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Why did this UN ad irk women aid workers?

In a totally unscientific poll on Twitter, 48 percent of 464 respondents picked the eye-roll emoji option.

A frame from a promotional video about aid workers, featuring Haitian UN staffer Claudine Joseph, part of a campaign tagged #WhatItTakes. UN
A frame from a promotional video about aid workers, featuring Haitian UN staffer Claudine Joseph, part of a campaign tagged #WhatItTakes.

Watch now and see what you think:

Or skip it and… spoiler alert… read on.

Must aid workers be "unreasonable, uncompromising, unstoppable"?

Intended as a flagship public service announcement for a UN campaign called “What It Takes”, which also profiles other aid workers, the new glossy 90-second ad projects character traits needed in the job. The spot has caused a flurry of debate in aid worker circles on social media since its 12 February release across the Web and on social media.

Haitian aid worker Claudine Joseph's teenage son describes her in the ad as “nitpicky” and “overbearing”, “impatient” and “pushy”.

Still, he says he misses her – he doesn’t get to see her much because her job takes her around the world – and he’s proud of her work.

But not everyone across the aid Twittersphere is proud of the ad. Objections centred largely on gender: would Joseph’s absence from home for extended periods be a matter for comment if she were a man?

Some viewers were pleased it tackled head-on issues of balancing family and professional life, and welcomed its unapologetic salute to some of the sacrifices people make when they undertake international aid work.

Others, however, were vocally dismayed – alleging it perpetuated gender stereotyping and/or showed an unrealistic and romanticised view of aid work. A commentary on the Yallafeminists blog slammed the ad, saying it was “an insult to the intersectional feminist message”.

In a totally unscientific TNH poll on Twitter, 48 percent of 464 respondents selected the eye-roll emoji option. Another 22 percent liked it (clapping hands), 16 percent were unsure (shrug), and other reactions stood at 14 percent.

Joseph, the aid worker in the ad, had not responded to TNH’s request for comment before publication.

OCHA spokesperson Zoe Paxton said the #WhatItTakes campaign aimed to “recognise the generosity, hard work, sacrifice, heart and hope that go into the humanitarian response... We welcome all the feedback.”

As is often the case, social media comments criticising the video outweighed those praising it. Here’s a range of reactions, mainly critical.

Some aid worker mothers were more positive:

Were the comments about her character veering towards some stereotypical misogynistic character traits?

Would those characteristics really be in fact desirable in an aid worker?

Others mocked the portrayal of Joseph’s work as she visits warehouses, a sickly child, meets with local people and loads a vehicle with boxes. (According to the UN, Joseph is based in Chad).

Critics said she was filmed doing a mythical range of functions – the aid worker professional would not in reality be doing all those tasks. And where was the boring stuff?

One poster admitted the UN wasn’t the only aid group operator to provide some dubious promotional narratives about their staff, offering a profile of a Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) staffer by way of comparison: “Why I left my family to go help mothers in South Sudan”.

This take was dripping with sarcasm:

Another aid worker said all the debate was over-analysing a well-produced promo:

Most brutal of all, perhaps, was the criticism of another female aid worker, posting on Facebook, who questioned the the wisdom of spending public money on the advert:

“... the woman seems to do a variety of roles, has no RnR [rest and recuperation] or home leave, loads a vehicle very badly with supplies and likes a clipboard.

And they keep the bread in the fridge.”


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