(The Humanitarian Social Network)
This week's Work & Life perspective comes from AidSource member Fredrick. He's not an aid or development worker himself, but he'll be sharing with us a view from a side of humanitarian work that we rarely hear from and that we consider far too rarely: our own families, spouses, partners...
Uh... Not the picture of an *aid* family.
FAQs for prospective partners of Emergency Aid Workers.
It has been suggested to me that I relate my experiences as a partner of an emergency aid worker (EAW). I have been one (partner of an EAW) for a couple of years now, and it has not been easy. Since I entered that relationship I’ve had a couple of minor, but very real depressions and one or two anger management issues. On the other hand, I also have the best partner in the world whom I love more than I knew I had the capacity for. Let’s hope it all evens out in the end.
Anyway, I have been asked to relate what it is like to be the partner of an emergency aid worker, so here goes. I have written this as a FAQs sheet, because these are questions I have frequently asked myself and which I suspect other (many? most? all?) partners of EAWs also ask themselves.
A few caveats: I am writing this anonymously. This is not for my own sake. I have a great job with full freedom of expression. However, if you work for an NGO doing emergency aid, there is a good chance that you work for an organization hysterically concerned with appearances. On occasion I will describe the NGO my partner works for in less than flattering terms and I do not think them above using my humble writings as an excuse for letting my partner’s career suffer. As a politically correct, lefty kind of organization they would do so in a touchy-feely, caring kind of way (of course), but still… Also, my partner works what is supposed to be short term assignments without a permanent station. I do not know anything about the situation of aid workers who are permanently stationed somewhere, and can therefore not speak for their partners. Hopefully somebody will.
Q: I met this lovely person who is an EAW. We’ve started a relationship, but I am unsure of whether we can make this work. What should I do?
A: End the relationship NOW! Entering a relationship with an EAW means more or less constant longing and separation anxiety. You will spend your days counting the days and hours until you are together again. Spend endless hours in front of Skype hoping that your partner will log on, knowing full well that your partner has ‘way too many other matters to attend to. And when you do communicate, you are always looking for signs of exhaustion and worse.
There is also always the nagging feeling in the back of your head that the EAW will sooner or later fall in love or lust with another EAW. After all, only other EAWs can truly understand your partner’s situation and relate fully to her or his experience. You certainly cannot, so what chance do you have?
And when the EAW comes “home” he/she will, as often as not, be a total wreck. So you spend the precious time together nursing the EAW back from a state of severe exhaustion. Nursing the EAW can be an immensely emotionally draining job, in particular when the EAW has to leave again before he/she is fully recovered. When I see my partner, usually so beautiful, strong and vibrant, walking through airport security with sunken shoulders and a worn expression going off to some hell hole, it just makes me sick to my stomach.
Finally, when the EAW leaves, you also need to be nursed a bit, except that nobody will and why should they? Your partner is a hero, and asking for a bit of sympathy for your own situation makes you a selfish whiner. So you grit your teeth, put on a stiff upper lip and spend your days being miserable. And then you feel guilty about feeling miserable.
Q: Ha! You selfish person. I realise that my partner will see horrible suffering, overcome daunting obstacles to deliver aid and endure terrible conditions. I am proud to somehow support my partner and thereby contribute in a modest way to my partner’s work. Why don’t you find strength through pride in your partners work?
A: Yeah. That’s what I thought too. I was incredibly proud of my partner going of to do good. I was fully expecting my partner to become exhausted and depressed by the suffering and the efforts required to bring in aid under difficult conditions. But this is not the stuff that will exhaust your partner. Most likely your partner will be spending most of his/her time in an office doing very officey things like in any other corporation. The following is a non-exhaustive list of what will actually stress your partner.
When your partner is called on a mission that basically is to fend off a hostile project takeover by a competing NGO, I can promise you that the glamour and warm glow quickly fades. The exhaustion is however no less real for being caused by things of a rather mundane nature. But it will be worse because: a) your partner will be acutely aware of the human consequences of this inefficiency in his/her organization. b) your partner will work in an organisation that prides itself on allocating too few resources to fund a truly efficient operation, and so the cost of the above mentioned inefficiency is typically borne by far too few individuals. One of whom is your partner.
And by the way, I am still very, very proud.
Q: EAWs are supported by non-profit organisations, run by competent managers, who are in the business of caring for people. Obviously EAWs aren’t paid much as this is not the kind of job where you want people motivated by filthy lucre. But surely they will be concerned about the welfare of their employees and their families?
A: NGOs care about their expat staff in the same way that logging companies care about old growth forests. If you want to have a partner who works abroad for an organisation that is run by competent leaders who care about their staff and their families, I suggest you start dating a soldier.
The comparison with soldiers isn’t farfetched. No modern army would send their soldiers on tours overseas for 9 months or more a year over many years as military leaders know that if they do the soldiers’ effectiveness will suffer dramatically. (I have actually done the research on this one.) And when the military sends troops abroad they have support programs for the families. They are, after all, professional. I have been the partner of an NGO for a substantial period and I have never, ever been contacted by my partner’s employer and asked about how I feel.
Some NGOs are concerned about the turnover in their EAW staff (it is apparently enormous) and are making efforts to reduce it. They organise workshops to develop their EAWs’ careers. For me this just means even more time that I don’t get to spend with my partner. Also, and this is my personal experience, it always seems to be the intention that my partner shall spend more time at home working pro-actively, but somehow this never seems to happen and I believe, without any proof, they use this as bait to keep personnel.
What I find the most annoying though is the sheer pettiness and indifference with which EAWs are treated.
The per diem is never enough to cover actual expenses.
Plane tickets are always booked and missions scheduled so that they always, it seems, eat into vacations. It appears that the people booking the flights take some sort of perverse pleasure in making travel arrangements as inconvenient as possible. If they can save 20 bucks by booking a flight at 5am with an additional 10 hour stopover in Godforsakenstan, they will. Hell, at one point they even paid extra. This is strange as you would think that when you send of an EAW of to work 18 hours a day for a couple of months you’d want them to be rested when they arrive. And they do sometimes work 18 hours a day for long periods. But for some reason labour laws that NGOs ardently advocate wherever they are, don’t really apply to their own staff. They are supposed to be compensated for this with time off, but there are strict limitations on how much one can be compensated for.
Of course they always work more than what is implied by these limitations.
And you and your potential children had better stay healthy, because if one of you gets seriously ill you are for all practical purposes on your own. Say you get cancer and will probably die in six months. Your partner’s NGO will then wring its hands, make sympathetic noises and give your partner perhaps a few days off. And then they’ll send your partner a plane ticket and tell him/her to be in Hecklabad by Monday and your partner better be there or they will stop paying.
Q: But if being an EAW for a NGO is so bad, shouldn’t I use all my leverage to persuade my partner to quit the job and, well, come home to me?
A: I have no answer to that question. I know some partners do try to persuade their EAW partners to quit and a subset of those succeed. Whether anything good comes out of it I don’t know. In spite of the way they are treated EAWs are fiercely proud of their work and their accomplishments, as they well should. It is hard to take someone away from the source of their pride.
Q: If being the partner of an EAW is so bad, why are you still doing it?
A: Good question. I am hopelessly, irredeemably in love with the most wonderful person I have ever known. As my partner is really good at making the best out of the situation and does a fabulous job of staying in touch, the relationship is actually working out. But if I’d known when I met my partner what I know now, I would never have become the partner of an EAW.