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Aid to Zen: B – Booze

I was going to write about burnout (again), but as it is becoming the talk of the day among aid workers, I decided to address something slightly more controversial: the pervasive drinking culture among humanitarians. You can read about burnout in aid here, here and here and pretty much all over mindfulnext.org.

This post is part of Aid to Zen – A Quick Guide to Surviving Aid Work from A to Z by Alessandra Pigni.


“I worked 8 years in the field. I saw too many alcoholics, drugs and sex addicts trying different solutions to cope with the stress and isolation. I saw too many socially impotent persons flying away from personal problems. These people shouldn’t be in the field. But if we removed all the alcoholics from the field…who would be there to do the job ;-)” (From an aid worker)

Drinking is cool right? It’s fun, it takes the edge off a stressful day, it’s social. If you don’t drink you might as well change career because your boss will probably see you as “anti-social” (real story from a real aid worker working for a real INGO).

Here’s what I hear: as cool as drinking may be it is no secret that the problem is getting out of hand with an impact on security and reputation (whatever is left of it). In an attempt to counter the booze culture for which aid workers have become known, some agencies have induction parties loaded with free alcohol. Beware it’s not generosity, it’s a clever move to check how you handle booze.

The same agencies may have official and unofficial bars in the field. Trouble is that even if “locals” cannot get in (yes, another true story) word gets round and the perception that hosting communities have of aid workers is not shaped by your agency’s mission statement, but by the fact that expats throw parties and drink themselves to embarrassment. How do “locals” know? As someone said: “God sees everything, but your neighbours don’t miss a thing.”

Before I continue, just a few lines in defence of booze: there was this great Buddhist teacher, Chogyam Trungpa who died an alcoholic. He’s basically one of the guys who brought Tibetan Buddhism to the West. Proves that some heavy drinkers get stuff done. And what would literature, music and art be without alcohol? Take Baudelaire, Toulouse-Lautrec, or our beloved Amy Winehouse. Their work has literally a “spiritual dimension”. And it wasn’t just booze.


None of these people were in charge of security in Iraq. None of them managed logistics in Syria. None of them drove around in a white Toyota in Pakistan. So the tragedy is that in humanitarian circles too often people equate drinking with self-care, or with some kind of cool, jet-setting lifestyle, and with being forever young in Aidland. People turn up at cluster meetings with a hangover and its ok, they only have to manage an emergency, no worries.

The “functioning alcoholic” in the team can throw tantrums over the smallest thing, alternate between being rude, aggressive, disruptive, and being charming, generous and flattering. What the hell, the country director gets tons of money from donors, we can tolerate alcohol in the office, few incidents here and there and tarnished reputation (another real story from a real aid worker working for a real INGO).

Functioning alcoholics are a nightmare to work with, yet aid agencies not only condone but promotes them. What these people need is help, not a new post. They may be suffering from a range of conditions, from PTSD to burnout, to a brand new condition called “having been in the field too long”. The relocation of drunken staff, who may even have a history of sexual harassment (another true story), to me closely resembles the scandals of the Catholic church. That’s when drinking is neither cool, nor fun.

What’s my point? I think I just made my point.

In the end I simply wonder if given the stress that aid workers have to manage, often on their own, often in pretty isolated and challenging environments, drinking oneself into oblivion is indeed the cheapest form of self care. Maybe that’s why you can buy cheap booze at your local PX shop. Maybe selling tax-free alcohol is part of a staff care strategy? “Open a gym, not a bar” I thought. But alas, an aid worker gave away this secret: “it wouldn’t be as popular.” Instead, booze is so popular that in one of the states of Aidland the UN had to cap the amount of alcohol aid workers could buy per week (another true story).

The tweet below says it all. I just would like to add that it’s not just expats. For once we are all equal.


What to read:

Charles Jackson, The Lost Weekend

See you next week, under a mango tree for another round of Aid to Zen.


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Mindfulnext by Alessandra Pigni is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License.