Three Shots of Vodka

This is by some margin, the best book review I have read to-date about Greg Mortensons’  Three Cups of Tea: read it.

In my heart of hearts, I wish that Three Cups of Tea was a realistic description of aid work. Actually, you know what? Right now I’d settle for it being a partially accurate description of aid work.

But Three Cups of Tea is not a realistic description. It does not paint an accurate picture.

And so no wonder that it made all kinds of best-selling lists, got fawned over by Oprah, and was translated into a bunch of languages. Three Cups of Tea makes humanitarian work sound like two tons of fun. It’s the kind of stuff that you can’t pay an adventure tour company to arrange for you. And not just fun, but cool. Making the world a better place, basically, by hanging out and just getting to know the locals.

If my job could be even 10% like Three Cups of Tea, I’d be stoked.

It’s worth noting that in a way Mortenson is lucky he was in Pakistan. I can think of other countries, not so far from there, where it would have been three shots of vodka. In one sitting. Before lunch.

If you’ve been following Tales From the Hood for very long you know that articles like this one really grind my gears (HT @laurenist): the article that grinds my gears.

Some B-grade actress we’ve never heard of (and who would almost certainly flunk the LSAT) feels she must “do something.” Against the advice of an actual disaster response expert she goes down to Haiti to “help.” And to the surprise of no one finds “proof” that small amateur organizations (most specifically the one that she’s aligned with) are the only ones who are really helping anyone in Haiti, and that everyone else is all talk. There’s a lot of hyperbolic language, sweeping generalizations, and some poorly-focused babble about “cutting red tape” and “eliminating bureaucracy.” It’s the by now classic illogical, breathless “what’s wrong with aid” discussion that we’ve all come to expect from Huffington Post. Barely worth even a “WTF???” on twitter at this point. And certainly not worth it’s own post on this blog, except insofar as it speaks to a broader general misconception about what we do and how we do it and why we do it in the ways that we do it.

Thanks in no small part to a growing body of pop-aid literature, of which Three Cups of Tea is but one example, the general non-aid-insider public seems to think that this is all some grand adventure. They seem to think that our jobs are about – you know – drinking three cups of awesome cardamom chai (the kind that would cost $5 in a trendy South Asian restaurant in lower Manhattan or Northeast DC) with village elders in ruggedly beautiful places with crisp, clean air and bright-eyed children, thereby demonstrating our good will and solidarity and winning their trust. All we really need to do is love the world and make it a better place, for you and for me and the entire human race. Eliminate the bureaucracy and cut through the red tape – the INGOs make this all ‘way harder than it has to be. Let’s roll up our sleeves. Let’s just  go get it done. It’s time to make a better day, so let’s start givin’.

And this all could not be farther from reality. Yes, of course taking the time necessary to understand the communities where we work is of immense importance, and yes – in many instances drinking the right number of cups of tea, or vodka, or curdled cows’ blood might be one small part of that. But it is far past time to burst the bubble of perception that this aid gig all somehow akin to the offspring of a mile-high club love-in between an Anthropology 101 field trip and adventure trekking in Pokhara or Chiang Rai. It’s not.

The reality of aid work is that it is a lot of text- and spreadsheet-bitchery. It is a lot of hunching over a laptop computer, late at night in sweltering heat (or bitter cold) banging out a report to satisfy a needy internal constituent who fails to understand the context. It is a lot of meeting donor reporting deadlines in particular donor formats. It is a lot of arguing with people who see the world very differently. It is a lot of trying to understand, and then explain why things have not gone as planned. It is a lot of documenting what has been done (text bitchery) and communicating what one plans to do (more text bitchery). It is a lot of re-re-connecting to the internet every 7.3 minutes so that you can continue your skype conversation because some cubicle-farmer at HQ is forever riding your ass about your international cell phone bill. It is about keeping the demons of ethnocentrism sufficiently at bay that you do not totally alienate the local staff and counterparts with whom you must work (because no matter how cool or awesome or even hot they are, there will come a day when they totally piss you off, and rightly or wrongly, in your heart in a moment of weakness you’ll blame their culture).

Monitoring and evaluation and accountability – those things that it’s so popular right now to accuse INGOs of not doing – are essentially bureaucratic functions: a lot about documents and spreadsheets (even more text bitchery), making sure that T’s are crossed, I’s are dotted, and receipts add up. And by the way, “eliminate bureaucracy” and “cut through the red tape” coming from amateur aid workers (all frothing at the mouth over the “waste” and the “inefficiency” of the aid industry) are almost always code for “do crap work”, and “not accountable.”

The reality is that aid work is 99% supremely unsexy office work, usually carried out in supremely unsexy settings. Like offices. For every hour that I spend drinking tea with the noble savages, I’ll spend at least a month dealing with what Cynan very aptly describes as, “a grind of everyday issues and actions”, regardless of whether I’m in my cubicle in North America or under flickering fluorescent light somewhere in “the field.”

Heck, I’d settle for my job being only 5% like Three Cups of Tea.

I think I’ll take my three shots of vodka now.