#199 Carrying their own luggage
The Devil, as always, is in the details. Dancing with the locals (and wearing their clothes and eating their food), untreated PTSD, being best friends with the driver, partially learning the local language, and even going native a bunch of times, can only take today’s Expat Aid Worker part way down the path towards full expat oneness with those that many insist on referring to as “intended beneficiaries” (so as to clearly differentiate them from “unintended beneficiaries”). To traverse those final steps requires the EAW to come full circle, to return to embrace the interconnected nuances of international aid, and one’s own small but crucial part in the grand ballet that includes the full panacea of “key stakeholders.”
Thankfully, there remains an opportunity for the EAW to demonstrate his or her undying solidarity with the poorest of the poor, ram home the point that she or he is not some ordinary pansy fresh from a cubicle at HQ, and also – somewhat paradoxically – demonstrate understanding and appreciation for the importance of keeping that reported global overhead low. This opportunity presents itself every time she or he passes through an airport or checks into/out of a hotel or guest house. Despite its humble appearance, this opportunity — the ritual of luggage handling — is more complex and laden with symbolism than almost anything else the EAW does.
It’s a familiar scene: 15 or 20 guys, maybe in uniform, standing around the luggage carousel, clutching the last of the luggage carts. For only 50,000 dong they’ll shepherd the EAW’s bags all the way through customs to the waiting driver in the NGO SUV. Or later, at the (small, but safe and reasonably priced) hotel, before the EAW has even finished checking in, there will be a small scuffle over who, exactly, will schlep the EAW’s bags across the lobby to the elevator.
Should the EAW support the local economy by paying the 2,000 Riel? What if the EAW hasn’t changed money yet? Will a dollar bill work? How many kwanzas in a euro? Sort out the cost of the porter at the desk or later, once the bags are in her/his room? If the EAW tips too little, it might be a life-threatening insult. If the EAW tips too much, it might set a dangerous precedent. Is the porter “legal” or “black market”? After the angst generated by having a poor, local person do her or his menial labor, few things drive EAWs around the bend faster than being taken advantage of for a few pennies or the vexing notion that they may have inadvertently contributed to corruption.
Few people outside the aid industry truly understand the complexity of what EAWs must do even before they’ve gone to their first life-saving meeting.
Sadly, the complexity doesn’t end there. In a time when the “value add” of EAWs is increasingly under negative scrutiny, the issue of who carries the luggage comes with additional baggage attached. It helps to understand that EAW incompetence and EAW neediness while in the field are often mistaken for each other. So when the Country Director needs a reason to help that highly functional but at times abrasive expat find work with the competition, the final nail in her career coffin might very well be something like, “… and she can’t even get her own luggage into the teamhouse…”
Or, on the other hand, it doesn’t seem to matter so much if the targets aren’t being met and the spreadsheets don’t calculate properly and the beneficiaries are rioting at distribution sites, all attributable to the EAW’s incompetence. So long as he is known for carrying his own luggage, he can bask in the warm, comforting light of a reputation for being “low maintenance” and “culturally aware”, all of which by extension “add value.”
Finally, whenever the financial environment is one of declining revenue in the context of fixed costs, it becomes incumbent on the EAW to conserve costs. 200 pesos per porter per bag X 2 bags X 4 trips per year X 300 EAWs traveling to/from monitoring visits = 480,000 pesos, which is… well, a lot in USD. What if an auditor or journalist were to discover the amount of donor dollars being wasted on nothing more innovative than EAWs paying local people to carry their luggage? That $3.00 is half of one locally produced fuel-efficient stove. And you can’t put a price on lost impact.
So really, for the sake of everyone, it’s better to just carry your own bags.