Updated: Jul 1, 2021
Michael Steffens, European Union Delegation to Jordan
(formerly Afghanistan) and Federico Romoli, European Union Delegation to Afghanistan
From year to year, the rotation and mobility exercises clearly show that the large majority of staff is avoiding a posting in countries with an ICV of 30% or higher. However, if you have ever passed the Hindukush in an airplane, have held workshops with multiple Afghan CSOs or have met with the First Lady of Afghanistan you might feel differently about it.
Many hardships posts have things to offer that are not freely available in other postings. First of all, our work matters so much more to the point that it gets almost addictive – once a friend of Afghanistan, always a friend of Afghanistan. However, as it stands many things would have to improve significantly if staff were to change their mind.
A hardship posts is always a challenge in itself. Firstly, in a number of places you have to leave your family behind. Somehow, the extra rest leaves allocated compensate for this. However, in reality you realise quickly that rest leaves are exactly what they meant to be – they are leaves to take a rest from the special circumstances one faces in postings like these. In addition, staff report that they usually also loose leave days for medical visits, administrative or other types of appointments which they cannot conduct in country.
A short glimpse of what expected us in Afghanistan: In Kabul, we have a rather nice setup directly under the so-called TV hill. The compound hosts a restaurant and is a patch of houses and a purpose built office building set in a beautiful large garden. However, you are of course constantly surrounded by barbwires and large security walls, stunningly friendly Gurka and international security guards. A machine gun is never further than 20 meters away. It does not go unnoticed and certainly has an effect on people. During the COVID-19 crisis, however, things changed rapidly and evacuations or other events may change the situation abruptly any time. Given such rapid changes colleagues considering taking up hardship posts are advised to reach out to colleagues in the respective posting.
The COVID-19 pandemic has unfortunately taken its toll and colleagues are mostly working out of their own accommodations in isolation to avoid contacts, while the reality of the crisis is very real to the local colleagues in the Delegation.
In a posting like Afghanistan, security is extremely volatile and a tangible concern. It will be part of your daily routine and the way it is managed has a tremendous effect on your psychological health, your daily life and your motivation to continue the fight for justice through ARES, CRIS, OPSYS, EVAL, MIPS and SYSPER in the Wikicracy (‘high-level bureaucracy mediated by software’) we work in. Unfortunately, security rules and restrictions may also lead to feel detached from the actual reality of the country where you are working (the “bubble syndrome”). However, the way security was set up in Afghanistan was not necessarily conducive to motivating staff.
The security team was generally great – great chaps in fact, although they were explicitly asked not to fraternize. However, security information often came with a delay and not frequent enough; lockdowns were often not explained in enough detail and provided much cause for frustrations. There were also always concerns about the office building in particular because some colleagues questioned its structural integrity, in case of earthquakes or larger attacks. Other missions had purposely built earthquake-safe buildings. This was unfortunately not the case for the building we were working on and it had visible signs after even lighter earthquakes.
In May 2017, there was a security event that rocked our compound. A water truck fully rigged with explosives exploded on the fringe of the German Embassy about 1.5 kilometres away and took out a good part of their security walls (see here). The scale of this event was new to us and the whole diplomatic community. Yet, it was not necessary to remind us about the dangers of our particular posting. There were attacks weekly and during some periods almost every three to five days in the city. We kind of made up for it with volleyball, barbecues, good company and one of us even painted Raffaello’s ‘School of Athens’ on a compound wall. However, security should also cater for social moves to the extent possible and should realise that personal lives are still happening too. Recently, life on the compound was not so gloomy anymore – COVID-19 really changed life in Kabul and on the EU compound.
In other locations, this will play out similarly, there is always the impetus of security teams to only relay the absolutely necessary information. However, in locations where we move even more than in Kabul relaying information is even more important.
Staff need access to basic services and during our lockdowns; we could feel this dearly since our hairdresser was about 2.5 km away on the ISAF-Resolute Support Compound. Many of you may know now the phenomena of not having access to a barber for an extended period, the COVID-19 pandemic has taught us this. However, during our respective postings in Kabul this was already reality when ISAF decided to only give access to a limited amount of our colleagues. Since this was not only the place to go for a haircut but also the location to do most of your shopping, you can imagine how popular the decision was among us.
Food and drink are the other type of service one would need to access to make it through a posting. While other missions fully provided this three times a day, the Delegation in Kabul decided to offer a subsidised lunch dish in a privately owned restaurant on the compound and to equip apartments with kitchens. However, this happened with little access to quality vegetables and other food items. Colleagues’ were largely obliged to pay the overpriced prices on the military compound and to buy over-fertilised vegetables. The habit of bringing in larger quantities of food via ones luggage was widely spread on our compound. One can only imagine how colleagues cope without business class tickets at this point in time. Heavy pollution in a city like Kabul is another source of serious concern, especially in winter.
Leisure facilities were there in form of a garden, a volleyball pitch and a rather small pool. Jointly colleagues managed to fight for a gym, a climbing wall and other equipment. We managed for example to organise kickboxing and Aikido lessons with varying membership incl. also external guests from the NGO community. A gym and other facilities such as a swimming pool are essential to avoid the ‘tiger in a cage’ syndrome. After serving in Kabul, we have truly looked differently at zoos. A table tennis and kicker room, and an open sports space for gymnastics, yoga and martial arts is also easily set up and should be budgeted into compounds.
In other countries, the excess costs for diesel generators are a problem for staff in their private homes and could be set off by installing movable photovoltaic energy systems. Some colleagues are already investing in these themselves.
USHU supports the idea of a preferential pension system for hardship posts. This could be implemented for example by allocating 1.4 years to 1 year of posting in a country with 40% ICV, 1.2 years to 1 year of posting in a country with an ICV of 35% and so on. As an additional incentive, this could be of interest to colleagues close to their pension in particular and would bring experience to hardship posts.
In addition, we think allocating more teleworking from abroad may be a good way to overcome particularly difficult security and/or health situations in a given location or to help staff coping with their medical visits or other commitments in their countries of origin.
We also support the idea of reintroducing a cumulative 5% supplementary premium for colleagues that have served in hardship posts previously. The premium, which is linked to a previous assignment spent in a Delegation with an LCA over 30% or higher, is no longer paid cumulative. It means that colleagues serving a third or fourth time in such a setting will not receive 10% or 15% but rather also just 5%. Re-introducing a cumulative complementary premium would be a good incentive for colleagues and would be a fair compensation for their commitment over the years.
The setup of compounds in terms of security and the services provided is essential. Missions should not compromise these basic services without good reason. The more staff feel that the mission is also catering for their security and basic needs, the more they will give back and the more effective will cooperation remain in places like Kabul, Mogadishu and Juba.
We applaud all staff that take the risk to serve in hardship places and invite you to share your stories on our Facebook group. We invite the EEAS to keep the conversation more open to colleagues that currently work in hardship posts and establish a taskforce with them to look for improvements.
Mario Varrenti and his replicate of the School of Athens by Raffaelo on the compound in Kabul