Compassionate and Inclusive Leadership: A Conversation Starter for Staff Wellbeing in the Aid Sector

“I think mental health problems in this sector are greeted with laziness and weakness. We’ve always not delivered in this sector, we can never do enough no matter how hard we try, so if you’re not always in tip-top shape, you’ll be seen as not dealing with it well.”

“I’m not sure they really know what people go through here.”

These remarks come from two aid workers I met in Kenya. In many ways, they are talking about the same thing; feeling unseen and uncared for in their organisations. Yet there are differences too. The first quote originates from an Irish man working for the United Nations; the second a Kenyan woman working for an international NGO. They are both referring to an organisational culture that doesn’t want to listen to people’s personal problems. But in the case of the Kenyan woman, she is referring specifically to her colleagues from high income countries in the Global North. In this respect, there is an added layer of exclusion that relates to the power dynamics of the aid sector – where the system’s pressurised environment, long working hours, pay scales, protections and benefits are largely stacked in favour of white people from these high income countries. Whilst we have enough studies to show that many aid workers suffer from stress and related psychiatric illnesses, we need to be paying more attention to the stories behind these conditions; whose are being heard and whose are not.

My research has shown that it is hard for aid workers to speak about their wellbeing to their colleagues. But it is particularly hard for national staff operating in an environment where they are usually paid less than their international colleagues, and where they often struggle more to prove themselves as sufficiently competent to do the job. This is not only about nationality, but also about race. Many European or American people of colour working in the sector fight the same battles to be seen, heard, valued and rewarded on an equal footing with their white colleagues.

What is required to address these problems, for which we should all take responsibility, is greater reflection and dialogue around the power imbalances that permeate through the aid system; from the so-called aid ‘beneficiaries’ – itself a telling term that empowers the giver more than the receiver – up to the staff, management, board members and donors. We are all part of this system in different ways, and if we were more willing to admit this – and the ways in which we may be keeping this structure in place – we might have the beginnings of a conversation that is essential for our sector if we are to adequately address staff wellbeing.

Without taking the time out of the institutionalised busyness and urgency of our working lives to actually listen to the people that make up the majority of the sector’s workforce – nationals from the Global South – and their own lived experiences of exclusion and discrimination, we cannot fully address problems of stress, bullying and sexual abuse that currently plague the sector. Similarly, the localisation agenda will mean very little unless national aid workers have more of a say in how their employers could be supporting them better. The stories that I heard time and again from national staff in Kenya suggested a lack of sympathy towards their family responsibilities, of the long distances they have to travel to get to work, and of the limited opportunities for career progression. At the same time, the bullying culture that many of us are aware of – and indeed have been on the receiving end of – makes it particularly difficult for these staff to speak up, when precarious contracts are at stake.

Yet we have to find ways of listening and learning from those whose voices often get drowned out due to the sector’s ongoing control and influence by white people from the Global North. People like myself are not the experts and do not have all the answers when it comes to the wellbeing of the majority world. And we must learn to take a step back and listen to the lived experiences of colleagues who have much to share about what inclusion and wellbeing really means; including those from the LGBTQ+ community, nationals from the Global South, people of colour and those with disabilities.  Whilst white women too feel excluded from key discussions within the aid sector, this is not about who is the biggest victim; it is instead an invitation to reflect on our privileges and how we may be misusing them – and indeed how we may use them effectively to fully support and show our solidarity with others who do not look like us.

What might a listening and reflective culture look like and how would it operate? These are valid questions, which I am looking forward to discussing at the upcoming AIDEX conference in Brussels in November. In partnership with Dr. Addy Adelaine and Ladders4Action, we will be running the first of a series of workshops to be held in different locations in the Global North and Global South, on Compassionate and Inclusive Leadership. I’ll unpack those words:

Compassionate: strengthening our ability to feel our own emotions and listen to and be present with the emotional voices of others

Inclusive: more than just ‘diversity’ and having different faces at the table; it calls on us to recognise the underlying power dynamics at play and to create an environment where everyone feels welcome and respected.

Leadership: recognising that everyone is a potential leader, and that there is a collective responsibility to ensure equal opportunities to share knowledge, expertise and lived experience.

Compassionate and inclusive leadership therefore matters if we are to be more accountable as aid workers – towards each other and towards the communities we serve. I look forward to taking the conversation forward at AIDEX, and at further workshops we have planned in aid sector field locations.

For more details and to register for the AIDEX conference, click here

To register for our workshop at AIDEX, click here

The Quiet Unseen Struggles of Women Humanitarians

This year, the annual World Humanitarian Day is honouring the efforts of women humanitarians, particularly the unsung heroes who often receive little recognition for their commitment and hard work. This blog piece contributes to this celebration of women in our sector, by drawing on the stories of some of my African research participants in Kenya. They all believe passionately in what they do. Yet they also face challenges that are quite unique to them, as women; challenges that are often unseen and unappreciated in a sector that can feel very macho and, ironically given its purpose, lacking in emotional openness. All names have been changed.

‘You are a woman’ – this attitude is always in your face.

Clare is a Ugandan woman who was managing her organisation’s regional programme in northern Kenya when I met her in 2016. Her position as a manager, and as a woman, was difficult in a remote and impoverished environment where women were often given less respect than men. Clare struggled to access county government officials to discuss her NGO’s interventions in the area, and at times received inappropriate and flirtatious phone-calls and text messages following meetings with them. She also told me that the hot climate and basic living conditions made it particularly difficult for menstruating women travelling to the field, where toilet facilities often lack privacy and are unhygienic – in turn increasing the risk of urinary infections. Yet these sorts of problems could not be easily discussed in an office that was comprised largely of men. 

Not many men in Turkana would move with you, as you move as a lady looking in search of employment.

Jane is a Kenyan woman from Turkana county who used to work in Kakuma refugee camp. Jane worked long hours, often delivering several babies, sometimes simultaneously, in the course of a day. At the same time, her two young children were living with her in Kakuma town, whilst her husband remained in the family home a five hour road trip away. This situation was a big challenge for Jane; her youngest child cried a lot in her absence, when she was at work and the children were looked after by a locally hired nanny. But it was difficult for Jane to give up her job because she was supporting not only her children, but also some of her 8 siblings, as she was the only person in her family to acquire a proper education and employment.  Jane felt there was little sympathy by her employers towards her situation, and that it was far easier for men, or single women without families, to work in a refugee camp environment. She left Kakuma after one year and managed to find another job closer to home.

Being a mother has given me a reason to build a better world…it’s no longer just another job…there’s more value to it.

Janet is a Kenyan woman who has worked on humanitarian programmes in Kenya, Somalia and South Sudan. Janet felt there was a lack of sympathy and understanding towards women like her who were young mothers. On one occasion she was pressured by her manager to travel to Dadaab refugee camp in northeastern Kenya when she was heavily pregnant, and had to get there by road rather than air as she was in her final trimester and couldn’t fly. The route was long and bumpy and very uncomfortable for her. Janet gave birth prematurely, a day after she returned from the two-day trip to Dadaab. On another occasion, her (male) manager accused her of poor performance after she insisted she must leave the office early and not attend a meeting because her baby was very sick and needed to go to hospital.   

I keep going because giving up the job won’t stop the bombings

I talked to Yasmin over lunch when I ran a stress management workshop for Kenyan, Somali and European staff at an international NGO in Nairobi. At the workshop, the Somali staff discussed how being emotional was not seen as acceptable in their culture, partly because danger and hardship were part of everyday life and couldn’t be avoided. Yasmin, who lived and worked in Mogadishu, told me how she was struck by the fact that whenever a bombing occurred in the city, her international colleagues were on the first flight home. Yet she was risking her life each day on the road to her office, where armed attacks frequently took place. Some of her family members had lost limbs as a result of such attacks. Yasmin remained committed to her job, as a health worker for mothers and children, telling me that giving it up would not stop the dangers and risks of living there.

These are just a selection of stories from strong, determined women in the sector who are deeply committed to helping others and, in some cases, saving lives. As women from the global south, they do not always share the same limelight as their white expatriate colleagues from the global north; yet they continue to work in difficult conditions over long periods of time, struggling the most to prove themselves and be sufficiently recognised, supported and compensated in a sector whose working practices and environments often favour men. Many gender-related problems being addressed in humanitarian programmes are equally relevant to the staff working on those programmes.  Women often face less opportunities for career progression due to traditional gender norms concerning their family duties. Their childcare responsibilities are not seen as important – even though these surely should contribute to their humanitarian credentials – and are often viewed as a hindrance to the ‘real work’.  Women aid workers’ healthcare needs are often ignored, and there is little space to discuss them – particularly when working in male-dominated environments. And in war zones, it is largely women (and children) who are most at risk – including women aid workers.

It is time for humanitarian organisations to truly embody their values on gender equality, and recognise – and reward – the commitment of these unsung heroes, and provide better support and protection that enables them to continue with their work.

Stress and Burnout: Western concepts?

In a recent article for Open Democracy, I wrote that although increased awareness of mental health problems in the aid sector is encouraging, we have to be cautious that such problems aren’t confined solely to the white aid worker’s experience. I would like to build on that article by offering a few more examples from my doctoral research, to highlight the complexities of stress and wellbeing in the sector.

“I think they also don’t necessarily understand what it is, a lot of them. […] The first person I officially told was [my Congolese colleague]. […] I just basically in that conversation said I’m having a burnout, and he was like, ‘a what’? And I was like, ‘a burnout’ and he was like, ‘I have never heard of that, like what is that, I’ve never heard about it.”

This quote comes from a European woman who was suffering from a range of mental and physical health problems when I conducted my doctoral research in Kenya in 2015/16. After months of seeking help from different clinicians and therapists, she was told by one psychotherapist in Nairobi, also European, that her symptoms had the hallmarks of a ‘burnout’. This enabled her to negotiate extended sick leave with her employers at an international NGO with a regional office in Nairobi that covered multiple countries, including the one within her remit – the Democratic Republic of Congo.

Her Congolese colleague did not appear to have heard of this term, ‘burnout.’ I found this interesting as it resonated to some extent with what other aid workers from African countries had suggested to me: that stress, or stress-related conditions, weren’t really ‘a thing’ for them, in their societies. One Somali woman who was a diplomatic official said to me, when I told her about my research at a barbecue in Nairobi, “We don’t get stress in Africa. Stress is a western concept.” This was echoed by two Kenyan men working for a refugee organisation in Kakuma in northern Kenya, who told me that discussing stress, or seeking counselling for it, was “not so African,” with one of them admitting:

“To me it is a foreign concept. Not foreign but, er…it is not a concept instilled in me. As in at no one point can I tell someone ‘I’m stressed’ because I don’t really understand what stress means.”

Should we assume then that many aid workers in Africa don’t actually get stressed? This of course would not only be a sweeping generalisation, but also overlooks something more complex: how our social conditioning contributes to the way we conceptualise and respond to problems in our lives. In my thesis I argue that part of the reason why so many aid workers from western countries talk about, and claim, mental health problems is because we are used to pathologising our experiences in these societies: in seeking clinical explanations, and solutions, for our problems. Yet this pathologising does not occur all contexts, particularly when living in situations of acute impoverishment or conflict, where access to medical services is often limited.

Further examples from my research highlight this point. A group of aid workers I met from Somalia at a stress management workshop I facilitated in Nairobi told me about how they approached the everyday situations of violence and armed attacks in their neighbourhoods. They would often joke when they heard shootings or a bombing outside their office, that the popcorn was going off again. And one woman told me that she found it amusing how when these incidents occurred, her international colleagues visiting from Nairobi would often be on the first flight home; yet she is exposed to the risks of these attacks every day when she travels to work, and had family members who had lost limbs as a result of such incidents.

Referring to the regularity of armed attacks in Somalia, an Ethiopian aid worker who had lived and worked there for long periods, told me:

When that becomes every day a part of their life, if that happens every day, and the day after, for the last 25 years, at the end it becomes just a joke. The children in Mogadishu can tell you the sound of the gun, what gun that sound is… Is it from AK47? Is it from M16? Is it from Russian gun? Is it from American or Chinese gun? They can tell you the truth! So sometimes the concept of our western and…sort of, people who are not part of this mess, of stress and trauma and depression and that…is absolutely different when you talk to these guys who had that mess as part of their lives. I’m talking about the local aid workers as well…”

These remarks show us that stress may well be the part of everyday experience for some aid workers, in a way that doesn’t lead to pathologising but instead to finding ways to endure and carry on with life. National staff in particular do not have the same options to leave when the going gets tough, so they find ways of putting up with, and even making sense of, very challenging experiences. Religious faith played a big part in the lives of many of the Somali and Kenyan aid workers I met; it was the lens through which they made choices and took action in their lives, and through which they found meaning from suffering. As one Kenyan woman working for a development NGO told me:

My faith is more important now than anything else. Mostly because my faith helps me affirm my beliefs of who I am and what I’m capable of doing. Such that, as I step out, whether I’m stepping out or not, or as I face this matter, I face it with confidence.

There are two final, related, points to raise here. One is to acknowledge that these examples remain fairly general in their conceptualisations of stress; they are largely individualised, and don’t include the role of societal and organisational structures in framing human experience. That comes later in my thesis, where I discuss more how the expectations of one’s local community, and of one’s employers, result in the emotional lives of aid workers often being silenced or suppressed; and how a person’s gender, race or nationality all feed into how they experience their job and how they are treated in the workplace. (Other factors are of course also at play, such as social class and sexual orientation – but these issues did not arise so clearly in my research data.)

Secondly, recognising that some staff have their own ways of managing their hardships – for instance through their religious faith – does not let organisations off the hook. It is a problem within the aid sector, and more broadly within neoliberal societies, that self-care – whether it be prayer, breathing exercises or fitness classes – is seen as the panacea for all societal ills. When this attitude is taken, and when staff are encouraged to engage more with self-care practices, the structural and systemic problems within the aid sector remain intact, and it is simply business as usual. Stress, burnout, trauma – whatever we want to call these conditions – are structural, not just individual, problems requiring a collective response. I’ll end here with a passage from a manual I highly recommend for organisations seeking to understand what we mean by ‘trauma’ in African societies. In it, a Ugandan woman managing a women’s organisation, provides this insight:

I asked women in Samia, my own language: “what is trauma?” They described it as obuchuuni – a word you could translate as ‘pain’. In their explanation, pain meant discrimination, marginalization, denial of belonging, illness. All this caused them this invisible pain that affected their minds and body. That enabled me to start seeing how we could respond as an organization and start to deal with pain in their bodies, minds and spirits.

From: (Re)Conceptualizing Trauma: An AIR Convening (2014)

On Ending Chapters and Starting New Ones

Wait, what just happened? Aid workers who are reading this, how often have you had this feeling after returning from field work, or completing an intense and all-consuming job? That feeling that something that gave you purpose, that helped to define your life for much of the time, has come to an end…..and now you have entered the void, the unknown. Not entirely sure what comes next, and too tired and discombobulated to move in any meaningful direction.

I’ve been there before. And to some extent I am there now, although not because of any humanitarian activity. Just a few weeks ago I submitted the final final, this-is-truly-it (I think) version of my Phd thesis, entitled The Vulnerable Humanitarian: Discourses of Stress and Meaning-Making Among Aid Workers in Kenya. I say ‘final-final’ because what no one tells you when embarking on a Phd is that a good few months are spent producing what you assume to be the final draft of your thesis, only to go through a prolonged process of revisions following what is supposedly the pinnacle of your efforts: the viva, or oral examination where you defend what you have written. This means that ending the Phd often lacks finality, or closure. It is hard to be sure where the end-point actually lies: when you submit your thesis for review by your examiners, when you have the viva, when you submit the corrections suggested by your examiners, or when they approve your corrections (I’m still waiting for this last part). And during this time we are left in limbo, wondering what has just happened and what is ahead of us.

Back to the parallels with aid workers, and the re-entry into ‘normal life’.  Particularly when you are not sure of what you want to do next, or you are hoping for an adjustment in career aspirations or work-life balance but are not quite sure yet what that means – and I know there are many aid workers out there having this experience – there follows a period of uncertainty, and possibly panic. And the human instinct often appears to be one of FOMO, the fear of missing out, or of failure, if we allow ourselves to stop for just one minute and take a breath from our life aspirations.

The problem also for those of us who are taking the route of addressing wellbeing in the aid sector, the success of such initiatives largely depends on us being able to commodify what we believe is vital to this industry; to prove to aid organisations that it makes financial sense to look after staff. Many of us need to be self-starters, good at networking and with the right jargon and tactics to access, and persuade, the sector’s managers and gatekeepers. Although recent events, including the suicides of two members of staff at Amnesty International and the allegations of sexual harassment in various organisations has shone a light on wellbeing in the sector, these issues are largely still not a priority when resources are scarce and the needs of populations in war zones and disaster areas ever-greater. It thus remains a huge effort to make ourselves heard in a sector that largely wants to maintain the status quo of pushing staff beyond their capacities until they can no longer function, and who are easily dispensed of because some other idealist can easily take their place.

Individual and collective wellbeing in the aid sector nevertheless remains my passion, after having spent over four years studying stress among aid workers in Kenya, and having worked in many organisations where lack of attention to staff care has had negative implications for my health and the health of my colleagues. So although I’m in the transition phase of finishing my Phd, waking each day with some inertia and indeed some emotion as I let go of this last chapter of my life, I also know there is much work to be done in challenging organisational cultures and practices that not only damage staff but the very humanitarian ethos and caring aspirations of the aid sector. I am thus striking a delicate balance between resting, enjoying a life that goes beyond the mental angst and solitude of academia, and of connecting my ideas and values with meaningful action.

In the next few weeks, as I gather my own inner resources for the struggles ahead (because challenging the injustices and mental and emotional health implications of the aid system’s patriarchal and colonial structure is a struggle) I will also be sharing some of what I have learned in the last few years. At my university, Sussex, with support from Project U-DOC I am facilitating a series of workshops on the mental health and wellbeing of doctoral researchers in June and July. These will take an intersectional approach that recognises that wellbeing is a collective, not just an individual, endeavour that cannot be seen in isolation from, or merely as an add-on to, problematic systems of power and hierarchy.  

In the aid sector, I will be writing regular updates on humanitarian health and wellbeing for the Professionals in Humanitarian Assistance and Protection network (PHAP); with the first one likely to address the findings of Amnesty International’s Wellbeing Review and upcoming initiatives arising out of the Healing Solidarity conference in September last year, including a new online platform you can join.

And, finally, at long last – I will get to work on sharing my research findings more widely, via this blog site and other channels. This includes the publication of an article for Gender and Development in June/July, which addresses power and privilege in the aid sector and the gendered and racialised problems of stress among my research participants in Kenya.

So please do watch this space and I look forward to sharing ideas and getting your feedback in the months ahead!

Lessons and Reflections on Healing Solidarity

The perils of projectisation, how we embody our activism and push for a right to rest, what it means to truly listen and meet the other person where they are, challenging masculine behaviour and discourse in aid; these were just some of the many conversations taking place at the Healing Solidarity conference last week. This was a free online conference – organised and hosted with immense focus, presence and grace by Mary Ann Clements – that brought together over 1500 aid and development practitioners and activists to discuss how our sector could be reimagined and redefined. It was deeply enriching, diverse and thought-provoking; with the speakers drawing on their knowledge as social justice organisers, facilitators, African feminists, communications experts and academics to challenge our assumptions and encourage a reflection on our identities as change-makers. I was honoured to be one of the speakers, discussing a couple of ideas from my thesis – of the racialised and gendered elements of being the ‘perfect humanitarian’ in the popular imagination; and the problems this raises, and reinforces, with regard to mental health and wellbeing and the distinctions between male and female, and national and international, aid workers.

What I would like to present here are some of the themes that emerged from the conference. There is no way I can do this justice, or give due attention to all those who contributed to the conference, since I was offline for half of it and unable to listen to all 22 speakers. Although I intend to get through them all at some point, I feel drawn to writing some reflections now on the discussions I participated in. Perhaps this will also encourage those of you who were unable to participate to go to the Healing Solidarity website, where you can download the talks by making a modest financial contribution – I believe it is well worth it!

For ease of accessibility, and as a way to collect my thoughts, the themes are divided into headers below.

The problems of projectisition in development. This came up a lot, for instance in talks given by Jennifer Lentfer, Nomvula Dlamini and Kate Werning. Our tendency to set unrealistic goals and timeframes in our work is part of an aid paradigm focused on control and getting things done, which pays little attention to the small, incremental and meaningful changes being made in local contexts. The issues that affect people day-to-day, including gender inequality, have become projectised; yet building just societies cannot be based on projects alone. There is not enough time given to pausing and recognising each other’s efforts, resulting in, as Nomvula Dlamini put it, ‘busyness’ at the expense of the relationships that connect us. We were encouraged in Kate Werning’s discussions to ask ourselves, “What would you do differently if you knew your work was going to take 10 years or 100 years?” The point being, that it is worthwhile figuring out where we can slow down in our work, act more from the heart and look after each other and ourselves in the process.

Shifting the lens of power and expertise. There were so many discussions around this theme, with participants considering questions such as: How can those with power in the northern hemisphere use their voices differently? Can we change the language of aid so that terms such as ‘expertise’ or ‘global north/global south’ are either done away with altogether or reclaimed and redefined by communities in the south whose embodied knowledge is too regularly overlooked or silenced? How can we include alternative perspectives in development decision-making that has hitherto largely been the domain of white men and women? Some suggestions made in response to these problems included Deborah Doane’s advice to look at our governance models – the influence of government donors, the extent to which board members are representative of people we’re working on behalf of – and to avoid taking up country director posts in field locations in the south. Angela Bruce-Raeburn echoed this by encouraging white aid workers to observe who is at the leadership table; who are we not paying attention to and what are we not hearing? She also pushed for more solid and consistent relationship building between headquarters and local offices, where knowledge that is generated should start from the local level and where there are feedback loops to ensure the information collected from there is correct. This is particularly important now as aid agencies consider the response to sexual harassment and abuse claims in the sector and how to implement safeguarding measures. Marion Osieyo believed that we need to be asking more questions, to push back on assumptions that we know better than local people in the contexts in which we work, and to develop partnerships which encourage collective thinking and decision-making.

Getting comfortable with being wrong and not knowing. This too was about power and agency, and was discussed by Angela Bruce-Raeburn, Lisa VeneKlasen, Jennifer Lentfer and Marion Osieyo among others. As aid practitioners we must acknowledge our complicity both in the colonial structures and systems of oppression that foreshadowed the aid paradigm, and in the sector’s continuing inequalities and power imbalances. Angela Bruce-Raeburn argued that humility was essential; after hundreds of years of devastation and oppression in countries receiving aid, we cannot expect to fix things on a one-week mission, and we must understand that for many people living in these countries this is a lifetime of struggle.   Jennifer Lentfer believed that as white aid workers we must learn to shut up and not think our idea is the idea in our organisations; we have to listen to others and be willing to feel uncomfortable with what we hear. Marion Osieyo suggested that curiosity is very important; we should never assume we understand a situation as these assumptions may have negative implications for the people with whom we are working.

Care for self, care for the other. What I feel was so important about this conference was that it linked these big, thorny issues of power, agency and resourcing within the sector with our individual stories; what motivates us, what brings us hope, and what exhausts and silences us. Too often we view issues of oppression or violence as ‘out there’; issues that do not directly affect us but are relevant to the communities with whom we work. Jessica Horn’s discussion reminded us that our own embodied histories are important; when we open up the space to acknowledge our own suffering then we may generate greater solidarity with others. This has been particularly relevant for the African feminist movement, whose members have been affected by violence and oppressive systems of power. But many of the speakers highlighted that our personal stories say a lot about both our privilege and our vulnerabilities, and we should be reflecting on this more in order to create a culture shift in the workplace; from one that is highly macho and dominated by ‘cowboys’ to one that values rest, reflection and compassion. For Marion Osieyo, this entails merging the inner and outer life; developing practices in our lives that connect our sense of self with the world around us, and which help us turn towards ourselves in order to turn more fully to our work. When we push this kind of reflection away, we risk acting from a place that is far from the heart, and which may do more harm than good to ourselves and others. Kate Werning suggested we consider questions such as ‘Why are we here? What draws us to the work? What’s in it for us?’ in order to encourage an organisational culture that shows that wellbeing is central to our success.  And Lisa VeneKlasen provided fresh insights into power and how our own shame, insecurities and imperfections can help empower us, connect with others and build more positive, equal models of development.

The message from these speakers was very pure and clear: we must bring more joy and love into the aid and development sector if we are to challenge and transform it. There were some wonderful grounding techniques led by Agnes Otzelberger and Mary Ann Clements among others (sorry I couldn’t get to them all!) that helped put this principle into practice, and which we can use in our day-to-day lives to help us connect with ourselves and others. All in all, there was so much to take away from this conference; to work with in ourselves, and in our communities and organisations. As Mary Ann Clements pointed out in her closing remarks at the end of the conference, space has opened up for us to challenge situations of patriarchy and racism in our sector. In this regard, I believe healing solidarity means three things: recognising our own positioning within these situations, recognising where other people are at with regard to understanding the problems, and being willing to meet them and ourselves on this trajectory with compassion and the belief that we all have a role to play in creating more positive models of development and power.

Healing Solidarity and what’s to come on Life in Crisis

Today I am providing a quick update on my work on stress in the aid sector, and news of an exciting, inspiring and innovative conference coming up next week, which everyone can join and participate in!

These last few weeks I’ve reached that point that many doctoral researchers will be familiar with; where the Phd truly takes over and ‘normal life’ grinds to a halt. The good news is that I’m in the finishing stages, and I’m really looking forward to sharing my findings with aid practitioners and people who are interested in engaging further in debates concerning stress and wellbeing in the aid sector.

In the weeks and months ahead I will be publishing some key reflections and findings emerging from my thesis on my blog site. I will be looking at far more than simply the common stressors in the sector, such as the challenges of living in remote or dangerous environments, and considering how aid structures, systems and policies contribute to particular expectations around how staff should behave. The thesis includes a host of personalities from my research in Kenya, who are not simply ‘aid workers’ but human beings with a diversity of experiences, hopes, desires, fears and insecurities. My interest is in highlighting how there are particular assumptions made about what constitutes ‘good’ aid work (heroism and altruism are terms I investigate and deconstruct), and these often leave out the personal lives and vulnerabilities of staff, in racialised and gendered ways. There will be a focus on the inequalities that exist between national and international staff, but also the specific challenges facing, for instance, national women aid workers or African expatriates working in Kenya.

For those who want to learn more right now, before I start publishing some thesis extracts, you have a wonderful opportunity through the Healing Solidarity conference, organised by development practitioner, facilitator and coach Mary Ann Clements. This is a free, online conference running throughout next week, 17-21 September, and featuring a host of speakers from the development sector.

Topics up for discussion include neo-colonial structures of power in aid, bringing humanity back into aid interactions, how to transfer decision-making capacities and resources to grassroots groups, and building sustainable ways of working that address individual and organisational wellbeing. Building on my research findings I will be discussing how western public messaging, as well as aid agency policies and systems, contribute to an idealised image of what constitutes the ‘perfect humanitarian.’This imagery produces expectations and pressures that are difficult to live up to, particularly for aid workers from countries in the global south who do not have the same privileges as their counterparts from Europe or America. You can see a sneak preview here:

We cannot talk about stress and wellbeing in the aid sector without acknowledging the role of aid organisations, systems and structures in shaping the way staff behave and restricting the spaces and opportunities for discussion around personal problems and vulnerabilities.

Please do join us for the conference! Sign up and join the Facebook page to get all the details. Each day from 17-21 September there will be 3-4 discussions with different speakers, which you will be able to comment on via the Facebook page, and there will also be daily live reflective practices that you can join. The full details of the schedule can be found here. This is going to be a great opportunity to interact with development practitioners, experts and activists who are trying to reformulate the way we envisage and deliver aid in ways that foster a more inclusive and equitable workplace and environment. I’m so excited to be part of this conference and look forward to listening to all the incredible speakers!

The Moral Flaws of the Do-Gooder

I have written fairly extensively on the moral dimensions of aid work and how what is ‘good’ or ‘bad’, in terms of aidworker motivations, is not as clear cut as often assumed (examples here and here). I would like to return to this issue in light of recent reports of sexual misconduct at Medecins Sans Frontieres (MSF). These reports of course come on the back of many others over the past several months, which have exposed the entire sector to widespread condemnation.

Why such outrage? This is a question asked by many, given the fact we all know sexual harassment exists in every workplace, and use of sex workers is pervasive no matter the country context or the profession of the person who hires them. Abuse is abuse is abuse (and here I’m putting aside for now the debate as to whether sex work is a form of abuse). So should we be judging aid workers any more than other perpetrators?

The answer, I believe, is yes and no. Yes, because aid workers have a moral responsibility that comes with the job; their own ideals (at least for most of them, at some point) and the mission of their organisations emphasise being of service to, and reducing suffering of, vulnerable people. Institutional codes of conduct reinforce staff’s status as aid giver, in terms of how they interact with affected populations and avoid overstepping ethical boundaries. The entire aid sector is built upon moral authority, guided by well established humanitarian principles and human rights standards.

So yes, abuse by an aid worker is different from abuse by someone, for instance, from the corporate sector. Whilst both must be held to account, the bar is set higher with aid workers because of the nature of what they do. So outrage is likely to be more vocal in these instances, as are calls for the sector to reform.

And yet….is this assumed moral authority actually realistic in practice? The problem with arguing that all aid workers must act morally, all the time, is that it forgets that not every decision made or action taken by people in the sector is guided by purely moral, altruistic intentions. The image of the selfless, heroic aid worker unfortunately continues to dominate in the minds of the general public – at least in the western, aid giving world – even if it is regularly debunked by aid workers themselves. The reality of aid work is often far from actions guided purely by self-sacrifice. People go in to aid work for a variety of reasons, as my own research in Kenya has revealed, and motivations may change over time. To paraphrase some of my informants, motivations can include wanting an adventure in unfamiliar cultures (Italian woman), wishing to help others overcome what they themselves had overcome (Ugandan woman), and wanting a stable income to support their family (several Kenyans, men and women). Whilst these sorts of motivations may seem to have nothing to do with aid workers committing sexual abuse, what these examples highlight is that the squeaky clean image of the heroic, selfless aid worker is deeply flawed.

There are also other advantages that come with being an aid worker, particularly as an expatriate, ranging from living allowances to the use of a comfortable, air conditioned four wheel drive to a house and domestic staff that would not be affordable back home. Do these material gains make aid workers morally reprehensible?

I have written elsewhere that these benefits can at times breed a sense of exceptionalism, whereby some aid workers abuse their privileges because they can; because, in fact, aid structures and policies protect them from getting found out. In disaster areas in particular, the ubiquitous humanitarian compound may, arguably, serve to protect aid workers from security threats; yet at the same time, it increases the spatial and social distance between themselves and the communities they are there to serve. In these environments, socio-economic differences and power imbalances become even more pronounced; and it is within these contexts that many of the abuses currently being reported have occurred.

I am not trying to suggest that sexual abuse and exploitation is somehow excusable on the grounds that “even aid workers have their flaws.” But what I am wishing to demonstrate is that whilst aid organisations continue to peddle an unrealistic image of what ‘do-gooders’ are, this creates a working culture where anyone who tries to challenge this image by calling out abuse is silenced. Ultimately, the outrage is likely to be far greater in a sector whose public image is largely above moral reproach.

As one contributor at a conference I recently attended rightly said, if you put yourself on a pedestal, you have a greater distance to fall.

#AidToo – What Now and What Next?

What problems do we face with mapping a way forward in the current crisis affecting the aid sector? This was one of the issues we were tackling yesterday at a timely and engaging conference – Civil Society Under Attack – attended by practitioners and academics, and organised by Angela Crack at the University of Portsmouth.

Things have gone a bit quiet lately – at least in the media – regarding #AidToo, and the allegations of sexual abuse and exploitation in the aid sector. Although the odd damning revelation or piece of news emerges every so often, such as the recent resignation of the Chair of Save the Children, Alan Parker, amid an investigation into staff misconduct by the Charity Commission. Meanwhile, the Parliamentary International Development Select Committee has been hearing evidence from expert witnesses who have been involved in bringing some of the stories of abuse in to the public domain. And aid agencies have made a public commitment to creating and improving policies and mechanisms aimed at ensuring the prevention of, and accountability for, any forms of abuse or harassment. Under the umbrella of Bond, working groups have been formed by different agencies to take action on five commitments made following the Safeguarding Summit organised by Dfid in March: namely, accountability to beneficiaries and survivors; a step change in shifting organisational culture; safeguards throughout the employment cycle; rigorous reporting and complaints mechanisms; ensuring that concerns are heard and acted upon. Proposed solutions to these areas are to be presented at a Dfid safeguarding conference in October this year.

These are monumental tasks, given the need to ensure any new policies and working practices must trickle down to field offices around the world, requiring extensive training and awareness raising among managers, staff and local populations receiving aid. In the meantime, abuses continue. Perpetrators remain in their positions. And survivors of abuse, and whistleblowers, struggle with the ramifications of speaking up. Many of us in the aid sector know of people who have bravely spoken up about sexual harassment and abuse, and are now being bullied, threatened or isolated in their organisation as a result. And of others who are too scared to speak up for fear of losing their jobs. These problems point to an enduring organisational culture where little space is allowed to express fears or vulnerabilities; where some forms of abuse are brushed aside and dismissed as being ‘part of the job’, or where showing one’s personal self – as opposed to a go-getting, work-all-hours professional one – is seen as a sign of weakness.

What are the causes and symptoms of this macho working culture? This was one question we were discussing in yesterday’s conference. The culture comes from a flawed image of the aid sector: where aid work is glorified in the public domain, and aid organisations peddle an image through their publicity materials of the selfless, squeaky clean aid worker helping the poor powerless other in a bid to attract funds. Whilst aid organisations and aid workers are put on a pedestal, it makes it harder to expose those who are far from squeaky clean. The eventual, but many would argue long overdue, demise of Justin Forsyth and Brendan Cox are classic examples. The risk to an organisation’s reputation – and the implications for funding which provides urgent assistance to thousands of people – ultimately outweigh taking action on what has been mistakenly construed as ‘a few bad eggs’ in the system. To reduce the #AidToo crisis to a few uncouth individuals is to suggest that sexual harassment, in all its forms, is not a systemic problem; a claim that is entirely undermined by the stories of survivors that have been documented by Report the Abuse and others.

The fear of the consequences to the aid sector if more revelations come to light is in some ways understandable, as we acknowledged yesterday; such revelations, particularly regarding abuse of aid recipients – which could become ever more regular if better safeguarding mechanisms are indeed put in place – are at risk of politicisation by the anti-aid camp. They can be used as the justification to withdraw funding altogether from aid agencies who are delivering vital assistance to communities recovering from natural or man-made disaster. More robust safeguarding measures are a good thing, but they could (and should) lead to more complaints from survivors of sexual abuse – thus further tarnishing the protected reputation of aid agencies.

In light of these possibilities, as was admirably suggested by one of the speakers yesterday, we have to consider what we actually want to happen for the aid sector to rebuild itself in an image that stays true to its proclaimed values. We have to avoid merely focusing on all that has gone bad within the sector, and ask ourselves, what does good look like?

This is a challenging question, and one that cannot simply be answered through a one-size-fits all approach. The establishment of a sector-wide ombudsman – one of the possibilities being discussed at the Parliamentary Select Committee hearings – may be worthy of consideration, but is not sufficient to address the pervasive cultural and structural problems to which everyone plays their part. These problems include gender inequality, where the more senior positions and top-level decision-making concerning vulnerable aid recipient populations are still dominated by men. They include the macho culture to which I’ve already referred, where bullying managers (both male and female) expect their staff to do as they do and work all hours and through the weekend; and where staff themselves try to prove their worth through ever riskier emergency deployments, often at the cost of their mental health. And they include aid structures which perpetuate further inequalities between international and national staff, and between aid giver and aid receiver; where aid workers are increasingly cut off from the populations they assist, through securitised compounds and vehicles which send out a very clear signal to local populations of the sector’s belief in its authority and exceptionalism.

Changing this culture requires self-reflection on the part of all aid workers, both managers and staff. It requires open and honest discussions about personal and institutional responsibilities in addressing inequality in the system. And leadership that is willing to create listening spaces for staff; where what happens in the office is not solely about maintaining the public image of do-gooders that get results, but about acknowledging the vulnerabilities and limitations of being human. We need to be talking to each other more, supporting each other and seeing the value in human relations as part of the humanitarian agenda; how we relate to each other as colleagues and how we relate to the people we are wishing to help. Inner reflection, plus honest discussions within and across organisations, are a starting point to transcending some of the power imbalances inherent in the aid system and encouraging a joint, inclusive, vision of what a ‘good’ working environment within the sector could be.

 

 

 

 

 

Life on Humanitarian Compounds is Removed from Reality – this can Fuel the Misconduct of Aid Workers

My article for the Conversation – addressing a much needed debate on the power imbalances and permissiveness within aid environments.

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The power imbalance in aid work is under the spotlight.
from www.shutterstock.com

Gemma Houldey, University of Sussex

Sexual harassment, exploitation or abuse – some of which reportedly occurred at Oxfam in Haiti and has involved staff at other aid agencies elsewhere – is never excusable. But the backdrop in which these sorts of acts occur is key to understanding the misconduct of some aid workers.

My experiences at a refugee camp in Kenya – where I travelled in 2016 to research stress and burnout among aid workers – provides some helpful insights. The camp is regarded by aid agencies as a “non-family duty station”. These are areas deemed too unsafe or inhospitable for staff to bring their partners or families. Aid workers there were therefore living there on their own, despite – in the case of the Kenyans I met – some being married with children.

Those with families living elsewhere could only travel to see them during the rest and recuperation period of about a week which happens every couple of months and is common in most humanitarian operations.

Most aid workers spend the majority of their time in the secure and gated compounds that border the refugee camp, residing in small air-conditioned prefabs or shabby guesthouse rooms. During working hours, if they are not in the camp, they are in their office on the compound, usually located within metres of their sleeping quarters. An aid worker’s social life is usually largely confined to this compound. Interaction with the local or refugee population is restricted to working hours and there are rules and regulations that discourage any type of friendship or relationship beyond providing aid and assistance.

This type of arrangement has its benefits and disadvantages. There is a sense of collegiality and mutual support among aid agency staff – although I also found Kenyans and expatriates often socialised separately. Friendships between aid workers develop quickly and are intense, driven by shared, exhilarating and at times dangerous experiences that transcend their more ordinary life back home. While the realities of the refugee camp itself may be harsh and upsetting to witness, the humanitarian compound provides a safe haven to escape to at the end of the day. It is a site for both work and play.

Cut off from normal life

The policies and culture of aid agencies mean that close working relationships and immersion in the humanitarian mission often come at the expense of a normal private life. The ability to find, or maintain, a long-term relationship was a challenge acknowledged by several Kenyan and international aid workers I spoke to. One aid worker, from another African country, told me:

When you come to a place like (this) you have been removed from your place, your normal life, where you had a life and probably where a relationship would have developed because that is where you know people, you have friends … I don’t deny that you could meet someone here. But in a way this never feels like home, for you to build something.

These emergency situations, where humanitarian workers are brought together under unusual and immensely challenging conditions, at times create a culture where anything goes – and the norms and etiquette found back home no longer apply. Some of my informants referred to prostitutes being used by aid agency staff. And they also mentioned the affairs they witnessed among colleagues.

A female Kenyan aid worker described it to me:

Here, people do … it’s said in kiSwahili, ‘helping one another’. There’s nowhere we are going, but just for that comfort, for that companionship. But when you’re out of this place, at the airport, we don’t know one another.

A Kenyan man told me that he’d seen many marriages break up due to colleagues having affairs. He believed that some aid workers see the compound lifestyle as an opportunity to “indulge” in “excesses”, including all-night partying and drinking, even when they are expected at work the next day.

Power imbalance

There is little opportunity for aid workers to engage with the local population in a way that goes beyond a client-provider relationship. As the reports of the Oxfam case and others show, this runs the risk of an existing power imbalance being manipulated to fulfil the whims and desires of the aid giver. In such a context, the victim or survivor has no voice or means to hold the person in power to account.

This working environment is a problem for two reasons. First, aid agency regulations against bringing a spouse or children to the field may well be justified, but currently there is a pervasive institutional culture that allows for casual intimacy elsewhere, without repercussions. Second, the structural separation that exists between aid workers and their beneficiaries entrenches a power imbalance that can be – and is on occasion – abused.

Aid agencies must ensure codes of conduct are fully implemented and monitored. And there must also be better leadership and management, both in the field and at headquarters, to ensure staff are fully vetted, trained and prepared pre-deployment, and that they receive the social and professional support they need. This may include peer-to-peer mentoring and the existence of confidential, possibly independent, systems where abuse or traumatic experiences can be reported. One idea would be to create a professional body to support and protect aid workers.

The ConversationIt is also crucial that both aid agency managers and staff foster a new working culture, with zero tolerance for impunity and where both aid workers and the people they serve are able to speak up and be heard on the abuses they witness or experience.

Gemma Houldey, PhD Researcher, Development Studies, University of Sussex

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

The Oxfam scandal: Let’s not forget the bigger picture

The media is currently ablaze with reports and commentary about allegations of sexual misconduct and impunity at Oxfam and elsewhere. And government officials are taking this opportunity to give the entire aid sector a bad name; suggesting that sexual abuse is an institutional problem that requires a dramatic and uncompromising response, such as cutting foreign aid.

OK, so ever since the #MeToo campaign got going, multiple industries – including the aid sector – have been speaking up on sexual harassment and impunity within its ranks. Oxfam is not the first to be exposed; only last month there were reports of the sexual abuse of staff members from UNHCR. Organisations such as Report the Abuse (now dissolved because of lack of funding) and Feinstein Center also documented hundreds of cases of aid workers being harassed and assaulted, either by colleagues, professional associates or people from the local community where they worked.

Does this make sexual harassment rife in the sector? It is true that most aid workers have a story to tell – about witnessing, or falling victim to, sexual harassment of one sort or another. This includes knowing of colleagues who use prostitutes from the local community whilst working in the field – a claim made by some of my own informants in Kenya. But we have to be careful about the language we are using here when describing how the aid sector operates, and who should be blamed for allowing sexual abuse to occur. With some government ministers now threatening to withdraw funding from Oxfam and other aid agencies, there is the real risk that organisations such as Oxfam are subject to a form of collective punishment due to the behaviour of a very small percentage of people, from an organisation of over 5000 staff whose aid interventions reach an estimated 11.6 million people globally.

It is important instead to consider what needs to happen next. I myself do not have all the answers to this, and I know from discussions currently happening among aid practitioners that this debate continues to roll on. However I would say that we have to see the bigger picture of why incidents such as the ones reported at Oxfam are happening. Institutional pedophilia, as the right wing tabloids would like to suggest? No – the bigger issue here is lack of proper accountability structures and codes of conduct, which are fully understood, respected and implemented by all staff in any aid organisation. As discussed in one of my previous blog posts, impunity occurs in many forms; whether we are talking about sexual harassment or misconduct, staff bullying, or aid worker safety and security. In my own research on stress and burnout among aid workers in Kenya, it has become clear that many people will not speak up about mental health problems – which are often as a result of malpractice, negligence or unfair treatment in the workplace – for fear of losing their jobs. And in my experience as an aid worker, I’ve seen that people don’t speak up on some of the other problems listed above because there is increasing cynicism; the belief that there is no reliable person to report to, and no real commitment to address these problems in a professional and sensitive manner.

Without the existence of a safe space, and a working culture, that encourages disclosure of malpractice and abuse, policies and codes of conduct are meaningless. In this respect, everyone in the aid sector – from field staff to managers – has a responsibility to create a listening environment; one where people feel they are heard if they wish to discuss a personal issue that goes beyond fulfilling their organisation’s commitment to the populations they serve.

In addition, on a more formal level, there needs to be better training, preparation and post-deployment debriefing that seeks to support aid workers throughout the course of their work. This is particularly important in field offices, and even more so for national aid workers; because we should not forget that they are the ones who are most likely to be the victims of violence in the course of their work, and at the same time have less capacity – due to their professional status and the limited bargaining power they hold – to respond to or prevent such incidents from occurring.

In short, the Oxfam scandal raises important issues regarding the ways in which large aid agencies can become more accountable, and how to ensure all their staff act in accordance with the humanitarian values their organisations are promoting. Collective punishment is not the answer; if anything, there needs to be a serious and committed discussion among donors and agencies about earmarking funds to provide better internal monitoring, support and reporting systems for staff. This would go a long way in showing appreciation towards the efforts of thousands of aid workers who are just getting on with their jobs as best they can despite the institutional injustices they witness and experience; and would also work towards avoiding a repeat of the misconduct reported at Oxfam and elsewhere.