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#221 Embracing Change

January 4, 2021

It’s hard to believe that it’s been over 10 years since #stuffexpataidworkerslike emerged as a hashtag and we ran our first post here at Stuff Expat Aid Workers Like! And holy crap things have changed since then! The venerable Toyota Land Cruiser that gets us to our coordination meetings had a MSRP of around US $30,000 in 2010. In 2021 the base model lists for a cool US $85k and has a 9-inch touchscreen multi-media system (better than most team houses had in 2010). 

Expat Aid Workers (EAWs) have seen so much change in the past decade, it’s a wonder they are still holding it together. The Joint Standards Initiative brought about the merger of the HAP and PIA which birthed CHSA (and just a few other acronyms). Whereas the Haiti earthquake was still a response in-progress in December of 2010, now it’s ancient history. Afghanistan, once foreboding and hardcore, is now just another humanitarian crossroads, a place to go when Juba has begun to lose its “deep field” appeal. Cambodia, formerly a field cred destination, is now an R&R destination. And amid all this disorienting change, EAWs have to manage the ongoing stress of wondering why the Sphere Project never endorsed the Joint Standards Initiative or the CHS…. Old timers can often be heard in fascinating discourse on this topic over beers at a corner table while newbies, back from CXB or NES, try to one-up each other with stories about Amouda and Erbil.

EAWs now have to deal with “The Nexus.” And gone are the days when the edgy EAW could make waves by suggesting cash transfer programming (CTP) might be better than in kind food and basic goods distribution. (It’s now called CVA and it comprises 18% of all humanitarian aid). Instead of easy debates on fuel-efficient stoves, the EAW must now be able to convincingly argue for or against the merits of blockchain, biometrics, and beneficiary data sharing. 

In 2010, EAWs could follow Bill Easterly and Jeffrey Sachs for cutting edge aid system debates (or Dambisa Moyo if they were really cynical). Now Bill Easterly is in apparent Twitter retirement (as is the mythical Bill Westerly). Old guard humanitarian and development blogs like TexasinAfrica (last post: 2014) and Blood and Milk (last post: 2015) that ruled the humanitarian information superhighway now lie fallow. The Guardian’s corporatizing of the humanitarian blogosphere has fallen by the wayside.

In place of blogs, the savvy modern EAW keeps up to date via multiple humanitarian-themed Facebook groups and Instagram accounts. The Sachs-Easterly debate has been replaced by (mostly) friendly feuds between 50 Shades of Aid and Humanitarian Clusterposting (aka “Shaders” and “the HCP incels”). Humanitarian shitpost memes are now a thing. The Humanitarian Pup and Humanitarians of Tinder each have more followers than The New Humanitarian. And Aid Worker Jesus rules humanitarian twitter.

2016 sparked the subsequent trash-fires of Brexit, BoJo and Trump. Then in 2017 Alyssa Milano brought us the #metoo movement (hmmm, or was it Tarana Burke in 2006…?), shortly followed by the #aidtoo discussion. Not to mention the premier INGO safeguarding scandal brought to us by Oxfam in 2018.

2020, the year that changed everything (…yet changed nothing?) ushered in COVID-19, lockdowns, travel bans, and endless Zoom calls. Above all else, the inability to travel left many EAWs feeling that life may no longer be worth living.

2020 was also deeply marked by the murder of George Floyd, civil unrest, and widespread engagement in #blacklivesmatter. This gave humanitarian organizations a new opportunity to reassure their donors and the general public that they are serious about ending racism. For example, some agencies enhanced the diversity of their organizations by including local middle management and admin staff photos on the team page of their website — and alphabetizing them to avoid giving the impression that there is a hierarchy of power, with white EAWs at the top — before sending out their organizational statements in solidarity with the Black Lives Matter movement. Others worked hard to raise awareness and end racism with mandatory online training sessions and diversity committees led by the most vocal non-white staff member who needed an “expanded opportunity” to direct their energy into “something positive.”

While much has changed, some things remain constant, however. For example WFP’s food basket specifications have not changed since before this blog was launched. And the lowly Expat Aid Worker, despite being under severe stress due to travel bans and on-going, growing calls for localization, decolonization, and an overall reset, is nowhere near endangered.

Yes. EAWs are alive and well, still going to coordination meetings, still debating whether to take leave in Lisbon or back home in Little Rock, still collecting per diem when “on mission.”

So on or around the 10-year anniversary of SEAWL, a blog dedicated to poking fun at expat aid worker culture, we think it’s time for a reboot. The time is right to reopen the EAW conversation in this format. It seems we were mostly on the right track 10 years ago, and now it’s time to take our snarkastic (and we hope also thought-provoking) commentary to the next level. We’re planning a combination of brand-new material and remixes of some of the classics. We think you’ll love all of it!

As before, this will be a highly participatory endeavor, with the rules of engagement much the same as before, for those who are old enough to remember (and for those who aren’t or who for some other reason don’t remember or never knew, here are the rules of engagement).

Wherever you are, whether you’re stuck at HQ or in some deep-field duty station, whether you think of yourself as expat or a local or something else, we hope you’ll check in, have a good laugh, and maybe also think seriously about issues of inequity, sexism, racism, and white supremacy in the aid sector.

7 Comments leave one →
  1. Dan Rathbun permalink
    January 4, 2021 10:18 am

    A blog for retired expat aid workers is needed!

    >

  2. kaz_taj permalink
    January 4, 2021 10:28 am

    I’ve missed you so much.

  3. January 4, 2021 12:24 pm

    I was waiting for you to come back! the best news of 2021 so far :)

  4. January 4, 2021 2:28 pm

    Wow – blast from the past! Welcome back. Thrilled.

    Sent from my iPhone

    >

  5. January 4, 2021 2:59 pm

    YES! The return of seawl is making my day!

  6. Angela L Huddleston permalink
    January 4, 2021 5:02 pm

    Nice! Excited to read new and old posts!

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