It was tough, but in the end I resisted the urge to include the title or lyrics from Whitesnake’s “Here I Go Again” in my post several months ago about how aid workers are like rock ‘n’ roll stars. It seemed too cliché. But I must admit that cheesy as it sounds, there was a period when listening to “Here I Go Again” on my personal CD player (before my first iPod) was part of a private ritual practiced whenever the plane I was on would begin to taxi for takeoff.
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I write this from Amman, Jordan, where I am having a total déjà vu moment. After a several-year hiatus from grant-writing, I find myself once again starting the one-week sprint towards a deadline by which time I will (it is assumed) have a grant proposal written and ready to be submitted to a very large and influential donor. This grant, if won, will fund activities that make life more bearable for a few thousand Iraqi refugees here. The project that my colleagues and I are scrambling to put together is a good one. It is one that responds to an actual need. It is one that will make a difference. And in my personal opinion it is one that we have something of a moral obligation to undertake.
In my experience, the kind of real-world clarity about what needs to be done and how and even why that the core team developing this project has is a rare bonus. Usually by this stage we would be second-guessing and trying to sort of psycho-analyze the donor. But in this case we have a very clear and direct picture of what the donor wants. Usually there are some residual nagging questions – questions for which there are frequently no obviously “correct” answers. Questions that very often come down to contrasts and comparisons: why here, but not there? Why these people, but not those? Why this activity, but not that one? But in this instance, more than in many others, we have an unexpectedly unobstructed view of where we need to take this project.
And yet, despite this great advantage, I confess that it is tough going.
Winning this grant is immensely important to my employer. Beyond the Humanitarian Imperative to help those in need when we can, our success in pursuing this grant will directly influence the future viability of our branch office in Amman, and by extension, our programs (plural) in the region. The stakes are a bit high on this one.
While we all agree more or less on the big picture issues of project design, the details of how do it all are not necessarily agreed. These kinds of differences give way to a growing sense of pressure and urgency as the deadline draws near but we still do not have a complete proposal document.
As in most relationships, money becomes a key variable in determining the tone. And in this case money is tight. The amount available from this donor sounds significant. The number of dollars supposedly available is a number that ends with several zeros. But in both the context of Jordan and also in the context of what we need to accomplish with it, there is not nearly enough to go around. We’re in the seemingly impossible position of having a first draft budget that is nearly double what we can reasonably expect to get in grant funding, and we still have not included some core costs. It seems that there is no obvious “fat” to be cut. And so we find ourselves bogged down in heated discussions about whether all twelve “community facilitators” need cell phones, or if two can share one phone between them; we go around and around about the legal and financial implications of calling a local organization with whom we intend to collaborate on parts of this project a “partner” or a “contractor.”
There are also the usual “Support Office” versus “National Office” debates. Who should give what? Who should capitulate on what points? Who has the biggest stake? Whose needs get serviced first? Whose interests take precedence?
I get and agree that those conversations are all important in their own ways and must be had in order to move forward (both the money conversations and also the Support Office v. National Office conversations). But still it seems unfair and also a bit sad that the future of a large number of refugees comes down to our internal debates about staffing structures and budget categories. In the wee hours, with a deadline looming, it is easy to let the work be primarily about a document and about getting the money – and, temporarily at least, not really about helping refugees.
Finally, for all of the talented people working on this thing on both sides of the globe, there are still some pieces that we do not yet have. Important elements over which we have no control. And that adds stress as well. It is disconcerting to think that with so much effort already invested and with so much at stake, the whole thing could fall apart at the last minute.
Aid work can be very fickle: completely straightforward one minute, intensely cerebral the next.
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I can’t help but find myself missing a time when I was a little closer to the “front lines” on a regular basis. I miss the simplicity having my job for the day being to somehow get five truckloads of something from point A to point B. I miss the days when fully half the job was just the ability to deal with local food and sub-standard accommodation.
But the world has changed and in many ways become more complex, and aid work has had to morph and adapt along with it. I get that.
A decade ago I was in a position where it was my job to go out to a national office with a laptop computer, prepared to do whatever… just to get the proposal written and submitted on time. On second thought, maybe the work hasn’t changed so much after all.
I think back to when I used to pop in a pirated Whitesnake CD every time the jet engines revved and I’d listen one more time to that overplayed but also brilliant piece of poetry set to heavy metal – a song that by itself, in my opinion, qualifies David Coverdale as one of the great bards of our time:
“Here I go again…”