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#206 Replying to “all”

February 28, 2013

One of the most damning things you can ever say about an Expat Aid Worker is that she/he “works in silos.”

Like a black mark on a 3rd-grader’s report card in the “Plays well with others” box, “works in silos”, “doesn’t coordinate“, “never shares information“, and a thousand poignant variants thereof are the ultimate take-down of any EAW or NGO employee so foolish as to believe that simply buckling down and focusing on ones’ own tasks was sufficient. No, in a universe where multiple stakeholder management and internal client focus and cross-functional intra-team integration is assumed to be synonymous with “impact”, today’s EAW who wishes to avoid being tarred with a very black brush understands that no decision, no task is too small or inconsequential to necessitate involving the broadest possible range of interested parties, irrespective of their respective degrees of legitimate business interest in the issue under discussion.

Thankfully, (as is so frequently the case) modern technology has a solution: “Reply All.”


With a few simple mouse clicks, today’s EAW can achieve maximum synergy while simultaneously enhancing broad-based ownership in any discussion. It’s easier than it seems, actually. All one has to do is:

Click “reply all.”

No need to exercise judgement over who in the 50+ long distribution is actually relevant to the discussion at hand. Similarly, no need to restrict circulation: if the original author saw fit to cc. 107 people, then the EAW’s response can be assumed to be of urgent interest to all of them. Which leads to the final point that no response is too mundane: the corollary of “everyone’s important” is “I’m always important.” So when the EAW receives an obviously mistaken email, it is of great importance that she/he “reply all” so that all 300 (+/-) of the original recipients know that she/he is “out of office”, or “agrees that this is a hugely important discussion”, or  “doesn’t know anything about this.”

Just as it is important to include the broadest possible range of email recipients in a given context, so it is similarly important to self-actualize oneself to the stage where one realizes that one’s response is always needed. If the email comes to your box, it is specifically because the sender wanted your response. Your colleagues desperately want to know what you think, particularly if you’re so busy that your response can be only a few pithy phrases. Regardless of the issue, your input is of value by definition.

For the good of humanity, as a means of adding value to a dialogic, participatory process, or simply so as to remain an empowered co-stakeholder…

(Naturally you’ll reply [not replying would never do].)

Just be sure to reply to “all.”

#205 Scarves

February 22, 2013

Ingrid knows where her scarf is, for sure. (Photo:

Submitted by Sci-Fi Nomad

A scarf is about the most massively useful thing an Expat Aid Worker can have. Partly it has great practical value. You can wrap it around you for warmth as you bound across the Šar Mountains of Kosovo; you can lie on it during an emergency mapping and market assessment trip to Lido Beach, Somalia; drape it round your head to ward off the fumes during a Jakarta slum tour; wave it during sudden-onset emergencies as a distress signal; and of course cover your head with it whether it still seems to be clean enough or not.

Truly, you can’t consider yourself to be an actual EAW without multiple scarves from sustainable, locally-produced, women artisans engaged in public-private, civil society partnerships. Whether you decide on wearing a keffiya, or a hand-embroidered Huipil, men and women alike know that for the EAW, donning a scarf is more than just dressing like the locals or creating your own fashion — it is as essential as your sat phone or ID badge. (During an evacuation it is unlikely that you will even be allowed on a UN helicopter unless you are wrapped in indigenous, fair-trade, fiber art.)

More importantly, a scarf has immense psychological value. With its multiple uses and adaptability, it demonstrate resiliency. And donors love resiliency. A scarf also imparts immediate field cred. Because if you can provide life-saving emergency interventions and facipulate stakeholder learning workshops across the length and breadth of the developing world, rough it, slum it, struggle against terrible proposal deadlines, win awards, and still know where your scarf is, you are clearly an aid worker to be reckoned with. You may even hear someone comment,  “Hey, you flip-chart that nomad EAW? There’s a doer who really knows where her scarf is!”

#204 Sexit Strategies

February 18, 2013


Submitted by HB.

You’ve been looking across the room at him or her in that coordination meeting for months, have spotted them at the expat bar and nodded politely to them at the house party. But in truth you have a burning desire to be in bed with this person. Making sweet passionate love would never be better in your head, and you clearly have over-thought sexual angst on the issue. This person has even come up on one of your Top Five Hottest EAW Lists (the ones you make but can never justify laminating because of the high turnover).

There is a point in time when this love simply cannot be. Not because you are Capulet and the other a Montague or because it would mean infidelity, but simply because they are a donor and you are applying for funding from them, or they are the head of the cluster meetings, or they are from the UN and it would be very uncool to deal with the dark side, or your house sucks and their hardship allowance means they have a nice pad. There are 10 small reasons why you should be together and 1000 small ones why you shouldn’t.

But then a miraculous thing happens. For once it is not you interpreting staff departure announcements. Instead, it’s you who gets the call that you have finally been noticed and you’ve got that job in headquarters or a new duty station, or you’ve been accepted onto that masters programme (and will be able to actually stop lying about that fake masters on your CV — the one you bought on the Koh San Road when you went for  that regional meeting in Bangkok).

It is now time to decide when to tell people that you are leaving. If the opportunity is a few months away, it is important to hold it under your hat for a bit. If it a quick move, then you must act fast. You are now in charge of your sexit strategy.

The sexit strategy is the time when an EAW hooks up with that person (or persons) that they have not been “allowed” to because of unwritten rules of engagement in their duty station or mission.

After months of not engaging – it is now time to strike up that conversation. “Hey, have you heard I’m leaving?” Follow up with a vague idea of how important you are and how you’ll be a good contact forever. “Yeah, yeah… I’m needed in headquarters to carry out oversight for the development of the global resource mobilization strategy for our M&E activities in the implementation of our regional programme…. You know the way it is.”

At this point it is important to emphasize to your target that you were always sorry that you didn’t get to know them better during your time here, and how you normally try and keep out of personal drama in the field. It is also important to point out that you were really impressed with how they acted at that [insert inanely titled] meeting, and how that really made such and such listen, and that it changed how your organisation implemented something. (This can be made up.)

On occasion this may be enough to seal the deal for the successful completion of one of the key activities within your sexit strategy. If not, always use the line “Well, we should definitely catch up for a drink before I go.” If you do not receive a “Yes, definitely!” take this as a positive sign that your sexit strategy will not be implementable with this person and move on quickly.

Sexit time is very precious and must not be wasted.

#203 Spoiling the Proverbial Soup

February 15, 2013


Submitted by @loudmind who blogs at The Lightning Words

A good chef knows if they stick to the basics, it doesn’t take a lot of ingredients to make a delicious soup. They also know that, sometimes, another chef might suggest one small dash or pinch of something to make the soup even better.

But if that proverbial kitchen were run by an international relief and development organization, there would be 47 expat aid workers huddled around the pot and a dozen people from headquarters on the phone. And what was once a simple but wonderful soup would begin to go hideously awry.

Someone would insist that it be strictly organic. Another would mandate it be vegan. A third would demand that all ingredients be fair trade. The next would ask if it all came from a female-owned cooperative. Still another would want to make sure, in fairness to a variety of ethnic groups, that the ingredients were sourced from different countries of origin.

During the entire soup-making process, from chopping to sautéing to simmering, several subject matter experts would offer capacity building. Working groups would form to discuss whether vegetables should be diced or Julienned. An emergency team would hover close by just in case of cuts or scalds.

And then, just as the soup was about to be triumphantly ladled into a bowl, a monitoring and evaluation advisor would proclaim that, since there had been no baseline survey of how the water for the broth tasted when it was put on to boil, there would be no way to determine its impact once it reached the table. So the soup is thrown out and it all starts over again.

By that time, the customer who ordered the soup has left the restaurant and gone for a cheeseburger at the beer joint across the street. But, sure enough, another customer enters the restaurant, sits down, browses the menu and orders the soup. When it’s finally done and served, the customer raises the spoon to his mouth, takes a sip and spits it back in the bowl. “That’s terrible,” he says, wiping his mouth with a napkin crafted from hand-spun organic cotton. “It sounded so appetizing on the menu, too.”

The problem? Too many cooks in the kitchen, of course. In EAWs choose to call it “collaborative problem solving” or “consensus building.” But there’s a real-world term for that: fucking things up.

EAWs – hell, international relief and development workers – excel at overanalyzing, over-planning and over-reporting everything. And just like you can’t take too much salt out of a dish you’ve prepared, you can’t take overcomplicated out of a project.

In any kitchen, there are utensils. In any organization, there are toolkits. But the EAW toolkits aren’t something you can hold in your hands and use to, say, create something tangible. EAW toolkits are conceptual things that are squirreled away in highfalutin white papers, or on easily-forgotten websites, or up in some EAW brain somewhere.

Wouldn’t it be refreshing, for once, to actually hand an honest-to-goodness toolkit to someone? Maybe even a kitchen set – a water jug, pans, knives and a soup pot.

And then maybe EAWs could restrain themselves from hovering, get the hell out of the kitchen, and just see how everything cooks up.

#202 Italians

February 13, 2013

Submitted by Brian Harding who blogs a little bit at ANairobic Inspiration

As members of the EAW community, Italians are a valuable resource when in [enter any country here]. Many Italians understand poverty deeply, simply because they come from Italy. This also means they know how to create the most nutritious of meals from the simplest of ingredients. (And everyone knows that EAWs love food).  This skill is exceptionally useful when in countries that do not have access to proper food such as packaged chicken breasts, boxes of frozen burgers or a choice of fresh imported vegetables.

Making friends with Italians can be tough, though, as one of the favourite activities for Italian EAWs is spending time with other Italians. However, when this barrier is broken, Italians can be some of the greatest friends an EAW can have.

Italians offer glamour in places where glamour has not been invented yet. Their knowledge of La Bella Figura can mean that even when going to the expat bar or the house party, they know how to dress appropriately. They are also important at sourcing food and items that can make life for an EAW much easier. “No, dai, no, ….you musta go to the street where the butcher lives to get the best pieces.” Italians also import many delicious treats on their return from R&R in Italy and are like a hub in and of themselves.

Italians also generally work for “small Italian NGOs” that have many hallmarks of being GONGOs. These can have names that most EAWs have never heard of e.g “Dante Onorario Organizzazione per la Liberazione” or “Cooperazione Organizzazione Nazionale”. Such organisations never get an acronym. When Italians work for larger organisations; these are generally ones that have a headquarters in Rome. Italian organisations also like working in ex-colonies of Italy.

Italians can give other EAWs much to talk and gossip about. Italians are one of the few EAWs that like to meet locals in intimate ways, are known to go native and on occasion this can result in children. Invariably as Italians are a good-looking bunch, the child of such a pairing generally tends to be very beautiful.

Italians EAWs are also dedicated to staying in their duty station for many years. This is principally because they hate Silvio Berlusconi and Italian politics. The fear that Berlusconi (or in the future his ghost) may come back is also reason enough to maintain their position working as an EAW.

Overall Italians are great contributors to making the life of the EAW easier…. Oh yeah… and for the local people… they help those guys too.

#201 Mimicking local accents

January 28, 2013

Submitted by Awak Bior

They may not be able to attend Broadway shows while in the field, but no matter: get a group of Expat Aid Workers together and before long they’re entertaining each other!

And when it comes to EAW self-entertainment, there is nothing more rib-tickling (not to mention good for building field cred) than pretending to speak like a local. It is to understand that this is not at all the same as adjusting one’s accent and modulating one’s speech for ease of communication, nor is it simply a matter of using random words in other languages. Rather, the entire purpose of this exercise is to demonstrate the EAW’s ability to simultaneously employ extreme irony and cultural knowledge.

“… Oh, you’re TWINS”

Yes, white EAWs (and perhaps also their private sector tribesmen and women) can spend many a happy hour chuckling about the curious (never ever ever referred to directly as dim-witted, buffoonish, or happy-go-lucky ways) of the locals, illustrated with typically imprecise yet at the same time hilarious mimicry of a the local accent, if not from the place where they are right then, than from one of the EAW’s many prior postings.

“No, Madam. It is not possible. Let us try make like this way and go fast behind, thank you, please.” “Why we are around the bush beating all day long?” “Today I am standing beside of myself…” “Mee-tah, where are you come?” Or simply, “thank you very big!” However variously nonsensical and/or inaccurate, these displays are always certain to elicit roars of laughter (the more indigenous alcohol already consumed, the louder the laughter) and invariably set the stage for hours of happy one-upping by every other EAW in the room who has ever spent long enough in “the field” to be cognizant of the fact that local people were, in fact, speaking with an accent.

In order for local accent mimicry to have optimum effect, it is of critical importance that the EAW never seriously contemplate the possibility that it might actually bApue offensive or distasteful.  Given the hours they’ve spent bonding with their driver, accruing hardship pay in hardcore postings, and the clear statements of commitment to the greater good they’ve made by going native, the EAW’s altruism and general goodwill and deep respect for all humanity should be obvious. They’re not demeaning anyone or making fun of anyone. They’re simply finding beauty in the panacea of human behavior and basking in the glow of being one with all of humanity.

Of course the crowning irony is that in many parts of Africa (one all too convenient example), local school children can be heard mimicking the White Accent which they think is INSANELY funny!

The adults around them smile and shake their heads. They know that one day these cheeky little ones will grow up and leave their childishly ignorant ways behind them.

#200 “4”

January 22, 2013
Today's blog post is brought to you by the letter "A" and the numeral "4"

Today’s cutting edge innovation is brought to you by the letter “i” and the number “4”

As more than one famous aid blogger has so poignantly written, “if you are not being ‘innovative’, chances are you are not being ‘funded.'”

Yes, in today’s hyper-connected world ideas, like the technology that spawned them (or is that the other way around?), become obsolete in a matter of weeks or days or minutes. And while naturally things tend to move a little slower in the aid world (you can’t expect to fully attain the targets of a 6-month innovation grant by only week 8, after all), the same Darwinian principles apply: adapt, change, innovate, or become extinct.

Fortunately Expat Aid Workers – at least the clever ones – have a secret weapon of institutional survival so potent that “working themselves out of a job” is a virtual non-possibility. That secret weapon?


Not the word “four” or “for” or “fore.” But the actual numeral 4.

"I would die 4 u": the original aid sector innovation

“I would die 4 u”: the original aid sector innovation

It helps to understand that when it comes to innovation, few things matter more than the name.

LifeStraws,” for example has a certain ring to it that “fragile but expensive personal water filter that lasts only a short time, and even then only if it is used correctly…” distinctly lacks. Or, “over-stated concept T-shelter made from whatever miscellaneous rubble can be found” tends to fall flat, whereas “Earthship” sounds edgy and, well, innovative.

All good and well, but as expats who have been to a few life-saving workshops in their time know, when it comes to names, few things say “innovation” more than “4.”

Thanks to the numeral “4” almost any flaccid concept or ill-informed plan can be dressed up, made to look pretty, and revel in the status of being “innovative.” The formula is simple: think up a name; reduce it to an acronym; insert the number “4”; voila! With the click of a mouse button the EAW has created a viral hashtag and a solution to global poverty. It doesn’t really matter if the acronym makes any sense out of context or if the project itself is suspect. What really matters is that the EAW somehow works in a “4.”

If today’s intuitive EAWs look carefully around they’ll soon see that “4” is increasingly responsible for generating a proportionally significant market share of aid world time, revenue, activity, projects, initiatives, and “lenses”, not to mention life-saving workshops and conferences. By simply inserting the numeral “4” ICTD became ICT4D, and is now its own branch of expertise.

Think about it.

ICT = information communication technology = cell phones, hand-held GPSs, maybe iPads. Not interesting.

D = development. Been around since the ancient Egyptians. Also not all that interesting.

But add a “4” and [angel choir singing] you’ve got an engine capable of generating more workshops, inter-agency forums, intra-agency working groups, special departments, trips to Singapore or Dubai, budget line-items, budget categories, white papers, articles, books, blogs, panel discussions, doctoral dissertations, and happy hour pontification than you can possibly imagine. You’ve just added the fairy dust that will make your program (and yourself) imminently fundable. And ICT4D is just one example.

If you are really innovative, you’ll note that there even subsets of ICT4D that you can invent. There’s the wonderfully poignant “m4d” (not to be confused with the other m4d… “Migration 4 Development). There is ICT4E (er, that would be for “education”). There is “K4Health” (that K stands for “knowledge”). On top of those we have m4P (Markets for the Poor) and R4D (Research for Development…. or was that Results for Development?) and A4T (Aid4Trade), and C4D (communication for development) and C4C (communication for change) and P4H (providing for health — ‘P quatre H’ in French… ) and C4W (Cash for Work) and the (non-NRA sponsored) G4D (Guns4Development – of course!).

Heads up though – Africa is mostly winning the race here – there’s Innovation4Africa (I4A) and AfricaSpeaks4Africa (or taking it a step further, AfricansAct4Africa). And there are Apps4Africa and of course there’s a LOT of Hope4Africa. Not to mention ParadiseKids4Africa and Crutches4Africa (providing Mobility4All!) and Women4Africa!

We have SocialMedia4Social Change and SocialMedia4Development and SocialMedia4Good. The fashionistas have F4D (because “giving back is the new luxury”). And of course the SWEDOWful C4BF (yes, that would be, Cleats for Bare Feet – mostly in Africa of course). 

Women are right up there on the trend too, with M4M (mothers for mothers) and Women4Women, and women Knitting4Peace who bring you their lovingly hand-crafted Scarves4Peace and PeaceShawls4Women.

Just imagine what how much good we could all accomplish if we truly maximized the power of “4” in an integrated, participatory, synergistic way!

Editor’s Note: (#headdesk4ShotgunShack)

#199 Carrying their own luggage

January 14, 2013

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.

just carry your own luggage

just carry your own luggage

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.

#198 Indigenous Alcohol

January 8, 2013

Well, Tusker is actually my favorite beer. It’s weird though because it’s brewed in Ireland when you’d think it would be cheaper to brew in Kenya. Back when I was in Peace Corps, we’d drink it warm because we had to walk like 20 minutes to this little bar – well, pseudo bar, ha, if you’d ever been to Kenya you’d know what I mean. Tusker rocks, man, it’s named after this elephant who killed one of the founders and, see, in Kenya… (image:

Submitted by Loudmind (who can be found at @loudmind or The Lightning Words)

If you’ve worked overseas for any length of time and spent your share of hours (or weeks) in local bars, chances are you’re a beer snob. But you’re not the kind of insufferable beer snob who annotates each visit to the pub with thoughtful descriptions like “bready” or “ephemeral,” oh no. You’re the kind of beer snob who, when back in your home country, will derail a drinking session by waxing poetic about ‘faraway brews’.

You’ll go into an Ethiopian restaurant in Washington, DC and, if they don’t have bottled Dashen or St. George to wash down your tibs, you’ll wrinkle your nose and question the establishment’s authenticity. You’ll be sitting on a longtime (but non-expat) friend’s porch in the heat of the summer drinking Coronas but, all the while, letting everyone know that Kenya’s Tusker beer is a much better way to beat the heat.

You are as well-versed in the world’s panoply of alcohols as you are fluent in acronyms and aidspeak – and you aren’t afraid to bludgeon others with that knowledge at any time. What you’ve drunk – and where – is a boozy but indispensable part of your personal mythology.

For many of you, it started in Peace Corps. You might have dabbled in beverages in college, but you earned your postgraduate degree in drinking as a Volunteer. Most likely, you learned more about your host culture while drunk than you did sober. You participated in all kinds of drinking rituals in many villages because, if you didn’t, “it would have been very rude.”

You were tipping the gourd, or metal bowl, or shot glass and offering a libation to the ancestors before Tupac was pouring one out for the homies. Then, whether it was rice wine, millet beer or any of the thousand kinds of moonshine around the world, you drank it all down. And in those moments, you weren’t only building up an ungodly tolerance for alcohol, you were building knowledge.

Tastes best when drunk out of a calabash, obviously. Image:

Say, for example, your life as an expat aid worker began with an agro-forestry gig for Peace Corps in southern Togo. There you were, early one morning, at a farmer’s house when he pulled out a bottle of clear liquid with no label, corked with a corn husk. You caught a whiff of the stuff as soon as he unstoppered it; it smelled like reckoning.

Immediately after he’d handed you a brimming shot glass and you’d ingested it like a vessel of holy fire, he offered you a second shot. “That one went to your right leg,” the farmer explained. “If you don’t take another for your left leg, you will tip over.” Not wanting that to happen – and, obviously, not wanting to offend – you obliged.

And somewhere between that second shot and the hazy beginning of your actual work day, you learned the origin of the indigenous spirit you’d just consumed. According to the hospitable farmer, the process began with palm sap. Only the bravest souls dared tap the tree, because deadly mambas made their homes in the scruff. When the sap was procured then fermented for a day or two under the sweltering sun, it was run through machinery hidden deep in the jungles. The name of the finished product? That was another story.

Legend had it, the wizened farmer continued, that a British explorer passed through a nearby village a long time ago. He sat down on a small wooden stool in a hut much like this, and his generous host offered him a small glass brimming with a clear, strong-smelling liquid. The British chap threw it back with one gulp, promptly fell off the stool into the dirt and vigorously exclaimed, “So that be!”

And that name stuck, although slightly altered (possibly slurred) in the intervening years: Sodabi.

This may have been your first taste of indigenous alcohol – and it was certainly a story you’ve told at every stop since that fateful day. After all, it’s not only a fascinating look into Togolese culture, but also an important analogy of how powerful local know-how can knock Western ways squarely on their ass.

Since then, you haven’t missed a chance to continue your learning. You might publicly disapprove when you ride up to a village, step down from your Land Cruiser and catch the overpowering funk of banana beer but, secretly, you’re trying to figure out when you can come back for some capacity building over bowls of local hooch.

Of course there’s also the element of danger that indigenous alcohols bring. After all, who knows where the water came from or through what sort of ancient contraption with lead pipes the liquor was distilled? But therein lay the adventure, the intrigue and the sheer boast-ability of it all. Because, just imagine uttering a line like this to an old (again, non-expat) friend during your home leave:

“Yeah, you’re right, hangovers are bad. But a hangover from Togolese Sodabi that’s been cut with kerosene? That’s the worst.”

As expat aid workers, we will not only drink all comers under any table anywhere, but we’ll also tell them exactly where, how and with what indigenous booze we acquired such powers of fortitude.

#197 Capacity-Building Support-Services

January 3, 2013

A collaborative post submitted by @morealtitude (blog: Wanderlust) and @elsnarkistani (blog: It’s Always Sunny in Kabul)

When it comes to running a successful aid program, every EAW understands that the work done by the Support Services division (Finance, HR, Admin, etc.) is critical to achieving the necessary outcomes to help those starving brown children, and keep the donor dollars flowing. Of course, these Support Service staff aren’t always up to scratch, bless them. After all, they’ve been raised and educated in a third-world system, don’t necessarily grasp the intricacies of an international business not-for-profit organization, and certainly don’t understand how to deliver their services to the schedule and quality that the EAW demands.

Thus it befalls the EAW to take time and build the skills, approach and mindset of Support Services staff to ensure their service delivery improves.

For example:

Drivers: If the EAW hasn’t managed to get their hands on an old beater, they will be entirely dependent on the trusty office driver to see them safely around town. Among the first roles of the EAW will be to ensure the driver has understood the concepts of safety-belts and speed-limits, followed shortly afterwards by the importance (“don’t you love the environment, man?”) of not throwing plastic bottles out of the car window.

Then comes the critical task of ensuring the driver knows the essential portions of the city. Depending on how good your agency has been at coordination, this may include such sites as the UN compound, and other INGO HQs where EAWs can be found in significant numbers. It may also include certain day-trip locations, essential for maintaining the psychosocial health of the EAW.

After this, the really important work begins of ensuring your driver knows where the key expat-standard restaurants and bars are. The final stage of the process involves training them to wait patiently outside until the wee hours of the morning without filing a transit chit, and removing the magnetic logos from the doors while they do-so. And presto. Your driver has now been capacity-built.

Human Resources: Getting HR to scale up staffing necessary to run your programs is one thing, but really only scratches the surface of what learning HR staff have to do to meet expected operational standards. First off, the EAW needs a place to live. Almost certainly a house (you can’t have a house party without a house), in a nice neighbourhood, with reliable electricity, secure walls, and if possible, a pool and DSTV. Bougainvillea spilling over said walls is an optional extra. But it will fall to you, the EAW, to ensure your HR staff understand exactly how they’re expected to meet the quality standards the EAW requires, and not end up putting you in some local slum like the rest of them (the HR staff) live in.

HR’s responsibility, of course, doesn’t stop there. Something the EAW will want to get onto early is making sure they know how to process R&R requests in a timely fashion, know what destinations are appropriate (Nairobi is only an R&R destination if the EAW has a girl/boyfriend there), and can work out how to make that travel allowance go as far as possible. After all, if you book on the right website, the Seychelles is remarkably accessible.

In addition, the well-capacitated HR team will ensure the EAW has the right office setup (please, that decrepit desk-chair is an OHS hazard), and in a pinch can secure a contract for the EAW’s local squeeze in a junior programming role.

Procurement: Nothing can cause greater grief to a successful HRI-Affiliate than a slothful procurement division that doesn’t know how to fast-track the system. Important tasks such as ensuring your new kite-surfing rig gets shipped in-country tax-free, for example, or sourcing banned alcohol. Sensitivity to the particular needs of the EAW is important as well. Nothing is quite as embarrassing as having your staff bring you a colorful umbrella, for example, when clearly only a black umbrella is appropriate for EAW use. This is especially true for your senior staff. The EAW brings invaluable insight to the team here.

Finance: Local finance teams can be incredibly dense when it comes to simple financial transactions critical to the wellbeing of international aid programs. The EAW will need to pay close attention, and possibly spend many hours coaching staff to ensure that the EAW’s hardship allowance, R&R allowance, housing allowance, transportation allowance, recreation allowance, monthly per diem, local cash advance and monthly salary are paid on time, in the right currency, in cash or into the correct foreign tax-free account, all charged from the correct program budget, as well as ensuring that local tax laws are appropriately mitigated. Honestly, how hard can it be?

Security: The trouble with security guys is, they’re so caught up in the local context that they often misunderstand yours. None the less, with the right guidance, and maybe a little organizational pressure from the regional office (who mercifully have an EAW security manager), the security staff can come to understand that while curfew is a great idea, there are times that it simply can’t apply to the EAW. It ain’t a house-party if it’s over by 11.

Language Adaptation: As an EAW, it’s not necessary that you speak the local language, but it is your responsibility to make sure your staff understands you. If they appear to be offended at your choice of words/gestures/volume, then slow down. Explain to them, using smaller words and a great deal of hand gestures, what exactly it is that you need and expect from them. Over time, their comprehension will improve, and the collegiality of your work environment will be enhanced.

Motivation: In any good work environment, motivation can be a challenge. As an EAW, be prepared to imply that your staff’s performance challenges are tied to any of the following: a) their lack of credibility, b) their lack of education, or c) their cultural tendency toward corruption/random violence. If you are somehow able to tie the first point to their relationship with their wife, you can rest assured you will see a distinct shift in the overall performance of your local team.

Managing Expectations: As an EAW, you represent the latest in a line of other EAWs who have been promising things to your local staff for several days/months/years. This has unduly raised the expectations of your staff and their countrymen that you are indeed here to look out for their best interests. While that is true, nothing helps them understand the harsh realities of the developing world like the elimination of raises, bonuses, and vacation time due to processing errors by the home office. This is related to the issue of motivation, but ensuring that they understand that in this world one will have to deal with disappointment is going to be a valuable resource for your team moving forward.

Tea-Wallah: With a bit of dedication, even a semi-literate menial office-girl who speaks only three local languages and is therefore unable to verbally communicate with the EAW can still be trained to deliver coffee on time twice a day and with just the right amount of milk, sugar and/or cold water. Once again, this is a burden that will none the less fall to the EAW to take responsibility for in capacity-building local staff.