Monthly Archives: January 2018

Hypocrisy and Accountability in the Aid Sector

The news that dozens of UN staff have reported being sexually harassed and assaulted by their employers does not, unfortunately, come as a shock to me. Nor to many others working within the aid sector who have been fully conscious of the extent to which acts like these are seemingly brushed under the carpet for the sake of saving the noble and squeaky clean image of the United Nations. As has been shown by survivors within the aid sector, sexual assault in this industry is all too common – as is lack of accountability.

Underlying this is a deep and uncomfortable hypocrisy that unfortunately pervades the sector in many areas. An aid organisation may pride itself on successful programme interventions on gender based violence, yet at the same time their own staff members are guilty of harassing their colleagues or of beating their wives. These incidents – and most of us all know someone who is a victim or who has been accused of perpetrating these acts – so often pass by unnoticed, or worse there is a conscious effort to ensure they never see the light of day and no one is held accountable. These are organisations that spend huge amounts of time writing financial reports to donors to demonstrate they are meeting the needs of their beneficiaries. What about the needs of their staff?

The broader issue of staff care remains far down on the list of priorities of aid agencies whose modus operandi is assisting populations where there is widespread suffering and destitution. In the scramble for funding and for speedy relief efforts, aid agency staff often become cogs in a machine – implementers, brokers, agents; not real people with real emotions. And so they are not granted the same respect or dignity as what they themselves are constantly reminded must be shown to aid beneficiaries. Aid workers may suffer from many problems related to their work: job insecurity, trauma, bullying, burnout, sexual harassment. But to admit they are struggling because of any of these factors breeds discomfort among many aid workers, who fear they may be seen as too weak or incompetent to do their jobs, or too self-indulgent in the face of the immense hardships experienced by the populations they assist.

Not only this; experience has shown me, and I’m sure many others, that no matter how much we feel we are being mistreated in the sector, employers will carry on as they have done for years. We can feel like we are easily dispensable; we have to put up with what we are subjected to in the knowledge that someone would happily fill our role anyway, such is the attraction of working in a sector where people are viewed so heroically in the public eye. This allows organisations to get away with treating their staff in a way that is completely at odds with the ethics and ethos they loudly proclaim in their marketing material. The attitude is – if you don’t like it, get out and we’ll find another willing foot soldier.

In my last job working for an international NGO, I started out on a 3 month contract which excluded me from some of the benefits afforded to my longer term colleagues, and which was renewed sometimes on a month by month basis. This meant I was unable to plan ahead or respond in the most effective way to the needs of the communities I worked with; unable to take proper annual leave; and unable to truly feel part of the organisation, even though I stayed there for well over a year. This unfortunately is all too common in the aid sector, and staff put up with these forms of mistreatment because they feel their needs are less important, and that there is little they can do to change things anyway.

My last blog post highlighted the value of self-reflection and self-care for aid workers who are suffering from chronic stress, burnout or PTSD. But whilst self-care plays an important role in managing the many challenges associated with aid work, aid organisations themselves cannot be absolved of responsibility in addressing the reasons why staff become disillusioned, exhausted and sometimes damaged by their work. The structure and working culture of this industry – and it is an industry, given its emphasis on raising and spending money, and on meeting donor-led targets and goals – has a lot to answer for. Until new policies are implemented and a more open environment is created that truly listens and responds to the real vulnerabilities and needs of aid agency staff, the aid sector will fail to live up to its high standards of morality and humanity.

Self-Reflection and Self-Care in the Aid Sector: Opportunities and Limitations

Most aid workers probably know somebody who has been through a form of extreme stress or burnout, and who has set themselves on the road to recovery by taking time out, seeing a psychotherapist or leaving their job. Of course many people don’t take any action, and become more and more sick. But what I’m interested in exploring here is who it is that chooses to step away from their work and seek help or take a break.

My research suggests that it is mainly female aid workers from western countries who take action. Out of the 125 national and international aid workers I spoke to in Kenya, a total of eight people described to me a specific and chronic health issue that they’d been diagnosed with. Six of these were European women, one was a European man and one was a Kenyan woman. This chimes to some degree with the Guardian survey of aid workers conducted in 2015, which found that approximately twenty per cent of their 754 respondents had suffered from PTSD and panic attacks, whilst forty four per cent suffered from depression. This is a far higher statistic than my own, but what’s important to note here is that the majority of the survey’s respondents were female, and identified themselves as international staff working for an international NGO.

The aid workers I spoke to with chronic health problems had all learned about their condition through seeking professional help of some sort; and in the case of the Europeans, this often occurred when they had left the field and were back in their home country. Some of these aid workers talked to psychotherapists, and some of them embarked on different forms of self-care such as yoga or meditation.

These opportunities to acknowledge one’s own health problems are few and far between when in the field. As one of my informants, a French woman working for an international humanitarian agency, told me:

“Not during the mission. I think that during the mission, when you’re in these sorts of situations, and when you have this kind of position, when you are in charge…no there is no space for you!”

This points to a working culture that many will be familiar with in the aid sector: one where emotions and feelings are pushed aside in the interests of caring for others. Where meeting urgent deadlines in the provision of food, shelter and other forms of assistance to people in need takes priority over the consideration of whether the aid worker themselves is coping. An Ethiopian man I met, who works for the UN  put it like this:

“Fear comes in, nightmares at night when you sleep, I had actually about all these stories and some people had gone through real stuff. I’ve been kidnapped once, ambushed I think more than four or five times […] I always knew that if I don’t go what I’m going through, some boy or girl somewhere will either miss their meal […] or some boy or girl somewhere would not have education, […] kids will miss their vaccination or immunisation and these are the vital services that children need.”

But it is not only work-related pressures and working culture that are relevant in considering why many aid workers don’t acknowledge their own suffering and seek help. In the case of the 64 Kenyan aid workers I met, their approach to their job was in some ways different from their international counterparts, and this had implications for the degree to which they recognised and responded to stress in their lives.

It was clear from some of the Kenyans I spoke to that they did not wish to complain about a job which they felt fortunate to have, and which was enabling them to support their family. Most of the Kenyans I spoke to were married and had children that were either their own or they were looking after, and many had financial responsibilities such as paying school fees for siblings or other relatives as well. This was in contrast to the majority of people I met from western countries, who although were often in relationships and in some cases had children, did not share these extended family responsibilities. Self-care, and professional help, was thus easier to access for many international aid workers because they were more mobile and able to travel out of Kenya if needed, and had more disposable income. In addition, it was suggested to me by both Kenyan and European aid workers I spoke to that the reason that national staff didn’t take up counselling offered by their organisation was fear that doing so might threaten their jobs. As one Kenyan man I spoke to put it:

“I think we’re too busy to focus on such things or to look for counselling. I think there’s also this fear that the moment you approach HR that you need counselling services on your work, then it’s a sign of weakness or a sign of incompetence or something. At least that’s what I’d feel.”

There’s no doubt that a resistance to admitting to experiencing mental health problems in many contexts and for many people, whether from Europe, Africa or elsewhere. But in the aid sector there are extra factors worth considering – particularly for organisations attempting to provide psycho-social support to their staff. In a country such as Kenya, terms such as mental health or trauma are viewed somewhat suspiciously – as many of my informants told me. Alternative forms of therapy such as life coaching, yoga or meditation are certainly available, but they are fairly expensive – as is psychotherapy, if it is not paid for by the aid organisation. More reflection and creative ideas are therefore needed to ensure support for aid workers is accessible and relevant for all – both nationals and internationals.