In 1999, Julie and I went to work in Afghanistan. I was 28, Julie was 26. We had four degrees between us, and probably at least 12 years professional experience. We joined a large NGO, based out of Kabul. We learnt Dari, and then in 2000, moved north, where I headed up a $400,000USD rural development program out of Mazar-i-Sharif. When September 11 came round, it was a huge disruption, and we ended up back in Perth – but soon found ourselves working again, Julie in child development and I in emergency deployments, mostly back in Afghanistan.
In 2003, we went back to Afghanistan, where I lead the development work for a further year, before joining the UN. This was a major role – overseeing all humanitarian work in northern Afghanistan, political analysis, coordinating Unicef, WHO, WFP, UNHCR, IOM, liaising with military, Government and international aid agencies. I wound up a $3million Japanese Government-funded program, brokered a peace deal between some very hostile Uzbek warlords, negotiated with angry mobs of Hazaras whose land had been seized, and generally did my bit to keep the pirate crew that called itself the Afghan Government from capsizing.
During this time, I finished a Masters degree in International Development, and got a highly acclaimed book about Afghan refugees published. Subsequent postings in Afghanistan saw me lead the establishment of the anti-slavery agency Hagar International, which was a colossal undertaking. Later, I was part of the senior management team for a major NGO – overseeing some 15 projects, 20 international and 60 national staff, with a budget of approximately $2.5million. During those years, I helped deal with hostage-takings, deaths and murders of friends and colleagues, funding crises, leadership transitions, new projects starting and old ones ending. We hosted innumerable visits by donors, well-wishers, and ill-informed, hit-and-run aid worker wannabes, managed staff shortages and water shortages, and kept everything running, all in an onerous and restrictive environment. No cafes or bars, no opportunities to jam at a local club, no libraries, no nice walks in the hills, no jogging tracks. Even there, I found the time to fund and build a gym for staff, so we could all unwind without going crazy.
We came back to Australia in mid 2012.
After the chaos of resettling here and dealing with some heavy stress, in 2015 I started looking for work. Six job applications later, and the one place that wanted to employ me, was TEAR Australia. Given I’d been a TEAR fieldworker for most of the last decade, this hardly felt like I’d broken new ground. Still, for the next two years, from end 2015 through till March of 2018 I worked supporting partners in conflict countries – Afghanistan, Sudan, Somalia and Uganda, plus a bit of emergency work thrown in. Over this time, I met my deadlines, I worked in English and Dari and German and Arabic, I worked with a huge range of people, from Taliban clerics to Ugandan clergymen, Ambassadors and village leaders, I kept up my own learning, I spoke at conferences and learning events, I trained and supported and encouraged people and kept trying to make the workplace a good place to be for my colleagues and friends. I haven’t got it all right, and some bits I have got badly wrong.
I finished at TEAR in March of this year. Since then I have applied for 23 jobs, across the full spectrum – supporting refugees, managing programs in Aboriginal communities, leading work in Cambodia, aid work with the Baptists, supporting Uni students get social justice experience, freeing people from slavery, packing medical supplies, consulting on international development, leading community cancer prevention initiatives, corporate social responsibility, work with marginalised and vulnerable communities. CEO, regional manager, team leader, researcher, lead researcher, senior consultant, advisor.
While I’ve been shortlisted, recommended, interviewed and had second interviews – not a single place has given me a job.
I’ve always asked for feedback, humbling though it is. Most responses have been useless – ‘there were many high-quality candidates’… ‘other people gave better answers’, the overall sense is that people don’t know what to do with my work history. Afghanistan – let alone Somalia and Sudan – just don’t fit. ‘Political analysis’ people get, but when the context is Afghan parliamentary elections, their mental frameworks freeze. ‘Negotiating…’ makes sense, but ‘negotiating for humanitarian access’ doesn’t. The considerable skills and experience I have gained in strategy and analysis, crisis management, developing leadership, governance and financial oversight, team support, planning, capacity building, problem solving, organisational assessments and development – these are valuable skills, and translate to nearly any context.
But they don’t have value here. Not in Perth.
So. The hard lesson learned over the last, hard six months, has been that pretty much all of my experience since 1999 is like the Zimbabwean currency: impressive to look at, but it doesn’t buy much. People want me to speak at their AGMs, they want to hear some ‘war stories’. My CV is described as ‘fascinating… amazing…’ But when the appointment is made, they go with the ‘safe’ option. The places you might think that would most value my skills and passion – Red Cross, work with Aboriginal communities, Walk Free’s work in ending modern slavery – have appointed ex-lawyers from PwC or Deloitte or KPMG, appointed internal candidates, or in some cases, appointed no one at all. In one extraordinary meeting, a born-again billionaire philanthropist of some seven years, gave me a spit-fire lecture on the irrelevance of community-based development. ‘Government and business’ are going to solve human exploitation and venality, he reckons, as he pushed me out the door, already beginning his next meeting via bluetooth headset. Boy, that meeting left a sting. It’s a hard realization to come to. Our time in Afghanistan was wonderful, but it has cost in ways we never saw.
I’m still hunting down that job, by the way… I’m open to offers. I haven’t lost hope!