Posts Tagged ‘work’

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.

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.

Wardak wandering

December 2, 2008


There’s a small village in Ghor, just outside of Chagcharan, known as Little Wardak: a Pashto enclave in a largely Tajik/Aimaq district. I used to drive through it a couple of times a week, on excursions to the spring just beyond it where we’d fill up half a dozen jerry cans with water.

This last week, I’ve been in the proper, province-sized Wardak. You say that these days and people usually look at you as if you’re crazy, at which point you have to explain that you were in Behsud, the Hazarjat bit of the province that, in security and ethnic terms is a very different place.

‘Twas grand. I’m pretty beat afterwards, for it was frustrating planning for with numerous logistical hiccups and it was an intense week in the ‘deep field’. But good for that and we achieved as much as I could hope for in such a short time. It’s always a relief to get out of Kabul for while and get back to the familiar routines and rituals; the long drives, the pauses and tea and the TV in the evening. The cold clean air and starry nights, the lack of basic hygiene, my awkwardness at not being able to talk properly with most of the people around me, the discomforts of sleeping in an overheated room with a dozen other men, sardined into a sea of old blankets.

There were times when I couldn’t imagine a more privileged job to have in the world. Driving around such a rich landscape at will, with good companions and work to be done. Being invited into people’s homes, to ask them all the silly questions I can think of; learning endlessly and never understanding but slowly getting to grips with another way of life and another way of seeing the world.

Having to sit there cross-legged, knees aching and unable to stretch them, busting for a pee and a cig and trying to wrap up a discussion while the old fellow across the room is just getting into his stride, until you’re cornered by their hospitality and a young boy brings in the basin of water to wash your hands before laying out the rug and loaves and mountainous plates of rice. Then another round of tea; the conversation relaxing, sitting back and stretching legs an inch, until we can finally unfold ourselves and bid farewell in a cats-cradle of handshakes.

To drive on in road-tripping freedom, and on a bit, to track down and round up a few more folk whose time I can waste in my legitimised role as a half-wit nosey bastard.

There’s an unfettered joy to it my heart soars at times, as the van jolts over into another valley. Truly, it is a rare privilege, the days like that – in such a place with such people – and I’m thankful for them and all their bloody bruises.

The good of small things

November 18, 2008

So much negativity. But it ain’t all bad.

So some of the things I want to do at work aren’t going to happen, which is mighty frustrating, but there are still things to be getting on with. Finally finishing a report, improving some basic systems from the safety of my desk, doing staff appraisals and developing a training plan, getting bukharis installed and set up in the right place, making sure we have enough paper clips to weather the winter, sharing a cup of tea and a joke with my team.

Getting home late in the evening and having a good bitch with my house mate as we eat, laughing at the stupidity of it all. There may be trouble outside, but I’m still enjoying my muesli and cup of coffee in the morning. Still getting out for a game of frisbee or a run on a Friday, lounging around with lunch and laptop at the café, having a drink or few around the fire place in the bar.

The usual round goes on, and there’s fun to be had. The more so if you can take pleasure in the small things: a proper loaf of freshly baked bread, a flight of birds or a thunder storm cleaning the air, the idiosyncrasies and absurdities.

It’s hard to be objective when thinking about security; anxieties and self-delusion creating a turbulent sea. So on a good day I try not to think. I do wonder if there’s a secret enjoyment to be had in the danger, a thrill in the sound of helicopters washing low overhead and distant explosions, in the very stress of it, and the stories you imagine telling when it’s all over. I think the stress is too mundane for that right now, but it does make the good of small things more vivid.

The latest small good things are two puppies we’ve taken home, filthy and cute as. Getting them settled in and building a kennel for them, lined with old towels warmed on the stove, and generally fussing over them and feeding them up has been a wonderful distraction. They’re going to grow up to be good guard dogs if we can train them a bit over the winter, and if the cold doesn’t kill them first. If they do survive, expect this blog to turn into saccharine schmutz about their every bowel movement.

The small things add up, and for much of the time life is good. Now I come to think of it, that’s a pretty normal state of affairs.

Field life

June 18, 2008

I’m happiest when I’m on the road and in the field.

Not that I venture into many fields – fields as in muddy places with potatoes growing in them – it’s an expression you see. A daft one at that, but it’s hard to avoid.

‘Field’ as in ‘an undefined place over there where…’ Actually, it depends on where you’re starting from.

Sitting in headquarters in New York, the field is Afghanistan. Get off the plane in Kabul, the field becomes anywhere outside Kabul, like the provincial capital. Get to the provincial capital, maybe a large city like Mazar, and the field moves down another notch, perhaps to the district centre. Get to your sub-office in the district centre and the field becomes some little village or possibly even an actual muddy field with potatoes in it.

(Not that many fields in Afghanistan are muddy at the moment. Parched and barren is more likely.)

This isn’t a new observation. There’s a good blog about it here, and Frida World wrote something a while back describing the ‘deep field’ in Ghor. This was a new expression for me and I rather liked it. Never mind deep space or the deep sea, the deep field is where it’s all at. Basically, it’s a place nearer the potato end of the ‘field’ spectrum.

Any old how, all this stuff about fields is a bit of a tangent. I was going to write something about how I enjoy being in the field and what it usually involves for me. So here goes. Come with me now on a journey through time and space, to the deep field.

Having built it up like that it’s difficult to get going now. I get up around 6.30 and have a pee. See?

My accommodation usually looks something like this:

Note the large book and short-wave radio: essential means of entertainment. This photo was taken in winter, hence the stove in the foreground and the pile of blankets. Still it was cold. Especially when I had to get up in the middle of the night, crawl outside in my thermals and minus 25 C or so, and throw up across the moonlit snow. Ah, such fond memories.

Ablutions usually take place in a small mud-brick toilet in a shameful corner of the compound, a hole in the ground which isn’t nearly deep enough, a scrap of Hessian for a door and the wind whistling through. No running water, needless to add. It’s not a pleasant experience so I won’t dwell on it here.

A quick breakfast of tea and bread before we pile into a vehicle that’s seen better days and set off for wherever it is we are going. (Travelling in fancy shiny white Land Cruisers with air conditioning and what have you? I think not; we’re too poor hardcore.)

Pitching up at some distant village in a cloud of dust we wait for a crowd to gather around or send some young boy scampering off in search of the person we need to meet first.

These encounters sometimes have an uneasy feeling about them for me. Outsiders suddenly showing up in an ostentatious display of power (i.e. a car), and imperiously expecting attention. But I think that feeling may be over-exaggerated in my mind, as one who doesn’t understand all that is said as greeting, and my colleagues do at least know the people we are come to meet, unlike myself. And travelling by donkey is sadly not an option.

Often lengthy greetings over, we walk off to the project site or settle down under the shade of a tree, in someone’s house or in the village mosque.

If at all humanely possible, tea is brought in and we slowly get round to discussing what it is we have come about.

Sometimes we’ll spend the best part of the day in one place, slowly resolving various issues and being treated to immense hospitality that I fear will leave a family without anything to eat for themselves for the next few days.

Other days will be spent mostly on the road, furiously pounding along dusty tracks and stopping off at a number of different places to briefly chew the cud about the weather and the harvest.

Like with this old chap in Samangan, a digging his potatoes.

By the time we get back to the office I’m usually exhausted from the heat and dust and hours on the road. So it’s a relief to stretch my legs and re-hydrate with a flask of tea. We’ll discuss the day and the projects as we recover, sort out any problems and make plans for the future.

This scene, and many hundreds like it, will forever be imprinted on my memory.

Our offices double as accommodation for the staff who don’t live in the district. In the evening everyone gathers in the largest room to watch TV. I’ve already written about television in Afghanistan, so I’ll just say that they enjoy it more than I do.

Once the scraps of bread and bowls of inedible bone and gristle have been cleared off the plastic sheet we’re sitting around, I usually make good my escape.

If I’m lucky I’ll have a room of my own to retire to, to read a book by a flickering light or write something to put up here when I next get to a place with a computer and internet connection. The evenings would be decidedly dull if I weren’t so glad to curl up on a thin mattress on the floor and sleep.

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. 

Nagging worries

March 18, 2008

A couple of those smiles that initially welcomed me back last week have faded somewhat since.

Part of my job involves supporting the work of senior Afghan colleagues in the field, not managing them but helping them do their work, building their capacity.

Which is all well and good, but I sometimes worry that, occasionally, that support boils down to me nagging them. I’ve been struggling this week to find the balance between helping and encouraging someone and treading on their toes.

Entirely understandably, I feel some people begrudge my presence. At which point it becomes difficult to provide the support I am supposed to. But taking a hands-off and painstakingly diplomatic approach as I usually try sometimes means work isn’t done as well as I would wish.

It’s hard to describe this without going into the details of my work, which I don’t plan to do. But if there was a British-style tabloid newspaper here, I reckon it would be describing me as a ‘bloody foreigner, comin’ over here, takin’ all our jobs…’

And the Afghanistan Government is giving the impression of taking a similar line. Issues of NGOs’ and foreigners’ tax, visas, work permits and so on are becoming increasingly troublesome. Either they are trying to squeeze more money out of us (which is fair enough, although that money comes from foreign donors), or they’re trying to claw back some of their power. Again, fair play to them.

But increasing the bureaucratic hurdles people have to jump over to work in this country when there is already a shortage of qualified personnel doesn’t seem like the best of ideas.

One thing the government is now requiring of foreign aid workers is an explanation of why they are needed and what they offer that an Afghan can’t provide, and assurances that the foreign worker will work to train a national counterpart to replace them.

Which is quite right too. Though right now I’m struggling, and fear the smiles are getting a little frosty.