Archive for the NGO-Speak Category

The horrors of expat socialising

Posted in NGO-Speak on June 15, 2010 by theajnabee

Nothing makes my blood run cold like an expat party. I don’t mean a party where there might be some videshis and English-speaking Nepalis having some beers on someone’s roof. I mean an expat expat party.

This will be an event attended by INGO, embassy and media-wallahs. Often it will have a theme. Come dressed in red/as your favourite movie star/as a total plonker!


What is it with British expats in particular and their need to come up with social rituals involving strange clothes and booze that reinforce conformity? I mean this with special reference to fancy dress parties. As soon as a British people go abroad, they become obsessed with getting trolleyed while wearing strange costumes.

Wake up and smell the Earl Grey, people. Your days at university are over.

OVER I tell you. Yes, you may have thrived on initiation rituals, school-uniform themed parties and been the kind of person who enjoyed thwacking people’s bottoms with towels in the showers after hockey practice or whatever, but we are in someone else’s country now and our professional circle is very, very small.

I guess I object to the ‘enforced fun’ aspect of it of expat socialising. I also get a bit weirded out by the surreal overlap of professional life/partying. To put it this way: I do not relish the thought of exchanging business cards at 2am with a middle-aged man from a multilateral who is dressed as a giant tomato.

At the crux of this rant is my exaggerated fear of social awkwardness.

Most of the time I’ve stood my ground in not observing dress codes for themed parties. However, in my first ‘real’ job peer pressure got the better of me. It was the time of the office Christmas party, an event which all outwardly-confident-and-at-ease-but-secretly-awkward people dread. The theme was ‘come dressed as something beginning with X, M, A or S!’

keeping the awkwardness under wraps

I arrived at my colleague/bff’s house to walk to the party together. She said she was very disappointed that I had not followed the dress code and decided we should improvise a costume. She suggested a mummy. That began with ‘M’. And lo(o) and behold, the components for the costume were common household objects! They were right there in her downstairs bathroom – three rolls of loo paper. With a little persistence and a lot of selotape I was wrapped from head to toe in loo paper and left her house, looking like a total prat but virtually unrecognisable.

This picture was taken at a later stage in the evening when I had started to ‘unravel’.

The funny thing was, that once I was peeking out at the world through a couple of layers of bogroll I actually did start to feel more confident. Maybe this kind of thing is a release for people who are a bit buttoned-up. But I still don’t fully understand it.


Are you a ‘field’ person?

Posted in NGO-Speak on January 30, 2010 by theajnabee

In the INGO world there are three types of people. There are those who stay in the headquarters of an organisation, say, managers, finance officers or fundraisers in Paris, New York, Geneva or somewhere else in the West. Then there are those who work in the capital cities of countries in the developing world; the country directors, the co-ordinators, the people who write reports. And then there are the field people. They are the people heading the ‘sub offices’, the delegates, the people who implement projects or monitor political or human rights issues on the ground.

I fall into the third category.

Someone I work with once asked me this question: which of the following smells do you like the most – petrol, a fresh newspaper or french fries? I replied petrol, straight off. He told me that if you answered ‘petrol’ then you are a ‘field person’ and prefer to be on the road, if you answered ‘newsprint’ you are office type, and as for french fries… then you are most likely to be a lazy bum.

Since I finished university I have always seemed to have ended up in jobs that require a lot of time in ‘the field’. In my last job I lived in HQ but traveled for extended periods, and now I work in a small sub-office. This kind of work pattern plays havoc with your personal life and forces you to redefine your notions of hygeine, safety and what is a fun activity to do on a Friday night. Nepaliketi has a great post on this subject – You know you’re a field-based girl when…. Her list of what constitutes being a field-based girl includes things such as:

#5 when showers are few and far in between and bucket baths become a luxury and most definitely when you consider squeezing your hand sanitizer over your body and wonder if that could be equivalent to a shower.

#6 when you have mastered the art of reading while bracing yourself in the land rover on a much too bumpy excuse for a “motor road” and sleeping with bedbugs, rats, mosquitoes and/or cockroaches no longer bothers you.

There are times when I envy the lot of the ‘desk officer’, sitting smugly in her office in DC or Brussels in front of a computer. She has normal office hours, a  is not woken up at unthinkable hours by goats, bedbugs, enthusiastic devotional singing or drunk men hammering on a hotel room door. After work she will go out with her normal friends, or perhaps her normal boyfriend. She does not take bucket showers and has no need of hand sanitizer, but instead walks into the office every morning emitting a floral, confident smell.  She does not struggle to explain her job or lifestyle to friends and family, because it is, well, pretty normal.

Ok, I think I am doing something called ‘projecting’ here. But I think you get my drift.

So why do us field people do it? Sometimes it is not by design, but just because that job happened to come up. But there are other reasons too. First and foremost is the immediacy of life in the field. You get to to see how a political situation or development project is shaping up on the ground. You understand that what were once just numbers and names that you read about in a report or news article are someone’s reality. You can ask regular people all the questions you want, because you are not separated from them by an office wall.

The other great thing is experiencing rural life. I might add that this was an aspect of the job that took a while to grow on me, as I’m a London girl born and bred, and not used to life in remote, slow-paced places. Recently I got stranded in a very isolated place with no electricty because my plane had been cancelled and there wasn’t another flight for several days. Each day was framed by two meals of daal bhat, and social interaction centered around activities such going for a wash at the water-tap, catching up on local gossip and having long, tedious conversations about vegetables.  After about my fifth conversation about potato cultivation, I began to think to myself I need to get out of here before I go completely insane. However, 48 hours later something had changed. I felt calmer and quieter, and had begun to adjust to a different pace. I studied Teach Yourself Nepali by candle light in the evenings, tried some new phrases out and even found myself taking part in very earnest conversations about the price of goats. I realized that the conversations about sabzi cultivation were actually very, very important. By the time we heard the roar of the plane coming over the hills to pick us up and take us back to the city, I was almost sad to leave. Almost.

Some days I don’t know how much longer I can keep this lifestyle up, for all of the adventures and insights it brings. Maybe in the future I will be that ‘desk officer’and my life will become a bit more stable. But I’m sure that if and when that day arrives I will catch a whiff of petrol very now and again, or get a craving for tea-with-5-sugars in a little glass, and I will miss what I have now.

Spare a Thought for the Interpreter

Posted in NGO-Speak, Posts from Mesocosm on January 11, 2010 by theajnabee

Any journalist, businessman, NGO worker or academic working in a country where they don’t speak the local language will know that a good interpreter is worth their weight in gold.

As crucial as these individuals are to the functioning of any international mission, summit or news bureau, their contribution generally goes unnoticed. As this editorial from The Guardian puts it:

They are in almost every shot yet they pass unnoticed, discreet facilitators at the elbow of power, perpetual outsiders. They are on the soundtrack of the post-communiqué press conference, and the monotone accompaniment of the dreary images of international gatherings, voices threading mechanically through anger and joy alike. But these latter are lesser mortals than the hand-picked interpreters at the ear of every head of delegation making the round of economic, political and military summits, three of them to every world leader, rotating through long meetings, tense bilaterals and tedious dinners. They are charged with conveying not a mere translation but an understanding of the nuance of every exchange.

In a rare incidence of an interpreter actually making it into the by-lines, the man giving the simultaneous interpretation for Colonel Gaddafis rambling speech at the UN Summit in New York last month collapsed 75 minutes into the podium-hogging monologue, screaming ‘I can’t take it any more!’ Link here. Apparently the interpreter lost the strength to continue around the point at which Gaddafi embarked on his explanation of how the Israel-Palestine conflict could be solved by a single state called ‘Isratine’.

And this leads into my other point: interpreters must also subjected on occasion to a level crushing tedium that I suspect it would be difficult for ‘internationals’ like me to fully appreciate. ‘It’s the stupidest job in the world’ one ex-interpreter told me. For him, the daily ennui of translating the same banal, rambling and sometimes completely moronic interview questions became too much for him to bear, and he moved on to other things. It must be truly galling to hold two higher degrees, speak two South Asian languages and four dialects fluently and to spend most of the time using these to ask questions such as ‘where can you buy toilet paper round here?’

Being an interpreter, whether at international summits or out in ‘the field’ is a pretty thankless job at the best of times. Perhaps it’s time that the UN or news bureaus came up with an international ‘Interpreters’ Day’ on which these men and women can come out from the shadows and be publicly thanked for their contribution. But in the meantime I urge all those who use their services – no matter how bad your day is going, whether you are sitting up a mountain being lashed with rain or stuck in an interminable meeting in stuffy office – to spare a thought for your interpreter!

This post previously appeared on

Can We Talk Later? I’m ‘in the field?’

Posted in NGO-Speak, Posts from Mesocosm with tags on January 11, 2010 by theajnabee

Since coming to Nepal, I’ve realised that Nepali is not the only language that I will need to learn in order to live and work here. I also have to familiarise myself with the language of acronyms and buzz-words spoken in INGOs, multilateral agencies and diplomatic missions. After a few weeks of getting my BOGs’s and my TOR’s mixed up I feel like I’m now getting the hang of the lingo.

When I first started to use accronyms, NGO-speak and political jargon in my initial weeks here I felt a warm, fuzzy glow of professionalism and legitimacy. A protective coating of words, almost. For example, when I spoke to my family in London on the phone after being out of touch for a while I told them (on reflection, rather smugly) that I had been ‘in the field’, which would implicitly excuse my silence. The truth, that I had been in the Tarai, where there are plenty of call shops and even internet cafes, and that my only contact with a ‘field’ of any description was when our jeep broke down by the side of one, did not sound quite so glamorous – or indeed, as forgivable. And when I did speak to my family, I did not neglect to bombard them with words like ‘interlocutor’ and ‘implement’ (why do we love this verb so much?). My gran was initially confused, but ulimately was just relieved to hear that I was happy and well in my new home- and that I sounded like I’d actually got a real job.

But now the thrill of this new language is starting to wear off and I start to question what I actually mean when I speak it.

I was particularly struck by something that David Reiffer wrote in his critique of humanitarianism, A Bed for the Night, about this phrase ‘in the field’, in the same vane as the questions that have been arrising in my own mind over the past week on the issue of language.

‘What we have been pleased to call ‘the field’ – that strangely distancing, Boy-Scoutish term much beloved of journalists and aid workers, for what in reality are other people’s countries, tragedies, destinies’

This goes a long way to explaining why, when my mother (a manager at a British housing and homelessness NGO) does not refer to her trips to projects in such unexotic locations as Croydon and Hastings as ‘going to the field’. The ‘them and us’ separation can never be so clean when you work in your native country. And raises some deeper questions about how ‘internationals’ use language to describe their work both to their own community and to outsiders while working in the developing world.

Anyhow, I must be off now. I’m going to implement a kitchen in our Base Area this week and need look for utensils in the bazaar.

This post previously appeared Mesocosm