If there is one topic that gets humanitarians and other aid workers talking - apart from the obvious discussions about capacity-building and food aid - it is the challenge of finding a prospective partner in the field.
In the last 20 years aid work has become more dangerous, and security restrictions have made it harder for aid workers to meet their significant other.
“You are sitting in a compound; every day you see the same people - working together, living together with the same 10-15 people. Of course, that influences the chances to find a partner in very negative ways,” Lala Ahmadova, staff counsellor at the UN Assistance Mission in Afghanistan (UNAMA), told IRIN.
“Aid work always looks very glamorous from the outside. Everybody expects that they will meet somebody amazing like the French MSF [Médecins Sans Frontières] doctor with whom they will have these wonderful romance travels around the world,” said Julia*, an aid worker who just left Haiti after a lengthy tour of duty and is ready to start a stable relationship. “Occasionally that happens, but looking at my colleagues in the business, many are feeling isolated and torn apart. These are the much more likely stories.”
While there might be reason enough to date an aid worker - the popular blog WhyDev lists the most obvious (your partner will never make you listen to Bono - after all, what does he know about aid?) - the aid worker life makes it difficult to maintain a relationship.
In countries like Afghanistan, where life is restricted to guarded compounds, a new face - potential dating-material - is always noticed quickly.
“The problem is the choice. Sometimes you don't get what you want. I have a female colleague arriving soon; could this work?” asked Giaco*, an Italian in northern Afghanistan.
Security considerations do not only affect the chances of meeting someone: “If you are aid workers in Gaza, want to spend the night together and do not live in the same house, you will have to check in with security so that they know where you are. A bit of an odd moment,” said John*, a UN worker in the occupied Palestinian territory.
There is always the option of “going local”, but that can raise an additional set of problems around the dynamics of class and race, and issues of exploitation.
Robert Simpson started the dating portal “Humanitarian Dating” as a spoof on his satirical blog, but soon realized there was a real need. In 2007 the website went online and has since attracted thousands of people looking for soulmates.
The authors of the book Emergency Sex, a tale of three UN staffers in peacekeeping missions, and read by many an aid worker, describe the heightened need for human intimacy that many people feel when facing stressful situations in the field. Rebecca,* who spent eight of the last 10 years in the field and currently works in Afghanistan, knows it quite well:
“I have started a lot of relationships in the field that I only realize in retrospect probably wouldn't happened under "normal" circumstances. I've been convinced that we would get married and have babies. But then it only takes one or both people leaving the environment… to realize that it's not really a great match. In the field we tend to be more lonely and feel more outcast, and we grab onto things faster than we would otherwise.”
Everybody expects that they will meet somebody amazing like the French MSF doctor.
She terms these unlikely pairings “locationships”, as they are tied to a specific place in the field, where it is often just their common experience which keeps couples together.
“The life that we are having here is quite artificial. Maybe that is why people, when leaving from here, they want to detach themselves as much as possible,” said Ahmadova.
Even under the best of circumstances dating fellow aid workers creates additional problems – beyond dealing with the gossip that can happen in small, closed expatriate communities.
“You are quickly confronted with serious decisions,” John said. “It leads you to come together more quickly, but it also shows the limitations more quickly. One of us is leaving. So does it end here? Should one quit his job? Are we moving together?”
Constantly changing duty stations is not easy, and finding an appropriate job for your partner is not always possible. Often one partner has to put the career on hold.
“Times are changing. You see that with diplomats as with aid workers. Twenty years ago your wife would follow you. You still have such cases but less and less,” said John.
Skype doesn’t help
Modern communication can sometimes make up for a partner not coming along, said Martin Knops, staff counsellor at Oxfam GB. But it is “no real substitute for sharing your daily lives,” Ahmadova remarked. And often aid workers seem to feel that it is better to find a partner who is in a completely different profession.
According to Ahmadova, many aid workers give up and leave the profession. Julia stayed with her organization, but just moved back to her country because she felt there was no chance of meeting a partner in the field and making a family.
“Relationships I had in the field were with people who are just too much like me,” Julia told IRIN. “My partner now is in a very different field of work and I really, really like that. We cover things from a different perspective. We always have things to talk about. We haven’t talked about work at all, it’s just fantastic.”
Deciding to have children is especially difficult in the field. Aid workers are often hired for a limited period to complete a specific project. Long maternity/paternity leave or part-time work is difficult to organize. John believes that sooner or later men face the same problems as women.
“I see the women who have stayed in the field for too long and then realize that it is too late to have children or find a partner. Men can keep it off a bit longer but at the end of the day they will also have to make some life decisions.”
And while many aid workers look for a stable relationship with a partner who might accompany them around the world, others do not want that kind of stability. Does the job change the person, or is the person drawn to the job because of his attitude?
Many aid workers might be caught between the two extremes, idealizing the one they currently do not have.
“I get jealous of my friends who went into some kind of boring industry,” Rebecca said. But in her last relationship outside the aid field, “in the end I bailed [out] because if I stuck around, then I would probably resent the guy and blame him for giving up all these adventures - that I hate to love and love to hate - for a suburban life probably on a shitty cul-de-sac in small town America. That thought was unbearable.”
*not a real name
This article was produced by IRIN News while it was part of the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs. Please send queries on copyright or liability to the UN. For more information: https://shop.un.org/rights-permissions