Whatever Gets You Through the Night

10 Feb

7:00-ish PM: Leave the office. Come back to the team house.

11:00 PM: Comms teams shuts down their computers and turns out the lights. I begin to fall asleep on the couch in the living room of the team house.

12:00 Midnight to 1:30 AM: Voodoo drumming down the hill.

1:30 – 2:00 AM: R.E.M. sleep.

2:00 – 3:00 AM: Neighborhood dogs yapping loudly.

3:00 – 4:00 AM: Sick colleagues slamming the bathroom door and flushing the toilet.

4:00 – 5:00 AM: Loud pentacostal preaching, loud congregational singing down the hill (other direction from the Voodoo drumming).

5:00 – 5:30 AM: Yapping dogs back at it.

5:30 – 6:00 AM: Comms team sauntering back downstairs, booting up computers.

6:00 AM: Programs staff begin clattering coffee cups, running the microwave.

6:45 AM: Cars leave for the office…

* * *

I don’t mean to complain, because I actually really like aid work.

But some days it gets hard. Hard mentally and emotionally. Hard to stay focused.

Sometimes it’s physically hard. And sometimes it’s hard in ways that can feel very intangible…

The pressure can be amazing. Most aid non-insiders that I know seem to think that it is about the big dollar numbers: a US $1,000,000 grant is a big on; $8,000,000 is a huge score. A total response budget of $10,000,000 feels massive to some. $30 million or $40 million is out-of-control big.

But most of those same people don’t understand just how hard it can be to spend $30 million, or $10 million or even $1,000,000.

It takes a lot of organizational capacity and infrastructure to deliver $1,000,000 worth of aid to the field.

Alanna once wrote that aid work is a lot of office work. If my internet wasn’t so poor, I’d link the post (maybe I’ll do it later). But she’s right. For every person on staff whose job it is to actually hand relief items to earthquake victims – tarps, jerry cans, bag of rice, IFRC standard kitchen kits – there are at least two whose job it is to basically direct communications traffic, to make sure that data gets compiled, that updates gets written and posted online. It’s a lot about putting information into the right format for the Flash Appeal, or making sure that the formulae in the Excel workbooks link properly so that the to-date total on today’s NFI distribution report is a larger number than the total on yesterdays report.

Just staying on top of the information flow can be full-time work for an entire team.

When I sit in my cubicle in North America, trying to run interference for the response team on the ground, I sometimes have to ask for things. Information about this, response on that issue, clarification of something. And very frequently those responses come late. Reports promised by today don’t come until day-after-tomorrow; people appear online on skype, but don’t respond.

And now, the reality on the ground here is that the UN logs base (where most of the coordination meetings happen) is in one of the most congested and inconvenient parts of Port-au-Prince, and so when particular information is needed from one of those coordination meetings – information that colleagues back at HQ “need urgently by COB today” – and we can’t seem to make it across town to the meeting because of traffic or because the location of the meeting was changed at the last minute… or maybe we just couldn’t find an available vehicle… I find myself in the position of having to text back to an impatient colleague in North America that he or she will just have to wait another day… because of traffic. And as I’m sending the message, that argument feels just as untenable as it is literally true.

* * *

The electricity went out tonight, about the time that we got back from the office. Then it came back on again, for about five minutes. Then out again.

Four or five of us from the programs team sat out on the veranda of the team house, unable to do any work, unable to shuffle that information or respond to those demands for clarification from HQ. So we just had a few beers, swapped deployment war stories and played the NGO acronym game.

About 10:30 the electricity came back on again. The comms team – just back from eating out in town – turned on their computers for a last 30-minute sprint before lights out.

Drumming due to start in 90 minutes.

14 Responses to “Whatever Gets You Through the Night”

  1. Canadian Idiot 10 February, 2010 at 9:10 am #

    So what new NGO acronyms did you come up with?

  2. Melody Hanson 10 February, 2010 at 9:47 am #

    thanks for window into the reality of aid work. a million miles traveled in effort and desire, though it may feel slow and ineffective at times. other cultures never ‘run’ the way we westerners want or expect.

    just want you to know that this one american is appreciative of your efforts.

    may you sleep well soon. at least enough to do the next day.

    be well. melody

  3. Wayan 10 February, 2010 at 10:31 am #

    From the time of the Romans, armies have realized that support matters. I think the current ratio is 10 support staff for each frontline soldier.

    Also, I would suggest an investment in eye mask, ear plugs, and Ambien

  4. Sterling 10 February, 2010 at 11:33 am #

    is it weird that i want to be one of those people in the office instead of someone on the ground? i’ve always felt like there aren’t enough people willing to sit at a desk and do things that need to be done, like raise money or book flights. i hate development work and asking for money, but someone has to do it.

    i like this post. and i’d suggest you join the drumming circle! sounds like a party…

  5. morealtitude 10 February, 2010 at 4:24 pm #

    Great post as always mate- captures the reality of the complexities, communication, barriers, frustrations, and not being able to sleep a wink.

    Wish I was out there having beers with you guys.

    PS- Where the hell is my 1-month report on the NFI distributions?

    Brief unapologetic self-promotion on a related theme: http://morealtitude.wordpress.com/articles-on-aid-work/a-day-in-the-life-of/

    Hang in there mate.

    • J. 10 February, 2010 at 6:18 pm #

      Would totally rule to have you here, hommie.

      (’cause then you’d be off my ass about a freakin’ 1-month NFI distribution report…😉 )

  6. Marianna 10 February, 2010 at 5:53 pm #

    Sounds familiar! I have been following your blog since quite a while and (finally) it seems we are posted in the same location! Would be nice to put a face on a blog😉

    FYI at 7.52pm the logbase is unbelievably quiet…

    • J. 10 February, 2010 at 6:09 pm #

      Marianna – DM me if you’re on twitter…

      • Marianna 11 February, 2010 at 1:52 pm #

        no twitter (i guess i’m old school!!!!)

      • J. 12 February, 2010 at 4:08 am #

        I’ll be at the UN Log base this morning (Friday, Jan 12) to attend the Shelter/NFI cluster and CCCM cluster meetings.

        See you there?

      • Marianna 12 February, 2010 at 2:07 pm #

        damn it! I had a team meeting this morning and could not get here in time for those meetings. I’ll be there on Monday though…

  7. Amelia 10 February, 2010 at 8:03 pm #

    Yep, sorry about the toilet flushing issue. Personally I find it’s the dogs that send me over the edge. One night they had like a dog gang fight… like a Britney Spears music video with one hound giving the other hound the paw… or something like that.
    Wishing you a night of zen….

  8. Leslie 13 February, 2010 at 10:47 pm #

    This should be required reading for anyone wanting to work in aid/development. Especially the office work part! I’m really enjoying your posts. Keep up the good work…


  1. Good Intentions Are Not Enough » Blog Archive » Interesting articles and posts – February 11 – 20 2010 - 29 June, 2010

    […] hole beneath our heart, A Measure of Humanity and Whatever gets you through the night- Tales from the Hood – A series of posts from […]

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