Author Archives: AidSoulSearch

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.

 

 

Reflections on the Idealist’s Survival Kit

I have just finished reading The Idealist’s Survival Kit by Alessandra Pigni, a collection of ideas, reflections and tools for understanding and responding to burnout. The book, which is divided into 75 bite-sized chunks containing accounts from aid workers and activists, poetry and passages or quotes from the likes of Brene Brown, Thich Nhat Hanh, Jon Kabat-Zinn and Rachel Naomi Remen, is easy to read and will resonate with anyone in the helping professions.

Although largely gentle and encouraging in tone – and thus a great book to dip in to when in feeling the pressures, fears and self-doubts that often arise when working in emergency settings – Pigni is also attempting to shake us up as aid workers. To hold a mirror in front of us so that we can see that we too – as well as our organisations – are responsible for our mental health.

One question that the book is often asking is: what are our motivations as aid workers? To ‘save the world’ perhaps. To have an adventure. To learn from other cultures and ways of life. To make a difference, have a purpose. But alongside all of that, Pigni – and some of the other aid workers she talks to – also see that this profession can provide an escape. It is a way of retreating from a life of normalcy, with its unemployment, debts and unsatisfactory relationships. It is a way of becoming a ‘somebody’; a person who is seen in the public eye and by their family and peers as being heroic and self-sacrificing. Our work can give us the attention that we often strive for in ‘normal’ life but never quite attain. Perhaps, as Pigni suggests, it is a form of therapy. And when our work is given this value, we at times create an illusion that working for a cause is the panacea for all our mental anguish; rendering home life unimportant and banal. I’ve been through it, and I’ve met others during my field research who are going through it now; losing connection with ‘home’, with the familiar, and instead finding identity and belonging only through the adrenalin rush of humanitarian work. In these instances, we let our work define us, and without it we feel lost and unhinged.

At the same time there is a lot of suffering in in aid work – and not only the suffering of people living in disaster. Aid workers suffer also, but very often do not show it, for fear that their hero identity will be undermined, and that they may even lose their job because they are seen as too weak or incapable. There is a lot of shame around admitting to needing support. Which is ironic, and worrying, in a sector that is built upon being compassionate and responding to the suffering of others.

How has this happened? As the book acknowledges, the professionalisation of the sector has a lot to answer for; in the quest to raise more money and achieve better results, the aid worker has become a cog in a machine rather than a human being with emotions and values which drive what they do. It is no coincidence that terms such as ‘resilience’ and ‘grit’ have become so popular in a sector that encourages people to keep going no matter what. But, as Pigni rightly says, these qualities mean very little if a person has lost a sense of meaning in their work.

This book is about trying to reclaim humanity towards ourselves and each other in the workplace, as we try to do the same with the communities we are assisting. Recovering from, or avoiding burnout, is as much to do with feeling into our emotions, being with them and being vulnerable – learning to grieve, as Rachel Naomi Reiman puts it in Kitchen Table Wisdom: Stories that Heal – as it is about organisations becoming more caring.

This is not to say that organisations don’t have a responsibility – they do. Pigni uses the example of a woman who feels exhausted and burnt out, and works in a toxic environment where everyone is overworked and under appreciated. She is told by her managers that there is no budget for staff care beyond perhaps doing a stress management workshop. In such instances, of course, simply taking time off to go on a holiday or yoga retreat will not solve the problem.

While the cause we purport to advance may be noble, we need an environment that does not crush our soul while maintaining to “empower” those in need or improve society. Society improves right here, in this office, this community centre, this activist group.

[The Idealist’s Survival Kit: 75 Simple Ways to Avoid Burnout, p. 57]

This book is more about having those difficult conversations – with ourselves, with our colleagues and with our managers – about bringing humanity into the workplace, than it is about suggesting more ‘duty of care’ policies for aid organisations. And a lot of the advice revolves around learning to ‘be’ as well as to ‘do’. In other words, slowing down. It may ultimately mean having to do something dramatic, like leave the toxic environment and take a break from the sector, in order heal oneself before healing others. Or it may simply be spending more time listening and reflecting in order to respond more compassionately.

The idea of stepping away from ‘doing’ and just ‘being’, in the company of others, resonated with me a lot, particularly when considering how we work with ‘aid beneficiaries.’ I remembered how hurried so many interactions were when I was in the field; so focused were my colleagues and I on getting through back-to-back interviews with victims of violence or displacement that we, too, lost our humanity. Under pressure to achieve particular outputs and results, we do not take the time to truly be with someone who is suffering – to share a cup of tea, to visit their home, to ‘break bread’ together. Such small moments can be just as important and meaningful, whether this occurs with colleagues or with aid beneficiaries. They help us to find meaning and beauty in the midst of complexity, confusion, fear, uncertainty and all the other qualities inherent in a world of suffering and violence.

By connecting with oneself, one’s family and loved ones – as well with the communities we are assisting – we learn to become whole; to bridge the ‘cognitive dissonance’, as Pigni describes it, between home and field, between ideals and reality, and to feel into the vulnerability that lies beneath our actions and which makes us truly human. In her words, these moments of humanity can be healing moments in themselves.

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.

 

 

 

Aid Worker Images vs Reality

I recently wrote an article for the online academic platform, The Conversation. You can read it below, or go directly to the Conversation website here (and sign up to their newsletter if you enjoy it!)

Why a commonly held idea of what aid workers are like fails to tell the full story

File 20171103 26430 rihojc.jpg?ixlib=rb 1.1
hikrcn/Shutterstock

Gemma Houldey, University of Sussex

The common idea of the aid worker is of a selfless soul who travels far from home to an unfamiliar and challenging environment, giving up a more privileged existence in their own country. More often than not that the aid worker comes from the developed world, and that they are most probably white. It may be startling for to learn that about 90% of aid workers are in fact nationals working in their own countries in the developing world.

This is more than a question of perception. Aid organisations, by and large, were established in Western nations and a good majority are still managed from offices in cities such as London, New York or Geneva, although there has been an increased commitment in recent years to decentralise to the global south. In addition, on the back of promises made at the World Humanitarian Summit in 2016, international NGOs are pursuing further localisation of their human resources.

However, my research into stress and well-being of aid workers in Kenya suggests that the experience for local aid workers continues to be a very different prospect indeed. Interviews with more than 100 Kenyans and expatriates working for international humanitarian, development and human rights organisations highlighted that the motivations and values associated with aid work are more complicated than is often assumed. They are often tied to socio-economic status and living conditions. The contrast between local workers and expatriates can be sharp.

Destination Kenya.
atdr/Shutterstock

Sacrifices

The majority of expatriates I met were Europeans or Americans living in Nairobi. The Kenyan government has in recent years restricted the number of work permits issued to expatriates, but those interviewed were in long-term, relatively well paid and fairly senior jobs in their organisations. They lived in luxury apartments or townhouses close to their office, and could afford to spend their holidays back in Europe or in Kenya’s beach houses or safari lodges.

As part of my field research I also travelled to one of Kenya’s poorest counties, Turkana, where most expatriates I met worked in the Kakuma refugee camp, on contracts lasting between a few months and three years. At the end of their contracts they would move on to another emergency posting, probably in another country.

The situation for the Kenyan aid workers I met was very different. In Nairobi they often lived far from their office, in order to afford accommodation that could house their families. In Turkana, Kenyans I spoke to had partners and families hundreds of kilometres away in another part of the country. They could only see them every eight to ten weeks, during their rest and recuperation, a compulsory break taken from humanitarian operations which usually lasts about a week.

Villagers discuss development plans in Turkana.
European Commission DG ECHO, CC BY-NC-ND

For Kenyans, two of those days were often spent travelling to and from home; unlike their expat counterparts, they were not always entitled to a free flight to Nairobi as part of their contract. In spite of this, there were Kenyans who had been working in Turkana for more than ten years, choosing to sacrifice family life for a steady and reliable income; an income which, at an estimated US$2,300 a month, is high when compared with other sectors in Kenya.

This was a key difference between the perceptions of aid work among Kenyans and Western expatriates. In the latter case, aid work is often seen, at least by one’s peers and family, as heroic self-sacrifice; in the former case it is seen as a lucrative job that produces an income with which to support one’s dependants. As one Kenyan woman working in the Kakuma refugee camp told me:

Here they don’t see me as a hero, hell no! Never ever. They don’t. Back at home … they’re even proud of you. Because you have a job and they feel it’s a better paying job.

Staying Committed

Kenyan aid workers demonstrated commitment to their work by staying in jobs that kept them away from their families, and instead lived in remote and difficult conditions. As one Kenyan man who worked in a small village in Turkana close to the Ethiopian border, told me:

It is just a matter of getting used to those circumstances. So at first, I was getting challenged, because I was used to being with my family … I will not leave my job to stay with my family, what will I eat, if I leave a job? … I prefer my family get something to eat.

Kenyan aid workers believed that their organisations did not always recognise, or reward, these types of commitment. One man I interviewed works in Nairobi on African governance issues. He travelled frequently with his international NGO, but he also had to find time to visit his wife, who lived and worked 400km away in western Kenya. He also supported some of his siblings’ schooling. He told me that his organisation did little to recognise the specific challenges that national staff go through in this respect. This was demotivating.

At times, I ask myself, I need to move to get a little more, just to be able to support my family … and these are very genuine concerns. Fine you are dedicated, but then, if you are dedicated and for me I’m dedicated, yet I also can’t steal, you know, so what do I do?

Commitment and sacrifice, words so often associated with aid work, have different meanings in the context of nationals who are struggling to support their families as well as fulfil personal ideals and values.

In a country where swathes of the population still live below the poverty line, Kenyans do not have the same choices as many of their expatriate counterparts. This is an issue of concern to many other national aid workers in the global south. And this is reflected also, unfortunately, in the way aid organisations themselves treat their national staff.

The ConversationThe aid sector’s increased recognition of these disparities, and commitments to change, are encouraging; but this recognition needs to trickle down to field level so that all personnel have greater understanding of, and sympathy for, the specific challenges faced by national staff.

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

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