I’m going to Afghanistan

I tiptoed around it for weeks, waiting until I had my ticket and visa in hand to make an announcement on Twitter, but here it is at long last. I’m due to arrive in Kabul next Thursday morning and will spend several months working for a research organization.

Needless to say, I’ll be back blogging regularly here and this blog will undergo some changes as I make an effort to take it more seriously.

The malevolent hiring gods are laughing

Today, I opened my email inbox eagerly awaiting an email telling me to pack my bags for Kabul,  and instead received this:

Sorry my late response – The head of the reporting department is away for a training session next week.

After discussion we have decided not to go further with you in the recruitment process.

Indeed you are too experienced to have an intern position but don’t have management skills to get an officer position.

I suggest that you get some direct management skills and then come back for a reporting/AME officer position.

If you don’t mind we will keep your resume in our pool of candidates.

So, I need experience to get experience I need to get experience.

I’ve lost count of how many attempts I’ve made to get myself over to Afghanistan. In a perverse twist of workaholism and overachievement, I’ve wedged myself into a place in my career where I can go neither forward nor back, nor, as would have been the case with the position above, forward by going backward temporarily.

My head hurts. But that’s probably the half bottle of wine I drank tonight as much as the realization that I’m becoming a bigger fool with each passing day.

What now?

Learn this, and learn it well

An idealistic young man is promising, principled and future-minded.

An idealistic young woman is naive, stereotypical, and a liability.

An outspoken young man is ambitious, intelligent, and possessing of wonderful entrepreneurial spirit. He should be promoted.

An outspoken young woman is a bossy bitch who doesn’t know her place in the hierarchy. She should be put in her place.

The hunt continues

As anyone masochistic enough to have been reading this blog for a while knows, I will be laid off from my current job in September. I gave up the job search for a while earlier in the summer. I’d become discouraged by too many false starts, too many emails never answered, too many offers rescinded because of funding problems, and the rapidly declining number of entry-level jobs posted at all on ReliefWeb and Idealist. Now, however, the hunt is back on. Because it has to be. Either I find a job in the next seven weeks, or I will have to move back in with my parents and label things for $8 an hour under the scornful gaze of my stepfather, who will never, ever forgive me for putting myself in more debt than I can ever repay for a lousy social science degree.

So, I sent out two applications: one for the outreach and communications officer post at a start-up NGO in Afghanistan, and another for a US-based IRC job virtually identical in description to my last refugee resettlement position, only with better support, funding, and my own staff.

Why cash-strapped aid agencies should hire rookies: A rant

One dreads a civilian surge of highly paid westerners, spending all their time behind barricades in meetings with other westerners, drawing up work plans and draping themselves in red tape while dirt-poor Afghans look on in dismay.

Sigh.

I hear this same story, over and over: Western aid workers go to Afghanistan, ostensibly to do good, but then expect to have en suite bathrooms, receive high per diems,  not have to travel outside Kabul, and to get plenty of time off to sun themselves on the beaches in Southeast Asia and go sightseeing in Europe.

Hey, aid agencies! Here’s an idea: start hiring more first-timers.

I’m totally serious. Let me explain.

Newbie aid workers right out of school or with limited field experience are willing to work longer and with far fewer perks than many of those who’ve been in the game for years and years. I know this because I am an aspiring aid worker, and I would gladly work in a conflict zone for the equivalent of an entry-level NGO salary here in the US, as would numerous others in my position. [Disclosure: yes, this rant post is partly self-serving. Surprise!]

Conventional wisdom holds that the more difficult the environment, the more important it is that aid workers be tough-as-nails lifers who preface their sentences with things like “When I was in Goma…,” but I seriously question that conventional wisdom. I don’t doubt that experience is important, but is it really as important as it’s made out to be?

I would argue that there is also something to be said for the clarity of fresh minds, unclouded by years of toil and painful ethical compromises. Ditto for how poorly-connected rookies are.  Most people view this as a deficiency, but I see a silver lining. Relatively ignorant of the petty rivalries, nepotism, grudges, and cliques within the aid world, we are less likely to base important decisions on these things. Moreover, younger aid workers –at least the ones I know– have been schooled in the latest theory from the get-go, are  aware of and extremely sensitive to the dominant aid/development critiques and controversies, and don’t look at these through scratched lenses of organizational loyalty.

Again, I’m not arguing that field experience isn’t important –that would be myopic, offensive, and unfair to the many, many awesome pros out there– but merely that aid agencies should rethink how they weight previous field experience relative to a job candidate’s other assets.

Conventional wisdom holds that all newbies with no conflict zone experience will disembark at the airport and promptly wet their pants at the sight of bombed out buildings or gun-toting teenagers or the absence of Dunkin Donuts –or whatever.

This is absurd.

I personally know someone who had her first field experience was Darfur in 2008 and adjusted quickly, and another person who freaked the hell out in Bosnia –in 2007! (Ok, our mine awareness and unexploded ordinances training was a bit over the top in terms of gory videos –I mean, really, who “takes mines lightly”?– but I digress.)

Some personality types are better suited to high stress environments than others, some even thrive on certain kinds of stress.* Is it really that difficult for recruitment officers to figure out what kind of person they are dealing with during the interview phase?

There is no way to be certain how someone will react when plopped down in a war zone or somewhere without any modern conveniences for the very first time, but couldn’t selection mistakes be reduced through more rigorous and blunt questioning?

Obvious? I thought so, until I began my job search.

When I was doing interviews this spring, never once was I asked, “How are you under stress?” or, even more to the point, “How do you think you would handle worms in your gut? How about armed men stopping your car? Crapping in coarse shrubbery by the side of a lonely road?  Do you get upset if you can’t shower for days on end and start to stink?”

It’s always fashionable to trash idealism, and to conflate it with naivete, but couldn’t the aid world use more idealism –so long as it is well-informed and cautious?

Some pro’s to hiring us tender young things:

- You can pay us a lot less (great for the recession!)

- We’re idealists, but also highly self-critical and willing to question aid orthodoxy.

- We’re generally single and without dependents, making hardship deployments less tricky.

- We’re accustomed to crappy living conditions and don’t expect to be pampered. For some people I know, a creaky guesthouse with a broken shower would be an upgrade from sharing a one-bedroom with two other people and sleeping a couch that smells of old beer.

- We seek out innovation and we’re tech savvy.

- We’ll work ourselves into the ground to prove our worth.

- We’re young and strong, and thus less likely to give out physically.

Maddeningly, the trend I have observed recently is cash-strapped aid agencies firing their entry-level employees and retaining those at the top with large salaries while critical programs go understaffed.

I sincerely hope this changes, but I won’t count on it.

*:::Waves hand in the air:::

Forward

At last, I am rid of my abominable manchild of a roommate and his deranged cat. Moreover, I will soon be rid of my lopsided, tobacco-stained apartment and will be moving into a studio in a big building in a dorky hipster/yuppie neighborhood. This move and the purchase of a post-paid phone will surely complete my transformation into a really boring office employee at the head office of a development organization.

One of my colleagues, who lives close to where I do now, is moving to the same yuppie neighborhood, after having been beaten so badly in his current neighborhood (one in which permanently intoxicated and enraged undergraduates live in houses reminiscent of the one in Fight Club) that his eye socket had to be wired together.

This colleague and I have spent an inordinate amount of time trying –with zero success– to get ourselves sent to Afghanistan. I think it’s safe to say we share a  vaguely unwholesome obsession with Afghanistan and the idea of working there. Which is why I find it darkly hilarious that, after hearing “ohmigod, isn’t Afghanistan dangerous?” countless times, we’ve both recently had very nasty experiences with danger and violence in our present locale,  a boring, decaying Rust Belt city in the United States.

Field, please. Preferably Afghanistan. Though I’ll take just about anything between Bosnia and China. Hurry now, I won’t be young and low maintenance and ignorant about salaries forever.

***

This dude thoroughly depressed me:

Then around my own office I see younger colleagues (and a few older ones), pining for an opportunity to get out to the field. They’re frustrated by the lack of options. They’re sick of reading about humanitarian work – they want to get out and actually do it. They’re tired trying to get something other than interships or volunteer posts or PA jobs. It must be incredibly difficult to be stuck in a more or less dead-end job at a head office, the only obvious career path simply more of the same, destined for a life of meetings under fluorescent light discussing documents.

A life of meetings under flourescent lights in a head office? I think not. I’m grateful for the job I have now and I love my wacky boss and co-workers. But I won’t do this forever. If, for whatever reason, I can’t get a field job in two years, I’m out. I’ll switch careers and do something else.

Oscillations

I keep oscillating between “everything will be ok, it’s ok to be an administrative assistant” and ” I will go stark raving mad if I have to spend another year, including another six month Siberian cold winter, in this lonely place.”

The thought of throwing myself into the arms of the OSCE again, has even crossed my mind, though not seriously, because they no longer pay their interns.

I’d love to continue working in refugee resettlement, but the shift there is also to greater reliance on unpaid interns.

No Dushanbe either

I guess I don’t have enough field experience.

Kind of hard to get field experience when no one is willing to give it to you, though.

For a while, the thought that I chose the wrong course of study and wrong field to go into has been gnawing at me. This latest disappointment is, I realise, a clear sign that I need to change direction. For whatever reason, this isn’t what I’m meant to do.

Now, the hard part is figuring out what I am meant to do. I’ve invested a third of my life into one dream (yes, I was a crazy-driven teenager), and now, having reached the end of that dream, I’m at a loss for ideas.

***

Maybe I don’t need to change fields. Maybe I do. I just accepted an administrative job and I’m stuck here at least another few months. That will give me some time to figure it out.

Kabul? No, but maybe Dushanbe.

I had an interview this morning for what I thought would be a job in Afghanistan, only to be told that position had been eliminated and I was being considered for Tajikistan instead.

Well, at least my awful attempts at Dari won’t work there either. ; )

Bits and Pieces

In the last year, there has been a flurry of engagements and weddings in my wider social circle, with two engagements this week alone.

Holy crap, time flies.

O _ 0

***

Early spring is always a pensive time of intense brooding and distraction for me. I’m exactly where I was two years ago, emotionally and professionally. I’m waiting for that life-changing email, that crucial phone call, waiting to find out if the summer will mark the beginning of a new chapter abroad, and making all kinds of contingency plans stateside.

Please, NGOs in Afghanistan, just effin’ hire me already.

I’m a hard worker, a quick study, much tougher than I look and –bonus!– the idea of living in a guesthouse excites rather than bothers me.

Come ON already!