Morals and Motivations in Aid Work

What motivates aid workers? And do motivations have any bearing on how aid workers experience stress? These are two among many questions I continue to grapple with whilst undertaking field research in Kenya.

Whilst family, friends and even strangers we meet at a party may assume that we are selfless heroes, ask aid workers about what motivated them to enter their profession and you’ll get a mixed set of answers. Some will flat out deny they have any altruistic motivations whatsoever and will argue that they are getting far more out of what they do than any so-called aid ‘beneficiary’ or ‘recipient’. The rewards for aid workers may be self-development, expanding one’s understanding of the world, exploring different cultural or social realities, or financial gain; because, much to the surprise of the stranger you meet at a party who asks you what you do for a living, aid work a lot of the time actually pays quite well.

Aid workers are often keen to debunk the popular image of humanitarian hero with purely altruistic intentions. A female development worker in Tanzania interviewed by Maria Erikson Baaz is quick to point out  the ‘egoistic will’ which drives her work (Baaz, The Paternalism of Partnership: A Postcolonial Reading of Identity in Development Aid, 2004: 90); and the aid blogosphere is full of snarky commentary (such as this one) that attempts to do away with false assumptions about heroic aid workers.

Aid worker motivations are nevertheless complex and cannot be easily categorised into the altruistic/selfish binary, as writers such as Sara de Jong (de Jong, ‘False Binaries: Altruism and Selfishness in NGO work, in Fechter and Hindman Inside the Everyday Lives of Development Workers: The Challenges and Futures of Aidland2010) and, most recently, Liisa Malkki, have highlighted. Malkki’s book, The Need to Help: The Domestic Arts of International Humanitarianism, which I have yet to finish, asks the question, ‘what is it we’re not seeing, and not being told, about the motivations of humanitarian workers?’ Her interest is particularly in the neediness that, she argues, often underlies a person’s decision to enter into this profession; a neediness to get away from home and find solace in a different community, or the neediness to live out a sense of obligation towards those less fortunate than oneself. She also notes that heroism, or some sense of self-sacrifice, were rarely the guiding motivations for the Red Cross humanitarian professionals she spoke to, although these factors probably had some influence. Many of her informants talked more about their ‘internationalist’ aspirations – the desire to travel and interact with different cultures, a sense of obligation towards the global south, whose communities were victim to the global north’s avarice and war-mongering – than a specific calling to a particular cause. Solidarity and a feeling of working together for a greater good were also important to the aid workers she interviewed.

What this indicates is that whether motivations are seen as selfish or altruistic, there is a moral undertone that guides a lot of people in this sector; aid workers do this work because they believe it is ‘the right thing to do’ in order to ‘share humanity’, to be part of this world and to take responsibility for the damage we are all causing to it.

I find this interesting as it relates somewhat to my own experience, and also to a term coined by a journalist interested in the trauma experiences of soldiers and of humanitarian workers; a term  which I’m going to adopt here – ‘moral injury’.

I was trying to think back to when I first felt this urge to enter the humanitarian sphere. There was one pivotal moment that particularly lodged itself in my memory, and that was seeing the aftermath of the earthquake Izmit which struck Turkey in August 1999. I was so horrified by what I saw on the news, and felt this strong desire to go and help. It was during that same summer that a friend from University had travelled to Cameroon to do voluntary work. When hearing her account of her experiences there when she returned, I remember feeling this urge to do the same, and also to do my volunteering in Africa.

So I left University with this determination to work abroad for a charity, but I didn’t really know what sort of work. I guess I had that ‘need to help’ that Malkki was talking about. Whether it’s a ‘neediness’ as she is implying in her book, I’m not sure. But it did eventually turn into an attachment to a particular cause and a moral imperative to take action – on the war in northern Uganda, on the post-election violence in Kenya, on the occupation in Palestine…and so on and so on.

Fast forward to 2016, and the plethora of questions and debates that have arisen around why aid workers suffer from stress and burnout, and how it can be prevented. And one journalist’s reference to ‘moral injury’, which caught my attention. The point he was raising, actually in reference to soldiers but with relevance for aid workers too, was that maybe we become damaged by disappointment and betrayal; because we start off in this work with a sense of moral obligation but can end up hugely disillusioned when we find out that our intentions are not always appreciated. Perhaps our organisation does not share our moral standpoint, or maybe the communities we supposedly ‘serve’ do not want us to be there. Or perhaps we feel betrayed because of something we should have done, but didn’t; or equally because of something we did do but wish we hadn’t. Sometimes we may end up questioning whether we’re doing any good whatsoever, and whether therefore our work is completely at odds with our moral obligation towards those who are suffering partly as a result of our governments’ policies. I remember leaving Palestine in 2011 with those very questions and wondering whether my presence there was appreciated, or made any difference. Perhaps no surprises what happened next – I’m undecided whether to call it a burnout, but it certainly resulted in a break from the sector and a difficult emotional period lasting over a year.

What do the mixed, changing and at times unrealised intentions of aid workers mean for how and whether they experience stress and burnout? I’m interested in exploring this here in Kenya, where I’ve spoken to a number of people, both Kenyans and expats, whose motivations do not point immediately to moral obligations, nor to purely altruistic intentions. Some have fallen in to this work without really planning it, some are in it for the opportunity to live abroad and be exposed to different cultures, and some are using it as a stepping stone to another career later on down the line. And of course there are indeed some who are passionate about what they do, and believe they can make a meaningful difference to people’s lives. I am not doubting that there are often caring intentions at play, but I am interested in exploring how different motivations are recognised and how they influence the behaviour and choices of aid workers. Sarah de Jong makes an interesting argument that altruism and selfishness may exist simultaneously and are not necessarily in contradiction to each other (de Jong in Hindman and Fechter, 2010: 37). I believe it is important to recognise this in order to understand fully why people enter the aid sector, how they change throughout their professional lives, and the reasons why some of them end up leaving for good.

 

3 thoughts on “Morals and Motivations in Aid Work

  1. Michael Houldey

    This essay eloquently and lucidly illustrates some of the many aspects and definitions of burn- out and stress in the aid sector. You make it clear that motivation to work in the sector comes in many forms, and inspires people from a broad range of backgrounds. The two incidents and locations which inspired you personally – the Turkish earthquake and your friend’s experiences in Cameroon – made me conjecture on forms of motivation, particularly in the case of world grabbing headlines and personal testimonies from friends. Does that sudden emotional or transcendental relationship with a hitherto unknown territory of set of circumstances shape the stamina, dedication and passion of the tyro aid worker? Does that moment of inspiration remain ever present or does the aid worker either forget or deconstruct it? And what influence does that moment of awakening have when months or years later, the aid worker is suffering from doubts, trauma and,in some cases,burn out. Does the worker feel that his or her role has in the end been insignificant or even worthless? Your recollections of the time when you left Palestine beg somequestions. Was your departure due to a growing despair as a result of your own first hand experience of the everyday realities of life under occupation? In spite of your energies and determination, were you left with a sense of futility, a feeling that neither you nor any of the colleagues from different parts of the world who you met whilst in West Bank could make the slightest difference to an ongoing conflict, ever increasing in horror? Or did you leave feeling enlightened by your experience and enriched through a real understanding of the issues and the injustices that others can only read about? And when you were distanced from the location where you had lived and worked did you suffer from mental and emotional confusions leading to your own particular form of burn out – which after all comes in many guises, affecting different people in different ways? Or did you just feel one chapter of your life was over and it was time to start a new chapter? Does that in itself constitute burn-out?

    Reply
    1. AidSoulSearch Post author

      These are all very relevant and interesting questions, and ones I should probably give full consideration to in another blog post. In the case of Palestine, and probably many other situations, I believe that solidarity with those suffering from injustice is a major driving force. If it is, then in some ways we have to accept that making a real difference to the situation may not be the outcome of our work. Perhaps showing one’s solidarity is all that can be done in some circumstances, and indeed maybe that’s all that is asked for. Unfortunately many aid workers believe they can do far more than is possible, or their assumptions about what they can do may not actually be what the communities they are assisting want. And they will leave one place feeling jaded, then move on to another in the hope it will be different. And perhaps sometimes it is; we should certainly reflect on the small things each of us do achieve, as well as all the expectations that weren’t fulfilled.

      Reply
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