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#223 Being Woke

January 19, 2021

If there is one thing that sets today’s Expat Aid Workers (EAW) apart from their counterparts of prior decades, it is that they are woke. Whereas 10 or 20 years ago a newb in this field needed to have read Roland Bunch, Linda Polman or Carlos Casteneda, today’s EAW reading list is more likely to include Ta-Nehisi Coates, Ibram X. Kendi, or, you know, Hugo Slim. It is important for EAWs to be aware of and in touch with real issues.

Why? Well, obviously because the EAW has a moral and ethical obligation to call out examples of non-woke-ness whenever those are encountered. Say the EAW has a mission to some pluralistic context where local colleagues of one ethnicity oppress colleagues of another ethnicity. It is up to the EAW to call that out.

It is on the EAW to use their privilege to point out the inherent racism in the locations and layout of Azraq or Dadaab, or the injustice of Trutier. It is the morally obligated duty of the woke EAW to bring local colleagues up-to-speed on the systemic oppression in South Sudan or Venezuela. It is incumbent on the thoughtfully woke EAW to help local colleagues understand the horrors of child marriage (Afghanistan, Yemen), the potential for exploitation built into beneficiary biometric data collection (too many places to mention), or the paradox being anti-the-authoritarian-Kurdish regime while being pro-separation (and calling the place “Kurdistan”). Super-woke EAWs can even help local colleagues begin to work on and overcome their own biases and prejudices and unpack their privilege.

The responsibilities of today’s EAW are heavy, indeed, but being woke is the first step toward illuminating injustices. And everyone knows you can’t fix a problem that you can’t see.

It is important to note that one of the rules of being a woke EAW is to let everyone around you know how woke you are. There are many ways to do this, but the most effective way is to engage in the most seriously earnest critique that you can possibly muster on every issue, in every situation. For maximum effect, earnest critique as a means of woke-signaling should be expressed by EAWs to their local colleagues. You need to let your local colleagues know just how deeply offended you are on their behalf, by whatever it is that those “other” expats did or said, or by whatever was deemed offensive. Centering the conversation on your own experiences and feelings about these issues does much to repair decades of harm.

Holding other EAWs to account for outdated views is usually counterproductive, but if you must do it righteous indignation is probably the best option. What you really want is for all the locals to think that you’re somehow different. And that difference is that you’re woke, or at least more woke than all the other EAWs. And you are willing to stand humbly and selflessly in the spotlight while leading the charge for change.

So put your local team to work churning out next year’s budget or this week’s 3Ws, and go Tweet about systemic oppression.

#222 Spreading Democracy

January 11, 2021

As every EAW knows, democracy is the best form of government ever. And it only exists in the United States, Canada, and England. And some parts of the EU. (And possibly India and Costa Rica). A critical role of EAWs is helping spread democracy to the rest of the world, which doesn’t have it.

This can be done in many ways. But the best results come when it is done via Democracy and Governance funding from countries that have true democracies (capitalist democracies, not social ones).

Democratic governance and human rights are critical components of sustainable development and lasting peace. Countries that have ineffective government institutions, rampant corruption and weak rule of law have a 30-to-45 percent higher risk of civil war and higher risk of extreme criminal violence than other developing countries.

There is so much that less developed countries can learn from long-standing democracies about the role of strong institutions for ensuring broad civic participation, transparency and accountability from elected officials, and smooth transitions of power. For example, protecting and promoting human rights, ensuring the possibility for free and fair elections, combating disinformation, strengthening digital safety for new and traditional media, and incorporating rule of law and justice, can be built right into human rights programming for surefire results.

With a few exceptions, EAWs are proud of their democracies and grateful that following their years of self-sacrifice and building up of their savings, they can return to their home countries (or one of the lesser democracies where the weather is better) to enjoy their waning years somewhere just, peaceful, and stable where all citizens can fulfill their potential. 

Right up there with capacity building and stamping out corruption, spreading the cherished values of democracy is one of the best ways that EAWs can help the world become a better place.

ToonsEAWL: The end of 2020

January 6, 2021

#221 Embracing Change

January 4, 2021

It’s hard to believe that it’s been over 10 years since #stuffexpataidworkerslike emerged as a hashtag and we ran our first post here at Stuff Expat Aid Workers Like! And holy crap things have changed since then! The venerable Toyota Land Cruiser that gets us to our coordination meetings had a MSRP of around US $30,000 in 2010. In 2021 the base model lists for a cool US $85k and has a 9-inch touchscreen multi-media system (better than most team houses had in 2010). 

Expat Aid Workers (EAWs) have seen so much change in the past decade, it’s a wonder they are still holding it together. The Joint Standards Initiative brought about the merger of the HAP and PIA which birthed CHSA (and just a few other acronyms). Whereas the Haiti earthquake was still a response in-progress in December of 2010, now it’s ancient history. Afghanistan, once foreboding and hardcore, is now just another humanitarian crossroads, a place to go when Juba has begun to lose its “deep field” appeal. Cambodia, formerly a field cred destination, is now an R&R destination. And amid all this disorienting change, EAWs have to manage the ongoing stress of wondering why the Sphere Project never endorsed the Joint Standards Initiative or the CHS…. Old timers can often be heard in fascinating discourse on this topic over beers at a corner table while newbies, back from CXB or NES, try to one-up each other with stories about Amouda and Erbil.

EAWs now have to deal with “The Nexus.” And gone are the days when the edgy EAW could make waves by suggesting cash transfer programming (CTP) might be better than in kind food and basic goods distribution. (It’s now called CVA and it comprises 18% of all humanitarian aid). Instead of easy debates on fuel-efficient stoves, the EAW must now be able to convincingly argue for or against the merits of blockchain, biometrics, and beneficiary data sharing. 

In 2010, EAWs could follow Bill Easterly and Jeffrey Sachs for cutting edge aid system debates (or Dambisa Moyo if they were really cynical). Now Bill Easterly is in apparent Twitter retirement (as is the mythical Bill Westerly). Old guard humanitarian and development blogs like TexasinAfrica (last post: 2014) and Blood and Milk (last post: 2015) that ruled the humanitarian information superhighway now lie fallow. The Guardian’s corporatizing of the humanitarian blogosphere has fallen by the wayside.

In place of blogs, the savvy modern EAW keeps up to date via multiple humanitarian-themed Facebook groups and Instagram accounts. The Sachs-Easterly debate has been replaced by (mostly) friendly feuds between 50 Shades of Aid and Humanitarian Clusterposting (aka “Shaders” and “the HCP incels”). Humanitarian shitpost memes are now a thing. The Humanitarian Pup and Humanitarians of Tinder each have more followers than The New Humanitarian. And Aid Worker Jesus rules humanitarian twitter.

2016 sparked the subsequent trash-fires of Brexit, BoJo and Trump. Then in 2017 Alyssa Milano brought us the #metoo movement (hmmm, or was it Tarana Burke in 2006…?), shortly followed by the #aidtoo discussion. Not to mention the premier INGO safeguarding scandal brought to us by Oxfam in 2018.

2020, the year that changed everything (…yet changed nothing?) ushered in COVID-19, lockdowns, travel bans, and endless Zoom calls. Above all else, the inability to travel left many EAWs feeling that life may no longer be worth living.

2020 was also deeply marked by the murder of George Floyd, civil unrest, and widespread engagement in #blacklivesmatter. This gave humanitarian organizations a new opportunity to reassure their donors and the general public that they are serious about ending racism. For example, some agencies enhanced the diversity of their organizations by including local middle management and admin staff photos on the team page of their website — and alphabetizing them to avoid giving the impression that there is a hierarchy of power, with white EAWs at the top — before sending out their organizational statements in solidarity with the Black Lives Matter movement. Others worked hard to raise awareness and end racism with mandatory online training sessions and diversity committees led by the most vocal non-white staff member who needed an “expanded opportunity” to direct their energy into “something positive.”

While much has changed, some things remain constant, however. For example WFP’s food basket specifications have not changed since before this blog was launched. And the lowly Expat Aid Worker, despite being under severe stress due to travel bans and on-going, growing calls for localization, decolonization, and an overall reset, is nowhere near endangered.

Yes. EAWs are alive and well, still going to coordination meetings, still debating whether to take leave in Lisbon or back home in Little Rock, still collecting per diem when “on mission.”

So on or around the 10-year anniversary of SEAWL, a blog dedicated to poking fun at expat aid worker culture, we think it’s time for a reboot. The time is right to reopen the EAW conversation in this format. It seems we were mostly on the right track 10 years ago, and now it’s time to take our snarkastic (and we hope also thought-provoking) commentary to the next level. We’re planning a combination of brand-new material and remixes of some of the classics. We think you’ll love all of it!

As before, this will be a highly participatory endeavor, with the rules of engagement much the same as before, for those who are old enough to remember (and for those who aren’t or who for some other reason don’t remember or never knew, here are the rules of engagement).

Wherever you are, whether you’re stuck at HQ or in some deep-field duty station, whether you think of yourself as expat or a local or something else, we hope you’ll check in, have a good laugh, and maybe also think seriously about issues of inequity, sexism, racism, and white supremacy in the aid sector.

#220 Google Maps

February 2, 2015

IMG_6943Submitted by Wayan Vota

Back in the olden days, a freshly arrived expat aid worker was at the mercy of taxi drivers when navigating a city. Often lacking a detailed map or sense of local landmarks, the EAW would not know distances or even the right direction to his or her next meeting. Long, expensive drives were the usual result. Taxi drivers would act like they knew the location, but they were often just as lost as the EAW, yet unwilling to lose face or a fat fare.

Then came Google Maps on the mobile phone. Now the EAW knows as much, or sometime more, than the taxi driver. Expats can find their destination, track progress, and more often than not, direct the driver to the location.

All hail the power transfer from local to expat!  May your next expat taxi ride be fast and direct.

A Moment of Silence

January 9, 2015

Charlie Hebdo

We believe that freedom of speech and humor, especially satire, are vital to the health of any society. We mourn those fallen at Charlie Hebdo.
SgS, J., Manu

#219 Being Discovered

January 6, 2015

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.


From left to right: The Real World; Expat Aid Worker

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…



#218 Making the best of Local Food

May 26, 2014

Pretending to love fried bugs is so ’90s backpacker. And anyway, no matter how good you think you are, local people can usually tell when you’re faking it.

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. 

*  *  *

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.

#217 Blogging for the agency website

April 2, 2014

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.”

#216 Being heard (and a public service announcement)

February 25, 2014

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…)

10-Speaking-OutBut 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!