2009

Missionary, mercenary or misfit: the three categories of aid workers’ motivations, so the joke goes.

Glancing back a few pages in my diary I noticed a scribble which maybe answers it for me. Written at two in the morning while hung-over, drunk and exhausted in the crap ‘Irish’ bar in Dubai airport after several hours waiting and chatting with various transiting strangers: “Aid work finally paid off: two free drinks.”

God I hate Dubai and its four and a half billion dollar new shopping centre (with airport attached). What could be done with that money in Afghanistan? Doesn’t bare thinking about. Probably doesn’t help that I’m always sleep-deprived whenever passing through there, walking around in a daze muttering to myself, but still.

It was at least the gateway to a wonderful break, from which I have recently returned. The better the holiday, the harder it is to come back, but it’s been good to catch up with friends back in Kabul, discover that my department hasn’t collapsed without me, and generally get back into the swing of things.

There have been various tasks that I’ve putting off till winter, expecting it to be a quieter time with some of our programme areas snowed closed. So I now have a long list of things to do and am as busy as ever just trying to decide where to start. Time to start planning the next holiday.

Reading CVs

December 16, 2008

This has been the first job I’ve had where I’ve had responsibility for recruiting others. Afghans and foreign consultants have sent me their CVs for different positions, and after all the times I’ve sent mine off over the years, it’s been interesting to be on the receiving end for a change.

All the usual advice you’re given about writing your CV suddenly makes sense. The very experienced consultant who wrote five pages of densely worded and badly spelt self-aggrandisement didn’t get much of a look. The person with excellent academic qualifications but no field experience in a conflict environment gave me a moment’s thought, but no more. It was the people in the country already, and those I already knew, who made it to the short list.

Experience, education, and networks are usually given as the holy trinity of finding a job in development. Networking is not something I’m any good at, and the emphasis people give to it used to get me riled. But no. It’s true. Especially somewhere like Afghanistan, where you tend to live cheek by jowl in a highly pressurised environment, you really don’t want to get stuck with someone you don’t get on with personally and professionally. I’ve worked with a couple of idiots before who proved that for me. So you look for people you know, or know of, and those who have successfully worked in a similar environment before.

By the way, none of these people got the job. I gave it to myself.

I’ve yet to have someone apply who wrote about how much they want to help the poor and save the world, which is just as well ’cause if I did I’d be tempted to write back and tell them to piss off.

Much more impressive was the Afghan applicant who wrote that he wanted the job because our office is really close to his house so he wouldn’t have far to walk each day. That’s the kind of realism I appreciate.

Think Global, Fuck Local

July 6, 2008

Is the title of a short play showing in London next week.

“Kabul’s like f**king Ibiza now. Heaving with pretty Sloaney girls. Quite good clubs. Plenty of drugs. I’m too old for all that now.”

Humanitarians. By day saving the world. At night they drink, party – move on. And then, some time, they have to go home. Out of Joint takes a look behind the public face of UN and NGO workers.

It’s at the Royal Court Theatre, if any one’s interested and in town. And there’s a piece about it over at OneWorld UK.

“I find their world hugely fascinating,” Feehily [the writer] told OneWorld UK. […]

[Aid workers] “are the real celebrities”, she says, taking a poke at the celebrity culture that dominates so much of the media. “There are a lot of interesting people out there doing incredible work who go unacknowledged.

“I find the whole sector pretty cool. And at the end of the day, it’s a force for good: so what, if they kick up their heels and have a bit of fun?”

The sex lives of aid workers: what a topic for an ethnographic study. Or a David Attenborough wildlife documentary. Maybe a black comedy would be better.

It’s good to know the sector is ‘pretty cool.’ Perhaps I could even be a celebrity?

And it’s a good title that’s for sure. Less certain about the premise, but not having seen it I can’t say.

There is an aura of sanctity around aid work (someone else’s expression but I don’t know whose). Anything that helps to dispel it is surely a good thing. But I find it odd that of all the many many issues about the sector (cool as it may be), the only ones that get an airing are about sex and fast cars: loose living young expats driving round in large white Land Cruisers, terrorizing the local population.

OK, not ‘odd’ at all, but frustrating that of all the ‘fascinating’ aspects of this ‘world’ (like the tropical diseases you can pick up, or different people’s motivations for working in the sector or, I don’t know, maybe the ‘local’ people you get to meet?), the focus of attention is so limited.

The best, and certainly the funniest, portrayal of aid workers I’ve come across is the blog Hope4Dave: it’s fantastic, go check it out. If you’ve ever bought anything through Oxfam Unwrapped you might like this as well: Uncovered and wrapped. Much more accurate.

Then there’s Inepd, the ‘International Network for Enabling Poverty Development.’ Also hilarious, least I reckon it is (an in-joke though?), and slightly scarily true.

In line with this posts’ title and what is clearly the most interesting part of aid work, we also have Humanitarian Dating from Dave (this used to be a spoof I think – sexualrelief web, another in-joke – but seems to have become all serious) and the Humanitarian Couple of the Year Award from Inepd.

It is a fascinating world. I’d love to stay and write about it some more, but I’ve got a party to go. Some Sloane’s leaving do.

No Survivors cartoon

The Perry Bible Fellowship: No Survivors cartoon

For an honest day’s labour

May 1, 2008

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. 

Development careers advice from Shakespeare

February 12, 2008

A few people have asked me of late how I came to this line of work. Curiously, they have all been soldiers, in passing conversations at airports or bars. Why did you join the army? I always want to retort. Instead my stock and deliberately vague reply is that it’s a job much like any other and one I just sort of, err, drifted into.

One man, a cut and polished English officer, was particularly dissatisfied with this. He seemed to expect me to say how I wanted to help the poor or something of similar ‘do-gooding’ sentiment. Yet it’s my aversion to such sentiment that makes it a difficult question to answer. For sure, I’d rather not be an arms dealer say, and I get mighty pissed off with the hypocrisy and inequality of this world, but I am often ambivalent about the political and sometimes even moral ‘good’ of much development work.

When I was first offered a job abroad I prevaricated. What right did I have to assume I could go over there and help? To know what that ‘good’ was for people I’d never met before and of whom I had no understanding? And that I actually could, that I had the skills and experience to do so? Who, I asked, did I think was? The hubris of idealism worried me. I tried saying something of the sort to my then boss. Rather than telling me to just shut up he quoted some lines of Hamlet that have stuck with me:

Thus conscience does make cowards of us all,
And thus the native hue of resolution
Is sicklied o’er with the pale cast of thought,
And enterprise of great pith and moment
With this regard their currents turn awry
And lose the name of action.

But how Shakespeare helped get me into this line of work isn’t the sort of thing that’s easy to explain while hustling in line at the departures desk at Dubai, waiting to board a plane to Kabul at four in the morning. And that’s only the beginning of my anxious reasoning about pursuing a career in international development.