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|Volume 11 |Issue 31| August 03, 2012 ||
Food for Thought
Whenever you start a new job, particularly in the early stages of your career, you will invariably find yourself the recipient of advice about how to make a good impression on senior management, how to deal with your colleagues, and how to develop good work habits. What you are less likely to be warned about is how the working world has the most incredible capacity to throw unexpected challenges your way - no matter how well-prepared you might think you are.
Sometimes, all you need in order to cope is a good memory. But mark my words, I really do mean a very good memory! As anyone who has ever worked in development programmes can tell you, there is an acronym for virtually everything: for thematic programmes, for analytical techniques, for monitoring frameworks, for fellow development organisations, for donor agencies - even for the particular type of financial spreadsheets your organisation uses.
This recipe for "alphabet soup" – namely, conversations with a high number of acronyms - often reaches its zenith in the UN or in military organisations. My friend Helen Andreasson recently sent me a sample of the former: “My colleague over at WHO just did the CMR and submitted it to WFP, FAO, and OCHA, but then it came back that the MCH element was totally screwed up so it never made it to the IASC. Now he's in trouble with DfID". If you are able to identify what more than three of the acronyms in that sentence stand for, you have been irreparably damaged as a result of your chosen (development/UN) career - and yes, I will confess that I fall into that self-same category of damaged souls.
In an article about the US military, Elizabeth Bumiller has written about a rather unexpected hazard encountered by those serving in the American Armed Forces. Entitled "We Have Met the Enemy and He Is PowerPoint", the piece mentions how a number of high-ranking commanders have spoken out about the dangerous and demoralising effect of PowerPoint presentations! Thus for example, according to General James N Mattis of the Marine Corps, "PowerPoint makes us stupid". There are those that would argue that US interventions in countries like Iraq betray a level of folly that cannot be blamed on PowerPoint alone, but that is an argument for a different article altogether...
Getting back to the technology challenges faced by the US military, it is interesting to note that Brigadier General H R McMaster went as far as to ban PowerPoint presentations when he led the successful effort to secure a northern Iraqi city in 2005, subsequently likening PowerPoint to "an internal threat". In his view, the greatest danger of PowerPoint is that it creates the illusion of understanding and control in a world where some problems are not "bullet-izable". Well put.
But perhaps it is General Stanley A McChrystal, the one-time leader of American and NATO forces in Afghanistan, who should have the last word on this matter. Shown a PowerPoint slide in Kabul that was meant to portray the complexity of American military strategy - but bore an uncanny similarity to a bowl of spaghetti - General McChrystal drily remarked, "When we understand that slide, we'll have won the war." Clearly, the slide in question has not yet been deciphered.
But if occupational hazards in the US military are not limited to those that you would expect, military challenges can crop up in the most unexpected of places - as my friend Kelly recently discovered to her horror. Two students entered their classroom in Kassala province in Sudan carrying a live grenade that they had found on their way to school. Instead of leaving it where they had found it and reporting the find to the authorities, the 12-year-olds had thought it better to take the grenade with them.
If that wasn't bad enough, their teacher - upon being handed the grenade - put the item in a corner of the classroom, placing a rock over it 'for safety'! Luckily, they did thereafter contact an NGO working with mine removals, which is where Kelly worked. The organisation promptly sent over a mobile team to the school, instructing the teacher to take all the children to a safe area and quickly removing grenade from the classroom, to carry out a controlled demolition a safe distance away. That probably wasn't what local parents had in mind as an educational experience for their offspring.
During her time in Sudan, Kelly has also discovered that workplace challenges can be as varied as they are unexpected. And animals can, surprisingly often, be the cause of such hiccups. On one field trip, their group had to set up an overnight camp. The de-mining crew worked very hard to make a fence out of grass and sticks in order to protect everyone's modesty from everyone else. Unfortunately, some naughty camels decided to go for a midnight snack, and in the morning the campers awoke to find that their makeshift toilet had disappeared!
And then, of course, there are those challenges related to working with animals that are rather more predictable. In 2010, Christian Hernandez was arrested for breach of contract, because he ran away in the middle of the bullfight. The matador was booed by the crowd as he sprinted across the ring and leapt over the wall, dropping his cape as he went. Speaking afterwards, Hernandez said, "There are some things you must be aware of about yourself. I didn't have the ability... This is not my thing." In his defence, it should be said that he had suffered a serious leg injury a few months previously after being gored by another bull. Fortunately, Hernandez has now made a wise career choice in favour of retirement from bullfighting.
Finally, just in case you thought that working with a charity titled Food Not Bombs must be a safe bet, I have news for you. In the city of Orlando, Florida several members of Food Not Bombs were arrested on the grounds that they violated a city ordinance by feeding the homeless in Lake Eola Park!, According to a spokesperson for the group, "They basically carted them off to jail for feeding hungry people... For the city to regulate a time and place for free speech and to share food - that is unacceptable". That has to be an understatement, surely.
Not that the police were completely heartless, mind you. It seems that they waited until everyone was served before making the arrests! The reason for making the arrests at all? The ordinance applies to feedings of more than 25 people. And on that evening, three of the staff members of the organisation helped had feed a total of 40 people without permits. What a bunch of criminals...
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