Monday, June 23, 2014

Most development work is office work

This post originally appeared on the STAND website here

I have just moved back to Ireland after spending the past two and a half years in Africa. Before my return I lived and worked in Chad for 11 months for an international humanitarian agency. Being back in Ireland has given me the chance to reflect on my time overseas, and in doing so, I've been trying to capture what I have learned.

Lesson 1) Most development work is office work
The majority of my work was with organisations that focused on humanitarian and relief efforts but the premise still holds, most aid work is office work.  I was not distributing food at a refugee camp, nor helping to dig boreholes or interview beneficiaries. I wrote reports. I drafted funding proposals for donors. I sent email updates to our organisation’s Headquarters. I reviewed large excel spreadsheets of project budgets, checking for formula miscalculations.I did all of this in an office which did not look dissimilar to one you would find in any other city in the world. I worked on a laptop, drank copious amounts of tea, chatted with colleagues, occasionally found myself spending too much time on Skype or Facebook. The only differences sometimes seemed to be the outside air temperatures and the numbers of insects and lizards who also shared my office space.Related to this, there were times when it became easy to forget the end goal of the work I was doing. When there’s a tight deadline on a funding proposal to be met, it is easy for the focus to be placed on finishing a document, rather than on the impact the project you are seeking funding for, might have. Numbers of beneficiaries sometimes became abstract, rather than real human beings, and I fought to remember the greater purpose of the work, and where I fit into it.

Lesson 2) The best skills you can offer might be ones you take for granted
The longer I work in this particular field, the more I release that the greatest skill that I have to offer is the ability to write. I can write funding proposals, reports, briefing notes, case studies clearly and concisely in English. I am able to take information that given to me by colleagues from other departments, often dense technical language on nutrition, health, water and sanitation issues, and turn it into an article for our website, or a briefing note for the Country Director, quicker than most. This is because I am not a medical doctor, I’m not a water and sanitation engineer, I am not a Women’s Empowerment Specialist.Upon completing most undergraduate degrees (though a warning here, a Masters degree is almost a prerequisite for any job in the aid industry) you will be able to analyse, critique and present information in a clear and structured way.  If you can do this, you can probably do my job.

Lesson 3) Living in Chad was hard, in ways I didn’t expect
In Chad, the organisation I worked for took a number of security precautions. As an international staff member I lived in the organisation’s ‘guesthouse’ and I was only allowed to travel around the city with a car and driver provided by my organisation. This may sound like an incredible luxury, and it was, in many respects. But some of my most frustrating moments in Chad were those waiting around for a driver to become available to pick me up to take me to dinner, or to a friend’s house (as long as they were within the specified ‘green zones’ of the city of course!). Not being able to move of my own accord and being essentially housebound without access to transport was really challenging. One of the things I am enjoying most about being home is being able to take buses, taxis and even drive my own car, when and to where I like. One of the toughest things about life in Chad, for me, was not the heat, the language barriers, the insecurity; it was the claustrophobia.But even though it’s mostly office work, I couldn’t see myself doing anything else. While I’m now based in Ireland, one step further removed from the ultimate beneficiaries of the projects I write proposals and reports  on, I still love what I do.  I enjoy my job, I believe in the work of the organisation that employs me because I know that some people are helped as a result of the projects that we help to implement. ‘Bad aid’, impractical and ill-suited development programmes get a lot of coverage, but good aid – aid that is properly planned and well executed  – does exist and it is making a difference. And it’s that thought that gets me through another day of spreadsheet reviews.

Sunday, June 22, 2014

Thoughts on my first marathon

5 weeks ago today I ran a marathon. If you have met me in the proceeding weeks you will probably know this as I will have, most likely, tried to tell you about. It already seems like eons ago but I wanted to get some of my thoughts down before it became too distant a memory.

Picking up my race number at the Marathon Expo
All of the emotions. All of them.
I had heard from friends who had completed marathons that they were emotional experiences. That the physical and psychological effort that it takes to finish moves you and makes you feel things you wouldn’t normally feel from running or jogging.

That said I did not believe those people until I found myself uncontrollably crying at the 40km mark. It was at this point, exactly 4 hours in, that I realised that I was not only going to finish the thing, but I was going to run the whole thing too. And the fact that ‘Titanium’ by David Guetta/Sia came on just at that particular moment, when I was wet, cold, tired, and yet resolved, was the icing on the cake. The tears came and while the pouring rain might have disguised the tears somewhat, I’m sure the ‘Claire Danes cryface’ that I was pulling was a dead giveaway to any of the spectators who saw me at this point.

2.1km later I was crying again as I crossed the finish line. I remember very clearly crossing the line, putting my hands over my head as an acknowledgement that I’d completed the thing, a sign of accomplishment, triumph which was swiftly followed by me covering my hands over my face in a halfhearted attempt to cover up the tears once again. I know that this definitely happened as I have since seen the video of me crossing the finish line. The tears continued for several minutes while I a) received my medal, b) received a rose (given to all female finishers) c) got water and d) was wrapped in a space blanket. A massive ‘Tak’ (the Danish for thank you) to all of the very patient and understanding marathon helpers who did not seem to judge my sobbing self as I passed through each of these stations babbling in English.

It wasn’t that bad
Despite my accounts of my tears, the experience - on the whole - wasn’t that bad. In the final weeks and days of my preparation I had begun to be filled with an overpowering dread. Three weeks out I was terrified. Full on terrified. While I had been training solidly since January (the marathon was in May) my last month of training was far from ideal in that it involved me a)relocating back to Ireland b) starting a new job and c) getting a nasty cold partly as a result of a and b. I put in my last (and longest) training run 3 weeks out from race day and after that point I confined myself to resting up and trying to eat well. That didn’t stop the feelings of dread washing over my every few days. As it got closer and closer to race day I resigned myself to the fact that I probably wouldn’t run as fast a time as I’d aimed for months previously, and even that I might have to walk towards the end if it all got too much. By race day I just wanted to finish the thing, in whatever time I could, and it whatever shape I could.

View of the start line

But on race day as I set off and the kilometres ticked by it… wasn’t too bad. In fact, parts of the race I really enjoyed. I set off at a nice pace which I managed to hold fairly steadily for the first 30 or so kilometres. Even when, at this point, the rain began to bucket down and it went from being a chilly Danish day to being a cold, wet and windy Danish day I trucked on buoyed up by Beyonce’s ‘Crazy in Love’ and a bit of ‘Don’t Rain on my Parade’ (which could not have come on at a better time). ‘The wall’, the point of sheer pain and agony that marathon runners talk about in hushed tones, a point usually experienced 20+miles (or 32+kilometres) into the race, never materialised for me. By luck or by design I never had to face it.

Delighted with myself
Keeping Going
I have a number of ideas as to what helped me avoid ‘the wall’, but it was probably a combination of good nutrition, hydration, tunes and support that got me through.

All laid out ready to go. Complete with energy gels and
 the all-important 'An Mhi' wrist band

Nutrition and hydration had been planned days in advance. I knew exactly how often the hydration stations were, I knew roughly when I’d need to take my energy gels, I knew exactly what I was going to eat for breakfast that morning. I couldn’t speak highly enough for how well the race was organised except for one aspect of the hydration stations. At every second hydration stations runners were offered orange or banana segments in addition to water and sports drinks. However, the offering of banana segments led to an almost cartoon like scenario where for 100 yards after the station there were banana peels discarded all along the course, a recipe for falls! I managed to maintain upright at these points by slowing to a walk, some of my fellow athletes were braver (sillier) and ran through and I saw more than one person stumble.

Music also played a key role in the race. My sister had helped me to put together a playlist which combined current pop tunes, 90s dance music and more than a couple of broadway numbers – basically all of my favourite things. Every single song was a gem and I regularly found myself singing along, miming and even doing ‘jazz hands’ as different songs came on.

I could not have completed the marathon without the incredible support of friends and family. Sarah and Johannes, my friends who live in Copenhagen hosted me, made signs, helped me carboload and raced around Copenhagen on the underground to pop up along the course at least five different points. Seeing an Irish flag and hearing my name being cheered put an extra spring in my step every single time.
I also had lots of lovely people send me texts, emails etc and wish me good luck but a special shout out needs to go to Kim Behrman, whose remote training advice, practice tips (from everything to energy gels to race gear) as well as inspirational messages were exactly what I needed, especially in the lowest ebbs of my training. I asked her many silly questions and she answered each and every one of them.

Johannes - one half of my amazing cheer squad
Another one?

It was absolutely amazing running through the streets of Copenhagen, getting to explore and see a whole new city by running through every one of its neighbourhoods. The route took in the cobbled lanes of the old town, I ran through residential areas and dockland industrial zones. That said, the idea of running on home turf appeals to me so I’ve signed up to run the Dublin marathon in October. This time the streets, landmarks and accents of the crowds will be familiar. I feel incredibly lucky that I’m healthy enough to run 26.2 miles so why not do it again, eh? 

Post-race. Cold, wet but happy.