Few things are as essential for EAWs as a high-speed internet connection. Internet is a vital tool in the office (where it is needed to share the 15 MB Powerpoint presentation from the latest “Lessons Learned” workshop with everyone in the organization, via email) as well as outside the office, for urgent personal communications.
The reasons for needing Internet are slightly different in ‘the field’ than than in the EAW’s home country: after all, nobody needs to download movies or, ehem, movies when living in a country where the latest Hollywood blockbusters, HBO series and countless x-rated movies can be bought for a dollar at most street corners. (Editor’s note: Stop SOPA!)
The EAW needs Internet access like he or she needs air in order to do many of the most essential things, such as updating Facebook statuses, checking out AidLolz and International Development Ryan Gosling , sending photos with locals to impress relatives and high-school rivals, weighing in on a life-saving discussion thread in AidSource, aid-blogging, or signing petitions to stop giant corporations from ‘getting their censor on’. Besides, an iPad without internet access is just an over-sized MP3 player! (Obviously internet access has to be wireless).
In countries where wireless internet access is not ubiquitous, the EAW will quickly mutate into an IT and telecommunications specialist, bringing his or her expertise to the information poor in the most difficult settings. Even EAWs who save all their documents on their desktop (because everything else is “too complicated”) suddenly master the art of charging mobile internet USB-sticks with credit units from scratch cards so that they can tweet about having been invited to a local wedding. Others find ways to run Skype off removable hard disks in order to avoid the organization’s restrictions on software installations or tunnel through the delegation’s firewall.
Of course, only the most clueless EAWs allow themselves to be caught in a situation without broadband for an extended period of time. Anyone who has been in the industry helping people recover from tragic events for a few years knows somebody who has already been in the location before and can advise on whether the proposed mission is in digital land or downtime hell.
Used cleverly, though, lack of internet access can later increase one’s own standing. Known as “going off the grid” (another form of ‘being busy‘), strategically mentioned lack of internet access can simultaneously build field cred and also explain to HQ why those pesky deadlines were never met (“oh, sorry – I’ve been off the grid for the past two weeks…”). The EAW scores major field cred points by sharing how he or she had to sneak into a dodgy internet café in Absurdistan, where the keyboard was sticky with the sweat of unwashed tourists and the meals of local students, in order to send an urgent email while wedged in a tiny cubicle between a prostitute and a monk.
When telling the story, and depending on whether the EAW’s goal is to increase his or her field-cred with a more senior colleague or have sex with a non-EAW, the reason for his or her being in the internet café should be either: a) “because the office internet was down and I just had to send that log frame or the programme would have ground to a halt” or b) “I just had to send my mother photos of these sweet, sad brown babies we were caring for in the orphanage where I worked 18 hours every day.”