What Is It You Actually Do?

This is an extended version of my column for the University of Bath’s student paper, a lighthearted look at my placement job. See here for the previous one.

I’ve been at my job for two months now and, with each and every passing day, I find it more and more difficult to explain what it is I’m doing. I tend to fall back on a vague description of what the organisation does which is fairly obscure – the human rights sector is basically pretty obscure – and tends to illicit one of two responses. The first and most common is a mostly disinterested “oh that sounds great, good for you,” meaning that I am labelled as a generic do-gooder which tends to lead straight to literally any other topic of conversation. The second response is much rarer but is also double thickness – anger and mockery. People who read The Daily Mail with a straight face tend to tip out their scorn bucket all over my head when I reveal that I work “in human rights”, challenging my decision to do so with elegant put-downs like,

“Oh right you’re one of them who protects terrorists?”
“Fucking human rights, what have they ever done for anyone? Get a real job.”

In these situations the ability to coherently outline what you do and why it is important would be extremely useful. It’s quite difficult to do that when I find it almost impossible to articulate to normal human beings how my working hours are filled. The problem is jargon.

As anyone who has ever encountered annoying management speak or attempted to do a degree in the social sciences (Sample: “The black is a white construction, he admits, that is a consequence of a social world that stands between phylogenetic and ontogenetic forces”) will know,there are relatively few things that still seem particularly complicated after you’ve translated them into a recognisable human language. In fact, I would say that the main thing my degree programme has taught me this far is how to do these jargon-to-human translations.

For a mesmerising few minutes of NGO nonsense take a look at this video

Unfortunately, the world of international development is one of codes and acronyms, so many acronyms that it makes a lot of the conversations infinitely less accessible. There are seventeen UN agencies (plus numerous other UN affiliates) all of which are commonly referred to by their acronyms. Seventeen! And those are just the ones you’re expected to know. Last week I overheard a bit of conversation that went almost exactly like this,

“We need to insert the RTI agenda into the post-MDG landscape.”
“Yeah, we’ll get it on the table at Rio 2012, see if the TI guys will back us up.”
“Do we know if DFID or OHCHR are behind this?”

Needless to say, I do a lot of Googling.

After looking up acronyms and translating my activities into vaguely understandable words the people who have mocked or dismissed my working life have normally gotten bored and wandered off. It’s a little disheartening.

In the last instalment of this column I made a triumphant reference to the seemingly modest achievement of not being regarded as a complete simpleton by my colleagues and thus being engaged with by them and getting more involved in some of the activities of the organisation. I stand by this being a wonderful thing but it has led to new problems. When I first got here basically all I did was convert old PDF files into HTML (acronyms ahoy) files for the organisation’s website. It was a riot. My ability to not obviously break anything while I did that task allowed me access to some more interesting work – copy editing press releases, researching topics for interviews, building up contact lists – which gave me access to still more acronyms: hey, Rowan, can you upload this letter to all the UN agencies on the website? Make sure you put the full name of all the agencies!

The more I am allowed to participate with what the organisation is doing, the more impenetrable jargon there is and, therefore, the harder it is to explain to non-development people. What is quite nice is that the number of awkward social situations I find myself in is directly proportionate to how engaged I am with my job – the lack of party small talk is because things are going well at work.

At first the alignment is (roughly) 1:1 but then there is a magical (and, thus far, entirely imagined) moment where either a) I develop a pithy one liner that charms all and sundry or b) vaguely mumbling about human rights work becomes cool

Now all I have to do is properly convince myself that this is a good thing. I’ve adopted that phrase as a sort of mantra, repeating it to myself as reassurance that things are as they should be. Now I think about it, constantly muttering ‘this is a good thing’ under my breath might skew my data somewhat… Coming across as a mad person doesn’t necessarily make things socially awkward does it?

With thanks to @hschwing & @TeaAndSleep for proofreading/help.


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