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#192 Pretending to be Spies

December 14, 2012
License to Grill...

License to Grill…

Submitted by Michael Keller, who is writing a book about aid organizations’ inefficiencies. Find him on Facebook or on Twitter: @AidHappens.

You know when your family asks you half-jokingly if you’re a secret agent, and you hesitate before you answer?

That’s because Expat Aid Workers love to think they’re spies. Though locals’ conflation of aid workers and intelligence agents is understandably a huge security concern (to be avoided at all costs), EAWs secretly relish the fantasy that they are a Third World version of Jason Bourne.

The trappings of the EAW lifestyle can’t help but make EAWs feel special. Depending on the location and the money behind their employer, the multiple cell phones, satellite phone, bad-ass chauffeured 4×4 with 2 fuel tanks and bristling with VHF and HF antennae, full-time maid and cook, and branded plane or helicopter will make the most idealistic newbie believe he or she is one silenced pistol away from being tasked by Her Majesty to recover the microfiche being held by a turbaned Darfuri warlord sporting a distinctive facial scar.

In actuality, aid work in the field isn’t really all that different from espionage:

  • Your contract swears you to secrecy
  • You are sent to the world’s hell-holes on short notice and arrive at the airport as the last foreigners are leaving out of fear for their lives. On the plus side, your insurance covers repatriation of your corpse.
  • You have a code name (at least on the radio)
  • You can’t tell anyone back home what you really do (because they usually don’t want to hear it)
  • Everyone else thinks your job is adrenaline-fuelled adventurism when in reality it’s 95% deskwork
  • You love disguising yourself as a local to the point where you’ve gone so native that you forget where you’re from
  • You have mastered the basics of a smattering of obscure languages
  • You look damn sexy with a gun in your hand
  • You take orders from someone in a nice office who has no clue about life in the field, and you’re expected to implement those orders unquestioningly
  • License to Swill

    License to Swill

    Your only outlet is commiseration with other people in your profession

  • Your most valuable work is done at cocktail parties (fundraising)
  • Being kidnapped is almost a rite of passage, in which case your employer voids all responsibility for you
  • You collect intel on the local political/security context and keep tabs on your rivals with funny names (whom you occasionally sleep with)
  • You wish every day you could give up your job and return to a normal life back home but your years in the trenches have left you an emotional wreck and suited for only one calling: assassin/proposal writer
  • The context, title, and objectives may change, but each mission follows the same tired plotline
  • Villains constantly devise agonizing forms of torture that they think will break you but from which you inevitably escape at the last minute. This torture is called grant writing.
  • The public only hears about your work when you fail.

Though most EAWs will express disgust at the CIA’s activities, they clandestinely yearn to use their skills to effect real change in the world as spies, rather than spend another year explaining the results chain to ungrateful locals.

So go ahead and tell the family you basically are James bond, minus the killing… and the babes.

2 Comments leave one →
  1. Sofocles permalink
    January 21, 2013 4:16 pm

    One of the best posts in a while. I know several bod wannabes. They wear fancy sunglasses, put on gel on their hair and wear seemingly casual clothing that is actually expensive.


  1. Pretending to be spies | Perspectives in Development and Evaluation

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