I worked for USAID for seven years and got to travel to all over the place — and one of the things I liked the most was travel within or between countries. It was sometimes fun, sometimes scary (landing at Kandahar Airfield, for example), and always weird.
One time I was on a month-long deployment to Afghanistan and Pakistan, and for whatever reason I wasn’t allowed to use PIA, the Pakistani flag carrier, to fly between Islamabad and Kabul. Instead I was told to take UNHAS, the UN Humanitarian Air Service, which is run by the World Food Programme. UNHAS flies small, often propeller-driven planes and helicopters to ferry aid workers, UN officials, journalists and such around Afghanistan and between major UN sites in the region.
As you might expect it’s not easy to book a flight with the UN, and as I researched the steps and mentioned to people I was flying UNHAS, everybody kept mentioning a supposedly super good-looking South African flight attendant who was sometimes on the ISB-KBL plane. She was this legend at the Embassy and amongst the implementers: nobody knew if she’d be on the plane or not, and it always seemed like it was somebody else, a friend or coworker, who had been on a flight with her.
And it seemed far-fetched. Why does UNHAS have a flight attendant, anyway?
When I finally got a ticket and showed up at a weird part of the Islamabad airport to board, there was indeed a very cute South African flight attendant on the plane, as well as some gigantic, heavily armed South African bodyguards.
As I recall, we took off, she brought everyone cans of Coke, and then we landed. This raised a lot of questions for me: This flight is 45 minutes long and the plane maybe holds 15 people, and this is (presumably) a humanitarian mission — do we really need a flight attendant? Is this what the UN thinks is important? Is it a UN job? Is it on the professional scale? Did some donor nation require this before they gave the money for a plane? Or did some fancy UN official who never not flown first class demand to be treated like a VIP? Maybe the flight attendant has other duties; that being a flight attendant is only a small part of it? Maybe she’s really a combat medic there to help if we crash, or a radio mechanic, or an expert linguist?
I may never know the answers to these questions, and to me, the sexy UNHAS flight attendant just shows how strange aid work can be.
Andrew Wiseman is a geographer who worked for USAID’s Office of Transition Initiatives for seven years on Afghanistan, Pakistan, Haiti and Honduras. He now works in the private sector.