There’s been a fair amount of debate recently regarding people from the western world who travel to the developing world (particularly Africa) with high ideals of saving lives and leave feeling disappointed or worse, depressed. First there was the ‘Linton Lies’ debacle where a white British woman’s published book describing her experiences as a volunteer in Zambia, and the neo-colonial language she used in the book, were challenged through the social media hashtag #LintonLies.
Then this week an anonymous aid worker wrote about the depression they suffered after working for an international NGO in an unnamed African country. Both individuals have drawn criticism for having white saviour complexes. Their stories also raise important issues about whether aid organisations – working with volunteers or paid professionals – make the appropriate decisions in who they send on these ‘missions’ and whether the people sent are sufficiently prepared for the working environment they will find themselves in. The criticisms levelled at these individuals, and the concerns their stories prompt about institutional responsibilities – whilst certainly worthy of attention – are not the focus of this blog post.
There is an overriding theme that emerges from the stories of these individuals which I find particularly interesting right now, and that is expectations. How do personal, organisational and societal expectations feed into aid workers’ sense of, or indeed loss of, purpose? This question is as legitimate for national aid workers from developing countries as it is for western aid workers from privileged backgrounds.
Aid workers often enter the sector with high morals and ideals about saving the world or humanity. And there is certainly nothing wrong with wanting to play a role in improving the lives of others, or ending social or economic injustices. The reality of the work though can be far from what aid workers had in mind. Not only this, but aid workers are often juggling the huge expectations from their organisation, from their organisation’s donors, and from the populations receiving the organisation’s assistance. Feelings of guilt and shame arise when as an aid worker you realise that organisational policies, poor management or insufficient – or worse, wasted – resources, mean that some of the communities you are assisting will not actually receive the help that is so urgently needed, and their lives will not change for the better through your interventions. Under these circumstances it is not difficult to wonder whether your efforts were worth it, or even necessary in the first place.
Kenyan aid workers I’ve spoken to have told me of how one of their major challenges is responding to the expectations of the communities they are assisting, particularly in poorer regions such as Turkana in northern Kenya where the needs are greater. An organisation’s mandate to work solely on human rights protection, for instance, means little to someone in urgent need of food and water.The chances are that as an aid worker you will have to get used to saying no to requests for help far more than you can say yes. And the justification for saying no can at times seen unethical, unfair or unjust.
As noted in the Guardian’s Secret Aid Worker article, there are also work pressures that are not envisaged when entering into this sector; tasks and responsibilities that go beyond your job description. This includes the unspoken expectation that you will check your e-mails regularly outside working hours, including weekends. Or being told that it would be better if you delay your R and R (rest and recuperation) because you’re needed in the office, thereby resulting in you not seeing your family for another few weeks after having already been away for 2 months.
Much of what I’m talking about here has nothing to do with western aid workers with white saviour complexes. National aid workers are just as likely to have these same challenges; indeed many Kenyan aid workers I’ve spoken to have referred to them. One Kenyan female humanitarian worker told me how she travelled to Dadaab to conduct a training in the camp, 33 weeks pregnant and on a bumpy and unsafe road, because the colleague who was meant to be going had fallen sick and couldn’t make it. Another Kenyan woman working for an international humanitarian agency told me that she had to work over much of the Christmas period in response to a string of natural disasters and conflicts occurring in the region, requiring an urgent response. Her exhaustion from this episode resulted in what she called a ‘burnout’. This was dealt with partly by establishing a more disciplined working pattern, where at a certain time outside working hours she would stop checking and responding to e-mails and be called by phone only in an emergency.
But what I find particularly relevant for aid workers – and perhaps this is also the case for others in the ‘helping professions’ – is the role of personal expectations in one’s experiences. Many aid workers are driven by a shared experience of injustice, or by a desire to help others less fortunate than themselves. Their expectation is that they can make a tangible difference to people’s lives. Indeed this is also backed up by the agendas of their organisations, so often popularised through the media images of aid workers feeding hungry children or building shelters for refugees.
There is thus an emotional investment; a sense of responsibility – rightly or wrongly – for the wellbeing and survival of others who are suffering. There is also an expectation – again at times reinforced by one’s employers – that this responsibility towards others comes before responsibility to oneself. One Ethiopian UN worker I spoke to went as far as to say, ‘if I don’t go through 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…or kids will miss their vaccination or immunisation and these are the vital services that children need….’
Perhaps what is important in all of this, if aid workers are to continue their efforts without burning out, is for them to find purpose in what they do. The recent Secret Aid Worker’s story, along with many others from aid workers, highlight that loss of purpose is often a trigger for depression and burnout. But what is also important is having realistic expectations about one’s purpose in the first place. This requires aid workers to engage in some self-reflection about their role in helping others – and this should certainly include a willingness to recognise their privileged position and skewed view point in relation to the populations they are assisting, something that Louise Linton in particular was accused of failing to do. But aid workers should also acknowledge, accept and work within their limitations – whether these are down to organisational policies, the environmental context or simply being human.