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#48 Acronyms

April 20, 2011

Submitted by Ed C., supplemented by Sayama, and enhanced by K.B.

The Expat Aid Worker loves a good acronym. Despite having graduated with a lower class liberal arts degree and possessing no ‘hard’ skills, acronyms are a fast way of building up a mystique around the work of the EAW, providing a useful barrier to clarity and giving even the most boring email about stationery ordering the thrilling edge of a ‘secret document’.

Have you run out of ways to impress upon new recruits your vast experience of the organisation and the aid environment in general, thus establishing your field cred? Throw in at least 3 acronyms in your next sentence, and watch their faces as they try to work it out. Don’t worry about confusing other colleagues – if they don’t remember what the acronym stands for, they will remain politely silent, in fear of openly displaying their own ignorance as to what ART-PAPDEL or INSTRAW stand for.

Peppering conversations with acronyms builds team spirit quickly, creating a bizarre insider’s language accessible only to the initiated. Intensive use of acronyms can even, if skilfully deployed, create divisions within teams, as even those fancy ‘I’ve-got-an-MD’ medics fail to penetrate the lowly logistician’s arcane, capitalised language.  Kittens who grow old enough to climb the compound wall no longer ‘escape’, but LAMA – Leave Against Medical Advice. ‘Use a PU to LP an MPU for the BHU SDMO’ is a much better, nay, sexier way of saying ‘Buy a cable for the clinic generator’. Referring to local armed groups (AOGs for the intiated) by their acronyms suggests a familiarity with them, rather than the white-faced fear and frantic satphone calls to capital that an encounter with a group like TTP would cause some Expat Aid Workers. The very names of NGOs have a tendency towards acronym-isation: ACF, MSF, ICRC, IFRC, and the wide range of UN bodies: UNICEF, UNDP, UNAIDS….

When the acronyms are getting boring,  adding a CB (“community based”) at the start; for example CBDRM, CBNRM, CBCRM; makes them infinitely more interesting and demonstrates the EAW’s commitment to building community capacity, and working with local partners. Spotting incorrect use of acronyms  (DDR instead of DRR for example) can also provide much-needed entertainment in that long meeting of the task force on working groups.

In addition to the general field cred associated with extensive knowledge and use of acronyms, reference to long UN acronyms also indicates experience in conflict countries;  as in “MINUSTAH was nothing compared to my experience with MONUSCO” . This lends much more credibility than the desk job at the regional office in Nairobi or the stint as a UN volunteer in Peru. Again, there is no need to worry that the person to whom you are talking will be confused- they will likely nod along, try to take note of the acronym to Google it later, but will probably forget, as they get sidetracked in updating their Facebook status, explaining their latest complicated travel plans for that monitoring mission.

For the EAW who becomes increasingly cynical about the area in which they work, a fun diversion can be found in making up new acronyms, including them in reports, emails, blog posts and Twitter and waiting to see how long it takes for the new acronym to be taken up. This is particularly effective where you take an existing acronym more commonly used in its English language version, translate the words into the working language in whatever country you happen to be in, and begin to use the new acronym. The EAW can then use only the new acronym to show just how immersed in the local language they have become (that they have forgotten the original, English version).

As acronyms infect the Expat Aid Worker’s mind, he or she can be struck down by that unusual disease, RAS Syndrome. ‘BH Healthcare’ they will write, meaning Basic Healthcare Healthcare. ‘AOG Groups’ for Armed Opposition Group Groups.

The unfortunate date invited to an EAW dinner party may be totally left out of the evening’s conversation, struggling to follow who and what is being spoken about, considering that there is an acronym not only for every organization, but also for every task. Not immediately knowing what an acronym stands for is an indication of lack of standing in lifting the socially demoralized out of poverty or protecting the last remaining forests from eternal destruction. Acronyms are also good for one-up-manship “I wrote an email just the other day to (insert name of somebody who is very important and you should know what he/she does just by hearing his/her name) that was almost all acronyms, it’s crazy I know…. I only write those kinds of emails to other people in the industry though”. (obviously)

For the non-aid worker friends and partners of the EAW, this use of acronyms can prove quite tedious. The spouse of a EAW may listen to a conversation between his wife and her colleague without understanding a word of the dialogue. It’s usually better for said partner to remain silent, to nod wisely, and pretend to understand, or face a 20 minute lecture on the intricacies of the aid industry in general, which anyone working in private sector could not possibly understand.

Also, better not to seek clarification of those acronyms later from his EAW wife, lest her lack of knowledge as to the meanings be exposed to a mere lay-person. This may precipitate arguments which can disrupt the comfortable life of the EAW family, with all its necessary perks, and may in severe cases, prompt one or other of the EAW couple to experiment with going native.

Treatment is possible, but it is likely the Expat Aid Worker, on return to the real world will continue with old habits; eg., telling you she forget her PIN number for the ATM machine or updating FB with her travel plans to GIG via MIA.

8 Comments leave one →
  1. Zehra permalink
    April 20, 2011 10:30 am

    One of my fave things to do: stop a whole conversation in a meeting and tell the person spewing acronyms to stop it. and since i’m not that kind of EAW (, i make some snarky comments about people who fly in helicopters. and read this post to know what you are dealing with at the meetings:

    I tend to be Bob.

    The joys.

    The reverse is just as bad….telling people ‘back home’ about your work, and having conversations like this:

    In the IDP camps…i mean, internally displaced people…it’s not the same as refugees, right, cuz they haven’t crossed the border..anyway, these camps, we had the FACT team…it’s just a team that does assessments, trying to work with the ER…our, emergency response units…we call then ERUs, so…u know what? I think we should order more of the ceviche…it’s really yummy, reminds me of the story you were telling before but you didn’t get a chance to finish…what did happen when Jo and Marty met in Mexico?


  2. April 23, 2011 2:11 pm

    Then there are NGOs and INGOs Sounds the same :))


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