Tag Archives: emotions

Beyond Hope and Fear

Who out there shares my observation that there seems to be an awful lot of despair being expressed in the world at the moment, and that it’s not leading to much in the way of informed and inspiring action? Whilst I understand there have been exceptions – notably the Women’s March in the United States, UK and other parts of the world in January – I have felt that, in the UK at least, people appear to still be in a state of paralysis and shock following the tumultuous political events of 2016. And meanwhile Trump and Brexit march forward….

The discourse of fear that has apparently triumphed in both the UK and the US has prompted many to lose hope and feel powerless to change anything. The notions of ‘hope’ and ‘fear’ that guide much political change are discussed in an interesting article from the US based Berkana Institute, entitled ‘The Place Beyond Hope and Fear.’ The article was written in 2009 but is still relevant – even more so in fact – today.

One of the key messages from this article that resonates with me is that in order to resist a culture of fear we sometimes have to step back completely, so that we gain some perspective and clarity on the true nature of things – about what is going on right now, in our bodies and in our mind. This approach may be seen as a withdrawal – as the author acknowledges – but it is also a way of connecting with ourselves more deeply before responding to our environment. In doing so, there is the possibility of finding a response to events around us that is more compassionate and more understanding of what we see.

Parallels can be drawn here with the world of humanitarian and social justice activism. When faced with powerful political forces whose oppressive actions seem impossible to counteract, it is not uncommon for humanitarians to lose hope, and to withdraw. It is what I and many others have indeed done on certain occasions, and often with a heavy heart and a strong sense of guilt. This withdrawal has been called by another name – burnout.

Yet whether you are a seemingly jaded social justice activist responding to events in your own country, or a humanitarian or human rights worker responding to situations in Syria, Yemen, Nigeria, South Sudan or anywhere else, the decision to withdraw may be seen as more than just ‘giving up’, ‘shirking responsibility’, or ‘being selfish.’

As the author of ‘The Place Beyond Hope and Fear’ puts it:

I didn’t give up saving the world to protect my health. I gave it up to discover right action, what I’m supposed to be doing. Beyond hope and fear, freed from success or failure, I’m learning what right action feels like, its clarity and energy. I still get angry, enraged, and frustrated. But I no longer want my activities to be driven by these powerful, destructive emotions. I’ve learned to pause, come back to the present moment, and calm down. I take no actions until I can trust my interior state—until I become present in the moment and clarity emerges undimmed by hope and fear. Then I act, rightly, I hope.

There is something very relevant in this for aid workers. From my own experience of working on advocacy campaigns in the aid sector, I have seen that there is a tendency to engage in an ‘us and them’ rhetoric – where ‘we’ are the righteous and heroic and ‘they’ are the evil and villainous. Certain individuals – government officials, police, insurgents, church leaders, etc. – are often labelled as ‘the perpetrator’ in one form or another. Yet this labelling imposes a very black and white narrative on what is in fact always going to be a murky, complicated situation with complex characters involved; because that is the reality of life, where nothing is ever that clear-cut. This ‘us vs them’ mentality is not all that different from the language of fear that was so successful for both Trump and the Brexiteers, and which has had such a divisive impact on our societies.

I had an interesting conversation the other day with a Kenyan guy about how we deal with the judgements we make about people we disagree with. He was giving the example of people in his workplace who he realised were corrupt and how he had concluded that, when they lost their jobs, ‘they deserved it’. This is of course a natural judgement to make of someone who has committed what we see as a moral crime of one sort or another. Yet is it always healthy to see an individual only in those terms, whether it be as a corrupt person, an abuser, a perpetrator or any other such label?

We are all born into this world without any of these labels, and even though we may embrace or be ascribed many identities throughout our lives, they still do not necessarily reflect our entire personalities. Wouldn’t it help humanity, and help our ability to dialogue and debate the moral issues of the day, if we could see people in a more holistic manner that goes beyond this rigid labelling?

If we want to move beyond hope and fear, whether as aid workers, activists, or Joe Bloggs who is trying to make sense of the political upheavals of our time, perhaps the starting point is indeed to be present with our own emotions that are arising; to not dive into worrying about or reacting to the uncertainties of the future but to see what is happening in this moment. What do our reactions tell us about ourselves, and are these reactions helpful and conducive in bringing a change in attitudes or behaviour? This is not to say that anger has no place in taking action; indeed on many occasions it is the driver of social change but anger without a pause to listen and reflect can also lead to further hostility and division (think family arguments!) We do not know what the future holds; we in fact never know for sure, and sometimes the wiser course of action may be to rest in that uncertainty before leaping into a battle against what we think is going to happen.

This leads me to the next stage in building a more compassionate response. We need to commit to actively listening to others we disagree with. This requires that we release judgements which block us from discovering and understanding the other person more fully; just banging the table and calling someone ignorant or stupid is never going to move things forward. We can instead take on an almost innocent curiosity where we ask ourselves questions of ‘the other’ from a clean slate of non-judgement. Where does what they say come from? Is it from a place of insecurity that resonates with us on some level? Can we find compassion, and even common ground, by considering that person as more than just the labels we and others have assigned to them? They, like us, are in all likelihood individuals with the same basic needs and desires as us – such as health, love, financial security and freedom. Are we able to meet and understand someone on that basic level, even if our values appear diametrically opposed?

These are just the beginning stages, I believe, of stepping into a new way of being and learning that can guide us towards eventually taking informed and compassionate action in response to current political events. It is a long journey of change we have to embark on, but if we let go of judgements and the quest for a certain outcome, perhaps we can open ourselves to more possibilities than we’d ever considered before.

 

 

 

Wild Zen and a Journey through Aid Worker Archetypes

I recently finished reading the book Wild Zen: An Inner Roadmap to Humanity by Claire Higgins, which charts the experiences of humanitarian workers, including herself, and others who have undergone – and been transformed by – trauma, violence and other forms of extreme suffering.

Claire worked for more than ten years on humanitarian and human rights programmes, and now works as an executive coach. She has tested and trained in many different therapeutic methods as a means to healing herself as well as others; and Carl Jung’s twelve archetypes, which are the guideposts for this book, is one such method. In the book we learn about archetypes such as the Caregiver, the Explorer (also known as the Adventurer or Seeker), the Warrior (also known as the Hero) and the Sage through the eyes of some of the people Clare meets. These include a humanitarian worker who was shot in Chechnya, a bowel cancer survivor, a former political prisoner and several people who now provide healing modalities such as martial arts, yoga and health coaching to others. We each have dominant archetypes in our personality, and whilst there are many positive aspects to all twelve of them, we have to be mindful of the pitfalls that exist when each archetype is in excess.

This is a book about self-development and empowerment. It wasn’t always easy to keep up with where Claire was going with her memories and accounts of her experiences; but nevertheless I felt pretty hooked in from the start, seeing immediately that here was a story – or rather, a compilation of stories with a common thread – that somehow resonated with me and that I could learn from. I am fortunate enough to have never been through anything quite as serious or heart-breaking as some of the real-life characters in this book. But there were moments I could identify with, and I imagine so could many people working in the aid sector.

For example, the propensity for many aid workers to play the role of Caregiver, one of Jung’s archetypes. Caring for others is no bad thing; but for many aid workers this often translates into an abandonment of care of the self. As we hold the space for others, we need to learn more how to hold the space for ourselves. Related to this is the need to be honest with our feelings, which is also acknowledged in the archetype of the Innocent. In Wild Zen, Claire refers to radical truth as part of the Innocent’s journey; the ongoing quest we must all go on for greater self-awareness so we can see where old habits may be damaging us and should be released. This may include unhealthy relationships, or ways of interacting in the world; to change, we may have to be more truthful to others as well as ourselves. The alternative is often to bottle up grievances – a habit which I, and I’m sure many other aid workers, are very familiar with. A lot of the lessons here – relevant to anyone in the helping or caring professions – are about maintaining healthy boundaries, about being able to recognise and respond to our own needs as much as we respond to the needs of another. Being honest with others needn’t be confrontational; it is about allowing ourselves to open our hearts and tell people how we feel.

Another familiar trait in aid workers is the Revolutionary. How many of us prioritise our work over our personal lives, and with such zeal? This is down to the passion and commitment that so many aid workers have in ending war, poverty or injustice; it is what drives their work and their determination to stick with it, no matter how many times they may be forced to question whether there is any hope left. But this commitment often comes at the price of personal relationships; whilst we focus on ending wars on a global scale, we may fail to stop the conflicts that arise under our own roof because we lose connection with those we are closest to. I have seen these problems play out among the aid workers I spoke to during my field research in Kenya, many of whom are struggling in their romantic and family relationships. As aid workers navigate a world that appears to be full of evil and enmity, the anger that forces them into action may not always be productive. We must recognise where – in our own lives and in the working environments we inhabit – we can be more compassionate and encourage dialogue and peace over division and hostility.

This also relates to another archetype, the Ruler, because ultimately we have to decide how we are to live our lives in an authentic way and become masters of our own destiny. This is crucial for aid workers because our professional lives can be so caught up in the expectations of others; whether this be the admiration of our family and friends, the pressures of our employers, or the needs of aid beneficiaries. Amidst all this, aid workers often lose sight of who they really want to be and instead struggle to act out whatever image they think is worthy and honourable. The Ruler archetype helps us to find our place and purpose in life and stick to it. For many aid workers, this may result in leaving the sector altogether, or finding new ways of engaging with it more compassionately.

I see this journey play out in my own life, as I seek to find a role for myself within the aid sector. My new role, yet to be fully defined, may no longer be on the frontline among the populations who are suffering or within the corridors of government power, but will be articulated from a place of deeper inner wisdom, self-acceptance and trust. As Claire says in Wild Zen:

What all this means is that only we can set the standards for our lives. Only we can determine what is good enough in each moment and phase of our journey. We cannot keep measuring ourselves by benchmarks set in place by others who do not know us like we know ourselves. The Ruler understands that he must set his own standards and criteria for living. It isn’t the right or role of others to do that for him.

Wild Zen contains many reflections and lessons for anyone who has struggled to break free of inner suffering as much as for those who have experienced suffering at the hands of others. Ultimately its stories tell us that we are not alone in these experiences. And it also teaches us how storytelling can be healing and transformative.

As I read the book, I took the Pearson-Marr Archetype Indicator (PMAI) test, the instrument used to identify which of Carl Jung’s twelve archetypes are most dominant in your personality. I’ve learned a lot from that process too, and it’s a helpful way of understanding a little more about the value of this tried and tested psychological modality applied in Wild Zen. The PMAI is also used in psychotherapy and life-coaching, and for some people it may well be better to use it with the support of a therapist rather than taking the test alone.

The PMAI, and Claire Higgins’ book Wild Zen, are not to be taken lightly. Both reveal some of the darker places we all inhabit as human beings, but they also offer hope and tools with which to navigate our way through those places and emerge more courageous and true to ourselves.

The Return Home: The Shared Experiences of Aid Workers and Researchers

It is nearly two weeks since I left Kenya. The feelings I have as I readjust to UK life are very similar to what I’ve been through before when I’ve returned from mission, only this time I’m returning as a doctoral researcher who has just completed her field research. This fuzzy-headedness, lack of clarity, depletion of energy. Wanting to be alone, not finding the words to express how I’m feeling about being back. Questioning whether anyone would understand, or does anyone really care anyway? And also just feeling too tired, confused and disorientated to engage in that conversation.

Tiredness – or what I would actually describe as inertia – is a familiar feeling to me post-mission or field trip. It’s that feeling of returning home where there are lots of things you need to get done, but where there is an inability to move forward. For a while the tasks pile up, and all you can do is sit there and watch it happen as you feel powerless to do anything about it. Much of the time you just want to be somewhere on your own, doing nothing. This state of inertia is usually short-lived, and I’ve learned that I just have to accept it, and all the complicated feelings wrapped up with it, whilst also remaining present to those feelings. Writing often helps in those moments too.

Aid workers and academic researchers share other experiences too. There is that same emotional attachment to friendships and experiences in the field that seemed unique and intense and unlikely to be replicated in any way back home. Perhaps this is part of just being an expat in foreign lands; the friendships we make tend to be of a quality and intensity that is quite different from the steady development of relationships in our home country. And perhaps it is also linked to the nature of our experiences in a country that is so different from our own. Both aid workers and academic researchers are exposed to communities who, in development studies-speak, are seen as ‘subaltern’ – outside of and excluded from the hegemonic power structures of the global north, often rendering them disenfranchised, disempowered and underprivileged. My actual research subjects – unlike those of many anthropologists and ethnographers – do not necessarily fit this category as in many respects they were seen as the elite. Even a Kenyan aid worker from a poor background – and many I spoke to related to me an upbringing of struggle and hardship – is seen as part of the elite as the NGO sector is perceived by the average Kenyan as pretty lucrative; although many I spoke challenged this assumption.

The point is that, whether as a researcher or an aid worker, we are forced to often step way beyond our comfort zone into a world that is unfamiliar to us, where we have to work hard at understanding different social or cultural norms, and where we are often exposed to poverty and suffering on a daily basis of a kind most people in the UK or other wealthy countries could not comprehend. Such moments of exposure – which so quickly become normalised, for both the aid worker and the researcher – nevertheless leave an indelible mark on one’s memory. And such memories are very hard to communicate to others or even make personal sense of back in the comforts of everyday life in the UK. This is partly why the friendships we make in the field are so meaningful, because of that shared, complex experience.

So I find myself, as a researcher, in that strange transient zone I’ve grown familiar with as an aid worker; where I’m here in the UK, walking through the streets of London or Brighton or sitting at home, but much of the time my mind is elsewhere. It’s with the four year old child that was tugging at my sleeve and begging me for money as I bought groceries in Kakuma town. Or with the young Somali incentive worker (refugees who volunteer for the aid agencies and are paid a stipend) who walked me around Kakuma camp, telling me his life story and how since fleeing Somalia as a young child in 1992 he had grown up in Kenya’s refugee camps. Or with the friends I made in Nairobi, many of whom were aid workers themselves, who were there for me when I felt lonely and isolated. Who I felt so touched by when they opened up to me with such trust, telling me the personal challenges they’ve gone through with their work, and who I hope I helped in some way by just being there for them, listening to their doubts, fears, angers and anxieties.

It won’t be long before I immerse myself fully again in UK life and in the next stages of my Phd – the daunting phase of data analysis and thesis writing. But for now the same rules apply as I have taught myself as an aid worker, and which helped me so much in recent years. Stay present to your feelings. Be gentle on yourself. Spend time doing what you love. And find healthy and nurturing ways to reconnect with friends and family.

We are ultimately so lucky to have these experiences, whether as aid workers or academic researchers, as they enable us to broaden our perspectives and connect with a humanity that is far beyond the limited world view of our upbringing. And there are many ways we can put those experiences to good use, both at home and abroad.

 

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.

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.

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.