Sunday, April 28, 2013

An Idjit's Guide to Surviving the World's Hottest DevZones

Text and pictures by Blogger 

Friends and gatekeepers - young Iraqi men keen to contribute to building a new nation

Risk Management Consultants or Personal Security Details - by no means an 'optional extra' but a fact of life in conflict affected countries

This personal, tongue-in-cheek piece intends to ‘illuminate’ the often non-committal Rambo-esque; dry, compartmentalized and deadly serious side of development work (including ‘life support’ – the burgeoning safety and security industry that rolls on, as a necessity, from the Iraqs, Timors, Afghanistans, DRCs, and Sudans to others waiting in the wings) that most people on the 'outside' find so difficult to understand and relate to. It also aims to demystify many of development assistance perceptions that prevail …. Exotic locales; swanning around on the old man’s yacht; outrageous salaries; rip-roaring parties with wild women; endless, sun-drenched days with frosted glasses of amber brew; extended vacations …..

Good humoured South Africans never in short supply and always game for a tipple and chat

It’s the airport terminals and in-bound flights, to devzones, that are the most fascinating and telling. They are often characterized by a deafening silence, grim-faced men mainly and occasional women where one can sense the effort and see the toll that it exacts, especially on the ‘heart-on-the sleeve men’, as they steel themselves to change gear and persona. They become displaced persons, existing in a ‘transient twilight zone’ of fluctuating emotion, guilt, adrenalin and for the younger bucks - testosterone. Separation, from family and loved ones, ushers in its own anxieties. A very few quaff down their parting drinks knowing full well that the next few months will be pretty parched. Scattered thoughts, anchored in the future, mindful of missing important, upcoming milestones and those less so – preparing, again and again, for alienation from familiarity.

Rotations or tours of duty, that range from 6 weeks to many months on end – some as long as a year, surreptitiously sap the vitality and resolve of most. When one strips away the hype; false bravado and BS; idealism and romanticism; no matter what one says ….. it’s a tough and often lonely gig‼ One can only imagine how high attrition rates actually are… hard wearing in so many respects …..

In addition to the more obvious occupational health and safety (OHS) hazards including pesky insect-borne diseases such as malaria and dengue fever; stomach and parasitic ailments; respiratory tract infections courtesy of poor air quality/pollution; hair loss and greying; weight gain through inactivity and ever-changing eating habits; nagging insomnia; and the potential of physical injury particularly in conflict countries there are also the more sinister, psycho-social risks associated with abnormal environments. 

An extract from a previous posting Moving from Red to Green sheds some light on life-after-work in Baghdad's infamous Green Zone. For those so inclined, there is also a hectic ‘expat’ party scene rotated through various embassies and company compounds with copious amounts of alcohol and snack foods. They are aberrations as with men outweighing the fairer sex, every woman is in ‘red and beautiful’, has her night – day and way as they hold court over ambitious, restless and hungry hunters. Having attended a few of these events my fascination, for this side-show sub-culture, soon faded as ‘worn’ events, conversations and people began to roll into one. The Alpha-male set, with its own strict pecking order, ranges seemingly from: senior diplomatic staff / corporate life support managers / project directors and managers able to ‘keep’ women and/or offer employment opportunities for the ‘nomadic groupies’; to jaded, know-it-all senior citizen/geriatric consultants 60s plus – who are perhaps best placed spending time with their grandchildren; to Iraqi vets who seek to entertain and impress nubile and less so ‘newbies’ with their own brand of ‘war stories’ to blatant opportunists, and to the dull, wallflowers like yours truly.

Coping strategies that work for most include:  

  • Routine, routine, routine … conflict countries or environments are often fluid and dynamic, where routine and predictability are often disrupted by security concerns and restricted physical movement. Typically, a ‘laager’ or 'circling of the wagons mentality' best countered by developing your own personal routine which helps to ground and centre one in the prevailing reality;
  • Develop hobbies and interests, solitary or sociable, beyond work – a 24/7 work orientation is not sustainable and a healthy work-life balance is essential;
  • Refresh home-based relationships regularly using information and communication technologies - they are vital life lines that provide purpose and meaning in an often 'crazed' world;     
  •  Exercise is the narcotic/life style of choice and an important cure-all, particularly in the hottest devzones;
  • Keep your wits about you and heed the advice of experienced colleagues and security professionals;

Balls, baskets and blast walls in Baghdad!

  • Develop and maintain an excellent sense of humour;
  • Don’t sweat the small stuff ….not to say that one should compromise on personal values, integrity, ethics and standards;
  • Maintain perspective at all costs;
  • Grab as much rest and down time as possible but at the same time WORK and PLAY HARD; 
  • Engage fully in the total environment with an emphasis on BALANCE;
  • Give, to local communities, as much as you take through any form of volunteerism;

Embracing frienships, national custom and tradition

  • Beware the expat curse and whereas it is wonderful, warm, fuzzy and relaxing to be ‘cocooned’ by all things familiar there is also the real danger of losing perspective by relying, too much, on the 'expat world' which is fraught with its own dangers and complexities. An expat, over-reliance often results in a 'separation' from the national context with an associated we-them orientation.  In so doing, one relinquishes opportunities to discover an entirely new world of relationships; cultural diversity and appreciation - depth and insights that are so integral to operating as an effective development practitioner. Maintaining a safe and professional distance, on the the relationship front, with country nationals as well as expats, is very prudent. This avoids relationships escalating into  'incestuous' interludes that only serve to feed the rampant rumor-mill irrespective of veracity. 

Ex-patting in moderation.....

1 comment:

  1. One wonders how the other, much larger group of 'expatriate workers' look at all these complaints. The hundreds of thousands of Bangladesh, Nepali, Indian, Phlippino, Pakistani and others, who work on construction sites, in households and factories in the Gulf States, Iraq and other places, far away from home - for wages that can be as low as 1% of what the expatriates, so pitied by Barry, earn. Their home leave is, at best once a year, often much less than that and they are the truly exploited ones. (in fact many die on the job)...

    Let's not lose our sense of proportion: of course there are downsides to the life of expatriate development workers, But this is more than compensated by excessively high (net) pay packages (more than they would ever earn at home), privileged working and living conditions, considerable control over their work, often fulfilling and challenging work that often exceeds their qualifications and skills.