Understanding Aid Work

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Place Matters: Understanding Aid Work in Jordan through Cafe Interviews

Patricia “Trish” Ward is an ACOR-CAORC Fellow, Fall 2017 and a Ph.D. Candidate in Sociology at Boston University. Her research looks at questions related to humanitarian aid, migration management, and labor in contexts considered crisis zones. She writes below about her experiences interviewing aid workers in Amman.

Meeting (or not) in cafes throughout Jordan can perhaps tell us a larger story about how aid work affects the economic and social dynamics throughout the Kingdom. Photo Credit R. Holland

My phone vibrates in my pocket. The screen reads that I have a new What’s App message. It is from Lama, one of the humanitarian aid workers who I will be interviewing as part of my research on international organizations’ national staff in Jordan. She asks me if we can meet in a few hours. Of course, I respond. Three months into my research, I have become quite used to scheduling interviews at short notice. Where would you like to meet, I ask. She messages back with a location of a cafe I am all too familiar with (given that over half of my interviewees at this point have suggested the same location for meeting). See you there—and most likely another one or two of my research participants—in a few hours.

While these logistics and planning may seem “dull” and part of the necessary routine for any interview-based research project, thinking about the place and timing of interviews—and even how we go about arranging interviews—are telling of how “our work in the office” is intertwined and often reflective of other social structures like socioeconomic class, gender, race and ethnicity that shape our routines, behaviors, relationships and our communities “outside” of work as well. Why is it that over half of my interviewees suggest the same cafe to meet, for example? Or are too busy working overtime to meet in one month but have free time during day and evenings in the next one? Through interviews with over 80 individuals working in the aid sector in Jordan, it is increasingly clear that place is a story in itself of how aid work in the Hashemite Kingdom is transforming economic and social dynamics among communities throughout the country.

The city of Amman has transformed drastically over the past 100 years. In the 1930s, Amman was home to about 10,000 residents. Today, the population is over 4 million. Photo Credit Wikipedia

Let’s take my interview with Lama for example. We chat in a cafe in a neighborhood near her work—where at least ten main aid organizations are based in Amman. The cafe is a meeting hub for aid workers: a space where employees from different organizations in the area can “talk shop,” or go for an afternoon leisure coffee with colleagues. The prices for espressos and teas may be expensive for the average Jordanian income, but national aid workers’ salaries are often higher than this (but often nowhere near their international staff counterparts). Lama and I meet around four: the cafe is packed with Jordanians and non-Jordanians, Arabic and non-Arabic speakers; with most folks appearing under the age of 40. But clearly not everyone is an “aid worker.” The usual grumblings around town of “there goes the neighborhood” mixed with “the new hip place in Amman” often and equally point to the aid work sector as a major reason for the cafe’s success and the “change” in this Amman neighborhood as well.

Or let’s meet Ahmed, a Jordanian who manages one of the smaller international organizations. He asks me to meet him at a coffee shop near his home on a Friday around four in the afternoon. I am surprised at first, since Friday afternoons in Jordan are “off” days and often spent by many with family. I learn that Ahmed has to “find time” to “escape” from his family for a few hours (hence why we meet close to his home) so he can hold Skype calls several times of the month with his boss in HQ during their working hours. Or my meeting with Esraa: she says that she is often so tired from her work in the field that she has no energy to meet with friends on the weekend or even attend some family lunch invitations (our interview takes place on one of the long public holiday weekends when she has “more time” to rest). While her latter absence from such social events might be frowned upon in other circumstances, her friends and family often encourage her to rest, using her absence as an opportunity to brag about her economic independence and “helping those in need” to other family and friends.

Most people may think of images like this when they hear “aid workers,” but how aid workers move in and between work and “non-work” places and spaces is also telling of how the aid sector is shaping Jordanian society. Photo Credit Al Ghad Archives

These cafe stories suggest that the country’s economic—and social—dynamics are intertwined with how workers—and the communities around them—“see” and “feel” the impact of aid work in Jordan: could aid work simultaneously be improving local workers’ economic situations, but also exacerbating gaps between the rich and poor, “the expat” and “the national”? Why do workers and communities point to “aid work” and “expats” as the source of economic problems (or prosperity) in the country in some circumstances, and not others? And where is the case of government policies? In fact, even though Lama is making “a decent” national staff salary of around 800 dinars a month, it is not enough to support the high costs of living in Amman. I learn during the interview that most of her and her husband’s money (who also works for an NGO, but in the camps) goes towards their rent for their flat (which is located quite far from where we are drinking coffee….as she says she could not afford a place here in this neighborhood), their three children’s day care, and food. They also have struggled in the past to take out loans because their contracts are considered “too short” by banking standards to be eligible (she is on a six-month contract—the length of the NGO project she is working on—when we meet).

After a fatal car accident involving national staff workers who were commuting to work in Azraq, the government has invested more into this part of the infrastructure in the Kingdom. Photo Credit AP

“Placing” interview logistics as critical data in any research project is thus one way to more fully understand how the aid sector shapes and affects staff’s daily routines both during official work hours and “outside” of work, as well as the communities and spaces that they move within and between. By thinking more about the banal details of the interview, we as researchers (and a broader community of thinkers!) can begin to more fully see how stories about aid work or aid workers are just small parts of larger tales, histories and experiences of economic struggles and social inequalities that have affected the people within the Hashemite Kingdom for years as well.

Note: The names included in this blog have been changed and do not reflect the real names of the people they refer to. 


Trish Ward 2017, photo courtesy of same.

Patricia “Trish” Ward is a pre-doctoral ACOR-CAORC Fellow, Fall 2017.  Her project is titled “How Humanitarian Relief Really ‘Works’: Examining International Organizations’ Use of Local Labor in Crisis Contexts.” She has  previously worked and conducted research in Jordan examining applications of UNHCR’s urban refugee policy in protracted refugee contexts.

Patricia Ward is currently a Ph.D. candidate at Boston University. She earned her B.A. from American University’s School of International Service and was a 2012 Fulbright Student Scholar in Canada, where she studied refugee labor integration as well as Canadian migration scholars’ contributions to the country’s growing immigration policy debate. To read more or to connect with Patricia Ward, read her ACOR Profile or visit her personal page at Boston University.

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