UN World Food Programme

A Father's Passion

A few weeks ago WFP Logistics Officer Alastair Cook walked in and dropped a 1kg stack of papers on my desk. He wasn't angry, he was just doing me a favor.  I heard from an associate that Alastair was a commited field writer and kept a detailed journal for family and friends back home. As luck would have it he got lost on his way to meeting a wound up walking into our office. I asked him if he would be willing to share what he had written and he responded with, "Sure, I'll drop it by later." Drop it by he did - with a resounding thud. 

I have spent time reading through passages that are filled with humor, pride and obvious devotion to his work. His stories and anecdotes are hilarious, heartwarming and all too familiar to field staff that have spent their time out on the pointy end of the spear. That is where Alastair has spent most of his life - in the field doing the heavy lifting that makes our humanitarian world go round - and he has documented in detail his experiences, challenges and victories.

Why does he spend his last waking hours following an 18hr work day transcribing his day's journal entries into a Word document?  So he can send it home to his family in London and New Zealand. While Alastair is out there making everything right in the world his daughters are back in London going to school.  We all know this story and no matter how many of our friends and coworkers suffer through the exact same thing it never makes it any easier. It is one thing to say that it's the life we've chosen, it is another thing to actually have to live it.

I think Alastair would agree that being separated from our families is the hardest part of the work we do. It is not the bugs, guns, tragedy and sometimes violence that makes our job so hard. It is the knowledge that we're out there trying to make the world a better place and that our kids still might not understand why we're not there for them. Reading through Alastair's work I cannot help but think that in some way his journal is atonement for not being the parent that we wish we could all be. We want to tell them that it's the world's greatest job but we don't for one minute want them to think that we enjoy it more than being at home because we don't. It is so hard to convey the feeling that comes from having just helped save someone's life yet we desperately want them to understand as it somehow seems to justify our absence. So, what do we do? In Alastair's case he takes his family along with him.

Every word, every bit of humor and every frustration that he writes about is meant to bring his family to the place where he works and to help them understand what he goes through on a daily basis.  All his victories and losses are stacked up for his family to see, his days are detailed showing that every waking minute is devoted to the work at hand and that while his life is spent somewhere south of comfortable at least he is not suffering. This is exactly what we want our kids to understand - that we are out there every day pushing ourselves to the limit, taking big risks for other people and saving lives as a result but also that we will always, no matter what, come home at the end of the mission. Never for a minute would we want them to lose faith in us or the task at hand because if they lose faith in us we might just lose faith in ourselves. And, if that happens we might as well just pack it in and head home because that is when life becomes dangerous.

It is clear, at least to me, that while Alastair's work appears on the surface to be a simple chronicle of his experiences it really is a testament to his commitment as a father. Many of us struggle with the separation issue and each of us have come up with a solution. Alastair has developed his own and it fittingly seems to match his approach to work and life - full throttle, hands on and no holds barred. He sure has got some lucky kids.

In the coming weeks we will publish excerpts from Alastair's journals as part of a special series featuring WFP field writers. In the mean time please take a look at this VIDEO which Alastair published on YouTube following his return from Kenya in 2007. I guarantee you'll be dancing before you are halfway through it. 

Work and family

The dilemma of work and family life (be it our relationship with our kids, but also our relationship with our partner, with our parents - who might be older and need taking care of) is common to everyone working for a living. Not just aidworkers.

How many people - even in the 'normal jobs' - come home, hardly able to spend a few minutes with the kids before they go to bed. Hardly any time in the weekends to really devote to the kids..? In how many families with both partners working, are kids somewhere in the middle between two individuals with a professional career...?

The only difference with an aidworker's family life is that often we work in places where our families can not be with us (either out of security reasons or practical reasons).

In my case, my wife and I decided to give the kids a stable environment (school, living conditions, their friends) to grow up in. After living with me in Uganda, we decided we wanted to raise them back home, in Belgium, rather than 'dragging' them to a new country every 2-3-4 years. Every time they would have to rebuild their circle of friends, re-adapt to a new school (or schooling system), and we feared they would loose their roots and we would compromise their education.

Every school holiday, either I go home, or they join me somewhere on holiday, or - security permitting - they join me at my duty station. At the moment, we spend a minimum of three months physically together, spread over the entire year. Each time we spend time together, it is "christmas time" for us parents and for them kids... Away from work, doing fun stuff, concentrating on "US"...

We have been living as "a shuttling family" since 10 years now. As a family we adapted to this live, and would not think of a better way to keep that 'spank' in our lives, in our parent-kids relationship and in our relationship between partners.

Having said that, there are difficult times, times where I really wished I was there. When there are problems at school, any problems where I feel I could help resolve the issue. Then I do feel guilty. But I would not want to have it any other way. Neither would my kids.

Kid, I think you viewpoint is

Kid, I think you viewpoint is somewhat extreme, and perhaps also a bit naive. So let me put another extreme up here....

For humanitarian workers to never leave there kids at home there would be two options:

(1) Take the children with you to live in potentially dangerous and unsuitable locations(security concerns,limited healthcare and education available)

OR

(2) All humanitarian workers must be childless.

Sorry, but it doesn't work like this. It takes sacrafice on the part of many willing individuals (including Alastair and his family) to ensure that the truly life saving work of organisations like WFP, the Red Cross, NGOs etc can be done.

We should be thanking them for it, not criticising them.

Keep up the good work Alastair!

The agony of choosing

Thank you for answering, Alastair.

As you say, many fathers (most of those who have made the choice of living away from their children are fathers, curiously enough) have made the choice based on the claim that 'my work demands it', and 'it enables me to support my family financially'.

I don't think either argument is a very strong one unless your situation is really forcing you to leave.

A response from Alastair

This is a response directly from Alastair:

Thanks for the chance to respond, certainly very interesting comments made by 'Kid' which generally I cant argue with... but don't really reflect my situation.

The notion that I have abandoned my kids is somewhat over emotive... firstly they are teenagers (18 & 15) and are fully supportive of what I do. I have a strong relationship with them and in fact they are coming to stay with me in Rome this long weekend and after speaking with them lastnight they are excited about the visit. Thanks to Skype we chat regularly when I am on mission and they are always interested in what I am doing and joke about some of the incidents that I write about.

Before I joined WFP I was in the corporate logistics sector and spent a life in aeroplanes, airport and hotels and lived a life of exhaustion... the point of this comment is that they have grown up with me being away working and so the term abandonment is not really appropriate... there are many families in the world in such circumstances... consider the families of the armed forces on duty around the world at present, often their lives are similar.

Unfortunately the possibility of working from home is not possible and while not on mission I am support those who are on mission, it is easier for us to understand the difficulties that this lifestyle and therefore better able to offer proper support.

In summary we all make lifestyle choices, my choice enables me to keep them in a secure home (and their mother) and provide them with a proper education which they are doing very well in. Both kids are excelling at school and have active social lives and are generally polite and fun kids.

Regards, Alastair

These untold stories reveal

These untold stories reveal the fragility of all of us. A humanitarian aid work is a human being like anyone else. I look forward to reading Alistair's stories. Hopefully his stories will inspire many more to join this wonderful group of dedicated and commited people. Thanks Jonathan for sharing this.

The agony of choosing

Trying to make the world a better place is a noble cause. Abandoning your children sincerely soils the nobleness. I guess it often boils down to a choice, really; Are you as irreplaceable in your efforts abroad as your abandoning your children implies? Is it possible for you to work at home, supporting the work of those abroad instead? Is it possible to work domestically until your kids have grown up? Should you put off having kids until you have had your share of working abroad? Should you have kids?

One of the major illusions of our time is that you can have it all at the same time. You can, but it is not the best of choices.

way to go, Alistair!

Looking forward to read some of the excerpts of Alistair's stories!

heartwarming story..

Thanks Jonathan for sharing this story. It's inspring and heart warming. These are the untold stories we need to talk about!