It’s been more than a year since the last big natural disaster. It makes aid workers edgy. We’re a pretty edgy bunch at the best of times. It’s an unavoidable side-effect of a lifestyle that revolves around destruction on an epic scale, I guess. It’s partly the tension of knowing it’s only a matter of time (but not how much time) before the Next One hits, partly the frustration that comes with feeling underutilised.
Aid workers like to be utilized. We have overdeveloped ‘want to help’ mechanisms. It tends to be why we do what we do.
Aid workers are a funny breed. We mark our passage through life and career (often largely inseperable) by emergencies and disasters. We share a common framework of reference to big global events. The Rwandan Genocide in 1994. The war in Kosovo, 1999. The Iran earthquake of 2003. The Boxing Day Tsunami. The Myanmar Cyclone. They act as macabre milestones around which we frame other events in our lives. “I bought a house in late 2003. It was just before the Bam Earthquake”. “I broke up with her in February 2005, during the tsunami response”. “My second child was born while I was on deployment in Gaza.”
They drop easily into conversation, common reference points for a global diaspora. “How do you know Simon?” “Oh, we met in Sri Lanka after the Tsunami.” “Really? We worked together in Khartoum.” Common places, a small, interchangeable and ever-flowing community. Degrees of seperation are in the twos and threes.
We develop a jargon based around mutual experience. One- and two-word descriptors for events too terrible to contemplate for the victims and survivors. “The Tsunami”. “Nargis”, “Darfur”, “Rwanda”, “Mitch”, “Bam”. They’re thrown around flippantly, almost like destinations, places we’ve been on vacation, movies we’ve seen. In far-flung third-world bars and seedy hotel restaurants we swap accounts over cheap yellow beer, finding what responses and colleagues we have in common, and then outdoing eachother with stories from the front lines. It’s an exercise in bragging the morbid.
The true junkie collects them. Like a groupie with a rock-band, touring from one stop to the next. I’ve even seen t-shirts made out for response teams, listing the emergencies their members have attended, just like a band’s tour shirt. “World Tour ’05-‘06: Banda Aceh, Sri Lanka, Niger, Kenya, Somalia, Pakistan”. They’re worn with pride. Badges of assistance and intensity. Uniforms incongruous in their humour.
I don’t criticise. This is my community, or at least, a part of it, and I choose to live here. I thrive on it as much as the next relief-rat. I languish in the times between deployments, feeling useless and undervalued, until the flurry of excitement and activity hits like a metaphorical landslide, and we’re swept away in the euphoria of tragedy and assistance.
It’s a difficult dichotomy. Most people in the industry are here because they want to help. Most are people with feelings, who are moved by the plight of people worse off than themselves and motivated to do something about it. It’s what draws us to the world of emergency relief. Yet we find ourselves waiting for the next tragedy, the next disaster, the next invasion- dare I say it, looking forward to it. It’s our raison d’être, our purpose, our professional drive and, because so many of us fail to draw the line between our professional and personal lives, often far more than that.
Disasters happen. We don’t make them happen, and if they didn’t happen, we’d all happily pack up shop and find something else to do with ourselves. Some of us would probably join some hippie commune in rural India and grow organic vegetables. Some of us would become perennial backpackers. I doubt very many of us would go into the financial sector, but there would probably be a few. But as long as emergencies continue to take place, aid workers will be sitting around, waiting for them to happen, and wrestling with the recognition that disasters are terrible things, and yet our lives, our sense of purpose, even our sense of satisfaction is drawn from the fact that they do happen, that people will suffer, and that we then contribute to doing something about it.
1. Refuge: United Nations High Commissioner for Refugee (UNHCR) tents at a camp in Chad for refugees displaced by warfare in neighbouring Darfur, Sudan. June 2004.
2. Stacking: World Food Program (WFP) grain sacks awaiting distribution in an NGO warehouse in the famine-struck post-war region of Bahr-el-Ghazel, South Sudan. November 2004.
3. TFC: A severely malnourished child awaits food at an NGO-run Therapeutic Feeding Centre in central Niger during the nutrition crisis, during which hundreds of thousands of young children faced death through malnutrition and disease. August 2005.
4. Feed: A child recovers at an NGO-run feeding centre in western Niger, nine months after the peak of the nutrition crisis. June 2006.