The (not so idyllic) Life of Agents in Delegations and The role of the Head of Administration
Ah, life in the delegations in the tropics… lying on a deckchair by the pool or the sea, toes out, sun shining, drink in hand…
An idyllic image that seems to be anchored in the minds of many colleagues at headquarters. And yet, how many times have I had the same question, but you do not look any more tanned than that working in Africa? And no, it is difficult to get a tan under the neon lights of the offices… Because yes, we DO work in delegations.
So, of course, life in a delegation has its advantages for those who like a change of scenery: new horizons (although rarely similar to those on postcards) every three to six years, solidarity between colleagues which is undoubtedly stronger, new encounters, learning about different cultures, a field approach with the possibility of taking concrete action…
But it also presents many challenges that require flexibility, adaptability and resilience. For example, you will find that in delegation, the line between professional and private life becomes very thin. We are often housed with or near our colleagues and leaders in compounds to facilitate gathering in a crisis. Life with colleagues therefore often goes beyond life in the office. And so it will not be impossible for your boss to see you in a swimming costume one day (of course this means that the weather is good, but it is also because the places where to bathe are limited and so you will inevitably be confronted with regularly bumping into your colleagues and work partners in all the usual places of life – gyms, swimming pools, restaurants, shops…).
It means learning to spend an evening or even a weekend without water and/or electricity because the public network has crashed and you do not always have a back-up – or the back-up itself has failed – a far cry from the reliability of supply known in Europe. Our children, by the way, do not even react when we suddenly find ourselves in the dark in the middle of a film or a meal.
It is putting up with traffic jams in African, South American and Asian megacities where you are literally trapped in your means of transport (it is impossible to open your doors because the cars are so tightly packed together – it is best not to be claustrophobic) and the resulting air pollution impacts on your health. It is everyone’s fear: to have a health problem given the state of the health services in these beautiful exotic countries.
It means knowing how to adapt your choices to the market offer rather than the other way round, as in Europe: you do not decide what you are going to eat in the evening, it is the supermarket offer that will dictate your meal – and its price. Sometimes, in order to treat yourself or your children, you may be willing to pay an outrageous price for certain products (a raft of strawberries or six yoghurts of dubious quality at 15€-20€ or a box of cereals at 10€-15€).
Sometimes you will not have a choice: toilet paper or washing powder (usual brands) which often cost an arm and a leg in countries that import all their goods. And this according to the famous ratio: the more space it takes up in the plane, the more expensive it is.
Apart from these elements linked to the country, the management by the Delegation of a certain number of aspects of your life can make your life… hellish. In particular, you should be aware that in the Delegation, several life choices, normally private, will no longer be under your sole control, notably housing. According to a determination established by the head office, for which you will have no say:
- Either the famous Article 23 will be applied to you (friends in delegation will understand… for the others, you will have to go and see Annex 10 of the Staff Regulations) and you will be assigned an area in which you can choose your accommodation, which will nevertheless still have to pass certain security checks to be validated and which will have to be below a price ceiling determined by headquarters, sometimes without any rationality.
- Or they will apply the equally famous Article 5 and will automatically assign you to accommodation where the delegation will be the official tenant (signing the lease for you), thus giving you no status in the contract except that of “occupant” – you will be reminded of this by the landlord every time you want to talk to him. And then you will understand the importance of having a ‘good’ head of administration. You will realise that it is his or her standards that will guide and become your standards of living from now on; that it is his or her willingness and/or competence that will determine whether or not you have a good stay for the duration of your assignment. If you have a head of administration with low standards (yes, this is Africa, is it not?); little willpower/strength/competence; or even if he is himself in a state of near burn-out, your life can become a living hell…