Monthly Archives: March 2016

Morals and Motivations in Aid Work

What motivates aid workers? And do motivations have any bearing on how aid workers experience stress? These are two among many questions I continue to grapple with whilst undertaking field research in Kenya.

Whilst family, friends and even strangers we meet at a party may assume that we are selfless heroes, ask aid workers about what motivated them to enter their profession and you’ll get a mixed set of answers. Some will flat out deny they have any altruistic motivations whatsoever and will argue that they are getting far more out of what they do than any so-called aid ‘beneficiary’ or ‘recipient’. The rewards for aid workers may be self-development, expanding one’s understanding of the world, exploring different cultural or social realities, or financial gain; because, much to the surprise of the stranger you meet at a party who asks you what you do for a living, aid work a lot of the time actually pays quite well.

Aid workers are often keen to debunk the popular image of humanitarian hero with purely altruistic intentions. A female development worker in Tanzania interviewed by Maria Erikson Baaz is quick to point out  the ‘egoistic will’ which drives her work (Baaz, The Paternalism of Partnership: A Postcolonial Reading of Identity in Development Aid, 2004: 90); and the aid blogosphere is full of snarky commentary (such as this one) that attempts to do away with false assumptions about heroic aid workers.

Aid worker motivations are nevertheless complex and cannot be easily categorised into the altruistic/selfish binary, as writers such as Sara de Jong (de Jong, ‘False Binaries: Altruism and Selfishness in NGO work, in Fechter and Hindman Inside the Everyday Lives of Development Workers: The Challenges and Futures of Aidland2010) and, most recently, Liisa Malkki, have highlighted. Malkki’s book, The Need to Help: The Domestic Arts of International Humanitarianism, which I have yet to finish, asks the question, ‘what is it we’re not seeing, and not being told, about the motivations of humanitarian workers?’ Her interest is particularly in the neediness that, she argues, often underlies a person’s decision to enter into this profession; a neediness to get away from home and find solace in a different community, or the neediness to live out a sense of obligation towards those less fortunate than oneself. She also notes that heroism, or some sense of self-sacrifice, were rarely the guiding motivations for the Red Cross humanitarian professionals she spoke to, although these factors probably had some influence. Many of her informants talked more about their ‘internationalist’ aspirations – the desire to travel and interact with different cultures, a sense of obligation towards the global south, whose communities were victim to the global north’s avarice and war-mongering – than a specific calling to a particular cause. Solidarity and a feeling of working together for a greater good were also important to the aid workers she interviewed.

What this indicates is that whether motivations are seen as selfish or altruistic, there is a moral undertone that guides a lot of people in this sector; aid workers do this work because they believe it is ‘the right thing to do’ in order to ‘share humanity’, to be part of this world and to take responsibility for the damage we are all causing to it.

I find this interesting as it relates somewhat to my own experience, and also to a term coined by a journalist interested in the trauma experiences of soldiers and of humanitarian workers; a term  which I’m going to adopt here – ‘moral injury’.

I was trying to think back to when I first felt this urge to enter the humanitarian sphere. There was one pivotal moment that particularly lodged itself in my memory, and that was seeing the aftermath of the earthquake Izmit which struck Turkey in August 1999. I was so horrified by what I saw on the news, and felt this strong desire to go and help. It was during that same summer that a friend from University had travelled to Cameroon to do voluntary work. When hearing her account of her experiences there when she returned, I remember feeling this urge to do the same, and also to do my volunteering in Africa.

So I left University with this determination to work abroad for a charity, but I didn’t really know what sort of work. I guess I had that ‘need to help’ that Malkki was talking about. Whether it’s a ‘neediness’ as she is implying in her book, I’m not sure. But it did eventually turn into an attachment to a particular cause and a moral imperative to take action – on the war in northern Uganda, on the post-election violence in Kenya, on the occupation in Palestine…and so on and so on.

Fast forward to 2016, and the plethora of questions and debates that have arisen around why aid workers suffer from stress and burnout, and how it can be prevented. And one journalist’s reference to ‘moral injury’, which caught my attention. The point he was raising, actually in reference to soldiers but with relevance for aid workers too, was that maybe we become damaged by disappointment and betrayal; because we start off in this work with a sense of moral obligation but can end up hugely disillusioned when we find out that our intentions are not always appreciated. Perhaps our organisation does not share our moral standpoint, or maybe the communities we supposedly ‘serve’ do not want us to be there. Or perhaps we feel betrayed because of something we should have done, but didn’t; or equally because of something we did do but wish we hadn’t. Sometimes we may end up questioning whether we’re doing any good whatsoever, and whether therefore our work is completely at odds with our moral obligation towards those who are suffering partly as a result of our governments’ policies. I remember leaving Palestine in 2011 with those very questions and wondering whether my presence there was appreciated, or made any difference. Perhaps no surprises what happened next – I’m undecided whether to call it a burnout, but it certainly resulted in a break from the sector and a difficult emotional period lasting over a year.

What do the mixed, changing and at times unrealised intentions of aid workers mean for how and whether they experience stress and burnout? I’m interested in exploring this here in Kenya, where I’ve spoken to a number of people, both Kenyans and expats, whose motivations do not point immediately to moral obligations, nor to purely altruistic intentions. Some have fallen in to this work without really planning it, some are in it for the opportunity to live abroad and be exposed to different cultures, and some are using it as a stepping stone to another career later on down the line. And of course there are indeed some who are passionate about what they do, and believe they can make a meaningful difference to people’s lives. I am not doubting that there are often caring intentions at play, but I am interested in exploring how different motivations are recognised and how they influence the behaviour and choices of aid workers. Sarah de Jong makes an interesting argument that altruism and selfishness may exist simultaneously and are not necessarily in contradiction to each other (de Jong in Hindman and Fechter, 2010: 37). I believe it is important to recognise this in order to understand fully why people enter the aid sector, how they change throughout their professional lives, and the reasons why some of them end up leaving for good.

 

The Trials and Tribulations of Aid Worker Relationships

My last blog piece highlighted that emotional experiences in aid work can be complicated and not always directly related to critical incidents or the challenges of living in remote, unfamiliar or insecure environments. An interesting area of my research which I feel needs further investigation is how these emotional experiences play out in aid workers’ relationships. As I commented in the last blog piece, the emotional impact of aid work may be a relational issue; in other words, how we recognise and process our emotions may be determined by the social context – whether we feel safe in opening up, and how the other person responds to us.

These issues have arisen a number of times recently in the course of my field research. In particular, both Kenyan and expat aid workers have highlighted to me how difficult it can be to talk about their work to their friends and spouses. One Kenyan working for an international development NGO in Nairobi told me that his constant travel, and the fact that his wife didn’t even live in Nairobi but in another county a few hundred kilometres away, had put considerable strain on their recent marriage. It was very hard for his wife, who does not work in the aid sector, to understand the context of his job and the expectations associated with it, which so often include frequent travel. In this situation, I wonder how easy it is for someone to talk about the challenges they face in their work, when they know that their loved ones may not really understand where they’re coming from.

This is a part of the aid worker’s life that many, including myself, can identify with – how to form meaningful relationships with people who have no experience or understanding of the specific pressures and difficulties we have in our work. As one humanitarian worker remarked to me yesterday, so often we’re either seen as saints to be worshipped, when actually we can be as selfish – if not more so – as anybody else; or our work goes completely over people’s heads and the best questions we may be asked are whether it’s dangerous in Africa, or whether we’ve seen any lions whilst we’ve been there. I’m sure I’m not alone in having spent quite a bit of time at social gatherings, and in friendships and romantic relationships, trying to articulate my experiences but ultimately feeling like I’ve failed because I can’t find the right words or I feel the person listening is unlikely to fully understand. Sometimes it is far easier to offload your sense of guilt, of despair, of disillusionment about your work to the person you’ve worked alongside for the last few months than the friend you’ve known since childhood. Talking about the torture of political prisoners or women you’ve spoken to who’ve been raped several times serve as conversation stoppers in most social contexts back home in Europe, but are stories which seem less shocking and more worthy of analysis and meaning-making among fellow aid workers.

What does this mean for our relationships? It can result in a distancing from friends and relatives back home, a feeling that we no longer have anything in common with people who seem to have followed a far more conventional path than ourselves. And it can have implications for romantic relationships too. How much are our partners or spouses willing to listen to our work-related woes, whether it be about the boredom of logframes and meeting donor requirements or the horrors of what we’ve seen or heard in communities we’re trying to assist? Are they able to support us in the way we would wish, if they are more often on the other end of skype or a phone line than right next to us, or when their professional environment may be poles apart from our own? These factors can make opening up on an emotional level very difficult. We stop ourselves from recognising our anger or sadness because we don’t know how to express it to those around us. The organisational culture that pervades the aid sector – which often seems embarrassed by or disapproving of too much emotional outpouring (a paradox given that engaging in humanity and social change work is all about being emotional) – hardly helps either.

Relationships are nevertheless a grounding element in an aid worker’s otherwise frenetic lifestyle. Some have told me that having a relationship has made a big difference to their approach to work; it allows them to switch off after they’ve left the office, and it also provides them with much needed social support, particularly when working in remote settings. Without the support of a loving and understanding partner, the risk of going down the route of the ‘cowboy’ – as one person I met described those who are perpetually single, with few roots back home, who travel frequently to high risk settings and drink a lot – seem much greater. Yet aidworkers can be very picky about who they wish to be with; a relationship’s viability often seems to rest on whether the partner in question is willing to travel and live abroad. And if we find it difficult to form meaningful relationships with people outside the broad social change sector, that narrows the possibilities also.

I will be reflecting on these issues as I continue my field research, as it’s clear from those I’ve spoken to already that how problems are shared with loved ones, and how those loved ones respond, are big factors in determining to what extent aid workers recognise and deal with stress. In the meantime, for those in pursuit of a more snarky take on these issues, please read the OnSanity’s blog piece, ‘52 reasons not to date an aid worker‘ – there’s something there for every aid worker.