#readaidworkerwomen2014

Which one of us hasn’t dreamt about writing a book or been told by friends:  You should write a book. Aid worker lives tend to be glamorized and seen as adventurous and they are. We get the chance are privileged to travel the world, see things that most people don’t are allowed into the lives and culture of others and have great stories to regale people ‘back home’ with act as witness to suffering and the great resilience of people .

We all have stories to tell (our own and that of others) so it was with great interest that I read this piece at the tail end of 2013 on the guardian on #readwomen2014 just at the time that I had picked up two books written by aid worker women.  Marianne Elliott’s, Zen Under Fire: Finding Peace In The Midst Of War , and Jessica Alexander’s, Chasing Chaos: My Decade In and Out of Humanitarian Work.  This is the WiA version of #readwomen2014 where we would love to get a collection (and reviews) of books by aid worker women.  Aid Leap has just published a list of 10 books to read before becoming an aid worker with some women on the list.

The two books reviewed here are quite different though they may sound quite similar:  both works of non fiction, both based on personal memoir, both by aid worker women and both tackling the misconceptions of how glamorous (or simple!) aid work is with the grim realities of the complexity, personal sacrifices and finding of one’s self.  The differences for me were that Zen Under Fire is based solely in Afghanistan and we get to meet characters, other than Marianne, in much greater depth and Jessica’s book pings us around on her travels.  We’ve chosen these two books as they really reflect what it’s like to be a woman in the sector and touch on many of the aspects we cover in this blog.

Zen Under Fire.

This book was not an easy read and I loved it. It was not an easy read as Marianne really takes you in depth on the context and situation in Afghanistan where she was working and it’s not just presented as a back drop for her personal journey.  It’s real and you feel Marianne and her journey of self discovery but you also feel EVERY. SINGLE. FRUSTRATION that we have felt in our respective jobs and it’s not airbrushed to just present generic frustrations (endless cups of tea, slow bureaucracy, team mates losing it, funding woes etc).  By concentrating on one place and one story within that place (human rights and peacekeeping), Marianne has managed to make this book so much more than just a memoir; she is shahid–a witness and takes this responsibility seriously while in Afghanistan and by telling the story of her time there after with deliberate delicacy and staying true to her characters and narrative.  It felt like a book written by an aid worker for aid workers.  That is not to say that Marianne does not make the information accessible for all audiences but it didn’t feel superficial and dumbed down (I loved Emergency Sex when I read it long ago, but still…same ole same ole—jet setting aid workers finding themselves in exotic, stressful locations with bullets flying around or in a tent.  Pissed off with the system and they do something about it (or try to).  Find some semblance of their broken and mended selves at the end and tell the whole world about it.  Fun read but not terribly useful as it goes—been there, done that, didn’t write a book about it).

At the end of the day, the book is sold as a memoir about Marianne and her journey.  As someone who has ‘health coached’ other humanitarians this sentence resonated so clearly with me: As I learned, our own fears, even our best intentions, can get in the way of our ability to serve others.  Yoga, meditation, writing and walking continue to be my tools to process the fears that get triggered by the suffering I encounter in the world. Marianne talks about yoga as a way to balance and process her work and life in the book and went on to become certified (and is just launching an online yoga course for aid workers (full disclosure:  I have endorsed and signed up for the course).

If you have some head space to think and feel something fully, read this book.  Gift it to someone similar.

Chasing Chaos.

I stumbled on this book because of an article Jessica wrote in the Washington Post at the time of Typhoon Haiyan in the Philippines.  Fantastic article and laid out the top five myths about aid work all of which I agreed with. I immediately bought her book and devoured it within days.  It is a super easy read and women aid workers will identify with many of the issues that Jessica grapples with (getting into the biz, managing relationships both romantic and otherwise, isolation when returning home, feeling the tug of the ‘field’ versus needing to stay at home and nurture a life).  Jessica’s engaging style and pacing is well suited to introducing a sobering and complex perspective on aid work to an outsider.  Insiders may find themselves thinking—I should write a book too.

If you think you might be in the book, read it.  If you need something that is a fun easy book to read instead of watching a series, buy it.  Gift it to someone who thinks aid work is glamorous. 

Let us know of other books that you found really reflect the journey of aid worker women.  We’d love to hear from you and compile our own list of #readaidworkerwomen2014

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Was I burnt out?

Was I burnt out?  Did it matter?  I took an unintended break and now I know it’s because I had to.

This recent article in the New York Times (HT/@intldogooder) took me a bit by surprise as it was not what I was expecting to read about burn out.  I read through it and immediately identified with this paragraph:

While most people think job burnout is just a matter of working too hard, that’s not necessarily true. Professor Maslach and Professor Leiter list six areas that can result in burnout: work overload; lack of control over the work; insufficient rewards; workplace community problems, such as incivility and a lack of support among co-workers; a lack of fairness, such as inequality of pay, promotions or workload; and a conflict between one’s personal values and the requirements of a job.

Burnout for me, as an aid worker, was always about stress–stress caused by too much work in difficult situations and not being able to take care of myself through proper diet and exercise.  I had worked on those two areas in my life and do indeed feel like it made a difference however, it wasn’t enough.  I was restless and listless at the same time and it wasn’t a feeling that I could shake.  I wasn’t looking forward to doing what I had loved doing over the previous 8 years.

Burnout is not just when you need a vacation to recharge. It’s when you feel overwhelming exhaustion, frustration, cynicism and a sense of ineffectiveness and failure (NYTimes article)

I was engaged in many conversations, all with women, where all of us were basically fantasizing about quitting aid work and doing something else.  Not by coincidence, the “something else” was creating support systems for people like ourselves, who were dealing with lots of stress in our work and not being able to reconcile it with our ideas of healthy work-life balance. It’s still something that many of us struggle with—how do we take the break or just even quit aid work.  Aid work gives us meaning but at times it feels futile.  And if we don’t do this work, what will we do?

If you are having these conversations, take a step back and examine it seriously.  Is it real job dissatisfaction that could lead to burn out? Or is it simply a case of being a holistic, three dimensional person, with multiple interests and not enough time in the day to do it all?

I took the break I needed without realizing that I was.  And I did other things.  This blog finally took shape and went from being an idea into a reality during that break.  I became a practicing health coach with clients.  I did the odd consultancy.  I took a job with an applied research institute that was still considered humanitarian but was removed just enough for my comfort zone where I woke up every morning and loved going to work.  I disengaged with the politics of aid agencies I had worked for in the past.  I started a second FaceBook account (ostensibly for health coaching) and de-friended colleagues that I felt were draining my energy on my personal account.  I ran two half marathons, made friends and engaged with people outside of work, took trips to places I said I wanted to see but always put off.  I made a conscious choice to be more present in my relationship.

I did this all and came out the other end better for it and I feel that it’s despite myself.  (Looks like I may have an issue owning my achievements). I say it’s despite myself because I never thought I was burnt out.  I just thought it was life and I was going through a phase.  I can look back now with 20/20 hindsight and see that this was not a good place to be and will certainly be more in tune with the signs if they come visiting again.  It’s so important to love what you do.  Whatever it might be.  If you are getting ‘burnt out’, you should take it seriously.  And it could be taking a break or being able to identify what parts of your job are causing you dissatisfaction and using that as a starting point to begin to solve the problem.  Because as we know:

While people need to figure out what they can do on an individual level to prevent burnout, change will be limited without a shift in organizational thinking, […]— a challenging proposition at best. (NYTimes article)

I’m standing here on the other side of this to tell you it can be done and it’s worth it.  Even if by mistake.

As always, we would love to hear your thoughts as we know this is not a topic that receives a lot of attention but it is something that aid workers, both women and men, contend with.  Give us advice, comments or just share your story below.

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When Malaria Happened. My Story

Women in Aid is pleased to publish this first hand account of Mandy George (@mandygeorge) and her harrowing encounter with malaria whilst working in Haiti.  We wanted to publish this story in order for all aid workers (not just women!) to be aware of the importance of being prepared for any eventuality when it comes to your health.  Do share any lessons you may have learned with your own experiences when traveling and taking ill.

Disclaimer: Please check your facts on strains of malaria in your working environments.  We are not malaria/health specialists and the post below should not be taken as technical medical advice.

Mandy George is a humanitarian communications and accountability specialist. She most recently spent the better part of two and a half years working in Haiti until malaria ejected her from the islands and back to the UK, where she is now fully recovered and is working as an independent consultant until her next overseas adventure.  Today, on the one year anniversary of being diagnosed with malaria, Mandy has launched a fundraising campaign for a UK based charity, MALARIA NO MORE.

December 2nd, 2012. On Sunday I was windsurfing. On Wednesday I was in Intensive Care. On Friday I was put into an induced coma. I very nearly didn’t come out of it.  Almost four weeks later I left the Santo Domingo ICU, after what was heralded as a medical miracle. Or an act of God, depending on how you like to look at these things.  What happened? Malaria happened.

Perhaps you didn’t know that Haiti has malaria. Or perhaps like me, you know but never thought it could be that serious. A combination of lack of accurate information with a heavy dash of “it-will-never-happen-to-me-itis”. Common practice among invincible aid workers, part foolhardy and part necessity to do these kinds of jobs and expose oneself to risks that are considerably more elevated than taking the Central Line to work every day.

I certainly knew something was wrong when I was hit out of the blue with acute headaches and a progressively intensifying fever. The lack of cold and flu symptoms led me to believe that I was indeed afflicted with some type of tropical ailment. Hmmm. Malaria or dengue? Let’s hope it’s malaria. At least then I can get treatment.

In many cases rapid treatment would mean no more than a minor concern, which is what I was feeling at the time. But there were two things I was unaware of at the time. One: there is another strain of malaria, falciparum malaria, which is extremely dangerous. Two: if you don’t get treated immediately, the chances of malaria killing you rise exponentially.

A series of unfortunate events led to my delay in treatment. Part complacency, part logistical. I was living in Haiti but on holiday in the Virgin Islands with my family. Despite the fever, I imagined that Haiti would know how best to treat whatever I had, plus I just wanted to get home, so off I went. Two faulty plane engines later, and a night in a Miami hotel, meant kilos of sweat and precious time lost before I was finally diagnosed with malaria in Port-au-Prince.

Despite the best efforts of the clinic that I was in, it soon became apparent that this case was too serious for them to deal with at the medical facilities in Haiti. The parasite was hard at work and jaundice and pneumonia had set in. Did you know that malaria can cause all your major organs to fail? I certainly didn’t. I caught a glimpse of myself in the mirror at one point. No wonder everything had a golden glow. My eyes were totally yellow, red, all the wrong colours of the rainbow.

I was working as a consultant and had my own medical and evacuation insurance. The few minutes it took to purchase the above online translated into one of the life saving elements of this story. But I was also lucky to be working with a team of colleagues who recognised the severity of my situation and were able to pressurise the insurance company to fly me out to the Dominican Republic that night. If not for them, I almost certainly would not be here telling this story now. I learnt that just having the insurance is not enough. If you are too sick to deal with phone calls you need to know someone has your back.

Once you are medevaced, your problems are not necessarily all solved. My friend who accompanied me on my one-way voyage was then landed with the task of finding me a bed in an intensive care unit, in a country she did not know, in a language she thankfully did speak. The first place I was taken to was full, and she was handed a list of hospitals to find me a place in. It was thanks to a helpful nurse that a good hospital was identified and off we went, a midnight tour of the darker side of Santo Domingo.

From here on things get blurry. I’ll give you the medical facts. The parasite attacked all my organs. My body went into septic shock – lungs, liver, kidneys, stomach – you name it, it failed. Even when the malaria was brought under control, I was left with all of the other problems. I swelled up to twice my size – or at least my legs looked that way. Everything went yellowish orange. Skin, eyes, urine. I had blood transfusions and dialysis. But for me the worst part was the feeling of drowning. My lungs were infected, filled with fluid. I was gasping for air even though there was air all around me.  They were trying everything to make this better. All sorts of contraptions on my face, medication to inhale, balloons of air pumped into me. Nothing worked.

The last image I remember is having a mask on my face, trying desperately to breathe, drowning in my own lungs. To my right the head of intensive care is standing, staring intently at my screen. Arms crossed, serious expression. Behind this, my friend is standing, silent tears rolling. This is very serious, I thought. But I am not going to die. I am close, but it is not yet my time. Was I panicking? I was too sick to be afraid. I had no energy to worry. But there was a certain strength in my conviction that I would be OK. And then I slipped off into an induced coma. Relief.

Despite this conviction however, it is a good thing that I did not know exactly what was going on. A visit from the Ministry of Health shortly after, who were tracking my malaria progress with great interest given the rarity of this type of malaria in the Dominican Republic, led to the official commenting to my doctor that there is no way this girl will leave here alive. We shall see about that, said my doctor. The determination of this marvellous woman and her team was another factor that proved that official to be wrong. But only just.

The reason for knocking me out was so that I could be put on a ventilator that would breathe for me, until my body could manage on its own again. I’ve never see anyone on a ventilator although I do take more of an interest when this appears in medical dramas these days. Apparently it looks pretty shocking. The tubes have to be strapped across your face to ensure they don’t move around. The machine makes you rise and fall in an artificially eerie way. Add this to the vision of swollen infected me, and it’s not a pretty picture. At least this is the way that my friend who visited me described it. It shocked him so much that he couldn’t even approach my bedside. My heart goes out to my friends and family who sat by me through this horrific sight. When I think of the roles reversed, it makes me feel physically sick. What they went through I would not wish on my worst enemy.

Of the following week I remember very little. The faces of family and friends who came to visit me floated across my vision from time to time, like low budget 80s music videos, blurred around the edges and in psychedelic orange tones. Lots of voices telling me I have to stay calm, that I have a tube helping me to breathe, that I have to stay still. Not that I had the energy to move anyway. I didn’t feel any pain because of the heavy sedation, but I was in a very dark and uncomfortable place. I was fighting for my life.

At one point things turned around. Suddenly I was no longer getting worse, but began to show small signs of improvement. At some point around this time, I had to come off the ventilator, to prevent permanent damage being done to my body. I was given a tracheotomy. A small hole in my throat, and this became the place that I would breathe from over the next two weeks. Slowly I emerged from the coma, back into the real world.

But intensive care is not the real world. If you have ever been in there, or known someone who has, you will know what I mean. It is an oppressive, strip-lit piece of eternally beeping chaos. If there are ten beds, then there are ten machines beeping at infrequent uncoordinated intervals creating a hellish symphony of pandemonium. There are people dying and people crying. There is the 24/7 chatter of the nurses. Time stops. No windows, no daylight, no starlight. Just mechanical eternity. Minutes blur into hours into days into weeks.

Recently I read a statistic that up to 80 per cent of ICU patients are affected by delirium. I was one of those eighty percenters. For me this meant living in an alternative reality for a few days. An alternative reality that was nonetheless a reality because I experienced it as if it was real. It was full of fear and paranoia where almost everyone around me was trying to harm me. Have you ever had a nightmare where you never thought you would be able to escape, that it would last forever? That was what this was like. I will spare you the grim details of what I thought was happening to me, but let’s just say that I felt like I would be in this ICU hell forever. Every day they would try and remove the tracheotomy so that I could breathe on my own. It took a few days of attempts. I was starting to give up hope that I would ever leave. My family and friends were beginning to get very worried about my mental health. And then finally, they did it. And the minute they rolled me out of ICU into my own peaceful, quiet room, the alternate reality disappeared and I was back on the right side of the dark side.

Somewhere around this stage it became apparent that I was going to make a full recovery. Which was an encouraging piece of information to have because I could neither walk nor talk for about three more weeks. My vision remained blurry for one more week. My need to communicate increased as I went on recovering, and I must have depleted a small forest with the amount of paper I went through furiously scribbling notes to my family and friends. Slowly things started returning to normal. I took my first few assisted steps, just a few, that was all I had energy for. I began eating food again. It tasted so good!

Although I was getting better, this part was difficult. I could measure my physical progress and it was encouraging. One day I couldn’t sit up by myself in bed, the next day I suddenly had the strength to. But now that I was not too ill to think, my brain kicked into gear and I was hit with a barrage of realisations. I would not be able to return to my previous life in Haiti – at least not for a long time. In fact, I wouldn’t be able to do much of anything for a few months while I recovered. My wonderful doctor noticed this dip in my morale and stepped in to help me get it back. She would stick me in a wheelchair and roll me outside into the sunshine. Sunshine! After 4 weeks of windowless hell. It was blissful. She sent me out of the hospital long before my mother and I thought I was ready to leave – I still couldn’t walk or stand up on my own. But she knew I needed to get out of there and that I would find a way to manage. She was right.

Over the next two weeks I steadily improved and for my next check up at the hospital I was able to manage almost the whole day without a wheelchair. The nurses clucking around me exclaiming, “Thank God, it is a miracle!” To cut a long story short, lots of tests and one operation later to close the tracheotomy and I was finally allow to fly home. The rest is a progressive tale of slow recovery, patience, internal growth and reflection that leads me up to today, where I am back to my normal self. It took a good six months to feel good again. I underwent surgery twice to get rid of scar tissue build up in my trachea that was preventing me from breathing properly – damage from all the tubes in intensive care. That held things up a bit, but my doctor’s prediction of six months was very accurate. After three months I started working part time. In hindsight it was too soon and quite a struggle energetically. My brain was ready, but my body was not. Another three months later and it was a different matter.

You may ask, why am I telling this story? Fundamentally I hold the belief that illness is a great teacher and comes to us when there are things in life that we need to sit up and listen to, things we need to change and shifts we need to make. As such this was a profound learning experience for me and I’m sure this learning will continue for a long time. I can now understand Nietzsche’s words: “Only great pain…compels us to descend to our ultimate depths…from such abysses, from such severe sickness, one returns new born having shed one’s skin, with merrier senses, with a second dangerous innocence in joy, more childlike and yet a hundred times subtler that one has even seen before.” That said I feel that it is my responsibility to share this story because on reflection of the practicalities there are many things I did and didn’t do that both saved me and almost killed me. Hindsight always has 20/20 vision and the good choices seem more obvious to me now.

Here are some of the things I have learned the hard way:

 

·      Don’t let complacency get the better of you. Low risk does not mean no risk.

·      Take your anti-malarials, even if you are somewhere long term. There is no medical evidence to suggest that they are bad for you and they can save your life.

·      Don’t get bitten. Use spray, nets, whatever it takes. Malaria is not the only nasty thing mosquitoes can carry.

·      If you develop a fever or other symptoms get them checked out immediately – delay could be fatal.

·      Have a malaria testing and treatment kit handy and if you can’t get to a medical facility immediately and think you might have malaria, take the medication just in case.

·      Never travel to anywhere without a good medical system if you are not feeling well, even if it is the place you call home.

·      Always have medical and medevac insurance. Carry the details with you and share them with your employer if you are a consultant.

·      Just having insurance does not guarantee you will be OK if you get seriously ill. Check with your employer what will happen if you fall extremely sick and question this if you do not think it is comprehensive enough. Who will take responsibility for ensuring your well being? This is particularly relevant if you are a consultant and are ultimately responsible for your own health and medevac insurance.

·      Keep fit – this could give you a few brownie points if you get majorly ill.

·      When recovering from a major illness, listen to your body. If you don’t feel ready to go back to work, don’t. Health first, work second.

·      Learn from what happens to you. Take the time to reflect on it. There is always a silver lining, no matter how traumatic the experience. You might even feel better afterwards.

If my experience can inspire just one person to make a change, then that is something. At the end of the day we all choose our own adventures. What path will yours take?

 

 

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International Personal Finance

Yes. It is official. I have got to the age where I talk with friends about mortgages and finance over coffee. Now, apparently, I even blog about it. The issues in this area are complex for everyone. But I wonder if other people working in the humanitarian aid sector find this topic a little overwhelming. Let me provide an overview of the complications I personally find make my head sore.

Long term plans. I have no idea what mine are. I do not know when I will be at “home” and I am not sure how long this will be for when it does happen. This makes personal finance complex in many many ways as many financial planning and investment plans and tools are geared towards resident nationals of one country.

Pension. I don’t currently have a pension, I am not sure where to get one. I want one as I want to make sure I am financial planning for my future. However, I have currently lived overseas for 3 years and am not sure if I will retire in the UK. My husband to be is from New Zealand and we have not quite worked out a long term plan, nor do we plan to in the near future. It is nice to keep the conversation open. So a state pension or work pension is not an option, as these are country specific. Only a savings scheme is a good option for us. I have sat down with a couple of “personal finance” companies recently to discuss investments (e.g. investing in stocks and shares or simply putting funds in to an overseas savings account) but the conversation always ends up getting complex for me because I want to understand the full impact of where these funds will be and what this ethically means.

Ethics. For 12/13 years now I have worked with charities in one way or another. When I sat down with a personal financial management firm for the first time to discuss how to manage my personal finances alongside my international lifestyle they talked a lot about investments in tax free zones and questionable stocks. There were some options labelled as “ethical” they could discuss with me, but the exact criteria used to define an investment as ethical could not be clearly described to me. I have done more in-depth research but still have not found an investment I am comfortable with yet.

I don’t want to invest my time in working for charities just to invest my savings in (potentially) creating the issues that I or other charity workers are developing strategies of how to target. I want my savings to further my goals, not to undermine them. It seems this is difficult to guarantee even with savings schemes named as “ethical”.

I have started to look at peer to peer lending schemes as a fun (but risky) option. This is when through organised services you can choose to invest your money in certain businesses that are asking for capital. A repayment plan is agreed upon but some commentators say that there is little security for funds. I like the idea of choosing directly what business my funds would go to.

On moneysavingexpert.com there are some great resources about how to make decisions on investments and even guidance about ethical investing and what this means. The whole site has a multitude of different pages with different advice.

Home from home. Many many international workers buy property as a longer term investment. This is what I have done. I am now the proud owner, well 1 of 4 owners, of an apartment in Auckland. This was my choice, as with 4 people investing it is a short term investment but the result will be a small pot of money (from rent) being saved in New Zealand that I can use when I travel there. Many people I know have done the same and own property at home. I think this serves both the investment purpose and also creates a link with “home”… but as with almost all investments this creates some kind of geographical commitment (or does it? see below).

Others are choosing to buy properties abroad. More and more expats in Phnom Penh, Cambodia are choosing to buy property rather than renting. The cost of buying property is still relatively low and many forecast great growth. There are lots of risks associated with these options, all location specific, which need to be questioned and researched thoroughly before making a decision.

Geographical commitment. All financial decisions seem to create ties and commitments. Even transferring funds from our two home countries would result in a loss of 5% or so, in our savings, which would be a difficult decision to make. Imagine sacrificing 5% of the value you have just sold your house for, just to re-invest in your new home. For me and my partner this means that whenever we transfer funds to one of our home countries we have mentally committed to having that money stay there for the foreseeable future.

There are some amazing new options starting to pop up in the market for fee free or low free transfers. One company that has started is TransferWise a website that claims to allow people to transfer funds at a fee of 0.5% by matching people in different countries who are transferring funds opposite ways (e.g. I live in London and want to transfer funds to New Zealand, and you live in New Zealand and want to transfer funds to London, why don’t we both just not transfer and deposit funds locally in each others accounts?).

This blog piece is obviously not me saying what the right decisions are, as I haven’t found them, but I wanted to outline some of the complications I have experienced when making decisions about my own personal finances within this blog and see what ideas you have had or solutions you have found to these same complexities.

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Women In Aid mentioned on PHAP

Check out this article on Professionals in Humanitarian Assistance and Protection (PHAP) about womeninaid.com.

Grace Bahng says “a blog at womeninaid.com has been posting about the dilemmas women often face in the aid world.The blog was created several months ago, beginning with a post discussing Anne-Marie Slaughter’s article in The Atlantic, “Why women still can’t have it all.”

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The many miles of an aid work career

Below is a fantastic guest blog from Geneva Pritchard discussing the challenges of moving with your international aid career.

Geneva Pritchard is a dedicated and enthusiastic member of the International aid community.  Her aid career began in 2002 when she worked on a gender, water and sanitation project with CARE International in rural Nicaragua.  In the years following she spent the majority of her time living and working with the refugee population on the Thailand-Myanmar border.  Geneva has worked on a wide range of aid projects in South East Asia including emergency needs assessment among refugee populations, sustainable agriculture programs, treatment for and prevention of drug-resistant malaria among mobile populations, and advocacy work to influence health and education policy.

Geneva uses innovative methods to transition emergency programs to sustainable, community-led solutions and highlights the importance of partnership in all of her projects.   She recently obtained her Masters in Public Health through the School of Global Studies at Thammasat University, Bangkok.   Currently Geneva lives Melbourne, Australia with her husband where she is an International Aid consultant.

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I have recently moved location again. I have moved to my fourth, yes fourth, location in less than two years.

Upon sharing the news with friends and family back home of this last planned move, I was greeted with responses such as “I don’t know how you do it”, “I don’t envy all that moving!”, and “but when are you moving HOME?”.

My once enthusiastic-intentioned call turned into justification to others for my chosen lifestyle as an International Aid worker who is often required to change geographic locations.  Over the course of a couple days I hung up from phone calls feeling defeated and misunderstood by others, and even by myself.  Refusing to be shrouded in doubt about my lifestyle, or worse, be sucked into comparing myself to the lives of others, I found a safe and comfortable place to meditate.  Using the power of my breath, I centred my spirit and came to the powerful realisation that if I compare myself to the person I have always imagined myself to be, I am right on track. I live a life that is completely different from my family members and nearly all of my friends, and sometimes that makes me feel weird and different, but it makes me feel so….me.

I have covered many miles, and laid my head to rest on too many pillows to even count.  I have not, however, taken time to reflect on moments where I feel at home, or at peace, in the midst of so much travel.  In preparation for this upcoming move, I have put together the top 5 things that “ground” me in a seemingly endless life of motion:

1)     Breath and movement.  Yoga brings me back to my breath, and helps me connect my body to my new physical space.   My yoga mat travels everywhere with me, and when it rolls out onto the floor I feel a sense of home.

2)     Nourishing my body.  Cooking calms my spirit and can even be a meditative process for me.   The first meal I cook in a new place creates smells and senses that flood me with comfort and satisfaction.

3)     Harnessing my creative spirit.  Painting enlivens a part of me that too often gets pushed to the back burner.   When I create a painting I feel a sense of pride, accomplishment and balance in my life.   I use the lotus flower as a theme throughout most of my paintings so in whatever country my brushes stroke the canvas I have a familiar symbol to accompany me.

4)     Wander and wonder.  Throw that to do list out the window and allow myself time to wander the new streets, smile at strangers, and feel gratitude for new opportunities.  When I take to the streets with a journal in hand and $10 in my pocket for a spontaneous red wine stop I feel giddy and alive.   Whether I am wandering the dirt roads of rural Burma, or the back alley ways of Melbourne, the feeling of wandering and wondering makes my heart beat just a bit faster and I can’t help the silly grin that always takes over my face when I allow time to just stroll around.

5)     Be still, and still be here.  This is a mantra that my favourite yoga teacher often shares in class and it often comes to mind during transition times.  It is okay to feel overwhelmed and at times exhausted by transition.  It is okay to not move, cook, create or wonder and just be still, nap, read, meditate.    Remember that life is made up of a series of moments, and taking time to ask yourself what you want from this moment, is a good way to not get overwhelmed with the grand scheme of transition.

In a new place I experience moments of joy and days of sorrow.  There are days where I am enriched and enthused by the newness, and days where I am bogged down by the unfamiliarity and additional challenges that accompany a new place.

Listening to and respecting each emotion that enters without judgement is a daily practice, and something that does not always come naturally.  Love yourself, and listen to yourself, through all the cycles of transition.  Reach out to other women who live similar lives, and know that around a table of like-minded souls you too shall feel at home and encouraged to go forth with this wild journey as an International Aid Worker.

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The debate IS growing

When we thought about starting this blog, it was inspired by the BIG discussions happening around women, careers and leadership that have been happening around Silicon Valley during the last few years.

Many of the debates and issues are similar, but women (and men) working in the charity sector and in the international charity sector face additional difficulties and challenges too. We thought it was worth giving space and time to name some of these challenges. Now, more and more resources and locations for these discussions are being established (and perhaps I am just noticing them more too).

Below is an overview of some recent resources and articles I have found particularly useful.

Kate Warren, Director, Global Recruitment and Careers Services at Devex, has been contributing some great articles to the discussion: “Challenges affecting women’s advancement in global development” provides a great overview of some of the key issues that keep many of the most senior jobs in international development staffed by white men. “When you don’t want to trade your career for a wedding ring” is written for people who are following spouses working in the international aid sector and as such are looking to re-focus their own careers (which may have been in anything on the sector). Some great tips for all wanting to find career success in any sector actually.

The guardian has launched the Global Development Professionals Network. This aims to promote debate and networking among professionals working in international aid or global development.

They also just hosted a panel discussion which has been summarised by Content Coordinator, Holly Young in the article “Women in development: 18 top tips for career success”.

Perhaps you have other links to resources on the topic. It’s great to see the momentum building.

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5 Top Tips for Finding Success at Interview

Many of us spend hours working on cover letters, application forms and model answers for interviews that will make us appear as the best candidate for a given job. I have spent hours trawling the internet for model answers for the most difficult questions (what has been my biggest career failure? How do you phrase the answer to show that you turned this into a success? What does the interviewer want me to say to this question?).

Below are some of my top tips for how to give a winning interview performance.

Top Tip 1: Don’t Be Perfect, Be Real

Most people try and give the answer that they think the interviewer wants to hear (“no, I have never had a conflict at work, as I get on really well with all people”; “I can work perfectly with people from other cultures, I adapt very quickly”).

On the surface this is great (although can come across too good to be true) but by doing this the person is setting both themselves and their future employers up for difficult times. As reality sets in (and people are just people, and therefore not too good to be true) the person’s real strengths and weaknesses come to light and rather than these being “part of the deal” of hiring the person these things are now surprises.

Make sure you are open and honest about who you are and who you need the organisation to be, in order for you to be happy and to find success.

Top Tip 2: Be Aware of the Job You Are Applying For

The way you apply for a job should give the person short listing clues about your skills. This is true of being interviewed too. If you are a fundraiser, show off your verbal pitch skills at interview by giving clear and concise answers. If you are an operations manager, give detailed answers as well as discussing how you have managed to get others to adopt policies and practices you have initiated. If you are a project manager, break down answers in to pieces and work methodically through them one by one. Highlight your own skills and approach with the way you answer questions.

Top Tip 3: Ask Questions!

An interview is often the only opportunity that you, as a potential employee get to assess the suitability of an organisation for your own style and needs. Too often, candidates ask no questions. As a recruiter this is often a red flag to me. Getting a new job in the aid and development sector can be life changing (new country, new friendship groups etc etc). Ask the questions you do have. Especially at a second interview, as usually this will be your last opportunity to ask those questions before an offer is made. Ask questions about the culture of the organisation, approach to work/ life balance, retention rates of staff, key issues facing the organisation, what your manager’s style is like… ask all the questions that will help you to make an informed decision about the step that you are considering taking.

Even 6 months in the “wrong job” can be a very long time. Asking questions shows the interview panel that you have confidence, that you are actively considering the organisation and position and that you are proactively trying to ensure that if you are chosen it will be a good fit and positive experience for both parties.

Top Tip 4: Know the Organisation You are Applying For 

Know about the organization you are applying for.  This is a mistake many people make when coming to an interview and they know the job but not about the organization.
Know their mission, their history, themes/sectors they work on, key words/phrases they use and make sure to apply your answers back to this.  Using key phrases can make a hiring manager feel more confident about your fit within an organization and that you speak their language which means it will take less time for you to settle into the job.  This is important when hiring.  It also shows that you DO want to work for this organization and have done your research on how you will be a good fit within the agency.

Top Tip 5: Be Professional

It may sound obvious but what does it mean to be professional?

Be on time, be dressed for success, have a copy of your C.V. and the job description, don’t slouch or lounge in your chair (if doing this in person), have a notebook and pen to write down the questions so that you can address all the points (questions sometimes have multiple parts and in trying to answer the first part, you can forget the second part!).  

Going in professionally means this will translate to your confidence and attitude and that will reflect in how you hold yourself.

If you have further top tips to add to this post, please feel free to contribute these as comments below.

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Own your achievements

The issue? I have consistently found myself down playing the success that I have created for myself (wow, that was hard to write). I refuse to own it (“I’ve been lucky”; “manager X gave me some good breaks” etc etc). I apologise for it. And sometimes I feel ashamed of it. Perhaps I should have taken more time to get where I am, perhaps I should have said no to some of those opportunities until I had more grey hairs, perhaps I shouldn’t have started working with charities until I was older. I know I am not the only one. I have heard other women doing the same: “I have just got this new job, I’m really lucky, but it is a bit difficult as I am only ******”. You know who you are.

Where does the issue stem from?

It is a gender thing. Sheryl Sandberg has discussed the need for women to Lean In and to sit at the table. I think there is a need to go one step further and to be proud of what you achieve when you Lean In as a woman. Danielle LaPorte tells us to respect our fear and to “declare it and share it” (i.e. be outspoken with your thoughts and who you are).

It is a cultural thing. I am Scottish. Scottish people are not well known for abundant confidence. In fact, we’re well known for being self-effacing and sarcastic overall. In the multi-cultural aid sector it is useful to be aware of your own culture and the cultures of those around you. I have found myself having to adjust to working with other British people, Americans, Australians just as much as I have had to with colleagues from Africa or Asia, as the social norms drastically change how we speak about ourselves and others. Working internationally can bring difficult questions for how we pitch ourselves… each work place is very different depending on the cultural mix. So, leaning in and declaring it has to be made culturally appropriate.

It can be an age thing. At times I have allowed it to be. In my mid-20s, a workplace asked me to represent them on BBC World News, Sky News and numerous radio channels. At the time I viewed this as them doing me a favour (there was no way that I could simply be qualified or seen as able to do this!). It’s important to claim and own successes at ANY age, and to be proud of where you are, when you are there. You got your self there, so enjoy it!

Time to reframe
This all needs to be reframed. I know it does. I have started to own it, all 12 years of charity work, all the successes, all of the failures and all of the learning. The process started with me answering a request from the British Red Cross to write up an article about why I chose to work in the aid and development sector. I wrote honestly and the article got quite a lot of attention and positive feedback. I also got myself a professional mentor through the fabulous Aspire Foundation scheme.

I have been being mentored by a woman working in a senior position within the private sector for the last 8 months now. She has provided, and continues to provide me with fabulous advice. During one session, she recommended that I read two books: “Brand You” by John Purkiss & David Royston-Lee and “Beyond the Boys ‘ Club” by Suzanne Doyle-Morris.

The key messages that I have taken from reading these books are:

A) Know who you are – listen to all the feedback, examine patterns in your past career history and think about your personality and drive in general. Are you a change agent? (Do you always look to the next best iteration of something). Are you great at implementing processes/ projects designed by others? Are you great at leading a team? Do you prefer working alone? There are lots of work role analysis tools you can look to for further support on this (Myers-Briggs Type Indicator is one example), but I find asking ex-colleagues is often one of the best places to start!

B) Know who you need others to be – once you are clear about A) start to think about which work environments and with which types of colleagues you have been at your happiest, had your biggest successes and felt most satisfied. Work out what those places have in common and write a list of what you need from others around you in order for an organisation to get the best from you.

C) Own who you are – once you have the answers to the “who you are” and “who you need others to be” be PROUD of it. Be confident in yourself and be prepared to talk about who you are. Next time that dreaded question comes up in interview, “what type of manager are you?” don’t say the model answer you found on the internet, say your answer to A) with pride. Supplement this answer with some of your reflections from point B). If you are a change agent and as such you work best in organisations that are looking to further develop say this, if you know the organisation you have applied to IS going through changes say that this is one of the reasons you have applied and are excited about the role. Working through these points has changed the whole way that I think and talk about myself. It has helped me to be confident and proud. It has also helped me to be open and honest about my weaker areas or areas that I want to develop more in the future.

Have you had a similar experience of not owning or even being ashamed of your own successes? How have you moved on from this? What advice would you give to others?

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Are you Wo(man) enough?

I’m blogging on and co managing the Women in Aid site with co founder Fi Davidson, trying to blog on my own nutrition website, facebooking, aidsourcing, tweeting, trying to keep up with LinkedIn discussions, trying to get my health coaching biz off the ground, am keeping up with my clients, still doing some humanitarian work, job hunting and and and….it all seems like an endless list.

When is enough, enough?

This is obviously not just a ‘woman’ issue but somehow, I feel a lot more comfortable talking to other women about it.  Somehow, I feel like they will get what I am feeling with this feeling that I am falling behind somehow.  And from conversations with my female friends, yep, they get it.  Loud and clear.  The men I talk to about this (two so far), have a stock response of: stop doing it.  That answer doesn’t sit right with me.

I can’t STOP being me.

What I can do however is decide for myself when enough is actually…enough.

I talk to my coaching clients about this all the time and need to take a page from my own book as what I say to them and coach them on is working for them.  My advice to my clients:  the important part is defining what enough is.

I am seeing this issue of when enough is enough more and more which is great (second link is amazing–Jen Louden is queen on helping you find your satisfaction).  It’s not about knowing what the right thing to do is—everyone knows what that is–it’s about the practical steps you will take to make sure you implement what you know is the right thing to do.

So, here I am taking a deep breath and putting it out in the universe and sharing this with all of you to keep myself accountable, but also to let you know you aren’t alone in feeling this feeling.  We ARE super women and we don’t need to be running on all cylinders and then some to feel like we are achieving something.

Deciding what is enough means that you won’t walk around feeling like you haven’t accomplished something.  It does NOT mean that you are not ambitious or that you can’t lean in etc.  It just means that you are clear on what YOU want and what will make YOU happy.  If you aren’t clear on these things it means you will have a hard time figuring out what enough actually is for you.

My favourite read on this topic is from Elizabeth Lesser of the Omega Institute.  A small excerpt from an article of hers:

The other day, I was having lunch at work with a few friends. Two were in their 30s with young children, demanding jobs and seemingly impossible schedules. One was single, childless and in her 40s. And I’m in my 50s with an eclectic work and family life that involves a blend of 9-to-5, travel and chunks of time spent in the solitary netherworld of writing.

“I have a question,” I said to my colleagues. “When I say, ‘How much is enough?’ what comes to mind?”

“Enough of what?” one of my younger friends asked.

“Enough of anything. What’s enough success? Enough good deeds? Enough parenting? Enough creativity? Enough sex? Enough apps? Enough emails, tweets, texts? Vacations, clothes, shoes? In a world of unlimited possibilities, how do you know when to stop? How much is enough? Do you know what I mean?”

Everyone nodded vigorously. Regardless of age or lifestyle or to-do lists, we all got the point. A sigh arose from our lunch table. If it weren’t for the plates of food, I think we would have cradled our heads in our arms and taken a long nap. It seems as if humankind made a group decision just a few years ago to pick up our collective pace. You know those long, moving walkways in airports? Where you step on and suddenly you and everyone else are going a little faster? That’s what things feel like to me these days—like we jumped on the fast track and now we can’t get off.

But we can, actually.

We can break out of our group trance; we can turn ourselves around, walk against the current and step off the moving platform—at least long enough to ask some important questions. I call them the 5 W’s: the What, the Where, the Why, the Who and the When.

I love that.  The 5W’s.  A good simple way to contextualize what is actually important to me and KNOW that it is.  You can read through the article for more guidance on how to answer the questions but the basics are below:

What matters most?

Where is the hidden cost?

Why am I doing it?

Who am I doing it for?

When do I stop striving and start living?

I invite you all to explore your 5W’s.  And please DO share in the comments below.  If you have other ways to add to techniques to find satisfaction, it would be great to hear about it.  I think it’s very important crucial to feel satisfied with our lives and know why we are doing the things that we are doing.  Other sectors will undoubtedly have this as well, but I feel a certain pressure in the alpha aid world for sure on needing to reach higher and higher (but for what?)….

So, when is enough enough for you?

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