Although it may feel supremely un-aidworker-ish to admit it, one thing that most Expat Aid Workers have in common is that they want to be recognized for their contribution to the greater good. One can only make one’s living ensuring Sphere standards for the unfortunate and downtrodden for so long before the need for a bit of copious Facebook self-promotion takes over. Insisting on carrying one’s own luggage, or treating locals like peers, for example, are all great for making the point that one is all about solidarity with all things local/poor (or at least good at blending in). But for every EAW there eventually comes a point when they just want to be acknowledged. Preferably publicly.
Unfortunately, there really is no obviously right space for EAWs to assert themselves and take hold of this rightful recognition. Blogging is a go-to rookie move (any amateur can start a blog and front like they matter. Heck, any amateur can start their own NGO and go viral.) Some try to build an industry-wide reputation by being enigmatic (tough to make it work because everyone else is cynical, too, not to mention much too busy to be bothered knowing who’s who). Some go on a solitary quest to find themselves with the hopes of writing a best-selling novel memoir later, but that’s a long-shot (the best-selling part). Others simply make stuff up.
But none of that is exactly it. No, the prize that today’s self-aware EAW pines for is a serendipitous, unsought, nod of public acknowledgement — affirmation — by a prominent voice outside the aid world. To put it simply, EAWs want to be discovered.
While preferred discovery is that by a “mainstream” media outlet (or perhaps well-known journalist as a proxy), it is nevertheless of critical importance to understand that not all discovery is equal. There is a hierarchy of coveted discovery.
Here’s how it works:
- Discovery by an established publication is better than discovery by an individual journalist, unless the journalist is really famous.
- Discovery by a partially famous journalist who’s shtick is being critical of aid is better than discovery by a really famous journalist with a history of discovering things that turned out to be fraudulent.
- Discovery by an established dynastic publication is better than being discovered by the Huffington Post.
- Discovery by the Huffington Post is better than being pinged for discovery by Al Jazeera, only to be pulled later over a technicality (e.g., someone’s “rule” that you can’t be interviewed anonymously… true story).
- Discovery by the aid world journalism equivalent of pirate radio is better than discovery by a politically middle-of-the-road tabloid-gone-web-based and trying desperately to maintain an air of “liberal” and “non-corporate.”
- Unless of course we’re talking about that particular publication sometimes known as “an organ of the middle class” (there’s a mental image). In which case…
WOO-HOO!! WE’VE ARRIVED!!
Fortunately today’s well-adjusted Expat Aid Worker has made peace with the reality that some local food will really only ever appeal to, you know, local people. Old fish. Sorghum with green, mucus-like sauce. Gristly goat swimming in oil. And for those late-adopter EAWs with something to prove, the search for culinary authenticity ends, more often than not, with the realization that pre-packaged, mass-produced food isn’t so bad after all. As Chris Rock once said, it’s not red meat that kills you; it’s green meat.
As a corollary – local, more authentic food (defined as what everyone else is eating) isn’t necessarily better, much less more healthy, especially if everyone else tends to be incredibly poor.
That said, sometimes it’s necessary to eat avec les autres, as it were. Perhaps the EAW is on the road, and don’t have any other options. Perhaps she or he has been offered a meal in circumstances that make it impossible to say no. (For instance, when there’s an audience). Or, worst of all, the EAW needs to establish/consolidate field cred to someone visiting from HQ, whose expectations of life in the field were shaped primarily by the blogs or Facebook posts of other EAW’s.
Yes, pretty much anyone can claim to love local food. The real skill lies in surviving where what few options there are leave a lot to be desired by discerning EAW standards.
[As a quick rule of thumb for those considering the leap to ‘the field': if you’re in an area where different cultures have been interacting, fighting, and generally sloshing around for centuries, chances are the food is relatively decent. Which generally means the coasts. The further inland you go, the greater the chance that the local culture has been spent centuries perfecting various ways to eat sorghum. (Thus the tendency to facipulate those life-saving workshops in places like Bali, Istanbul, or Rome: amazing coffee breaks and team dinners.)]
For those intrepid EAWs who make it out of the well-lit conference rooms in the humanitarian capitals, a few survival tips:
1. If you’re hungry enough, you’ll eat anything.
2. Assuming that you’re eating by choice as opposed to necessity, the key is to consume as little as possible while being as polite as possible. The same rules apply as when you were eight – eat slowly, take small bites, and keep moving the food around your plate.
3. Cheap gin or whiskey is an excellent way to cut the taste, and also erase all memories of the experience.
4. If neither cheap gin nor whiskey is available, a Coke chaser will do in a pinch. Pepsi, Sprite, or other soft drinks also work, but they are never as readily accessible as Coke, whose billboards you will see in every country you’ll ever visit.
5. Hot sauce – added liberally – makes almost anything more palatable. Or at least obscures any unpleasant (albeit authentic) tastes and flavors.
6. You will get sick drinking local water. You will never get sick drinking bottled water, soda or beer. That said, it’s up to you to judge the short-term benefits and long term costs of a subsisting on soda and beer. (That expat fifteen-pound gain being, on the whole, quite similar to the fifteen pounds you gained your first term in university.)
7. Biscuits in their original package might taste like a mixture of chemicals and sawdust, but they’ll never make you sick.
8. Only eat fish if there’s actually an ocean, sea, river or lake somewhere nearby.
9. Amateurs, after a few bites, plead a stomachache or other digestive distress. Seasoned EAWs smile bravely and plead a pre-existing stomachache before taking a few bites, thereby excusing the need to eat more while also gaining valuable martyr-points. All in all, this leaves the door open for a win-win situation.
10. Of course, as we all know, eat with your right hand. Do not, under any circumstances, eat with the left. The left is for other things. Bathroom things.
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This guest post comes from @MichaelKleinman and is part of his recent book, co-authored with Liz Good, Expat Etiquette: How To Look Good In Bad Places.
Submitted by wpb, an EAW communications professional
The Expat Aid Worker loves to blog, and not just on his or her personal blog (yes, that is a popular pastime as well, but it requires regular updates, and can run the real risk that only mum will bother to read it).
Writing blog posts, also known as “field diaries,” for the agency website is a far more visible way to translate the plight of those suffering from war, disease, famine, or whatever, for audiences back home. If the EAW is lucky, it might be placed somewhere like the Huffington Post or The Guardian, giving him loads of credibility, and allowing him to modestly link to it on Facebook.
It’s true that many EAWs will allow the communications officer to write the piece, just checking the technical details before signing their name to a piece that ends with something insipid like: “…and as long as we can continue to deliver life-saving immunizations/ shelter/ food to children like Fatima, they will survive – and thrive.”
For others, however, this is an opportunity to embrace the dramatic writing skill that the assistant professor in the university creative writing elective was so unappreciative of. Because now the skill is resurfacing. And with a vengeance, because what requires more drama than starving babies, land mine victims and the EAW’s deep emotional connection to people caught in this or that heartbreaking situation?
As every EAW knows, the best thing about the field diary/blog post is that it’s a way to make the disaster about YOU. EAWs like to write about being invited into mud huts to drink tea. On one hand an EAW can show how these people are just like us. On the other, she can show how trusted and accepted she is in this wildly foreign land. And, having had a simple, humbling, human interaction, she can then exploit it on social media.
It’s important to keep it relevant and exciting though. Writing a straight piece on a widowed mother of six in a refugee camp is too hard for people to relate to. And even the savviest EAW among us really has to know how to ask a leading question to prize any drama out of some people (they really do not get it at all). Even if an EAW asks something as direct as “tell me, what have you lost in this disaster?” the selected widow might say something like “things are better now that there are regular food rations and shelter, and the children are happier here.” And what can an EAW do with that?!
So rather than bother with potentially insensitive or intrusive questions, it’s better for the aid worker to be respectful and just see things for himself. He can identify “the pain behind the smile, as she struggles to carry on.” An aid worker knows how common sexual assault is in the conflict, even though no one will speak about it, and this allows him to see “the silent scream in her eyes.” An aid worker can read a lot in people’s eyes, actually.
The best thing about the whole situation is that the refugee mother (or reformed child soldier, or famine stricken family) is highly unlikely to read the article and question the EAW’s flair for the dramatic. And so the selected widow’s children’s few months of missed school can become years, the blood she saw on the street was probably a body (or many bodies – that’s probably what the unreliable local interpreter meant to say anyway), and her relationship to a victim of the conflict becomes a little closer – going from “someone I heard about” to “husband.” (One can always blame the interpreter.)
A last note is that it’s important for the EAW to remember that information is only one aspect of a good blog post. When writing it up, style is everything. The EAW should insert periodic pauses for dramatic effect.
Then start a new paragraph.
A paragraph that might go a little like this:
His eyes swollen with tears, he glares up at me. Muhammed is only eight, yet the cruel ravages of war have exerted their merciless toll. His mother and sister forced into hard labour akin to slavery, leaving Muhammed scavenging through piles of trash in the forgotten refugee camp.
And his kitten smelt like camel piss.
Add a photo of a) extremely sad impoverished children with large eyes and a mother with a covered head or b) extremely impoverished children who still smile and play, (Don’t forget to get the photo credits assigned) and voila.
Later the EAW can read her published blog post, content in the knowledge she has “shed light on the truth,” “raised the profile” of her organization, and “given a voice to the vulnerable.”
It may not be obvious to the casual observer of today’s Expat Aid Workers, but despite all the cynicism, overt attempts to demonstrate how out of touch with popular culture they are, and silverbacks who wantonly and shamelessly destroy the idealism of the newbs, at the end of the day, many battered EAWs simply want to be heard.
Let’s get something straight: No one can understand us. We’re much too enigmatic for that. No one but us will ever truly get what we’ve been through, or the sacrifices we’ve made to be here (“here” = at the house party, driver waiting outside…)
But then, after years of trying in many and various ways to “be one with the people”, it’s hard to know who we even are in the first place. And doesn’t it make sense, in the context of a global, 10s-of-billions-of-USD per year industry, allegedly tasked with making the world better, that maybe we should figure that out? Actors, singers, and college dropouts alike all think they can do our jobs better than us. They think they can show up in “the field” with some high-tech camping gear and be us. But then, who are we, exactly? Half the time we don’t even recognize (or pretend to not recognize) each other. Who are these Expat Aid Workers of whom everyone speaks? And when was the last time someone actually asked you?
Your years of waiting are finally over.
Public Service Announcement: Co-founder/blogger of Stuff Expat Aid Workers like, J., has teamed up with some super smart academic dude from Elon University, to actually study us, in order to answer this vexing question. Who are we? This is a serious academic research project, and a serious opportunity for you—all of you, expat, local, anyone and everyone in the aid industry (we’ll include dropouts, too) to be included.
It begins with a census-style survey, here. (yes, we know, you’re very busy. It takes about half an hour to complete, depending on how long you agonize over the open-ended questions. Just do it. Brag about it, or bring the righteous indignation, on Facebook later).
There’s also a blog hosted by Elon University, where J. and the academic dude will post regular updates, give you all the chance to participate in mini-polls, give long-winded feedback, and more.
Click through the survey. Check out the blog. This is your chance to be heard!