Aid worker motivations: more than escapism or altruism

Motivations remains a big topic in the ongoing debates and reflections on why aid workers stay in their jobs and why they leave. A few days ago, the Guardian published a piece by the author of a recent survey that investigated, among other issues, aid worker motivations.

The article itself is only a brief reflection on what is clearly a fairly extensive survey of over 1000 respondents from around the world, and which covered a range of topics including how aid workers describe their jobs to others, why they leave their jobs, the reasons why aid workers are rarely fired, and what people like and dislike about being in the sector. I look forward to when the data – available on the Aid Worker Voices blog site – is fully compiled and further conclusions and recommendations are published.

In the meantime though, the published data thus far raises some questions for me. The Guardian article certainly touches on some important challenges faced by aid workers on a day-to-day basis. For instance, how they relate to their friends and family back home who have little understanding of the work they do. And their sense of belonging in and loyalty to the communities they work with in developing countries. But I do wonder are these actually motivating factors we are talking about – the main drivers of why people chose to stay in their particular jobs? These may indeed be the reasons why aid workers put off leaving a country and returning home. I know of a few people myself who feel an increasing disconnect with what they see as the privileged and humdrum lives of their family and friends back home. But I’m not sure this has anything to do with why someone choses to stay in a job where they are fighting a particular cause, often with little reward in terms of meaningful change to people’s lives.

A glance on the Aid Worker Voices site where the survey’s initial findings are, offers greater insights into motivating factors, but I would still love to find out more about the survey respondents. What drove them to enter the aid sector in the first place, or to work in their particular roles? I know I’ve repeated this point over and over in this blog, but that’s because it is the rationale and basis for my own investigations into aid worker wellbeing: the personal matters if we are to understand how aid workers perceive and respond to the emotional challenges of their work. Whilst self-development of one sort or another may be one reason why people enter and stay in this sector, I feel the motivations behind choosing to be a gender specialist, or an advocacy officer, or a country director are more complicated than that. These career decisions may be economic as much as political, and may also be extremely personal and related to an aid worker’s direct experiences of injustice.

Another issue repeated throughout the Life in Crisis site is that we need to identify more closely who exactly we are talking about when we refer to ‘aid workers’. Too often the focus is on expats, when the majority within this sector are nationals operating in their own countries. Likewise, too often the expats themselves are assumed to be from countries in the northern hemisphere, ignoring the increasing number who are from the global south. It is not clear from the survey cited in the Guardian who all the respondents are, but I suspect they are mostly Americans and Europeans. A survey on aid worker motivations that focuses more on aid workers from the global south may have brought up very different responses. I speak from experience, given the data I have collected so far during my field research in Kenya. For instance, unlike western expats who talk a lot about family and friends back home not understanding their work but nevertheless applauding them as heroes, national aid workers often do not receive this sort of praise. Kenyan aid workers I’ve spoken to here refer to how their families generally disapprove of what they’re doing, questioning why they have to travel so often and why they don’t get a ‘proper job’. This is particularly hard for women in societies that expect them to stay home and cook and clean for the family. Furthermore, expats may complain that their families think they are doing low paid voluntary work, but for nationals working in the aid sector, the opposite is often true; family members assume, sometimes incorrectly, that aid workers have lots of money and thus their relative can afford to help more towards schools fees and medical care.

This relates also to another distinction between expat and national aid workers experiences. Whilst expats may eventually leave their jobs because they want more financial security – one of the findings emerging from the Aid Worker Voices data – nationals may stay in their jobs for that very same reason; because for them, a job in the aid sector provides a stable income that they can’t afford to let go of, even if they find the job extremely demanding and stressful. Indeed it is assumed by many expats I’ve spoken to that most national aid workers are motivated primarily by financial factors.

An interesting point made by someone I spoke to recently is that it may be a healthier attitude to have to one’s work – to see it purely as a job like any other, that brings a monthly salary, and which one will do to the best of one’s abilities. It is perhaps the ideological factors underpinning many aid workers’ motivations – both expats and nationals – that create the disappointment and disillusionment that can eventually lead to burnout. This is because the aid sector is full of unrealised hopes and unmet expectations about what we can achieve. The survey respondents acknowledge this in the Aid Worker Voices blog, and in my own research I am investigating how people experience and respond to what they feel are personal or organisational failings. Such insights can tell us a lot about why people struggle with aid work, and why some people cope better than others in managing its demands.

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