Know your status

Of all the treasured team house and expat pub rituals, none are as well-loved as simply complaining about how bad the response is. You trot out whatever it might be about your organization or the context which serves as today’s catch-all for all that’s going wrong in your little corner of the aid world. Maybe it’s an annoyingly long approval process. Maybe it’s a particularly incompetent individual, or maybe a questionable decision made by your predecessor. You use superlative language to describe everything. This is the worst, ever.

Unfortunately, many of these binge-and-whinge sessions lack the perspective of context.  And so, what often passes for full on “incompetence” as you stare into your local Amstel, could in fact be only garden variety “Good Facebook Material.”

For posterity, and as a public service for the aid world, here’s a simple scale against which to evaluate how bad or good your response, country office, relief op, or project is. There’s just no substitute for knowing your status.

This is not an exhaustive categorization of every dumb thing said, outrageous thing done, or crazy event witnessed by aid workers, ever. Nor is it an attempt to one-up anybody. Rather, it is a set of indicators which point to a hierarchy of conditions of being. Start at the top of the list an work your way down. It doesn’t have to be that your organization, response, etc. had exactly the same thing happen. But is the thing you’re complaining about right now at that level? For each point ask yourself:

“Sure, things on my response on messed up, but are they THIS messed up?”


  • Good Facebook material: Local Jihadists force your organization to modify its logo in order to keep working in their territory. The result of the redesign is that your logo now looks like a cartoon bomb.
  • Frustrating: Police close the field office because your organization is properly registered in that country.
  • Difficult: A barge full of T-shelter frames runs aground on the shores of another country, en route to your relief op.
  • Uh-oh!: FBI visits your head office as part of its investigation against one of the donors you’ve accepted funding/GIK for on the response.
  • Incompetent: Emergency latrines collapse while in use by beneficiaries.
  • Really Incompetent: Large borehole wells are left unprotected during the lag between the time they’re dug and the time the pump is installed. Local children fall into the wells.
  • Messed up: Beneficiaries killed by food packages during air drops.
  • Really messed up: Beneficiaries sexually assaulted by aid workers.


If the answer is “no,” settle down, finish your beer, and bang out that sitrep for HQ. Things aren’t that bad.

If the answer is “yes,” then move on down the list until you come to a “no,” to find your true level.

Call to action: Tweet the link to this post, along with your status.



Just to confirm: None of this is aid world legend. I can confirm that everything in this list has actually happened, at least once. I’m not saying that I was personally party to all or any of it–just that everything here has happened for real.