Friday, March 04, 2005

Relief Aid Workers

It is impossible for me to write down all that I am learning here. The learning has become more passive than active. There is so much to do here that I no longer have time to organize my thoughts and actively consider what I am learning. But, as my thought start to fall together and those puzzle pieces start to come together, I know a lot more than I did at the start.

One of the sector heads, yesterday, described relief aid work as a party. Whatever emergency there is, you just wait to see who shows up at the party. The same people who were in Darfur will be in Afghanistan and Aceh will be in Katmandu. Just as Save the Children has its emergency specialists, so does Oxfam, and Care, and the UN offices. People wait to see who shows up at the interagency coordination meetings and great their old friends. These people are never in one place for more than a few months. They get things started, and they hire the longer term staff.

Emergency people seem to end up in long term relationships with each other. Then they wait for an emergency where both of their skills will be needed. And it is good when their contracts are of similar length. Another sector head told me how he began seeing the same people in different emergencies, but with different husbands or wives. People get onto their third, fourth marriage in this field. The guy I was talking to said he switched over to development work because it is long term, and he liked his wife a lot, and had no interest in having any other wives.

These people are the Experts, with the intentional capital E. When I theoretically studied the Rule Of Experts in University, these were the people that I was reading about. These people have experience from all over the world that they bring to a new emergency with a confidence based on the belief that this emergency is not essentially different from the last emergency. In some ways, they are right. There are many similarities. But when emergencies end and development phases begin, then I worry. In some cases, there are excuses for giving, for saying “it is my role to give you x,y, and z”. But this cannot go on and on, at some point, it has to switch to “now, lets work together so you can provide yourself with the same things”—the switch from the emergency to the development phase. This is a tangent.

Then, of course, there are people like me, who, for some reason or another, ended up there as well. People who were in the right place at the right time, or who had language skills, etc. Right now there is a 23-year-old Basque kid who goes to an Indonesian university who just got a job with us because he had been a volunteer and had gotten to know the local communities. He also speaks Indonesian. There is me, who simply speaks the language. There are people who were working in other long term programs, and were seconded to come over and work for a short term in Aceh. People in this category are here for short or long term, depending on the different situations of a person’s life.

Then, finally, there is the local staff. There is a real effort, at least on the part of Save the Children, to hire local people for most of the positions. This does not, however, mean that they are not paid substantially less than the foreign staff. Here, the local staff is from Java, and Medan as well as Aceh. We are currently hiring a lot of people from the area. This staff sometimes interacts with the upper levels of staff, the Emergencies folks, but generally does not.

Really, there is a lot of confusion. There are so many people wandering around the offices—staff based in Aceh, staff from the districts in for training, drivers, cooks, cleaners, random people who may have nothing to do with the program—that the upper echelons have no idea who most the people around are.


At 5:37 AM, Anonymous Lily said...

Hi Bria,
I ran into Austin last night and he told me about your blog. I'm really happy to be able to read about what's going on with you. I hope things are going well and I think what you're doing is great. I know it's what you'd been wanting to do for a long time and I'm really happy for you. Thanks for putting all of this stuff up for us to read. I'll let Mollie know too. Take care, Lily

At 9:39 AM, Blogger pamused said...

yo bria - i had heard from adam that you were in the tsunami trenches, but only learned today (thanks austin) about this blog. fantastic idea. scanning your posts confirms what i had surmised about the relief aid work situation. you are so fortunate to garner this experience. soak it up, and stay well. can't wait to hear more.

- pam


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