Top Questions People Ask Me about My Work (with Answers)

My business cards – used primarily as bookmarks, I freely admit – indicate that I am a Senior Education Specialist for Equitas, a human rights education NGO. It’s not quite as self-explanatory as “dentist” or “taxi driver,” and as a result I get a fair number of questions from people who ask me what I do. At least I have an easier time now than in my past job as an “information developer” for optical networks documentation. But enough about that. So here are some of the most frequently-asked questions about my job, in no particular order:

1. What do you do?
A basic question, and the answer is essentially: I write training materials about human rights, and I teach people about human rights. All this stuff is called “human rights education,” or HRE. I do a lot of work sitting in front of a computer and progressively losing my eyesight. When I’m not doing that, I’m “out in the field” offering training to different people like workers from community centres, government officials, and human rights defenders from NGOs from around the world.
2. You get to travel a lot. That must be exciting, right?
Yes and no. Last time I counted, over an 8-year period, I had spent the equivalent of 30 days or almost 750 hours waiting for connecting flights in airport terminals, taken over 300 cramped or really cramped airplanes, and throughout it all only flown business class once because I had enough air miles and got lucky. The rest of the time, air travel is uneventful, uncomfortable, tedious, and exhausting.
That was the No part. The Yes part is obvious: visiting so many countries is a fantastic experience.  I’m tremendously thankful for having the opportunity to see so many people, cultures, places, and different ways of life – it’s the kind of stuff that makes me more appreciative of our diversity and the life that I have.
Switching back to the No answer, the truth is I spend most of my time in a hotel. Back in Turkey in 2008, I did a mental calculation of the percentage of time spent during my trip in the hotel (either my room, the workshop room, the lobby or the dining room), and it amounted to 97% of my trip. 
3. Don’t you feel guilty using Canadian taxpayers’ money to travel overseas? Can’t the people you train do this work themselves?
OK, that’s two questions, but still closely related. No, I don’t feel guilty. When I look at the huge amount of money that is wasted here in Canada by people who spend their lives hoarding money and needlessly buying things in self-indulgent fits of mass consumerism, I have no problem spending taxpayers’ money (which includes my own) to help those who need help in other countries. Besides, the operating budget of my NGO is infinitesimal in comparison to the profit margins of multinational companies – our work costs relatively little. 
But the benefits for those who receive our training is significant. This is not my opinion – this is coming from the people we work with (overseas but here in Canada as well). I have always maintained that I want to eventually work my way out of a job. For me, that’s a sign that “capacity building” has been built and “empowerment” has led to empowered people. In some places, notably the Middle East and Indonesia, I felt I have done just about as much as possible with some of our partners. They have the same skills we have and their need for our help is not nearly what it was a few years ago.
4. What’s the most dangerous place you’ve been to?
You know, talking about human rights can only keep some people interested for so long, then pffft, you lose them. That’s when they want to find out whether or not I’ve been held at gunpoint or been thrown a grenade by a terrorist or something.
The most dangerous place I have ever been to remains New York City on New Year’s Eve 1989 when a shotgun blast blew a hole out the car I was sitting in. In comparison, my life overseas has been tame. I was apprehensive in 2004 when I had to attend a workshop in Nepal and the Maoists had instituted a bandh or a strike. All shops were closed and it was not recommended that you travel by car anywhere. I got off a plane in Pokhara and took a bus with a sheet of paper stuck in the windshield labelled TOURIST. That was not reassuring.
But honestly, I have never felt in any real danger traveling because of my job. Granted, I have been to places that have seen tsunamis, earthquakes, bombings, terrorist attacks, wars, and other nasty business, but I’m always in the capable hands of a local partner who makes sure I’m taken care of. Besides, I’ve traveled to most of those places when those conditions were not in place.

5. What difference does your work do?
That one’s harder to pin down. I teach others about human rights, and they take what they learn and replicate and modify the things I taught them about. I don’t often see a direct impact of my work. Rather, I’ll have someone who attended a workshop I facilitated tell me how they changed the way they teach others. They may also tell me that the people they educate see human rights differently: they know they have rights, they know how to claim their rights, and how to defend for their rights and the rights of others. To mention a specific example, I’ve seen trainers I have trained in Indonesia facilitate workshops using techniques I showed them; in some cases, the trainers adopt my mannerisms, which is flattering but nonetheless strange to see in someone else.

Rereading that last paragraph makes me realize it’s a bit of a lame answer. There are plenty of other examples I could mention, but in the end, the value of human rights education is not something that is so easily identifiable and quantifiable in a specific moment in time. I’m not like that dentist who says your cavity is filled or the taxi driver who says you’ve arrived at your destination. The value of education is hard to measure. Education promotes change – a change in attitudes, a change in beliefs and behaviours, and a change in actions. None of these things happens quickly.

6. What’s the nicest place you’ve been to?
I try to answer that question by thinking where I would like to take my family for a vacation. Everywhere I go, friends from other NGOs invite me to come back for a visit. There are plenty of places I would love to visit again and again, but if I had the choice to pick one and only one place to take my family, it would be Nepal. From friendly people to the most awesome tea in the world to hiking in the Himalayas, there is no comparable experience.

Having said that, I can think of two friends in particular in Egypt who would be horrified to read that last paragraph. My kids love Egypt and look forward to going there someday…But let’s wait a little until things stabilize just a little bit.

7. How about the worst place?
There was a hotel in Banda Aceh that wins the award for the crummiest place I’ve been to. I went just over a year after the tsunami, so the town was recovering but still a disaster. The hotel room had a bed that was the scuzziest thing I’ve ever slept on. Used Q-tips on top of the dresser, no hot water, an air conditioner that spewed out a toxic-smelling not-very-cool air, mothballed-filled drawers that made all my clothes reek, moldy carpets and the lousiest food I’ve ever eaten in any hotel. Ironically, the hotel had a fancy elevator that spoke with a female voice in an American accent. As for the cockroaches, one word: plenty. Couldn’t even find a beer anywhere in town other than the bar at the Sultan. Even then it was as flat as the decor.

One thought on “Top Questions People Ask Me about My Work (with Answers)

  • Paul – Just had a chance to read this. As someone else who gets a lot of questions about “what do you actually do?” I appreciate your articulating the nuances of internationally oriented NGO work so clearly. I'm sure this post will come in very useful over the coming years!


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