Tag Archives: aidworker motivations

Lessons and Reflections on Healing Solidarity

The perils of projectisation, how we embody our activism and push for a right to rest, what it means to truly listen and meet the other person where they are, challenging masculine behaviour and discourse in aid; these were just some of the many conversations taking place at the Healing Solidarity conference last week. This was a free online conference – organised and hosted with immense focus, presence and grace by Mary Ann Clements – that brought together over 1500 aid and development practitioners and activists to discuss how our sector could be reimagined and redefined. It was deeply enriching, diverse and thought-provoking; with the speakers drawing on their knowledge as social justice organisers, facilitators, African feminists, communications experts and academics to challenge our assumptions and encourage a reflection on our identities as change-makers. I was honoured to be one of the speakers, discussing a couple of ideas from my thesis – of the racialised and gendered elements of being the ‘perfect humanitarian’ in the popular imagination; and the problems this raises, and reinforces, with regard to mental health and wellbeing and the distinctions between male and female, and national and international, aid workers.

What I would like to present here are some of the themes that emerged from the conference. There is no way I can do this justice, or give due attention to all those who contributed to the conference, since I was offline for half of it and unable to listen to all 22 speakers. Although I intend to get through them all at some point, I feel drawn to writing some reflections now on the discussions I participated in. Perhaps this will also encourage those of you who were unable to participate to go to the Healing Solidarity website, where you can download the talks by making a modest financial contribution – I believe it is well worth it!

For ease of accessibility, and as a way to collect my thoughts, the themes are divided into headers below.

The problems of projectisition in development. This came up a lot, for instance in talks given by Jennifer Lentfer, Nomvula Dlamini and Kate Werning. Our tendency to set unrealistic goals and timeframes in our work is part of an aid paradigm focused on control and getting things done, which pays little attention to the small, incremental and meaningful changes being made in local contexts. The issues that affect people day-to-day, including gender inequality, have become projectised; yet building just societies cannot be based on projects alone. There is not enough time given to pausing and recognising each other’s efforts, resulting in, as Nomvula Dlamini put it, ‘busyness’ at the expense of the relationships that connect us. We were encouraged in Kate Werning’s discussions to ask ourselves, “What would you do differently if you knew your work was going to take 10 years or 100 years?” The point being, that it is worthwhile figuring out where we can slow down in our work, act more from the heart and look after each other and ourselves in the process.

Shifting the lens of power and expertise. There were so many discussions around this theme, with participants considering questions such as: How can those with power in the northern hemisphere use their voices differently? Can we change the language of aid so that terms such as ‘expertise’ or ‘global north/global south’ are either done away with altogether or reclaimed and redefined by communities in the south whose embodied knowledge is too regularly overlooked or silenced? How can we include alternative perspectives in development decision-making that has hitherto largely been the domain of white men and women? Some suggestions made in response to these problems included Deborah Doane’s advice to look at our governance models – the influence of government donors, the extent to which board members are representative of people we’re working on behalf of – and to avoid taking up country director posts in field locations in the south. Angela Bruce-Raeburn echoed this by encouraging white aid workers to observe who is at the leadership table; who are we not paying attention to and what are we not hearing? She also pushed for more solid and consistent relationship building between headquarters and local offices, where knowledge that is generated should start from the local level and where there are feedback loops to ensure the information collected from there is correct. This is particularly important now as aid agencies consider the response to sexual harassment and abuse claims in the sector and how to implement safeguarding measures. Marion Osieyo believed that we need to be asking more questions, to push back on assumptions that we know better than local people in the contexts in which we work, and to develop partnerships which encourage collective thinking and decision-making.

Getting comfortable with being wrong and not knowing. This too was about power and agency, and was discussed by Angela Bruce-Raeburn, Lisa VeneKlasen, Jennifer Lentfer and Marion Osieyo among others. As aid practitioners we must acknowledge our complicity both in the colonial structures and systems of oppression that foreshadowed the aid paradigm, and in the sector’s continuing inequalities and power imbalances. Angela Bruce-Raeburn argued that humility was essential; after hundreds of years of devastation and oppression in countries receiving aid, we cannot expect to fix things on a one-week mission, and we must understand that for many people living in these countries this is a lifetime of struggle.   Jennifer Lentfer believed that as white aid workers we must learn to shut up and not think our idea is the idea in our organisations; we have to listen to others and be willing to feel uncomfortable with what we hear. Marion Osieyo suggested that curiosity is very important; we should never assume we understand a situation as these assumptions may have negative implications for the people with whom we are working.

Care for self, care for the other. What I feel was so important about this conference was that it linked these big, thorny issues of power, agency and resourcing within the sector with our individual stories; what motivates us, what brings us hope, and what exhausts and silences us. Too often we view issues of oppression or violence as ‘out there’; issues that do not directly affect us but are relevant to the communities with whom we work. Jessica Horn’s discussion reminded us that our own embodied histories are important; when we open up the space to acknowledge our own suffering then we may generate greater solidarity with others. This has been particularly relevant for the African feminist movement, whose members have been affected by violence and oppressive systems of power. But many of the speakers highlighted that our personal stories say a lot about both our privilege and our vulnerabilities, and we should be reflecting on this more in order to create a culture shift in the workplace; from one that is highly macho and dominated by ‘cowboys’ to one that values rest, reflection and compassion. For Marion Osieyo, this entails merging the inner and outer life; developing practices in our lives that connect our sense of self with the world around us, and which help us turn towards ourselves in order to turn more fully to our work. When we push this kind of reflection away, we risk acting from a place that is far from the heart, and which may do more harm than good to ourselves and others. Kate Werning suggested we consider questions such as ‘Why are we here? What draws us to the work? What’s in it for us?’ in order to encourage an organisational culture that shows that wellbeing is central to our success.  And Lisa VeneKlasen provided fresh insights into power and how our own shame, insecurities and imperfections can help empower us, connect with others and build more positive, equal models of development.

The message from these speakers was very pure and clear: we must bring more joy and love into the aid and development sector if we are to challenge and transform it. There were some wonderful grounding techniques led by Agnes Otzelberger and Mary Ann Clements among others (sorry I couldn’t get to them all!) that helped put this principle into practice, and which we can use in our day-to-day lives to help us connect with ourselves and others. All in all, there was so much to take away from this conference; to work with in ourselves, and in our communities and organisations. As Mary Ann Clements pointed out in her closing remarks at the end of the conference, space has opened up for us to challenge situations of patriarchy and racism in our sector. In this regard, I believe healing solidarity means three things: recognising our own positioning within these situations, recognising where other people are at with regard to understanding the problems, and being willing to meet them and ourselves on this trajectory with compassion and the belief that we all have a role to play in creating more positive models of development and power.

The Moral Flaws of the Do-Gooder

I have written fairly extensively on the moral dimensions of aid work and how what is ‘good’ or ‘bad’, in terms of aidworker motivations, is not as clear cut as often assumed (examples here and here). I would like to return to this issue in light of recent reports of sexual misconduct at Medecins Sans Frontieres (MSF). These reports of course come on the back of many others over the past several months, which have exposed the entire sector to widespread condemnation.

Why such outrage? This is a question asked by many, given the fact we all know sexual harassment exists in every workplace, and use of sex workers is pervasive no matter the country context or the profession of the person who hires them. Abuse is abuse is abuse (and here I’m putting aside for now the debate as to whether sex work is a form of abuse). So should we be judging aid workers any more than other perpetrators?

The answer, I believe, is yes and no. Yes, because aid workers have a moral responsibility that comes with the job; their own ideals (at least for most of them, at some point) and the mission of their organisations emphasise being of service to, and reducing suffering of, vulnerable people. Institutional codes of conduct reinforce staff’s status as aid giver, in terms of how they interact with affected populations and avoid overstepping ethical boundaries. The entire aid sector is built upon moral authority, guided by well established humanitarian principles and human rights standards.

So yes, abuse by an aid worker is different from abuse by someone, for instance, from the corporate sector. Whilst both must be held to account, the bar is set higher with aid workers because of the nature of what they do. So outrage is likely to be more vocal in these instances, as are calls for the sector to reform.

And yet….is this assumed moral authority actually realistic in practice? The problem with arguing that all aid workers must act morally, all the time, is that it forgets that not every decision made or action taken by people in the sector is guided by purely moral, altruistic intentions. The image of the selfless, heroic aid worker unfortunately continues to dominate in the minds of the general public – at least in the western, aid giving world – even if it is regularly debunked by aid workers themselves. The reality of aid work is often far from actions guided purely by self-sacrifice. People go in to aid work for a variety of reasons, as my own research in Kenya has revealed, and motivations may change over time. To paraphrase some of my informants, motivations can include wanting an adventure in unfamiliar cultures (Italian woman), wishing to help others overcome what they themselves had overcome (Ugandan woman), and wanting a stable income to support their family (several Kenyans, men and women). Whilst these sorts of motivations may seem to have nothing to do with aid workers committing sexual abuse, what these examples highlight is that the squeaky clean image of the heroic, selfless aid worker is deeply flawed.

There are also other advantages that come with being an aid worker, particularly as an expatriate, ranging from living allowances to the use of a comfortable, air conditioned four wheel drive to a house and domestic staff that would not be affordable back home. Do these material gains make aid workers morally reprehensible?

I have written elsewhere that these benefits can at times breed a sense of exceptionalism, whereby some aid workers abuse their privileges because they can; because, in fact, aid structures and policies protect them from getting found out. In disaster areas in particular, the ubiquitous humanitarian compound may, arguably, serve to protect aid workers from security threats; yet at the same time, it increases the spatial and social distance between themselves and the communities they are there to serve. In these environments, socio-economic differences and power imbalances become even more pronounced; and it is within these contexts that many of the abuses currently being reported have occurred.

I am not trying to suggest that sexual abuse and exploitation is somehow excusable on the grounds that “even aid workers have their flaws.” But what I am wishing to demonstrate is that whilst aid organisations continue to peddle an unrealistic image of what ‘do-gooders’ are, this creates a working culture where anyone who tries to challenge this image by calling out abuse is silenced. Ultimately, the outrage is likely to be far greater in a sector whose public image is largely above moral reproach.

As one contributor at a conference I recently attended rightly said, if you put yourself on a pedestal, you have a greater distance to fall.

Reflections on the Idealist’s Survival Kit

I have just finished reading The Idealist’s Survival Kit by Alessandra Pigni, a collection of ideas, reflections and tools for understanding and responding to burnout. The book, which is divided into 75 bite-sized chunks containing accounts from aid workers and activists, poetry and passages or quotes from the likes of Brene Brown, Thich Nhat Hanh, Jon Kabat-Zinn and Rachel Naomi Remen, is easy to read and will resonate with anyone in the helping professions.

Although largely gentle and encouraging in tone – and thus a great book to dip in to when in feeling the pressures, fears and self-doubts that often arise when working in emergency settings – Pigni is also attempting to shake us up as aid workers. To hold a mirror in front of us so that we can see that we too – as well as our organisations – are responsible for our mental health.

One question that the book is often asking is: what are our motivations as aid workers? To ‘save the world’ perhaps. To have an adventure. To learn from other cultures and ways of life. To make a difference, have a purpose. But alongside all of that, Pigni – and some of the other aid workers she talks to – also see that this profession can provide an escape. It is a way of retreating from a life of normalcy, with its unemployment, debts and unsatisfactory relationships. It is a way of becoming a ‘somebody’; a person who is seen in the public eye and by their family and peers as being heroic and self-sacrificing. Our work can give us the attention that we often strive for in ‘normal’ life but never quite attain. Perhaps, as Pigni suggests, it is a form of therapy. And when our work is given this value, we at times create an illusion that working for a cause is the panacea for all our mental anguish; rendering home life unimportant and banal. I’ve been through it, and I’ve met others during my field research who are going through it now; losing connection with ‘home’, with the familiar, and instead finding identity and belonging only through the adrenalin rush of humanitarian work. In these instances, we let our work define us, and without it we feel lost and unhinged.

At the same time there is a lot of suffering in in aid work – and not only the suffering of people living in disaster. Aid workers suffer also, but very often do not show it, for fear that their hero identity will be undermined, and that they may even lose their job because they are seen as too weak or incapable. There is a lot of shame around admitting to needing support. Which is ironic, and worrying, in a sector that is built upon being compassionate and responding to the suffering of others.

How has this happened? As the book acknowledges, the professionalisation of the sector has a lot to answer for; in the quest to raise more money and achieve better results, the aid worker has become a cog in a machine rather than a human being with emotions and values which drive what they do. It is no coincidence that terms such as ‘resilience’ and ‘grit’ have become so popular in a sector that encourages people to keep going no matter what. But, as Pigni rightly says, these qualities mean very little if a person has lost a sense of meaning in their work.

This book is about trying to reclaim humanity towards ourselves and each other in the workplace, as we try to do the same with the communities we are assisting. Recovering from, or avoiding burnout, is as much to do with feeling into our emotions, being with them and being vulnerable – learning to grieve, as Rachel Naomi Reiman puts it in Kitchen Table Wisdom: Stories that Heal – as it is about organisations becoming more caring.

This is not to say that organisations don’t have a responsibility – they do. Pigni uses the example of a woman who feels exhausted and burnt out, and works in a toxic environment where everyone is overworked and under appreciated. She is told by her managers that there is no budget for staff care beyond perhaps doing a stress management workshop. In such instances, of course, simply taking time off to go on a holiday or yoga retreat will not solve the problem.

While the cause we purport to advance may be noble, we need an environment that does not crush our soul while maintaining to “empower” those in need or improve society. Society improves right here, in this office, this community centre, this activist group.

[The Idealist’s Survival Kit: 75 Simple Ways to Avoid Burnout, p. 57]

This book is more about having those difficult conversations – with ourselves, with our colleagues and with our managers – about bringing humanity into the workplace, than it is about suggesting more ‘duty of care’ policies for aid organisations. And a lot of the advice revolves around learning to ‘be’ as well as to ‘do’. In other words, slowing down. It may ultimately mean having to do something dramatic, like leave the toxic environment and take a break from the sector, in order heal oneself before healing others. Or it may simply be spending more time listening and reflecting in order to respond more compassionately.

The idea of stepping away from ‘doing’ and just ‘being’, in the company of others, resonated with me a lot, particularly when considering how we work with ‘aid beneficiaries.’ I remembered how hurried so many interactions were when I was in the field; so focused were my colleagues and I on getting through back-to-back interviews with victims of violence or displacement that we, too, lost our humanity. Under pressure to achieve particular outputs and results, we do not take the time to truly be with someone who is suffering – to share a cup of tea, to visit their home, to ‘break bread’ together. Such small moments can be just as important and meaningful, whether this occurs with colleagues or with aid beneficiaries. They help us to find meaning and beauty in the midst of complexity, confusion, fear, uncertainty and all the other qualities inherent in a world of suffering and violence.

By connecting with oneself, one’s family and loved ones – as well with the communities we are assisting – we learn to become whole; to bridge the ‘cognitive dissonance’, as Pigni describes it, between home and field, between ideals and reality, and to feel into the vulnerability that lies beneath our actions and which makes us truly human. In her words, these moments of humanity can be healing moments in themselves.

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

File 20171103 26430 rihojc.jpg?ixlib=rb 1.1
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.

Finding Purpose and Managing Expectations in Aid Work

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.

 

 

 

 

 

 

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.