Category Archives: Research

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.

The Return Home: The Shared Experiences of Aid Workers and Researchers

It is nearly two weeks since I left Kenya. The feelings I have as I readjust to UK life are very similar to what I’ve been through before when I’ve returned from mission, only this time I’m returning as a doctoral researcher who has just completed her field research. This fuzzy-headedness, lack of clarity, depletion of energy. Wanting to be alone, not finding the words to express how I’m feeling about being back. Questioning whether anyone would understand, or does anyone really care anyway? And also just feeling too tired, confused and disorientated to engage in that conversation.

Tiredness – or what I would actually describe as inertia – is a familiar feeling to me post-mission or field trip. It’s that feeling of returning home where there are lots of things you need to get done, but where there is an inability to move forward. For a while the tasks pile up, and all you can do is sit there and watch it happen as you feel powerless to do anything about it. Much of the time you just want to be somewhere on your own, doing nothing. This state of inertia is usually short-lived, and I’ve learned that I just have to accept it, and all the complicated feelings wrapped up with it, whilst also remaining present to those feelings. Writing often helps in those moments too.

Aid workers and academic researchers share other experiences too. There is that same emotional attachment to friendships and experiences in the field that seemed unique and intense and unlikely to be replicated in any way back home. Perhaps this is part of just being an expat in foreign lands; the friendships we make tend to be of a quality and intensity that is quite different from the steady development of relationships in our home country. And perhaps it is also linked to the nature of our experiences in a country that is so different from our own. Both aid workers and academic researchers are exposed to communities who, in development studies-speak, are seen as ‘subaltern’ – outside of and excluded from the hegemonic power structures of the global north, often rendering them disenfranchised, disempowered and underprivileged. My actual research subjects – unlike those of many anthropologists and ethnographers – do not necessarily fit this category as in many respects they were seen as the elite. Even a Kenyan aid worker from a poor background – and many I spoke to related to me an upbringing of struggle and hardship – is seen as part of the elite as the NGO sector is perceived by the average Kenyan as pretty lucrative; although many I spoke challenged this assumption.

The point is that, whether as a researcher or an aid worker, we are forced to often step way beyond our comfort zone into a world that is unfamiliar to us, where we have to work hard at understanding different social or cultural norms, and where we are often exposed to poverty and suffering on a daily basis of a kind most people in the UK or other wealthy countries could not comprehend. Such moments of exposure – which so quickly become normalised, for both the aid worker and the researcher – nevertheless leave an indelible mark on one’s memory. And such memories are very hard to communicate to others or even make personal sense of back in the comforts of everyday life in the UK. This is partly why the friendships we make in the field are so meaningful, because of that shared, complex experience.

So I find myself, as a researcher, in that strange transient zone I’ve grown familiar with as an aid worker; where I’m here in the UK, walking through the streets of London or Brighton or sitting at home, but much of the time my mind is elsewhere. It’s with the four year old child that was tugging at my sleeve and begging me for money as I bought groceries in Kakuma town. Or with the young Somali incentive worker (refugees who volunteer for the aid agencies and are paid a stipend) who walked me around Kakuma camp, telling me his life story and how since fleeing Somalia as a young child in 1992 he had grown up in Kenya’s refugee camps. Or with the friends I made in Nairobi, many of whom were aid workers themselves, who were there for me when I felt lonely and isolated. Who I felt so touched by when they opened up to me with such trust, telling me the personal challenges they’ve gone through with their work, and who I hope I helped in some way by just being there for them, listening to their doubts, fears, angers and anxieties.

It won’t be long before I immerse myself fully again in UK life and in the next stages of my Phd – the daunting phase of data analysis and thesis writing. But for now the same rules apply as I have taught myself as an aid worker, and which helped me so much in recent years. Stay present to your feelings. Be gentle on yourself. Spend time doing what you love. And find healthy and nurturing ways to reconnect with friends and family.

We are ultimately so lucky to have these experiences, whether as aid workers or academic researchers, as they enable us to broaden our perspectives and connect with a humanity that is far beyond the limited world view of our upbringing. And there are many ways we can put those experiences to good use, both at home and abroad.

 

What do Stress and Wellbeing mean to Aid Workers?

In the last few weeks I’ve been engaging in discussions that have put the question of how aid workers interpret stress and wellbeing at centre stage. In August I ran a stress management workshop with an Italian NGO in Kenya which was attended by Kenyan, Somali and European staff. Aside from that, I’ve been talking to various people who have an interest in or are working on providing stress relief for aid workers and social change makers.

The question of how stress and wellbeing is understood by different people is important because in a world that is flooded with information about ‘alternative therapies’ such as yoga and meditation, as well as the western psychotherapy models, we can forget the hundreds of cultural traditions around the world that have handled emotional difficulties and mental health problems in their own, localised way. We can also forget that what works for one culture or society may not work for another. And in the aid sector, where the majority of staff are nationals from the southern hemisphere, we perhaps therefore still have a lot to learn about what interventions (if any) are appropriate for dealing with work-related stress.

The tendency is to assume that standard psycho-social models are a sufficient mechanism for addressing staff mental health. But there is a counter-argument that suggests that Western models of trauma healing are not always appropriate, nor healing, for some individuals from post-conflict countries. This has been argued in various literature (for instance, here) and was a point made by an Italian doctor I met recently who was conducting a training for humanitarian workers in body, mind and spirit practices for stress, trauma and compassion fatigue. During the training she related how in previous trainings in Rwanda and Burundi, some of the participants had commented how traumatising they had found the counselling given by Western psychotherapists.

’Stress’ and ’counselling’ are pretty familiar terms in European and American societies. Whilst there is still stigma around issues of mental health – people don’t talk openly about their depression, for instance –  there is an assumption that stress is part of everyday life, and that chronic forms of stress affect some of us and require clinical intervention in the form of one-to-one counselling.

The personal perception of stress and the way one deals with it is, in many ways, culturally and socially rooted. Whilst many NGOs provide some form of counselling for their staff, it would seem that ‘talking therapies’ are not necessarily the answer for a lot of aid workers.

Here are a couple of quotes from my data:

“There are those of us like me who come from nomadic background which thinks that talking about it is…is being a bit of a sissy. But, there are those of us that come from that culture of expressing yourself and you can see that people do grieve with each other, with different cultures.”

Somali UN worker (male)

“They pay for our counselling…but since it’s not so African to go for such things, most people don’t go for…debriefing. You can go during your R and R but nobody seems to ever get to it […] We as Africans we handle our stress differently – everyone has their own issues so why do you think yours is bigger? […] I think people just learn to handle their stress on their own, in case it’s there. Because for one we don’t open up that much, and especially here in Kakuma who would you open up to, especially if stress is work-related [….] basically you have to learn to handle your stress by yourself.”

Kenyan humanitarian NGO worker (male) (Kakuma)

Stress is not only culturally rooted; it is a gendered concept too. In the stress management workshop I recently ran, the Kenyan women remarked that stress in their society is largely seen as a women’s issue and associated with marital pressures, and with being of the ‘weaker sex’. This not only denigrates stress to the female experience, it also sends out the message that men do not suffer from stress, and therefore should certainly not talk about it.

I have been wondering about self-care practices too. ‘Self-care’ is in itself a dirty word for some aid workers. If it’s not seen as a bit ’new age’ or ‘hippy’, it’s seen as self-indulgent and completely at odds with a sector supposedly focused solely on helping others, not oneself.

There is a growing interest in yoga, meditation and similar self-care practices as a means to relieve stress, build resilience and encourage deeper self-awareness and compassion among aid workers and other social change makers. Regular yoga and mindfulness practices have certainly helped me in the last few years; the way I approach my work as a human rights defender has been transformed by following a daily practice that cultivates presence and a more mindful response to my own emotions and to the challenges around me.  And I continue to explore these further as a means to engage more fully in the world as well as to bring inner wellbeing.

But can these sorts of practices be adapted, and adopted, in African cultures? Are there traditions within African cultures which in fact use some of these practices already but give them a different name? I’m conscious that here in Kenya, for instance, trying to impose yoga or mindfulness as a stress relief tool may be seen as an effort to convert people to Hindu or Buddhist religions. Yet some of the techniques used in both these practices can probably be found in many other ancient cultures, including in Africa.

There are examples where the use of yoga and mindfulness have been introduced in different cultures, among aid workers and the communities they serve, with positive results – as this video from a woman who worked in Afghanistan suggests. Capacitar training also uses yoga, tai chi and other practices for trauma healing in communities that may be otherwise unaware of these traditions.

Self-care needn’t require a commitment to these increasingly popular practices however. As this blog by an Afrofeminist writer eloquently describes, there are many ways of practising self-care without having to devote oneself to yoga, and without necessarily having to completely change one’s lifestyle. Spending more time with family and loved ones is  important for aid workers and any other social change makers; because one of the big symptoms of stress and burnout is social detachment and disengagement, triggered by repeated exposure to the brutality and injustice that represent the darkest elements of human behaviour.  After such exposure, it is vital to seek out community and friendship. This can restore one’s faith in humanity and help cultivate compassion in a working environment that can be susceptible to ‘compassion fatigue.’ This video by the Headington Institute provides some advice to aid workers on how to maintain relationships with loved ones as a means of self-care.

Stress and how one responds to it is in some ways a complex matter. In the aid sector, both the individual and the organisation need to listen more – to themselves, to their staff, and what forms of support and healing are appropriate. It could take some time before aid agencies  go beyond a ‘one size fits all’ approach to staff care, but in the meantime there is a lot aid workers can do to help themselves. The starting point is that old adage, ‘Know Thyself’. What is your body trying to tell you and are you willing to stop and listen?

 

 

Who is the Aid Worker?

This is a question that has sprung up once again in aid/development debates, and one recent blog post arguing for ‘new words’ captures the issue very well. I have also been considering this question as I conduct research in Kenya. I have used the term aid worker in my research as I wanted to find an expression that could capture the diversity of people I was researching. To me it was the best term available to encapsulate all my research subjects – people working for international development, humanitarian and human rights organisations. But this by no means implies the term is sufficient; in fact it leads to a lot of confusion, for myself and others.

‘Aid worker’ is actually often associated purely with those involved in humanitarian interventions. So people have assumed that I am only interested in staff working for humanitarian organisations such as Medecins Sans Frontieres or the International Committee of the Red Cross. I’ve found myself having to explain that actually I’m just as interested in investigating the challenges of working on long-term development interventions; in talking to individuals who work on water and sanitation programmes or micro-credit schemes in rural settings, for instance. As what I wish to argue is that chronic stress may arise just as much from working in these sorts of settings as with short-term emergency operations in disaster areas.

But how can a human rights defender be considered an aid worker, some may ask? Well, as someone who has worked for both national and international human rights organisations, as well as development/humanitarian organisations, the easiest way to describe myself, when explaining what I do to people outside the sector altogether, is ‘aid worker’.

But of course this leads to huge misperceptions about what I do. The image of the heroic aid worker feeding a sick child or providing first aid to people fleeing war or violence is what everybody knows; yet I have never been directly involved in these sorts of operations, and in fact when working for human rights organisations there is often no assistance given whatsoever – it’s all about advocacy and raising awareness. But explaining that to an ‘outsider’ sometimes feels too clunky, too tiring….and sometimes one wonders, are they really that interested anyway in these finer details?

Furthermore, when we look at the actual job descriptions of aid workers, many are less on the operational side and more on the systems side of things – whether this be fundraising, M and E or strategy development. They are rarely doing the frontline work of regularly interacting and assisting ‘aid beneficiaries’ (another term that needs a serious overhaul). Yet as I’ve gone about my field research in Kenya I’ve been introduced to and interviewed a range of people who have offered themselves up as ‘aid workers’, who probably spend most weeks and months at their desks in an office in Nairobi, but who have a story to tell about stress and the challenges of the work.

This prompts a relevant question for my research; one which I feel inclined to ask my informants in the ensuing weeks – what does ‘the typical aid worker’ actually mean to people doing aid work?

This could be further expanded to ask more probing questions, like: What is the popular image they have in mind, and what is the real image that resonates more for them? At what point do people who enter the aid sector start describing themselves as an ‘aid worker’? And at what point does this concept of themselves get challenged by the reality they find?

The dissonance between the romantic image of the aid worker and the harsh reality of office politics, donor demands, unethical approaches and ineffective interventions can be a major challenge for people in the sector and, I think, a source of stress and contributing factor for those who burn out. This relates to a previous blog post I wrote about ‘moral injury’. The Headington Institute have a neat definition for this term and of another similar one, ‘wounds of the soul’:

They result from violations of deeply held beliefs about what is right […] when one must choose among “bad” options, [which] may force people to act contrary to their beliefs.

The writer at Headington Institute goes on to give other examples of moral injury within the context of humanitarian aid:

Inability to stop others from committing atrocities; carrying out management directives that violate personal values; witnessing random suffering caused by natural disasters; tolerating overwhelming injustice.

As the writer notes, these experiences can leave aid workers feeling full of guilt, shame and disillusionment – some of the hallmarks also of burnout.

So I feel it is true to say we must consider this term ‘aid worker’ and how we use it. Not just in the intellectual sense, but on a personal level too. Those working within the humanitarian/development/human rights sphere need to reflect on how they wish to see, and be, themselves. The narratives they, and their colleagues and organisations, build around their work may be serving to damage their own sense of self. What is needed in this work is not an inflated or exaggerated image of what one is expected to achieve in a world of extreme poverty and immense suffering, but confidence in the small and modest, but perhaps meaningful role, one can play in challenging opinions and changing lives.

 

 

 

Aid Workers in Turkana: Outsider Lives and Compound Lifestyles

For the last couple of weeks, I’ve been up in Turkana county, in northern Kenya. This is one of Kenya’s poorest counties; dry, arid and hot, it is not an easy life up here. Rural and pastoralist communities are spread out throughout the county, struggling to survive with a scarcity of water and relying on their cattle, goats and camels and various Food for Assets and Credit Transfer programmes; since the devolution process started in 2013, the county government is now leading many of these development initiatives in the area. Meanwhile, the refugee community in Kakuma in Turkana West sub-county is struggling to survive on the handouts of humanitarian agencies, with everyone waiting to find out if the camp – home to around 185000 refugees – will be closed following the Kenyan government’s announcement to this effect a few weeks ago.

It goes without saying that this is a very different context for aid interventions than Nairobi, where I’ve been most of the time whilst conducting field research in Kenya. In Nairobi aid workers are either based in national offices where they travel out to the field every few weeks, to their programmes dotted around the country (this of course includes Somalia for a lot of organisations, who cannot be based in the country permanently due to security risks); or they are based in the regional offices where they may be travelling even less, playing an administrative or supportive role to the staff based in countries such as South Sudan or Uganda.

Here in Turkana you can find aid and development workers who have barely travelled to Nairobi; some who are from Turkana and have rarely left the county. The air conditioned, bustling offices and plywood desks and swivel chairs of the INGO national headquarters in Nairobi are a long long way away. Here in Turkana most INGO offices are on sandy, dusty compounds with few trees or foliage, and a slow, sleepy atmosphere permeates with only fans and an occasional breeze to cool people down in temperatures of 35 to 40 degrees.

Most of the people I’ve spoken to here, whether programme directors or field officers, are Kenyans. This would not have been the case 10 or 20 years ago. The expat aid worker presence, both here and in Nairobi, is falling year by year as Kenyan expertise increase and the restructuring of INGOs leads to more operations being managed and implemented at local and national level rather than from Europe. This reality, which can be seen across the globe as well as in Kenya, makes the need for greater recognition of the specific challenges faced by national aid workers even more crucial if we are to fully understand aid practice.

And here I outline some of those challenges that I’ve noticed as I spend time in Lodwar, the main city in Turkana and the local base for development INGOs including Oxfam, World Vision, Child Fund and Save the Children among others; and Kakuma, the base for humanitarian INGOs and UN agencies providing assistance to the refugee camp.

  • Many of the Kenyans I’ve spoken to are not from Turkana; their families are in another part of the country and they are visiting them every 2 or 3 months when they are on R and R (rest and recuperation). This is not the sort of place to bring your family, I’ve heard a few people say. So they must make do with speaking to their loved ones on the phone – provided they are not right out in the rural areas, where phone network may not work – or on skype – provided there is internet network, which is very intermittent here. And after 2 months, they spend what can be a day or more travelling to their family homes, for what may only be 5 days if they stick solely to the R and R they’re entitled to.
  • For most of Turkana county, you can find aid workers staying in guest houses or local accommodation, some in remote villages with no electricity or internet, and some in Lodwar and other large towns. In Kakuma, you can find them in one of the UN or INGO compounds. These are self-contained areas housing offices and staff accommodation, some of them small prefab units for people passing through for a short period of time. When not in the camp, humanitarian workers are confined to these compounds – it is where they work, eat and socialise – and are expected to return there when the curfew begins in the refugee camp at 6pm. Whether in Kakuma or other towns and villages in Turkana, there is not much to do outside office hours. None of the fancy restaurants found in Nairobi. No yoga classes or parks to walk around. And no supermarkets selling luxury items. In these circumstances, the social structure of one’s organisation is often all that exists in terms of support and social interaction. But on some weekends people travel out of town, to their homes or on R and R. So the humanitarian compound can be a quiet, uneventful place. Although some compounds, particularly those housing the UN staff, are better than others – one here has a gym and tennis court as well as cafeteria and bar.
  • One is very aware here of being seen as an outsider. In Lodwar, aid workers from outside Turkana told me of how they find the culture very different from their own; characterised by the diet – a lot of meat, mainly goat – or by the perceptions of women, for instance. One African expat in a senior position at an INGO told me of how she found the local authorities very reluctant to meet her when she arrived to introduce herself and make herself known to the community. She suspected there would have been a very different welcome if she’d been a man. Several others I spoke to in Lodwar commented on how the local community had seemed very suspicious towards them at first. This is partly a throwback to the derogatory treatment they were subjected to in colonial times, I was told; but also part of their guarded attitude as pastoralists defending their small communities and livestock, and their disillusionment with INGOs coming and going with endless surveys and overambitious or unfulfilled promises of development assistance.
  • In Kakuma, mistrust plays out in a different way. There is hostility particularly from the host community, who are tired of seeing the plethora of aid agencies turning up in their four wheel drives, hiding behind huge compounds just beside the refugee camp, and assisting the refugee community whilst apparently ignoring the abject poverty of the local population; although a number of organisations are trying to address this disparity with development interventions with the host community as well. One American expat told me of how she’d been attacked twice whilst going for a run in the area outside her compound, although she escaped largely unharmed on both occasions. Refugees too are also at times unhappy with the insufficient assistance received from the aid agencies here, occasionally protesting outside the agency compounds.

What is important to most aid workers I speak to in Turkana is having some form of social support network to turn to. Sometimes this may only be friends and family back home. For others, who are stuck up in a remote village for two months, it may be just one other colleague who is there with them. And for the expat humanitarian workers here in Kakuma, friendships are challenged by the continuing turnover of staff, as people finish one humanitarian posting and move on to another.

Life isn’t all bad of course. Staying in a quiet town with few ways to pass one’s time means money is saved, and for Kenyans this is particularly important when there are likely to be several relatives from the extended family expecting support. Expat aid workers have their supplies of luxury items such as olive oil, muesli, cheese and wine they’ve brought with them from Nairobi to keep them happy. And in the humanitarian compounds there is usually a party or gathering to go to at a neighbour’s house; one aid worker described his life there as ‘a bit like summer camp’.

Few aid workers have complained directly about their work with the communities. Those that have refer to the difficulties of meeting people’s expectations, particularly in what is often referred to as a very aid-dependent community. Most love the work they do, and feel a sense of fulfilment from the impact it has. The greater challenges often relate to what can at times be unbearable heat; the rough terrain throughout Turkana which can halt transport plans, particularly in the rainy season, leaving aid workers stranded in one place with few provisions; and the insecurity in certain areas – particularly on the borders with West Pokot county, where cattle rustling occurs between the Pokot and the Turkana pastoralists.

It has been an insightful time up here, exposing me far more directly to the realities of aid and development work than what I’ve witnessed so far in Nairobi. No doubt what I have described is familiar for many development and humanitarian workers. But outside the sector, these small but significant nuances are not always acknowledged in debates and analysis of what ‘aid work’ entails.

With only a few months left of my field research, it will soon be time to make sense of all of this and draw some conclusions, which I hope will be of value to the aid sector and to the many and diverse professionals working within it.

Aid worker motivations: more than escapism or altruism

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Aid worker salaries and meanings for motivation

Last week my blog post on motivations in aid work was published at the same time as the spotlight was once again shone on aid worker salaries and benefits disparities. The Guardian’s Secret Aid Worker piece which questioned why expats receive as much as three times more compensation for their work than their national counterparts, was followed by another Guardian article summarising what continues to be a polarised response from the aid worker community.

Some would argue that the discrepancies in compensation – with expats often entitled to regular R and R, flights home, housing and hardship allowances and the payment of school fees for their children – create divisions within the workplace and fail to recognise the distinctive expertise of national staff that should also be rewarded. Some expats are quick to defend the higher salaries and allowances afforded to them due to the sacrifices they make in moving from their home country, usually taking a drop in salary to do this sort of work, and often still having to cover housing, school or family costs back home.

This debate is an important one – you can add your voice to it in a survey posted via the Evil Genius site  – and is happening on a regular basis within aid organisations, although often in hushed tones. The very fact that there is this disparity, and sometimes glaringly so, is likely to create tensions between national and expat staff. I often wonder myself what it must feel like for Kenyans here to see their colleagues driving to their homes six kilometres away in their four wheel drives while the Kenyan staff queue for a matatu to take them on what can be a two hour journey across town to an area where rent is more affordable. Or what it feels like to know that as a Kenyan you are treated as a ‘national staff’ in a place like Somalia or South Sudan, and thus paid less and not protected by the same security procedures as the European and American aid workers doing the same job. I think Western expats should at the very least acknowledge these differences and how they feed into a neo-colonial narrative that assumes white people are more deserving of certain privileges because of their backgrounds, expertise and experience. The uncomfortable truth that even African expats are likely to be treated differently from their white counterparts is highlighted by Crewe and Fernando:

Is it an unreasonable jump to have argued that the expatriate versus national opposition is linked to white versus non-white? The correlation is far from exact. But when people from the South take jobs in Europe or America they are not considered ‘expatriates’. It is often taken for granted that ‘expatriates’ means Euro- American experts whereas expatriates from elsewhere are given a specific identity (the ‘Ghanaian consultant’ or ‘consultant from the South’). So the jump is more reasonable than it appears at first.

(Crewe and Fernando, The elephant in the room: racism in representation, relationships and rituals, Progress in Development Studies 6, 1, 2006; 51)

Putting this particular hot potato aside, I also think we should be reflecting on what role adequate compensation plays in doing our work well. I’m aware of some NGOs – both national and international – where there are very few benefits for expats and salaries are so low that although you may be able to afford a modest apartment in the country you’re working in, you certainly couldn’t afford to live anywhere back home. The thinking behind this a lot of the time is, ‘we hire people because of their dedication to the cause – a quality that loses legitimacy if rewarded with too much compensation’. The assumption is that a desirable income suggests motivations of self-interest that go against the noble intentions associated with aid work. For a young aid worker who is new to the industry this arrangement may seem morally correct; but realities and attitudes change once you consider how you’re going to pay for a flight home, or for rent or daily living when you get there. Your dedication to the cause eventually has to be weighed against building a future and a settled, financially secure life for yourself. And aid workers want and need this like anyone else does.

Aid work is now increasingly seen as a professional role like any other; it is not driven purely by altruistic values. In Kenya, it is in fact a fairly lucrative profession in many instances – for both nationals and expats. This is partly why so many will not leave their jobs, no matter how much they struggle with it or how mean their boss is – they do not want to let go of the benefits that come with it.

We should not therefore discount the possibility that aid workers stay in their jobs because of the income and benefits they receive; but we should also not assume that this completely undermines any suggestion that aid worker motivations are, or should be, moral or altruistic. Perhaps, as one study of Bangledeshi NGO workers suggests, these sorts of intentions should be rewarded if staff are to remain committed to what they do. This should apply none more so than to national aid workers. They are often operating in difficult, sometimes highly dangerous settings, and their close proximity to the communities they assist may bring specific challenges; for instance, they themselves may be exposed to the same health or security risks as these communities, or they may become a target of government surveillance or harassment. Yet these national aid workers rarely have the same privileges of R and R, evacuation, or being able to easily find a job in another country, as their expat counterparts. These distinctive circumstances demand greater recognition, and reward.