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.

 

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.

 

The Trials and Tribulations of Aid Worker Relationships

My last blog piece highlighted that emotional experiences in aid work can be complicated and not always directly related to critical incidents or the challenges of living in remote, unfamiliar or insecure environments. An interesting area of my research which I feel needs further investigation is how these emotional experiences play out in aid workers’ relationships. As I commented in the last blog piece, the emotional impact of aid work may be a relational issue; in other words, how we recognise and process our emotions may be determined by the social context – whether we feel safe in opening up, and how the other person responds to us.

These issues have arisen a number of times recently in the course of my field research. In particular, both Kenyan and expat aid workers have highlighted to me how difficult it can be to talk about their work to their friends and spouses. One Kenyan working for an international development NGO in Nairobi told me that his constant travel, and the fact that his wife didn’t even live in Nairobi but in another county a few hundred kilometres away, had put considerable strain on their recent marriage. It was very hard for his wife, who does not work in the aid sector, to understand the context of his job and the expectations associated with it, which so often include frequent travel. In this situation, I wonder how easy it is for someone to talk about the challenges they face in their work, when they know that their loved ones may not really understand where they’re coming from.

This is a part of the aid worker’s life that many, including myself, can identify with – how to form meaningful relationships with people who have no experience or understanding of the specific pressures and difficulties we have in our work. As one humanitarian worker remarked to me yesterday, so often we’re either seen as saints to be worshipped, when actually we can be as selfish – if not more so – as anybody else; or our work goes completely over people’s heads and the best questions we may be asked are whether it’s dangerous in Africa, or whether we’ve seen any lions whilst we’ve been there. I’m sure I’m not alone in having spent quite a bit of time at social gatherings, and in friendships and romantic relationships, trying to articulate my experiences but ultimately feeling like I’ve failed because I can’t find the right words or I feel the person listening is unlikely to fully understand. Sometimes it is far easier to offload your sense of guilt, of despair, of disillusionment about your work to the person you’ve worked alongside for the last few months than the friend you’ve known since childhood. Talking about the torture of political prisoners or women you’ve spoken to who’ve been raped several times serve as conversation stoppers in most social contexts back home in Europe, but are stories which seem less shocking and more worthy of analysis and meaning-making among fellow aid workers.

What does this mean for our relationships? It can result in a distancing from friends and relatives back home, a feeling that we no longer have anything in common with people who seem to have followed a far more conventional path than ourselves. And it can have implications for romantic relationships too. How much are our partners or spouses willing to listen to our work-related woes, whether it be about the boredom of logframes and meeting donor requirements or the horrors of what we’ve seen or heard in communities we’re trying to assist? Are they able to support us in the way we would wish, if they are more often on the other end of skype or a phone line than right next to us, or when their professional environment may be poles apart from our own? These factors can make opening up on an emotional level very difficult. We stop ourselves from recognising our anger or sadness because we don’t know how to express it to those around us. The organisational culture that pervades the aid sector – which often seems embarrassed by or disapproving of too much emotional outpouring (a paradox given that engaging in humanity and social change work is all about being emotional) – hardly helps either.

Relationships are nevertheless a grounding element in an aid worker’s otherwise frenetic lifestyle. Some have told me that having a relationship has made a big difference to their approach to work; it allows them to switch off after they’ve left the office, and it also provides them with much needed social support, particularly when working in remote settings. Without the support of a loving and understanding partner, the risk of going down the route of the ‘cowboy’ – as one person I met described those who are perpetually single, with few roots back home, who travel frequently to high risk settings and drink a lot – seem much greater. Yet aidworkers can be very picky about who they wish to be with; a relationship’s viability often seems to rest on whether the partner in question is willing to travel and live abroad. And if we find it difficult to form meaningful relationships with people outside the broad social change sector, that narrows the possibilities also.

I will be reflecting on these issues as I continue my field research, as it’s clear from those I’ve spoken to already that how problems are shared with loved ones, and how those loved ones respond, are big factors in determining to what extent aid workers recognise and deal with stress. In the meantime, for those in pursuit of a more snarky take on these issues, please read the OnSanity’s blog piece, ‘52 reasons not to date an aid worker‘ – there’s something there for every aid worker.

 

 

Unpacking the Personal in Aid Work

A six week break in the UK has meant the Life in Crisis blog site has been a bit neglected lately. Meanwhile, debates and discussions concerning aid worker wellbeing continue to grow and have become more widely recognised, thanks partly to the spotlight shone by the Guardian and by new blog sites such as Christopher Hensch’s Support for Humanitarian Aid Workers. Aid worker wellbeing is now so prevalent a topic within aid circles that it’s being satirised . It remains to be seen how far this growing recognition will translate into better policies and approaches by aid organisations, or contribute to a change in an organisational culture that continues to stigmatise the vulnerabilities and mental health needs of aid workers. Encouraging steps are meanwhile being taken by others such as International Location Safety and Interhealth to integrate this issue into the trainings and preparation of humanitarian workers entering the field.

Amidst this heightened interest in aid worker wellbeing I find myself still asking the same questions that I started out with three months ago when I began my field research in Kenya: why is it that some people suffer from the challenges of this work more than others? And what do we understand about the specific challenges and difficulties faced by national aid workers? It still feels that in many of the findings of recent surveys (such as the Guardian’s, which I commented on in my previous blog post) we are not getting the full, and complex, picture. Expatriate – and of these, mainly American or European – aid workers dominate the discussions. And although their concerns – about security risks, about living in unfamiliar and at times hostile environments, about the difficulties of articulating experiences to friends and families back home, to name a few – are legitimate and understandable, I’m still left wondering how national aid workers relate to these concerns.

Furthermore, I’m not fully convinced that it is the security incident, or the suffering one witnesses on a day to day basis as an aid worker, that is the direct cause of all the stress and anxiety within the sector. We have to understand what else is going on in a person’s life if we are to fully understand why they are struggling with their work. The degree of support provided by their employers, and to what extent they feel able to ask for it, are obviously important issues. But whether an aid worker is experiencing particular challenges may also be related to their gender, sexuality or nationality. We are seeing already that being a woman in the aid sector, for instance, has had unpleasant and discriminatory repercussions for many (if you can relate to this, you may wish to fill in this survey aimed at highlighting the extent of sexual abuse and discrimination in the sector). More generally, the aid worker’s personal landscape – how they understand their feelings, how they are able to communicate these feelings with others and express themselves – are factors which will make one person’s experience in the sector very different from another.

This has led me to wonder how stress – and more generally, the emotional impact of aid work – may be a relational issue; something that is determined by our relationship to others around us. How do aid workers articulate and talk about their emotions? What role do friends, family and loved ones play in helping or hindering one’s capacity or willingness to express difficult emotions associated with aid work, such as guilt, fear, anger or sadness? To what extent do aid workers feel able to reveal these emotions when in the company of those they feel are far worse off than them, or among their colleagues? And does the suppression of these emotions prompt the detachment and disillusionment that so often arises after years of working in difficult environments?

I find these questions interesting as my own experiences in the aid sector have shown me that it can be very easy to spend years concealing the most difficult emotions that arise, even from oneself. Likewise it can take years to realise that such emotions, if buried and unprocessed, can become your demons one day. In my case there was no ‘critical incident’, no specific traumatic event that prompted my emotional bloodletting. What happened was far more ambiguous and cannot simply be explained through the narrow focus of working conditions or challenging environments.

The questions I’m considering do not point directly to the external factors such as security and levels of institutional support which are so often referred to as indicators of stress in the sector. Instead they highlight how the challenges of aid work can be a deeply personal, and complex, experience requiring self-reflection and care as much as gentle, open-minded support from others. Emotions may ebb and flow according to specific social norms, interactions and memories. I wonder also what role cultural values and assumptions have to play in how one deals with difficult emotions. These issues are important to the aid sector as they highlight there is no easy, one-size-fits all answer to addressing aid worker health and wellbeing. Uncovering and untangling the complicated, emotional aspects of aid work isn’t easy, and I wonder myself what success I’ll have in the remainder of my field work in Kenya; but this work, and the questions I’ve raised, are an essential element in the ongoing efforts to highlight and respond to aid worker stress and burnout.

Aid Worker Wellbeing: Reflections on the Guardian Survey and Steve Dennis case

This past week has seen a real shake-up in the aid sector. First last Monday the publication of the Guardian’s survey on aid worker wellbeing, which found that 79% of its 754 respondents claimed to suffer from mental health problems, including diagnosed depression, anxiety and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). Then on Wednesday came the news that an Oslo court had found the humanitarian organisation Norwegian Refugee Council guilty of ‘gross negligence’ in the treatment of former employee Steve Dennis and others who were kidnapped by armed groups in Dadaab refugee camp in Kenya in 2012. Steve Dennis was awarded $500,000 in compensation plus costs.

Both pieces of news point to the same issue – that aid organisations are not giving nearly enough attention to the wellbeing of their staff, particularly those who are doing the frontline relief work in emergency areas, and that individuals are not getting the support they need when they experience serious stress and mental health conditions such as burnout and PTSD.

But before aid organisations quickly rush to demonstrate that they have all the right policies and structures in place to support their staff (I’m sure this is happening already, particularly given the legal implications of the Steve Dennis case) it’s worth reflecting on a few issues that are relevant but have not been so highly pronounced or exposed in these two pieces of news.

Which aid workers are being referred to in the Guardian’s survey? We are given little detail about who the 754 respondents are, except that most of them were female and expatriate. This in itself is hardly an accurate reflection of the broader aid sector, in which approximately 90% are nationals. I am also interested to know who these ‘aid workers’ were exactly. Only those working in disaster areas? Or development workers? They may not be exposed to the acute suffering that one witnesses in a disaster area, but are certainly likely to witness the human misery that arises from extreme poverty. Or human rights workers? They too are bearing witness to ongoing injustices. The survey did not make clear what jobs these 754 respondents were doing. For me this is of interest because the assumption is often that it is humanitarian workers who suffer the most from the work they do. And yet my own research is already demonstrating that you don’t have to be on the frontlines of war and disaster to suffer from burnout or post-traumatic stress disorder.

Can the causes of mental health problems be so easily defined? The main factors contributing to serious mental health conditions according to the Guardian survey were security incidents and the witnessing of human tragedy. Yet it is also becoming clear, in the Guardian’s own reports and elsewhere, that different people – women and nationals in particular – experience different challenges in this work. Given the Guardian’s own reporting on sexual assaults within the aid industry, a question we should be asking when addressing aid worker wellbeing is what specific challenges have women faced and what sort of support do they need? The same could be said about nationals. It is quite possible that some nationals are directly affected by the issues their organisations are working on; perhaps they are refugees themselves, or they or their family have been victims of domestic violence. These factors are important as mental health conditions cannot be fully understood unless we consider the individual’s background and identity and how these impact on their experiences in the workplace.

What are aid workers doing to address their challenges and difficulties? Both the Guardian survey and the Steve Dennis case may provide damning evidence that aid organisations need to be doing more to support their staff. And certainly the survey findings are pretty critical about the insufficient response given by aid organisations to staff who have suffered from mental health issues. But tightened security procedures, regular debriefings and staff counselling are not the only solutions aid organisations should be seeking. Staff themselves need to be considering what they must do to address the challenges they face in their work. As aid workers, we all like to moan about how our managers don’t have time for us and aren’t supporting us enough – and this may well be accurate a lot of the time – but are we also giving time and support to ourselves? In a culture that can often seem competitive and macho in its pressure to work the longest hours and be the most dedicated, what role can we play in caring for ourselves and stepping back, or seeking help, when we need to? With any big emotional challenges in our lives, it can be far easier to point fingers and blame situations or other people. It is harder, but just as important, to reflect on who we are and how we approach our work as possible factors in why we struggle in certain ways. As aid workers, our personal motivations, expectations and approach to work may say a lot about whether we eventually suffer disillusionment, guilt or burnout. And likewise reflecting on these and what needs to change within ourselves may help overcome some of our darkest moments.

These comments are not seeking to belittle individual experiences, nor undermine the serious mental health conditions that many are suffering in this work, including the staff of Norwegian Refugee Council who were kidnapped and those who responded to the Guardian survey. But I do believe we need a more nuanced approach to aid worker wellbeing that recognises that the challenges of this work are not simply related to security incidents and operating within conflict settings; I believe the experiences within the sector are far more complex. Nor are better security procedures or counselling services the only solutions. As the Guardian survey recognises, the culture within aid organisations must change. This not only means creating a space where it is safe and acceptable to admit you are struggling or not coping; it also means cultivating an environment in which people continue to feel valued and maintain a sense of purpose and meaning in what they do. This is the work of everybody – organisations and staff – who have an interest in reducing serious mental health and stress conditions and the resulting staff absenteeism and turnover; and who wish to encourage a spirit of humanity – not only in the field but also in the office.

 

 

The Role of Staff Welfare in Improving Humanitarian Practice

Yesterday saw the launch of three reports on humanitarian practice in Nairobi, and also saw me presenting on a panel for one of the reports. The panel was organised by the CHS (Core Humanitarian Standard) Alliance, a network of around 260 humanitarian organisations operating in 160 countries worldwide.   Its work focuses on ensuring the core humanitarian standards – nine commitments on quality and accountability – are mainstreamed throughout all humanitarian operations.

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A photo on display at the conference: MSF workers deliver food parcels to a remote mountain region in Nepal (Tatiana Kotova)

The CHS Alliance’s Humanitarian Accountability Report is entitled On the Road to Istanbul: How can the World Humanitarian Summit make humanitarian response more effective? In its 13 chapters, written by different experts from the humanitarian sector, 5 key themes are addressed, which the panel members, including myself, spoke to in our different capacities:

  • the role of principled humanitarian response in building trust and facilitating access
  • how standards can drive appropriate, effective and timely aid
  • strengthening national capacities in aid delivery
  • collective accountability and transparent decision making
  • good people management practices

This report launch coincided with two others – ALNAP’s State of the Humanitarian System report 2015 and Quality and Accountability Initiatives by the Inter-Agency Working Group on Disaster Preparedness in East and Central Africa. Whilst the content of these reports and the presentations given by the different speakers at yesterday’s event are all very relevant to the debates around improving humanitarian effectiveness, I will only touch here on the issue which concerns me most within my own area of interest – staff welfare. This was what I was discussing on the panel in the morning, and is an issue which was hotly debated on the margins of the global consultations for the World Humanitarian Summit happening in May 2016.

Sadly, I did not see these debates being addressed or given much attention in yesterday’s event, which was attended by around 80 regional and country directors and managers from various aid agencies, including UNOCHA, World Vision, Save the Children, Oxfam, Action Aid, Red Cross and Danish Refugee Council. The tendency of staff security, safety and welfare to be sidelined by what are seen as the bigger priorities of meeting the growing needs of populations living in crisis situations is nothing new. And certainly given the reality of today’s world crises and conflicts – creating higher numbers of refugees and populations in need of assistance – it is no surprise that humanitarian decision makers find it hard to consider their own health when having to make what often amount to life or death decisions affecting thousands of people.

Yet one issue highlighted in the ALNAP report on the State of the Humanitarian System  – the threefold increase in attacks on humanitarian workers since 2002 – demonstrate the huge risks, and the implications of these risks, for people working in emergency settings. In 2013, 151 humanitarian workers were killed, 171 wounded and 134 kidnapped. The majority of these were national aid workers, operating in their own countries. The increase in attacks are partly down to the changing nature of global conflict, with humanitarian workers now often being specifically targeted by non-state actors and armed groups. But as we’ve seen with the case of the MSF hospital blown up in Kunduz, Afghanistan, Western states are also responsible for flouting the laws governing armed conflict, directly affecting those engaged in humanitarian operations.

A photo on display at the conference: humanitarian workers on their way by helicopter to an IDP camp in South Sudan (Andrea Contenta)

A photo on display at the conference: humanitarian workers on their way to an IDP camp in South Sudan (Andrea Contenta)

As security risks to humanitarian workers are on the increase, so too is the likelihood of chronic forms of stress, such as post-traumatic stress disorder, for those working in the midst of crisis. My presentation at the CHS Alliance report launch highlighted two distinct issues arising from this reality, to be considered by humanitarian organisations. One was the need for organisations to understand the different cultural interpretations and ways of dealing with stress.   Staff welfare strategies, in terms of addressing problems such as stress, burnout or post-traumatic stress disorder, must acknowledge the diversity of the sector if they are to be effective. What is seen as stressful or traumatic for a white expat worker may be very different from what a Kenyan worker feels and experiences for instance. From the data I’ve collected so far in my research I’ve found that addressing the mental and physical health needs of national humanitarian staff is a major challenge. This is partly to do with inadequate support structures that privilege the expat staff, and partly to do with the very different cultural understandings of how personal emotional difficulties are talked about and dealt with. One important way of addressing this is to consider the right language to be used for addressing these difficulties. Trauma, for instance, or the more general term ‘mental health’ are still stigmatised words, not only in Kenya but in many other contexts.

Another issue I touched on in the panel discussion is related to the structures and culture of aid organisations. Some people, particularly national aid workers, have told me that there is a resistance to openly discussing vulnerabilities or difficulties in coping because people fear losing their job. This macho culture of working long hours, not really looking after yourself and not admitting that you’re not coping is so common in this sector and having the right support mechanisms in place is not enough to change this.

Instead, both managers and staff need to be asking themselves, how can they break down the stigmatisation around seeking help? How can they open up the space to allow for people to share their vulnerabilities and their personal insecurities? A major element that drives humanitarian work is compassion – compassion for the community in crisis. That same compassion can be lost when it comes to individual staff members looking after themselves or their colleagues. So a change in culture means cultivating an environment where staff can reflect on their emotional challenges and those of their colleagues, where they can realise they are not alone in the difficulties they face with this work, and where their personal problems are met with sensitivity and understanding.

These issues are of the utmost importance to people working in the humanitarian sector, as evidenced in various online discussions happening at the moment in the run-up to the World Humanitarian Summit next year. Yet so far there has been little recognition of the centrality of staff wellbeing to improving humanitarian practice; hence why it is not seen as a key theme to be addressed at the World Humanitarian Summit nor as an issue to be followed up in discussions such as those taking place in yesterday’s report launches in Nairobi. This is not to say that individuals, including those in the conference room yesterday, are not concerned about staff welfare. But addressing this part of humanitarian work remains far down the agenda of most aid organisations, and even more so for the donor agencies supporting those organisations. Humanitarian workers must continue to push the agenda of staff welfare within their organisations, and also at the World Humanitarian Summit in 2016. It should be an essential component in understanding how to make humanitarian action more effective and sustainable.

 

 

The Realities of a Life in Crisis

Watching Living in Emergency, a documentary film about doctors from the humanitarian agency Médicins Sans Frontières (MSF) operating in Congo and Liberia, reminded me of the profound emotional challenges and difficult decisions that are part of everyday life for many aid workers. The film tracks the lives of several doctors working in post-conflict Liberia and war-torn Congo, some of them located in remote areas with few resources to treat the hundreds of sick and wounded people who come to them for assistance. It addresses many of the issues I’m grappling with as I conduct my field research on stress and burnout among aid workers in Kenya, and which are important factors in remembering the human behind the humanitarian.

  • MotivationsThese are complex and not always what may be assumed. Whilst it’s easy to think that aid workers have purely altruistic motives – the wish to help others – sometimes they are fighting their own personal demons or pursuing a form of happiness they never achieved back home. In the film, one MSF veteran of 9 years mentions that some people do this work to run away from something, as was the case with him and his escape from life back home in Australia. A doctor who gave up his comfortable life in the United States to work in a hospital in Liberia claims, ‘It ends up being a selfish thing. Somehow fixing other people fixes yourself’.
  • Disconnection with home. The longer that aid workers are working in foreign lands, far away from the comforts of home, and the more they are exposed to immense and at times relentless suffering, the harder it becomes to relate to friends and family thousands of miles away. The Australian doctor in Congo claims he is essentially ‘homeless’ after moving around for so many years. The American doctor in the only free emergency hospital in Liberia’s capital Monrovia at the time, says, ‘If you’re going to talk to some of your friends about some of the stuff you saw, and you can’t describe the smells, the feeling of the heat on your body, the sweat running down your back, the smell of the pus that hits your nose and the unwashed bodies in a closed room…the smell of your own panic when you’re not sure what to do…you can’t share that stuff.’
  • Tensions between expatriate and national aid workers. Expat aid workers can often forget the privileges associated with their position, particularly in relation to their national counterparts. In the aid sector, the term ‘expat’ is often assumed to refer to a white person from the global north. Furthermore, the term ‘expat’ is conflated with ‘expert’ in the language of the aid industry. These assumptions are problematic for the aid worker from the global south, who is left on the sidelines of dominant white expat approaches to aid. In Living in Emergency, these roles are played out between the expat staff and national staff at MSF. In one scene there is an altercation between a Liberian doctor who is accused of being arrogant by his Italian colleague after disputing treatment being recommended by one of the expat doctors. In front of the camera he tells his Italian colleague, ‘Tell your doctors to talk to me like a doctor and not like a small boy. And don’t tell me I’m arrogant because I disagree with the diagnosis’. The different experiences of national and expat aid workers are highlighted again when some of the expat staff prepare to leave the country. A national staff member comments to his colleagues, ‘don’t get used to any expatriates. As they go, other people come’.
  • Inability to meet expectations of populations in need. As an aid worker, you can at times feel that people are depending on you massively to save their lives. Indeed sometimes this is the case – you are their only hope. What you decide may affect whether that person survives. And sometimes you have to say no, because you can’t meet everyone’s expectations – perhaps because of lack of resources, or because of the limitations of your organisation’s mandate. In my own experience, people have sought my help and I have not been in a position to give them the assistance they need. In one case, the person died as a result of not accessing the required treatment. Doctors at MSF have to accept this reality all the time. As the American doctor says, ‘you have to be able to live with wrong decisions. That’s really hard to do.’ An Italian woman working for MSF in Liberia comments, ‘I think we all have the same question and that is, what is our limit?’ A young Australian doctor on his first MSF mission and working in a remote village in Congo says, ‘I compare myself to others and I wonder whether another doctor in the same setting would have had the energy….to spend longer with that patient, sleep less that night, and got more work done the following day than I got done.’
  • Loss of idealism. Many aid workers start off their career with a determination to put an end to some of the injustices that they have seen on the news or read about during their studies. When they travel to the field they face realities that challenge the noble intentions to simply do good and help others. In the face of war or extreme poverty, and limited by lack of resources, the sort of help they had envisaged giving may not be possible. As an Italian woman working for MSF in Liberia says, there is a loss of innocence: ‘At the beginning I was feeling good about everything I was doing. Now I’m not feeling good anymore’.

These are some of the realities of a ‘life in crisis’, whether working for MSF or another humanitarian agency. They are also the experiences at times of development and human rights workers, who aren’t necessarily operating in emergency settings but who on a daily basis are faced with immense suffering and expectations that they are unable to meet. The guilt associated with these realities is felt by many and may linger for a long time.

And while for expats there are undoubtedly significant challenges to working far away from one’s home country, and at times it can feel like living in two very different and disconnected worlds, the national aid worker has their own unique struggles. They have no choice to leave the country after a year. The suffering they witness is part of their own society, perhaps their own family and friends, and will not end when the expat finishes their mission.

These realities have emotional consequences. How do aid workers maintain a sense of hope in the face of the struggles they encounter as they carry out their work? What is important and gives meaning in their lives when confronted on a daily basis with so much suffering and so many challenges? Searching for the answers to these questions is a part of my research and should also be considered by aid organisations and staff alike in the quest to address stress and burnout in the aid sector more effectively.

Fieldwork Challenges #1: Accessing Aid Workers

Any new doctoral researcher will arrive at their research site feeling nervous about the journey ahead. They may have spent the first year of their Phd learning research techniques, developing methodologies, mastering the art of investigative inquiry and active listening. But none of this really prepares the researcher for all the uncertainties that lie ahead during field research, particularly if it is in an unfamiliar environment.

I realised this pretty early on in my second year of my Phd, just days before I was due to leave for Nairobi. I had a year’s worth of study under my belt, which included a small research project in Brighton and several essays which examined various research methods – ethnography, life history, elite interviewing, research in conflict settings. And yet as I packed by suitcase and considered what I was about to embark on – at least 9 months of field research, on my own, in Kenya – I asked myself, ‘But what are you actually going to do there? How are you going to carry out your research? What is your starting point and where will you go from there?’

Six weeks in to my field research, and I’m still not sure I have the answers to these questions. And this comes as some surprise to me, as unlike many other doctoral researchers, I’ve returned to a place I’m relatively familiar with, to conduct research among a community whose profession I share – aid workers. My assumption had been that shortly after my arrival my research relationships would fall into my lap, much in the same way my previous relationships have with friends and colleagues when I lived and worked in Kenya, Uganda and Palestine.

But being a researcher in a foreign land is very different from being an aid worker, or anyone else in any other profession. For one thing, you are very much on your own. There is no organisation to cushion you and give you a safe landing into unfamiliar territory. No managers to guide you or structure your day with priorities and deadlines. And the only person who can really answer the sort of questions raised above is you, the researcher.

In addition, I’m realising that no matter how confident we feel in the community we are researching, we should never assume that access will be easy. Accessing research participants – identifying who exactly they may be and how we approach them – requires constant negotiation and self-reflection. As Hammersley and Atkinson note:

Not all parts of the [research] setting will be equally open to observation, and not everyone may be willing to talk…..If the data required are to be obtained, negotiation of access is therefore likely to be a recurrent preoccupation for the ethnographer.

Hammersley and Atkinson, 2007, Ethnography: Principles in Practice, 61

This may seem obvious but as so-called ‘insiders’ – those who feel ‘local’ to the community they are researching – we may often assume that we will gain immediate trust and interest from our research participants.

For me, I had gained some confidence about my research topic when talking to friends and colleagues in the aid sector. When I told them I would be investigating stress and burnout among aid workers, they were immediately enthusiastic and keen to tell me their own story or suggest others I could speak to. Yet the reality is that this topic is a sensitive one, for both individuals and organisations. Not all individuals want to recognise the personal challenges they face in doing this type of work, and not all organisations wish to address the thorny issue of why some members of staff appear to be struggling more than others. And even with those that do, I’m finding that this – perhaps understandably – is not a priority for them. We can enter our research site full of expectations around how willing people will be to talk to us about what we see as a vital and important issue affecting wider society, and find that although there may be interest, other ‘life’ situations get in the way. These may be work deadlines, family commitments, or in the case of aid workers perhaps a feeling that they should not spend too long seemingly navel-gazing when their mission is to help others. Any one of these circumstances are of course interesting research observations and findings in themselves – something we have to remember when we feel we’re not collecting the data we had wished for.

Having said that, some moving and relevant stories can come from the most unexpected of sources. Whilst I may spend some days still trying to figure out where I go next and what I ‘should’ be doing, on other occasions I’ve met with people on the pretext of simply finding out more about their work or getting to know them, and left feeling touched by some of the very personal stories they’ve revealed to me. This has taught me that we have to remain open to every new interaction, as we simply do not know where it may lead. And we must treat each relationship very much on its own terms – it may only be a fleeting exchange, but those few moments matter for connecting with people and trying to understand where they are coming from and how they feel about talking to you, as a researcher.

So whilst I try to navigate my way through the sea of humanitarian, development and human rights organisations in Nairobi – through their Directors, Human Resources Managers, programme staff and consultants – I’m doing my best to stick to what I feel are three important principles:

  1. Being open: to whatever opportunities arise, and to enter each situation and interaction without preconceptions or judgements
  2. Patience: to understand that making connections with people, particularly as a researcher, can take time. And that not every day will bring enriching data. There may be some days where little happens at all, except the opportunity to reflect on where I’m at so far and how I feel about it.
  3. Trust: despite the temptation to always question whether I’m doing enough or whether I’m doing things properly, I have to also see this entire process as one of learning – about myself as much as others. We have to feel our way into each day, each interaction, each space we occupy as researchers. Keeping this in mind encourages a sense of trust – that as a new researcher in the field I have to embrace the journey and be confident that each day brings with it a new lesson.

 

 

 

 

How to be Vulnerable in Research and Aid Work

I’ve been thinking a lot about vulnerability lately, as I spend the first days in Nairobi figuring out what I’m really doing here and how I should spend my time.

Whilst I’m here with a purpose – to conduct field research on stress and burnout in the aid sector – the actual reality of what this entails for me as a doctoral researcher, with no person or organisation here to guide me, is hard to grasp. I’ve come here alone and it is only I who can make my time here successful. When a doctoral researcher arrives to conduct their field research, there is no great fanfare or welcoming party, nor a fixed agenda with specific deadlines. We simply have to get on with it, whatever ‘it’ may be.

For me this has meant setting up several meetings and networking with aid workers. This side of things is in itself a bit nerve-wracking; working out when it is I’m being a researcher and when it is I’m just being ‘me’ – a new arrival to Nairobi (although I have the advantage of having lived here before), who is genuinely wanting to meet people and make friends.

The challenge I’m describing will be familiar to anyone doing ‘insider research’ – in other words, researching one’s own social or professional community. Putting aside the debate as to whether any researcher, given their status, can ever truly be an insider, I do think having experience in the community one is researching brings its own dilemmas and difficulties. We do not want to appear a fraud in our relationships with research participants, and the chances are as an insider we are sympathetic towards their cause. Yet at the same time we are aware of the ulterior motives that often lie behind each interaction with individuals who may be both friends or colleagues and potential informants. This becomes even more problematic if informants who we have a relationship with outside the research open up emotionally in an interview in a way they haven’t done in normal friendship conversations. How do we respond? As a researcher or as a friend or confidant?

This potential challenge in my research highlights how vulnerability is at the heart of the interaction between researcher and informant, and none more so than in my chosen study topic. I do suspect that for some aid workers, who operate in an organisational culture that discourages the display of too much raw emotion, speaking to a researcher about their feelings may be easier than revealing them to their friends or colleagues. Many aid workers avoid showing their emotional discomfort when assisting poor or war-affected populations or documenting human rights abuses. To do so seems inappropriate in the face of far greater human suffering. And in this way vulnerability is repeatedly pushed aside and denied. This denial becomes so commonplace that it can at times seep into friendship interactions as well, so that when asked how you feel about the work you are doing it is difficult to articulate in a genuine, emotional way.

Being vulnerable is difficult for everybody, not just aid workers. As Brené Brown, vulnerability ‘expert’ says,

The difficult thing is that vulnerability is the first thing I look for in you and the last thing I’m willing to show you. In you, it’s courage and daring. In me, it’s weakness.

And it’s difficult for researchers too. Like aid workers, researchers feel they must maintain a level of professionalism that hides vulnerabilities such as self-doubt and guilt over not ever doing ‘enough’, over not meeting our own expectations or those of our informants.

I have a growing belief that recognising and working with these vulnerabilities rather than pushing them aside has value both for aid work and the Phd research process. Staying with our emotions as they arise can help us gain insight into the emotional behaviour of others. Mindfulness, which I discussed in more detail in another blog post, is one tool with which to practise this emotional presence and awareness. Through mindfulness we can observe without judgement our emotions as they come and go in the present moment. By recognising our own suffering, we become more in tune with and compassionate about the suffering of others – whether these are friends, colleagues, research informants or populations being assisted by aid workers. At the same time, acknowledging emotions as they arise through the practice of mindfulness may be an important way of developing resilience in the field, as an aid worker or as a researcher.

Being emotionally engaged – and vulnerable – can deepen researchers’ understanding of themselves, including their status and position in relation to those they are researching. For researchers of development and aid, this level of emotional awareness may enrich their insights into the hopes, passions and desire for justice that underscore much aid practice. It is these same emotional states that are often the drivers for academic research and which should be integral to understanding how data is collected, generated and ultimately used for constructive ends.