Category Archives: Research

The Quiet Unseen Struggles of Women Humanitarians

This year, the annual World Humanitarian Day is honouring the efforts of women humanitarians, particularly the unsung heroes who often receive little recognition for their commitment and hard work. This blog piece contributes to this celebration of women in our sector, by drawing on the stories of some of my African research participants in Kenya. They all believe passionately in what they do. Yet they also face challenges that are quite unique to them, as women; challenges that are often unseen and unappreciated in a sector that can feel very macho and, ironically given its purpose, lacking in emotional openness. All names have been changed.

‘You are a woman’ – this attitude is always in your face.

Clare is a Ugandan woman who was managing her organisation’s regional programme in northern Kenya when I met her in 2016. Her position as a manager, and as a woman, was difficult in a remote and impoverished environment where women were often given less respect than men. Clare struggled to access county government officials to discuss her NGO’s interventions in the area, and at times received inappropriate and flirtatious phone-calls and text messages following meetings with them. She also told me that the hot climate and basic living conditions made it particularly difficult for menstruating women travelling to the field, where toilet facilities often lack privacy and are unhygienic – in turn increasing the risk of urinary infections. Yet these sorts of problems could not be easily discussed in an office that was comprised largely of men. 

Not many men in Turkana would move with you, as you move as a lady looking in search of employment.

Jane is a Kenyan woman from Turkana county who used to work in Kakuma refugee camp. Jane worked long hours, often delivering several babies, sometimes simultaneously, in the course of a day. At the same time, her two young children were living with her in Kakuma town, whilst her husband remained in the family home a five hour road trip away. This situation was a big challenge for Jane; her youngest child cried a lot in her absence, when she was at work and the children were looked after by a locally hired nanny. But it was difficult for Jane to give up her job because she was supporting not only her children, but also some of her 8 siblings, as she was the only person in her family to acquire a proper education and employment.  Jane felt there was little sympathy by her employers towards her situation, and that it was far easier for men, or single women without families, to work in a refugee camp environment. She left Kakuma after one year and managed to find another job closer to home.

Being a mother has given me a reason to build a better world…it’s no longer just another job…there’s more value to it.

Janet is a Kenyan woman who has worked on humanitarian programmes in Kenya, Somalia and South Sudan. Janet felt there was a lack of sympathy and understanding towards women like her who were young mothers. On one occasion she was pressured by her manager to travel to Dadaab refugee camp in northeastern Kenya when she was heavily pregnant, and had to get there by road rather than air as she was in her final trimester and couldn’t fly. The route was long and bumpy and very uncomfortable for her. Janet gave birth prematurely, a day after she returned from the two-day trip to Dadaab. On another occasion, her (male) manager accused her of poor performance after she insisted she must leave the office early and not attend a meeting because her baby was very sick and needed to go to hospital.   

I keep going because giving up the job won’t stop the bombings

I talked to Yasmin over lunch when I ran a stress management workshop for Kenyan, Somali and European staff at an international NGO in Nairobi. At the workshop, the Somali staff discussed how being emotional was not seen as acceptable in their culture, partly because danger and hardship were part of everyday life and couldn’t be avoided. Yasmin, who lived and worked in Mogadishu, told me how she was struck by the fact that whenever a bombing occurred in the city, her international colleagues were on the first flight home. Yet she was risking her life each day on the road to her office, where armed attacks frequently took place. Some of her family members had lost limbs as a result of such attacks. Yasmin remained committed to her job, as a health worker for mothers and children, telling me that giving it up would not stop the dangers and risks of living there.

These are just a selection of stories from strong, determined women in the sector who are deeply committed to helping others and, in some cases, saving lives. As women from the global south, they do not always share the same limelight as their white expatriate colleagues from the global north; yet they continue to work in difficult conditions over long periods of time, struggling the most to prove themselves and be sufficiently recognised, supported and compensated in a sector whose working practices and environments often favour men. Many gender-related problems being addressed in humanitarian programmes are equally relevant to the staff working on those programmes.  Women often face less opportunities for career progression due to traditional gender norms concerning their family duties. Their childcare responsibilities are not seen as important – even though these surely should contribute to their humanitarian credentials – and are often viewed as a hindrance to the ‘real work’.  Women aid workers’ healthcare needs are often ignored, and there is little space to discuss them – particularly when working in male-dominated environments. And in war zones, it is largely women (and children) who are most at risk – including women aid workers.

It is time for humanitarian organisations to truly embody their values on gender equality, and recognise – and reward – the commitment of these unsung heroes, and provide better support and protection that enables them to continue with their work.

Stress and Burnout: Western concepts?

In a recent article for Open Democracy, I wrote that although increased awareness of mental health problems in the aid sector is encouraging, we have to be cautious that such problems aren’t confined solely to the white aid worker’s experience. I would like to build on that article by offering a few more examples from my doctoral research, to highlight the complexities of stress and wellbeing in the sector.

“I think they also don’t necessarily understand what it is, a lot of them. […] The first person I officially told was [my Congolese colleague]. […] I just basically in that conversation said I’m having a burnout, and he was like, ‘a what’? And I was like, ‘a burnout’ and he was like, ‘I have never heard of that, like what is that, I’ve never heard about it.”

This quote comes from a European woman who was suffering from a range of mental and physical health problems when I conducted my doctoral research in Kenya in 2015/16. After months of seeking help from different clinicians and therapists, she was told by one psychotherapist in Nairobi, also European, that her symptoms had the hallmarks of a ‘burnout’. This enabled her to negotiate extended sick leave with her employers at an international NGO with a regional office in Nairobi that covered multiple countries, including the one within her remit – the Democratic Republic of Congo.

Her Congolese colleague did not appear to have heard of this term, ‘burnout.’ I found this interesting as it resonated to some extent with what other aid workers from African countries had suggested to me: that stress, or stress-related conditions, weren’t really ‘a thing’ for them, in their societies. One Somali woman who was a diplomatic official said to me, when I told her about my research at a barbecue in Nairobi, “We don’t get stress in Africa. Stress is a western concept.” This was echoed by two Kenyan men working for a refugee organisation in Kakuma in northern Kenya, who told me that discussing stress, or seeking counselling for it, was “not so African,” with one of them admitting:

“To me it is a foreign concept. Not foreign but, er…it is not a concept instilled in me. As in at no one point can I tell someone ‘I’m stressed’ because I don’t really understand what stress means.”

Should we assume then that many aid workers in Africa don’t actually get stressed? This of course would not only be a sweeping generalisation, but also overlooks something more complex: how our social conditioning contributes to the way we conceptualise and respond to problems in our lives. In my thesis I argue that part of the reason why so many aid workers from western countries talk about, and claim, mental health problems is because we are used to pathologising our experiences in these societies: in seeking clinical explanations, and solutions, for our problems. Yet this pathologising does not occur all contexts, particularly when living in situations of acute impoverishment or conflict, where access to medical services is often limited.

Further examples from my research highlight this point. A group of aid workers I met from Somalia at a stress management workshop I facilitated in Nairobi told me about how they approached the everyday situations of violence and armed attacks in their neighbourhoods. They would often joke when they heard shootings or a bombing outside their office, that the popcorn was going off again. And one woman told me that she found it amusing how when these incidents occurred, her international colleagues visiting from Nairobi would often be on the first flight home; yet she is exposed to the risks of these attacks every day when she travels to work, and had family members who had lost limbs as a result of such incidents.

Referring to the regularity of armed attacks in Somalia, an Ethiopian aid worker who had lived and worked there for long periods, told me:

When that becomes every day a part of their life, if that happens every day, and the day after, for the last 25 years, at the end it becomes just a joke. The children in Mogadishu can tell you the sound of the gun, what gun that sound is… Is it from AK47? Is it from M16? Is it from Russian gun? Is it from American or Chinese gun? They can tell you the truth! So sometimes the concept of our western and…sort of, people who are not part of this mess, of stress and trauma and depression and that…is absolutely different when you talk to these guys who had that mess as part of their lives. I’m talking about the local aid workers as well…”

These remarks show us that stress may well be the part of everyday experience for some aid workers, in a way that doesn’t lead to pathologising but instead to finding ways to endure and carry on with life. National staff in particular do not have the same options to leave when the going gets tough, so they find ways of putting up with, and even making sense of, very challenging experiences. Religious faith played a big part in the lives of many of the Somali and Kenyan aid workers I met; it was the lens through which they made choices and took action in their lives, and through which they found meaning from suffering. As one Kenyan woman working for a development NGO told me:

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.

There are two final, related, points to raise here. One is to acknowledge that these examples remain fairly general in their conceptualisations of stress; they are largely individualised, and don’t include the role of societal and organisational structures in framing human experience. That comes later in my thesis, where I discuss more how the expectations of one’s local community, and of one’s employers, result in the emotional lives of aid workers often being silenced or suppressed; and how a person’s gender, race or nationality all feed into how they experience their job and how they are treated in the workplace. (Other factors are of course also at play, such as social class and sexual orientation – but these issues did not arise so clearly in my research data.)

Secondly, recognising that some staff have their own ways of managing their hardships – for instance through their religious faith – does not let organisations off the hook. It is a problem within the aid sector, and more broadly within neoliberal societies, that self-care – whether it be prayer, breathing exercises or fitness classes – is seen as the panacea for all societal ills. When this attitude is taken, and when staff are encouraged to engage more with self-care practices, the structural and systemic problems within the aid sector remain intact, and it is simply business as usual. Stress, burnout, trauma – whatever we want to call these conditions – are structural, not just individual, problems requiring a collective response. I’ll end here with a passage from a manual I highly recommend for organisations seeking to understand what we mean by ‘trauma’ in African societies. In it, a Ugandan woman managing a women’s organisation, provides this insight:

I asked women in Samia, my own language: “what is trauma?” They described it as obuchuuni – a word you could translate as ‘pain’. In their explanation, pain meant discrimination, marginalization, denial of belonging, illness. All this caused them this invisible pain that affected their minds and body. That enabled me to start seeing how we could respond as an organization and start to deal with pain in their bodies, minds and spirits.

From: (Re)Conceptualizing Trauma: An AIR Convening (2014)

On Ending Chapters and Starting New Ones

Wait, what just happened? Aid workers who are reading this, how often have you had this feeling after returning from field work, or completing an intense and all-consuming job? That feeling that something that gave you purpose, that helped to define your life for much of the time, has come to an end…..and now you have entered the void, the unknown. Not entirely sure what comes next, and too tired and discombobulated to move in any meaningful direction.

I’ve been there before. And to some extent I am there now, although not because of any humanitarian activity. Just a few weeks ago I submitted the final final, this-is-truly-it (I think) version of my Phd thesis, entitled The Vulnerable Humanitarian: Discourses of Stress and Meaning-Making Among Aid Workers in Kenya. I say ‘final-final’ because what no one tells you when embarking on a Phd is that a good few months are spent producing what you assume to be the final draft of your thesis, only to go through a prolonged process of revisions following what is supposedly the pinnacle of your efforts: the viva, or oral examination where you defend what you have written. This means that ending the Phd often lacks finality, or closure. It is hard to be sure where the end-point actually lies: when you submit your thesis for review by your examiners, when you have the viva, when you submit the corrections suggested by your examiners, or when they approve your corrections (I’m still waiting for this last part). And during this time we are left in limbo, wondering what has just happened and what is ahead of us.

Back to the parallels with aid workers, and the re-entry into ‘normal life’.  Particularly when you are not sure of what you want to do next, or you are hoping for an adjustment in career aspirations or work-life balance but are not quite sure yet what that means – and I know there are many aid workers out there having this experience – there follows a period of uncertainty, and possibly panic. And the human instinct often appears to be one of FOMO, the fear of missing out, or of failure, if we allow ourselves to stop for just one minute and take a breath from our life aspirations.

The problem also for those of us who are taking the route of addressing wellbeing in the aid sector, the success of such initiatives largely depends on us being able to commodify what we believe is vital to this industry; to prove to aid organisations that it makes financial sense to look after staff. Many of us need to be self-starters, good at networking and with the right jargon and tactics to access, and persuade, the sector’s managers and gatekeepers. Although recent events, including the suicides of two members of staff at Amnesty International and the allegations of sexual harassment in various organisations has shone a light on wellbeing in the sector, these issues are largely still not a priority when resources are scarce and the needs of populations in war zones and disaster areas ever-greater. It thus remains a huge effort to make ourselves heard in a sector that largely wants to maintain the status quo of pushing staff beyond their capacities until they can no longer function, and who are easily dispensed of because some other idealist can easily take their place.

Individual and collective wellbeing in the aid sector nevertheless remains my passion, after having spent over four years studying stress among aid workers in Kenya, and having worked in many organisations where lack of attention to staff care has had negative implications for my health and the health of my colleagues. So although I’m in the transition phase of finishing my Phd, waking each day with some inertia and indeed some emotion as I let go of this last chapter of my life, I also know there is much work to be done in challenging organisational cultures and practices that not only damage staff but the very humanitarian ethos and caring aspirations of the aid sector. I am thus striking a delicate balance between resting, enjoying a life that goes beyond the mental angst and solitude of academia, and of connecting my ideas and values with meaningful action.

In the next few weeks, as I gather my own inner resources for the struggles ahead (because challenging the injustices and mental and emotional health implications of the aid system’s patriarchal and colonial structure is a struggle) I will also be sharing some of what I have learned in the last few years. At my university, Sussex, with support from Project U-DOC I am facilitating a series of workshops on the mental health and wellbeing of doctoral researchers in June and July. These will take an intersectional approach that recognises that wellbeing is a collective, not just an individual, endeavour that cannot be seen in isolation from, or merely as an add-on to, problematic systems of power and hierarchy.  

In the aid sector, I will be writing regular updates on humanitarian health and wellbeing for the Professionals in Humanitarian Assistance and Protection network (PHAP); with the first one likely to address the findings of Amnesty International’s Wellbeing Review and upcoming initiatives arising out of the Healing Solidarity conference in September last year, including a new online platform you can join.

And, finally, at long last – I will get to work on sharing my research findings more widely, via this blog site and other channels. This includes the publication of an article for Gender and Development in June/July, which addresses power and privilege in the aid sector and the gendered and racialised problems of stress among my research participants in Kenya.

So please do watch this space and I look forward to sharing ideas and getting your feedback in the months ahead!

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.

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.

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. 

 

 

The Ethnographer’s Angst (and how it differs from the Aid Worker’s)

In my last blog post, I talked about some of the shared experiences of aid workers and doctoral researchers, particularly in relation to returning home from field work. Today I am reflecting on some of the challenges that I faced as a researcher – and as an ethnographer – which I found to be quite different from my time doing NGO field work.

First a few words about ethnography. It comprises what might be called a ‘toolkit’ of methods, primarily qualitative, and is used in anthropological studies. An ethnographer generally spends 6 months to a year in the field, immersing themselves in the population they are studying – through activities such as participant observation, where they partake in and observe the everyday lives of their research subjects. They seek to gain an insider perspective of local life, and this is seen as a unique element of anthropology.

One-to-one interviews with research participants are also part of ethnography; but tend to be semi-structured or unstructured – often more like a conversation, without too many set questions. For me, this meant being very general about my research topic when I was interviewing aid workers, and just seeing where the conversation took us; then encouraging my informants to expand upon topics that I thought were particularly relevant or interesting in relation to stress, burnout and the emotional challenges of aid work.

This method is in itself very different from the qualitative research techniques I’d become accustomed to in my career working with human rights and development NGOs; there, the approach was far more direct and with a clearer agenda – there was rarely time to just hang out with the community one was assisting for weeks on end in order to fully grasp their everyday lives. This is one reason why NGOs are often criticised for imposing projects on local communities without a full understanding of their needs; but that is a topic for another blog post.

The unstructured approach taken in ethnography means that you can spend days, maybe weeks on end, feeling like your research is lacking much focus or direction; not knowing where each conversation will lead you, or what sort of data you’re likely to gather from each interview or interaction.

It is perhaps no surprise then that self-doubt was a recurring condition throughout my field research. And, unlike NGO workers who usually have some supervision or support from their colleagues, doctoral researchers receive very little guidance and hence, very little reassurance; it is really up to us to identify what we think is important and find ways of pursuing those areas further.

A number of people I talked to about my research in Kenya didn’t understand this very organic approach. ‘What, you don’t have a specific definition of stress?’ they asked. No, I’d say: I’m more interested in how people define and talk about stress in their own way, which may lead me to a definition.

One person who I was having a casual conversation with about my research, wondered why I’m not asking more direct questions about people’s experiences of trauma or stress. Here is what I documented in my diary that day:

“He continued to look at me doubtfully as we spoke, and I found myself feeling full of doubt. The more he talked and questioned me, the more I began to quietly panic that I’m not going to find anything meaningful out of all this disparate data I’ve collected. I wondered if I’ve really got anything that ‘meaty’ that I can really do something with.”

I wasn’t taking a more direct approach because for ethnographers, interviews and what informants choose to talk about should not be too forced. As such, what is left unsaid can be as meaningful as what comes up in the conversation. Again, this is very different from my days working with human rights NGOs, where it’s perfectly acceptable in interviews to dive straight in with sensitive questions.

But the ethnographic approach certainly left me full of uncertainty a lot of the time. Was I getting the information I was looking for or expecting? Was I asking the right questions? It is still too early to judge – the next year is all about sifting through my data to see what themes and patterns, and eventually conclusions, emerge. All that I know is that there were many moments where I wondered whether I was successfully getting to the heart of someone’s experience, whether I’d built the trust with them sufficiently in order for this to happen, and whether ultimately I was doing good research.  

In many ways with doctoral research it is only we, the researcher, who can judge whether we did enough, and did it well. And as for so many of us – whatever our profession – it is extremely easy for the inner critic to take over. Sometimes I laugh at this whole experience as a doctoral researcher, because we spend so much time beating ourselves up over not doing enough, when there is actually nobody (at least, not in my case, as I have pretty sympathetic supervisors) telling us we should be doing more.

But that is an experience shared with aid workers too; we all feel we should be doing more, and often leave the field with some regrets that we didn’t achieve all that we had hoped. Both aid workers and researchers also question the value of their actions – whether their work will actually have any meaningful impact. My intentions with my research go beyond academia, so it is my hope that the conclusions I reach from it – when those do finally become clear – will indeed be meaningful to the aid sector in the longer term, after thesis completion.