Monthly Archives: September 2015

How to be Vulnerable in Research and Aid Work

I’ve been thinking a lot about vulnerability lately, as I spend the first days in Nairobi figuring out what I’m really doing here and how I should spend my time.

Whilst I’m here with a purpose – to conduct field research on stress and burnout in the aid sector – the actual reality of what this entails for me as a doctoral researcher, with no person or organisation here to guide me, is hard to grasp. I’ve come here alone and it is only I who can make my time here successful. When a doctoral researcher arrives to conduct their field research, there is no great fanfare or welcoming party, nor a fixed agenda with specific deadlines. We simply have to get on with it, whatever ‘it’ may be.

For me this has meant setting up several meetings and networking with aid workers. This side of things is in itself a bit nerve-wracking; working out when it is I’m being a researcher and when it is I’m just being ‘me’ – a new arrival to Nairobi (although I have the advantage of having lived here before), who is genuinely wanting to meet people and make friends.

The challenge I’m describing will be familiar to anyone doing ‘insider research’ – in other words, researching one’s own social or professional community. Putting aside the debate as to whether any researcher, given their status, can ever truly be an insider, I do think having experience in the community one is researching brings its own dilemmas and difficulties. We do not want to appear a fraud in our relationships with research participants, and the chances are as an insider we are sympathetic towards their cause. Yet at the same time we are aware of the ulterior motives that often lie behind each interaction with individuals who may be both friends or colleagues and potential informants. This becomes even more problematic if informants who we have a relationship with outside the research open up emotionally in an interview in a way they haven’t done in normal friendship conversations. How do we respond? As a researcher or as a friend or confidant?

This potential challenge in my research highlights how vulnerability is at the heart of the interaction between researcher and informant, and none more so than in my chosen study topic. I do suspect that for some aid workers, who operate in an organisational culture that discourages the display of too much raw emotion, speaking to a researcher about their feelings may be easier than revealing them to their friends or colleagues. Many aid workers avoid showing their emotional discomfort when assisting poor or war-affected populations or documenting human rights abuses. To do so seems inappropriate in the face of far greater human suffering. And in this way vulnerability is repeatedly pushed aside and denied. This denial becomes so commonplace that it can at times seep into friendship interactions as well, so that when asked how you feel about the work you are doing it is difficult to articulate in a genuine, emotional way.

Being vulnerable is difficult for everybody, not just aid workers. As Brené Brown, vulnerability ‘expert’ says,

The difficult thing is that vulnerability is the first thing I look for in you and the last thing I’m willing to show you. In you, it’s courage and daring. In me, it’s weakness.

And it’s difficult for researchers too. Like aid workers, researchers feel they must maintain a level of professionalism that hides vulnerabilities such as self-doubt and guilt over not ever doing ‘enough’, over not meeting our own expectations or those of our informants.

I have a growing belief that recognising and working with these vulnerabilities rather than pushing them aside has value both for aid work and the Phd research process. Staying with our emotions as they arise can help us gain insight into the emotional behaviour of others. Mindfulness, which I discussed in more detail in another blog post, is one tool with which to practise this emotional presence and awareness. Through mindfulness we can observe without judgement our emotions as they come and go in the present moment. By recognising our own suffering, we become more in tune with and compassionate about the suffering of others – whether these are friends, colleagues, research informants or populations being assisted by aid workers. At the same time, acknowledging emotions as they arise through the practice of mindfulness may be an important way of developing resilience in the field, as an aid worker or as a researcher.

Being emotionally engaged – and vulnerable – can deepen researchers’ understanding of themselves, including their status and position in relation to those they are researching. For researchers of development and aid, this level of emotional awareness may enrich their insights into the hopes, passions and desire for justice that underscore much aid practice. It is these same emotional states that are often the drivers for academic research and which should be integral to understanding how data is collected, generated and ultimately used for constructive ends.

Stress in the Aid Sector: Who Suffers Most and Why?

Something in my heart snaps. My hands tremble and my eyes burn. For the first time since arriving here I cry. I cry for the dead boy buried in the cornfield. I cry for the hungry man beaten by the police. I cry for the little boy whose hopes of living with family have been shattered. I cry for the woman who will never recover from the wounds inflicted by her husband…

Miranda Gaanderse, relief worker in Rwamanja refugee camp, south-western Uganda (from Chasing Misery, ed. Kelsey Hoppe, 2014).

Why do some aid workers suffer from stress more than others? How do they cope with their emotional difficulties and what does this tell us about who they are and why they are doing this work? These are some of the questions I will be considering as I conduct field research in Kenya for my doctorate.

My research is inspired by my own experiences and those of my colleagues in the aid sector. Having worked in many different roles and in a variety of contexts – from villages at risk of demolition by Israeli authorities in the West Bank, to communities recovering from conflict and the tsunami in Sri Lanka – I’ve realised that stress and burnout is more complicated in this sector than one may originally assume. It is not merely the consequence of working in emergency or crisis situations, nor is it solely related to insufficient institutional support or the difficulties of working in unfamiliar settings, far away from family and friends. As mentioned in a previous blog piece there is a wealth of literature addressing the possible causes and symptoms of stress and burnout. However, whether it be in academic literature or in NGO/aid agency policy papers, we are told little about who it is specifically that suffers from stress and why. In particular I have found that there is an emphasis on the experiences of people operating in emergency settings – primarily relief workers – and on expats; with little attention paid to the reality that stress and burnout are also problems for other types of aid workers – such as development professionals or human rights activists, and nationals operating in their own countries.

The fact that there are so few studies about national aid workers is of particular concern, given that they make up approximately 90 per cent of the workforce.  They are often at the most risk from the work they do, due to their social proximity to the victims and perpetrators of human rights abuses and the state authorities responsible for addressing such abuses. They are also usually on lower salaries, with less benefits than their expatriate counterparts. They cannot simply leave the country when times get tough, nor do they have the same luxuries as many of their expat colleagues in terms of living arrangements and housing allowances.

Recent, and now increasing, reports of female aid workers being sexually harassed whilst on the job also highlights that women are at times faced with specific challenges and risks that are not fully recognised and no doubt are a serious source of stress.

Although these issues are receiving growing attention, this is not yet being translated into providing better advice and support that acknowledges the complexity of aid workers’ experiences. My research is thus aimed at highlighting that stress among aid workers can only be fully addressed by examining the diversity of personalities and identities within the sector and the influence of these elements on behaviour and experiences.

Motivations are particularly important here; I believe a deeper understanding of these may shine some light on why some people suffer from stress more than others. It is common for aid workers to be perceived as purely altruistic (particularly in the media and indeed by our own family and friends), or the complete opposite; in other words, motivated by what they may gain in terms of personal or professional development and status. Aid workers increasingly try to debunk the image of the altruistic hero by emphasising their primarily selfish motivations. My feeling is motivations are more complicated than this, and may be influenced by one’s background, upbringing and political beliefs. I’m interested to find out what role these motivations play in how aid workers approach and deal with the pressures of their job.

I also hope to reveal how one’s identity – whether this be class, gender, race, sexual orientation, culture or religion – influences the aid worker’s experiences. Whilst aid workers themselves share their experiences of the specific challenges of being, for instance a woman, or gay, far more analysis is needed to understand how these challenges contribute to stress and burnout in the sector.

It is my belief that understanding these issues is vital if organisations are to provide better staff care, and if aid workers are to make sense of the emotional upheavals associated with their jobs. I hope that my research, as well as this blog site, will provide opportunities to share experiences and reflect on how as aid workers we can understand ourselves and each other better.

The Role of Mindfulness in Aidwork

Using the terms mindfulness or meditation in the work setting of a humanitarian or human rights NGO can often feel inappropriate or irrelevant. In a sector that focuses primarily on caring for others, this method of self-care may seem at best of secondary importance, at worst in contradiction to the principles of selflessness that are associated with aid work. In the wider Western world, these terms also have negative connotations – of being hippie or ‘New Agey,’  therefore only understood and respected by people who have chosen a spiritual path. And a common accusation is that meditation is a navel-gazing exercise, which allows us to be detached from, or to escape, the realities of the world we live in but has no value in bringing any sort of change to those realities. This accusation can be found in, for instance, an article by Guardian columnist Suzanne Moore, which claims that mindfulness is all about self-help, but does nothing to change an unjust world. I would like to take issue with some of these assumptions about mindfulness and meditation, whilst also highlighting and attempting to address the uneasiness that exists towards the practice, both in the humanitarian and human rights sector and the wider world.

But first, what is mindfulness and how can it be distinguished from meditation? I see mindfulness as a practice, or exercise, that can be applied at any point in any day, no matter what we are doing. Meditation is one tool in which to practise mindfulness – a way of stepping out of what one is doing in the day, and dedicating 5, 15, 20 or 50 minutes to simply sitting and being present. Focusing on the breath is a common way of anchoring ourselves in that present moment. Mindfulness, whether through quiet, solitary meditation or otherwise, is an opportunity to transcend the endless chatter in our heads – the grievances about the past, the anxieties about the future – and simply focus on experiences as they happen, in the present. We can practise mindfulness without needing to meditate. The moment may be something as mundane as doing the ironing or as challenging as physical or emotional pain. Or the enjoyment of eating chocolate or walking in the woods. How often do we actually taste the food we are eating, when most of the time we are eating whilst working, or reading, or talking to others? How often do we actually feel our physical pain, when our instinct is to distract ourselves from it or be so consumed in worries about the possible future implications of the pain? Mindfulness puts us in touch with the immediate sensory experience, so that we are able to really feel what is happening, and acknowledge what that feeling is. It helps to deepen our awareness of all the thoughts, feelings and emotions that make up who we are, not only as individuals but as part of the human race.

Relating this back to humanitarian and human rights work, being mindful is a way of ensuring that we are not continuously led by our emotional responses. This is not to say that emotional responses to injustice, or human suffering, are not important. I think the problem that Suzanne Moore and others – including myself at times – have with ‘spiritual’ practice is the notion that it is too inward-looking, and makes robots out of human beings; real, raw emotions may in fact be lost in the search for authentic and transcendental enlightenment.

But mindfulness is as much about connecting with the outer world as it is with navigating our inner world. Both of these are important – we cannot help or show understanding to others if we are unable to help or understand ourselves. This is why compassion plays such an important role in Buddhist teachings of meditation. By exploring what is happening within, we can connect with deeper truths about human existence, consciousness and suffering that we so often overlook, ignore or avoid in everday life. Mindfulness also enables us to take a moment to watch the emotional reactions we have and guage whether they are helpful for us and for others. Anger and rage may be common experiences when working on issues related to oppression and injustice, but they are not always helpful. I have worked in settings where these emotions, displayed bombastically, provocatively and argumentatively serve to alienate the sympathisers to our cause as much as our opponents. Is that what we really want to achieve each time we disagree with something or someone we don’t like? Breathing in to and observing those emotions, instead of always getting lost in them, helps us to gain some clarity over how it is we really wish to respond, and what it is we really wish to convey when we react to human suffering. We are mindful not only in observing our thoughts and emotions, but also in putting those thoughts and emotions into action, for a particular effect or outcome. This is why it is an essential tool to bring into all that we do.

The debate over the relevance of mindfulness in aid work and activism is far from over, and in fact has only just begun, as more and more people take up the practice as a means to relieving stress and burnout. Whilst I try to practise various forms of mindfulness in my everyday life, I also continue to ask myself certain questions about its scope and use in the sector I work in. How can it help aid workers interact more effectively and compassionately with people around them? What role can it play in the quest for social justice? Is it merely a practice for the privileged or can it have meaning for the communities served by aid workers? Perhaps some readers have experiences to share that can help answer these questions.