On looking for work

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!







Still here, sort of

Well. Facebook and Instagram and so on seem to have overtaken blogs like this. That, and the sense that I am no longer sure what I have to say.

I brought myself to watch some of the movie ‘Whiskey, Tango, Foxtrot’ tonight. A terrible rendition of Afghanistan, but close enough in some parts that it has taken me a long time to consider looking at it. (For your viewing information, when the lead actor arrives at ‘Kabul’ airport, it is in fact New Delhi railway station they filmed… look at it closely… all the writing is in Hindi.)

I got to the bit where the camera man, played by Martin Freeman is freed from capture. At a party that night, he produces a handful of bullet casings as gifts for his friends.

Something about that made me stop watching; a memory overtook me.

I remembered gathering up shell casings. Digging them out of walls. I’ve still got some on my shelf, less than a two metres away. My son has some in a box, in his cupboard.

What is going on there? What has happened that we take these articles of death and hang on to them?


Its hard to look at it squarely, but going to Afghanistan took a lot more than we expected, than we realised, and than we allowed for.



It’s five years to the day that we returned to live in Perth. I just realised this tonight. Five years ago, we arrived back here.

The last few months, I have been aware in some new ways of the costs of living for so long in a place like Afghanistan. The signs have been there for a while, but it came to the fore late one night, as a heavy truck streamed down the hill past our home. Maybe 2am or 3am? We both awoke, instantly. Something about the noise, the hiss. For me,  I think it was the wave of air that I sensed, rather than felt, that preceded the truck. It brought back out of my body the memory of shock waves that preceded explosions. I didn’t sleep much that night, and I know I haven’t slept well for a long time. There are some other symptoms too.

I’m getting some help with this. We’ll be ok.


The Dad Book

It’s  out!

Available at http://morningstarpublishing.net.au/product/the-dad-book/

The Dad Book FULL COVER DRAFT.10.6.2016


These stories of being a father come from around the world – Cuba, India, the USA, Australia, England, Switzerland, Sweden and elsewhere, but they have in common an honesty about the gift and work of being a father. The Dad Book is not about how to be a better Dad. It’s about being a Dad – the struggles, the regrets, the things we got wrong, and the things we get right. The moments of joy and wonder, the things we learn along the way and the things we’d rather forget. And the things we want to remember.


Also available at Wipf and Stock publishers in a few weeks. Amazon to follow.


It was a good month. We got a lot done. Security infrastructure and procedures, team building and support to projects, consensus building with other agencies.

I got home on Sunday night, and while a privilege to have been in Afghanistan, it was also lovely to be back with my family.

On Wednesday, I briefed our Executive Director on what I had done, and my thoughts about the future. I mentioned that I thought another attack on an NGO were likely, within the next two or so months.

On Thursday morning, two of our staff were shot and killed, in downtown Herat, while going shopping. They were long term workers in Afghanistan, fluent in Dari, culturally sensitive, careful and experienced. No motive for the attack can so far be discerned.

I had worked closely with one of these women, over the years. I saw here just last Saturday, before she flew to Herat. She had just arrived back in Afghanistan, after some time back in her home country. We talked about her future work. It was good to see her again.

It is a hard path ahead.



My contradicted self.

Owing to a certain unrestrained, and often unfocused generosity of my mother, I am a life member of the Qantas Lounges. This is not as cool as it may sound. To get in the lounges, you have to be flying Qantas on your next flight, and Qantas are generally way more expensive than everyone else, with less comfortable planes and way more disinterested staff. Their lounges are crowded with FIFO workers, and supplied with pirate crew of surly, superannuated stewards who specialise in making you feel bad for asking for a peanut.

Anyway, Qantas, sensing the writing is on the wall, have done a deal with Emirates (who will soon emerge as The Global Airline). This deal means I can go in Emirates lounges when flying Emirates. 

All that is preface. I arrived in Dubai this afternoon after 4 weeks in Kabul. It was a good four weeks. No one died. That’s not a blithe comment. It is a part of our considerations these days. I helped keep things going. I supervised security improvements, scoped for a new head office, consulted on various projects, picked up the bits and pieces, incinerated old documents, tried to encourage the team, hosted a weekly BBQ. I am grateful to have been there and it was a privilege. And do not think it was a hardship: the electricity failed only once, I had hot, running water, fans to keep me cool, and ready access to most conveniences. Kabul is not what it once was.

So, on arriving in Dubai, I find the Business Lounge is shut and I am directed to the First Class Lounge. I have been in the First Class Lounge twice before: my reckoning is that people are more likely to sneak into Business Class. Those who are going into First Class have a massive sense of entitlement, all you need to do is emulate that. So I did. I just walked on in. The first time, I spent 6 hours there. The next time, after about 30 minutes, they found me and said, ‘Mr Sparrow, you should not be here.’

‘Yes’, I said.

‘Will you please leave now?’ they said.

‘Yes’, I said. Nothing ventured, nothing gained. But today, I am ‘entitled’ to be here, so to speak. In First Class, you order your meal. The whiskeys are 15 years old. The seats are leather. It is preposterous, in every sense. I enjoy the peace it affords me, but I rail against it. It is wrong. It is wrong because I left a place where people do not even have clean water to drink. 

I look out the window at the endless steam of jets taking off, and think of the massive contradictions humans are capable of. Me included.