Author Archives: AidSoulSearch

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

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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.

Understanding the Spiritual Lives of Aid Workers

Isn’t it about time aid organisations paid more attention to the spiritual lives of their staff? After all, it is often faith of one sort or another that is guiding the work of aid professionals. With approximately 90% of the aid sector being made up of people from non-western countries, I think it is safe to say that the majority of that 90% would identify themselves with a particular faith. This is in contrast to western aid workers, where I would guess that the percentage who identify with and actively practise a particular religion is much lower. This is a fairly informed guess, given that I used to work for a large Christian charity where about half the number of its UK staff (including myself) did not identify with the Christian faith, nor any other religion.

Religion, and more broadly spirituality, has a bad press in the UK and many other western countries. We often tend to associate Christianity, for instance, with negative tropes such as power, domination (including the colonisation of countries in the global south), conflict and abuse. In the aid sector, we may work with and support faith-based organisations in our development programmes but in the workplace we shy away from discussions around faith and spirituality. The assumption seems to be that those are things for poor people in need, not for us. Development and aid programming is after all built upon rigid, rational formulas and frameworks that do not allow space for the subjective, fluid and hard-to-measure experience of what may be labelled ‘the supernatural’ or ‘occult’.

Yet by dismissing faith-based practice as something irrelevant to aid work we are overlooking the importance of these practices in guiding and supporting aid professionals in the most challenging of circumstances. From my own research in Kenya I have seen that spiritual growth and development has a major role to play in understanding why some people – European and African – overcome, or completely transcend, the challenges of their work in the aid sector.

Being religious or spiritual means many different things, and I am not simply suggesting that going to church can be a panacea for all ills, or a route out of personal suffering. What I believe is that spiritual practice, and faith, is a way in which to make sense of suffering in order to support one’s way of being in the world.

I found the way some of my Kenyan and Somali research participants talked about their faith and their work particularly informative. The Somali aid workers I met were often working in situations of heightened insecurity, where the threat of bombings or gunfire was always nearby. They believed that these were circumstances that had to be accepted as ‘God’s will’, and that rather than dwelling on the challenges it was better to appreciate the life that God had given them. It was this form of faith that enabled the Somali aid workers to laugh and joke about situations that their western counterparts balked at, such as the bombs they could hear outside their offices which the Somalis would say was the ‘popcorn’ starting again.

In a very different context, I remember the calmness and sense of acceptance that emanated from a Kenyan aid worker I spoke to in Nairobi, when she told me about her organisation’s restructuring and the likelihood that she would lose the job she’d been in for over 10 years. She felt strongly that her Christian faith would help her remain self-assured and confident of her abilities despite these circumstances.

‘My faith is more important now than anything else. Mostly because my faith helps me affirm my beliefs of who I am and what I’m capable of doing. Such that, as I step out, whether I’m stepping out or not, or as I face this matter, I face it with confidence. We always say, when one door closes another door opens. So I encourage myself with the word of God!’

Furthermore, aid work enabled some of my research participants to engage in a meaningful occupation that could give them spiritual growth. A number of Kenyan aid professionals I spoke to referred to how their work had given them a sense of purpose by making a difference to the lives of others. Working to assist victims of war, or poor communities, had also helped them to appreciate their own good fortune, in spite of the hardships they too may have experienced when growing up.

Having a sense of purpose is clearly very important for aid work. Loss of purpose, or meaning, is often what leads to disillusionment and burnout in the aid sector. And when faced with immense human suffering, along with the high expectations of aid beneficiaries, employers and donors, it isn’t hard to lose that sense of purpose, if the aid worker feels that their actions can never fully meet the needs of others. Yet faith and spiritual awareness are clearly vital elements in addressing these challenges. Reflecting on my own experience, and on the stories of some of my research participants, I can see that engaging in spiritual practice helps to build an awareness and knowledge of oneself. This may ultimately mean recognising one’s limitations as much as one’s capabilities; seeing that we cannot be all things to all people, and that we too are humans who are vulnerable and imperfect (perfectly imperfect as some spiritualists like to say). But by understanding ourselves better, we can also instil more trust in our abilities to overcome difficult situations – to respond to these situations in a way that helps us grow and learn.

Spiritual and religious practices are also a way of fostering greater connection with others. Prayer and meditation often takes place in a collective space, where people feel sufficiently safe to share their innermost feelings and vulnerabilities. These spaces are vital in the aid sector as its organisational culture so often stigmatises mental health and shuts out emotional expression. Whilst many western cultures may consider counselling and talking therapies to be the solution for mental health problems, we forget that there are other important spaces that exist in cultures different from our own. African aid workers, for instance, may feel more comfortable opening up to known and trusted faith-based or traditional healers than to a professional psychotherapist coming from a European country.

As I have said before, there can be no ‘one size fits all’ approach to staff care. But at least acknowledging and working with these alternative forms of healing and self-care could serve two related purposes: of understanding better the spiritual lives of aid workers – as multi-faceted human beings rather than mere aid delivery robots – and of providing them with support that is grounded in their own cultures and belief systems.

 

 

 

 

 

The Meaning of Commitment in Aid Work

Commitment is a key element of aid work. It is assumed, or may even be a requirement in a job description, that in order to work in this sector, one must be committed. And in aid work, the idea of commitment arguably stands out as different from many other professions because there is a very clear moral dimension to it.   The job is generally geared towards noble objectives such as ‘serving humanity’, ‘saving lives’, ‘ending poverty’. Similar to some other helping professions – doctors, carers, teachers for instance – but arguably with an even greater moral investment, due to aid work’s dedication to always supporting the less fortunate, the oppressed, the ‘victim’. It can mean that the aid worker themselves is judged according to how much they are willing to dedicate their lives to the cause, and to what extent they fail to meet the lofty ideals of ‘serving humanity.’

During my field research in Kenya, I found that national aid workers in particular could be judged negatively on these terms: they were not as committed, or motivated, as their European colleagues. As Mario*, an Italian development consultant I met in Nairobi, put it:

“It’s a job, they need it. From being Italian, I see more motivation from expats than locals. They do care up to a certain point, but there is motivation if there is the right compensation. In general, the way the expat interpret motivation, locals are less motivated.”

European expat aid workers on the other hand, attached a particular moral value to their work, which Mario summarised as: “I care for beneficiaries, I want to change their life. I want to make a difference.”

Yet commitment comes in many forms, as I saw during my field research. I met many Kenyan aid workers who had, for instance, stayed in their jobs for years and were living hundreds of kilometres away from their spouse and family. Some would only get to visit their family during their R and R (rest and recuperation) every 8-10 weeks. Some of these aid workers were in ‘non-family duty stations’ or ‘unaccompanied posts’ – working in conditions such as Kakuma or Dadaab refugee camp where they were explicitly not allowed to bring their loved ones. So their commitment to their work had been written in to their contract in terms of how often and when they could actually take a break and see their family.

The commitment required in these sorts of circumstances thus has wider implications for aid workers and their personal lives. It is perhaps no surprise that many aid workers I met were struggling in their romantic lives; either remaining single for long periods or with marriages that were falling apart. Japhet, a Rwandese aid worker I spoke to explained these challenges to me in the context of working in Kakuma refugee camp in northern Kenya.

“When you come to a place like Kakuma 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 and all of that. And you are here in a sort of temporary [situation]…so I don’t deny that you could meet someone here. But in a way this never feels like home, for you to build something.”

The women I spoke to also acknowledged these challenges. How long could they remain committed to the work they were doing, when they were also keen to commit to a relationship and to having a family? The Kenyan women I spoke to who were married with children also told me of how they at times felt pressure from their husbands to not travel so much, the assumption being that commitment should be to family first. One young Kenyan woman working for an international NGO in Kakuma explained these torn commitments to me:

“As a woman, when you focused your head onto career, your goal is always to be much better, much better, much better. So you know relationships, fine it’s there but you don’t even take it seriously […] And again women with empowerment […] I don’t know if it’s all women but African women….there is nothing a man will tell. And you know our men are very, very, very…they need a woman who is submissive. So if me, I tell this guy I’m bringing 50% and you’re bringing 50% to the house and we need to respect one another […] and you also need to help out with the work. There’s no African man who will…understand that.”

Peter, a Kenyan man who has worked for the UN since the 1990s and who I met in Kakuma, claimed that most relationships in the aid sector are doomed to failure. He himself had been through two failed marriages and his family were dotted around the country so he sometimes wouldn’t see them for several months at a time. He believed that most Kenyans – both men and women – if given the choice would prioritise an income over spending time with their family. And indeed there were women I met who were doing exactly this, as well as the men. Evelyn, for instance, worked in Kakuma refugee camp and only got to see her two and a half year old child – who was staying with her mother – when she was on R and R every 10 weeks. She acknowledged she was lucky she had someone to help her with the child – her husband was studying at a university in another district – but that other women weren’t so fortunate. “Sometimes, I can see most women…if they don’t really have…the husband doesn’t really understand their work, it can cost their work,” Evelyn told me. “So the woman can really tend to resign from work, then take care of the children. Rather than letting the children to suffer.”

The concept of commitment for Kenyans – and other African expat aid workers I met in Kenya – was thus often tied to building one’s career and the need for a reliable income to support their family. This may seem at odds with the ‘commitment to the cause’ that is assumed, and pushed, by aid organisations. Does this really matter?

The idea of commitment – or motivation – in aid work is often steeped in notions of morality and humanitarian values. These may seem like noble conceptualisations of commitment, but ones which perhaps favour the western aid worker. Many aid workers from Europe or America, conscious (or perhaps not) of their privilege, are motivated to do this work by a sense of guilt or responsibility; wanting to connect with or help others less fortunate than themselves, often in communities where western countries have played a direct role in oppression. Of course Kenyans, and other national aid workers, are just as likely to be guided by specific morals and ideals as their western counterparts. But there are other equally important, and personal, factors at play – such as responsibility towards one’s extended family as the only person with a comfortable income, or being a woman who is determined to be independent and ambitious and to challenge patriarchal norms in her society. Westerners should perhaps think more carefully about different forms of commitment – particularly in the context of those whose socio-economic choices are far more limited than our own – before judging national aid workers on the basis of lofty humanitarian values.

*Names have been anonymised throughout this blog piece.