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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.