#68 Bitching about HQ
As both the substance and the heavy lifting of international aid and development work move from demonstration plots and distribution sites in the Third World to conference rooms and cubicles in the not-Third World; and as it becomes increasingly possible to find annoyingly qualified locals to occupy those plum positions (once the undisputed turf of the foreign do-gooders) so it also becomes ever more important to keep alive what is perhaps the most sacred ritual in the entire Expat Aid Worker liturgy:
Bitching about HQ.
Bitching about HQ is at least as old as the Marshall Plan. And as any EAW who has ever ranted about a clueless M&E team or marketing rep from the head office is aware, bitching about HQ is one of the best ways there is to make the point that he or she is not one to be trifled with: he or she is out there, actually doing it. No strategy-obsessed cubicle-dweller from Brussels or D.C. can tell him or her anything. They don’t know EAW reality. They get sick just eating the salad (the one that they tried to pay for with US dollars), for goodness sake. This EAW is doing a job so complicated and difficult that no one at HQ could ever begin to understand. Bitching about HQ is the ultimate expression of defiance at a system that at once enables and enslaves the introspective EAW.
“I’ll never work for HQ!”, or “Who in HQ had this brilliant idea ____” [INSERT NAME OF LIFE-SAVING BROWN-BABY FOCUSED PR STUNT], are the rallying cries of hardened field veteran EAWs who are simply too busy dealing with issues that actually matter to be pestered with trifling details like, say, where next year’s operating budget will come from. Similarly, variations on “Easy for you HQ guys to say… you get to go home in three weeks… I have to stay here and actually do something!”, are the ultimate way to shut-down those pesky technical “support” staff who pop in every couple of months.
See, when it comes to establishing the hierarchy of relevance within the aid world, it’s EAWs vs… well, pretty much everybody else. The talking points are pretty basic:
- Those based in the field are the only ones who ever work 18-hour days.
- Those based in the field are the only ones capable of understanding the field reality.
- The work that happens in “the field” is the only work that really matters
No matter what the issue is out in the field, it is always appropriate to bitch about HQ. Did the donor pull funding because you were late getting those life-saving interim reports in? Not your problem: HQ is supposed to be running interference on that, but they’re too busy going to Starbucks. Lazy bastards. External auditors found evidence of gross mismanagement on “your” project? WTF is it with those rigid, culturally insensitive HQ wieners, anyway? Don’t they understand that your reality is complicated??? HQ PR team published a picture of “your” beneficiary without your permission. Go on. As an EAW, you’re the gatekeeper of all that is pure and holy in the aid world. Fire a little righteous indignation at those unenlightened losers (with their Mac powerbooks) at HQ.
For everything going wrong with your day in the field, there is at least one plausible reason it’s the fault of someone up your chain of management in a climate-controlled cubicle in one of the humanitarian capitals. So order another badly mixed Manhattan and indulge in a little bitching about HQ. Hell, you’ve earned it.
Oh, and pity the poor sod who has to the leave the field to go work at HQ….