Tag Archives: female aidworkers

The Meaning of Commitment in Aid Work

Commitment is a key element of aid work. It is assumed, or may even be a requirement in a job description, that in order to work in this sector, one must be committed. And in aid work, the idea of commitment arguably stands out as different from many other professions because there is a very clear moral dimension to it.   The job is generally geared towards noble objectives such as ‘serving humanity’, ‘saving lives’, ‘ending poverty’. Similar to some other helping professions – doctors, carers, teachers for instance – but arguably with an even greater moral investment, due to aid work’s dedication to always supporting the less fortunate, the oppressed, the ‘victim’. It can mean that the aid worker themselves is judged according to how much they are willing to dedicate their lives to the cause, and to what extent they fail to meet the lofty ideals of ‘serving humanity.’

During my field research in Kenya, I found that national aid workers in particular could be judged negatively on these terms: they were not as committed, or motivated, as their European colleagues. As Mario*, an Italian development consultant I met in Nairobi, put it:

“It’s a job, they need it. From being Italian, I see more motivation from expats than locals. They do care up to a certain point, but there is motivation if there is the right compensation. In general, the way the expat interpret motivation, locals are less motivated.”

European expat aid workers on the other hand, attached a particular moral value to their work, which Mario summarised as: “I care for beneficiaries, I want to change their life. I want to make a difference.”

Yet commitment comes in many forms, as I saw during my field research. I met many Kenyan aid workers who had, for instance, stayed in their jobs for years and were living hundreds of kilometres away from their spouse and family. Some would only get to visit their family during their R and R (rest and recuperation) every 8-10 weeks. Some of these aid workers were in ‘non-family duty stations’ or ‘unaccompanied posts’ – working in conditions such as Kakuma or Dadaab refugee camp where they were explicitly not allowed to bring their loved ones. So their commitment to their work had been written in to their contract in terms of how often and when they could actually take a break and see their family.

The commitment required in these sorts of circumstances thus has wider implications for aid workers and their personal lives. It is perhaps no surprise that many aid workers I met were struggling in their romantic lives; either remaining single for long periods or with marriages that were falling apart. Japhet, a Rwandese aid worker I spoke to explained these challenges to me in the context of working in Kakuma refugee camp in northern Kenya.

“When you come to a place like Kakuma you have been removed from your place, your normal life, where you had a life and probably where a relationship would have developed because that is where you know people, you have friends and all of that. And you are here in a sort of temporary [situation]…so I don’t deny that you could meet someone here. But in a way this never feels like home, for you to build something.”

The women I spoke to also acknowledged these challenges. How long could they remain committed to the work they were doing, when they were also keen to commit to a relationship and to having a family? The Kenyan women I spoke to who were married with children also told me of how they at times felt pressure from their husbands to not travel so much, the assumption being that commitment should be to family first. One young Kenyan woman working for an international NGO in Kakuma explained these torn commitments to me:

“As a woman, when you focused your head onto career, your goal is always to be much better, much better, much better. So you know relationships, fine it’s there but you don’t even take it seriously […] And again women with empowerment […] I don’t know if it’s all women but African women….there is nothing a man will tell. And you know our men are very, very, very…they need a woman who is submissive. So if me, I tell this guy I’m bringing 50% and you’re bringing 50% to the house and we need to respect one another […] and you also need to help out with the work. There’s no African man who will…understand that.”

Peter, a Kenyan man who has worked for the UN since the 1990s and who I met in Kakuma, claimed that most relationships in the aid sector are doomed to failure. He himself had been through two failed marriages and his family were dotted around the country so he sometimes wouldn’t see them for several months at a time. He believed that most Kenyans – both men and women – if given the choice would prioritise an income over spending time with their family. And indeed there were women I met who were doing exactly this, as well as the men. Evelyn, for instance, worked in Kakuma refugee camp and only got to see her two and a half year old child – who was staying with her mother – when she was on R and R every 10 weeks. She acknowledged she was lucky she had someone to help her with the child – her husband was studying at a university in another district – but that other women weren’t so fortunate. “Sometimes, I can see most women…if they don’t really have…the husband doesn’t really understand their work, it can cost their work,” Evelyn told me. “So the woman can really tend to resign from work, then take care of the children. Rather than letting the children to suffer.”

The concept of commitment for Kenyans – and other African expat aid workers I met in Kenya – was thus often tied to building one’s career and the need for a reliable income to support their family. This may seem at odds with the ‘commitment to the cause’ that is assumed, and pushed, by aid organisations. Does this really matter?

The idea of commitment – or motivation – in aid work is often steeped in notions of morality and humanitarian values. These may seem like noble conceptualisations of commitment, but ones which perhaps favour the western aid worker. Many aid workers from Europe or America, conscious (or perhaps not) of their privilege, are motivated to do this work by a sense of guilt or responsibility; wanting to connect with or help others less fortunate than themselves, often in communities where western countries have played a direct role in oppression. Of course Kenyans, and other national aid workers, are just as likely to be guided by specific morals and ideals as their western counterparts. But there are other equally important, and personal, factors at play – such as responsibility towards one’s extended family as the only person with a comfortable income, or being a woman who is determined to be independent and ambitious and to challenge patriarchal norms in her society. Westerners should perhaps think more carefully about different forms of commitment – particularly in the context of those whose socio-economic choices are far more limited than our own – before judging national aid workers on the basis of lofty humanitarian values.

*Names have been anonymised throughout this blog piece. 

 

 

What do Stress and Wellbeing mean to Aid Workers?

In the last few weeks I’ve been engaging in discussions that have put the question of how aid workers interpret stress and wellbeing at centre stage. In August I ran a stress management workshop with an Italian NGO in Kenya which was attended by Kenyan, Somali and European staff. Aside from that, I’ve been talking to various people who have an interest in or are working on providing stress relief for aid workers and social change makers.

The question of how stress and wellbeing is understood by different people is important because in a world that is flooded with information about ‘alternative therapies’ such as yoga and meditation, as well as the western psychotherapy models, we can forget the hundreds of cultural traditions around the world that have handled emotional difficulties and mental health problems in their own, localised way. We can also forget that what works for one culture or society may not work for another. And in the aid sector, where the majority of staff are nationals from the southern hemisphere, we perhaps therefore still have a lot to learn about what interventions (if any) are appropriate for dealing with work-related stress.

The tendency is to assume that standard psycho-social models are a sufficient mechanism for addressing staff mental health. But there is a counter-argument that suggests that Western models of trauma healing are not always appropriate, nor healing, for some individuals from post-conflict countries. This has been argued in various literature (for instance, here) and was a point made by an Italian doctor I met recently who was conducting a training for humanitarian workers in body, mind and spirit practices for stress, trauma and compassion fatigue. During the training she related how in previous trainings in Rwanda and Burundi, some of the participants had commented how traumatising they had found the counselling given by Western psychotherapists.

’Stress’ and ’counselling’ are pretty familiar terms in European and American societies. Whilst there is still stigma around issues of mental health – people don’t talk openly about their depression, for instance –  there is an assumption that stress is part of everyday life, and that chronic forms of stress affect some of us and require clinical intervention in the form of one-to-one counselling.

The personal perception of stress and the way one deals with it is, in many ways, culturally and socially rooted. Whilst many NGOs provide some form of counselling for their staff, it would seem that ‘talking therapies’ are not necessarily the answer for a lot of aid workers.

Here are a couple of quotes from my data:

“There are those of us like me who come from nomadic background which thinks that talking about it is…is being a bit of a sissy. But, there are those of us that come from that culture of expressing yourself and you can see that people do grieve with each other, with different cultures.”

Somali UN worker (male)

“They pay for our counselling…but since it’s not so African to go for such things, most people don’t go for…debriefing. You can go during your R and R but nobody seems to ever get to it […] We as Africans we handle our stress differently – everyone has their own issues so why do you think yours is bigger? […] I think people just learn to handle their stress on their own, in case it’s there. Because for one we don’t open up that much, and especially here in Kakuma who would you open up to, especially if stress is work-related [….] basically you have to learn to handle your stress by yourself.”

Kenyan humanitarian NGO worker (male) (Kakuma)

Stress is not only culturally rooted; it is a gendered concept too. In the stress management workshop I recently ran, the Kenyan women remarked that stress in their society is largely seen as a women’s issue and associated with marital pressures, and with being of the ‘weaker sex’. This not only denigrates stress to the female experience, it also sends out the message that men do not suffer from stress, and therefore should certainly not talk about it.

I have been wondering about self-care practices too. ‘Self-care’ is in itself a dirty word for some aid workers. If it’s not seen as a bit ’new age’ or ‘hippy’, it’s seen as self-indulgent and completely at odds with a sector supposedly focused solely on helping others, not oneself.

There is a growing interest in yoga, meditation and similar self-care practices as a means to relieve stress, build resilience and encourage deeper self-awareness and compassion among aid workers and other social change makers. Regular yoga and mindfulness practices have certainly helped me in the last few years; the way I approach my work as a human rights defender has been transformed by following a daily practice that cultivates presence and a more mindful response to my own emotions and to the challenges around me.  And I continue to explore these further as a means to engage more fully in the world as well as to bring inner wellbeing.

But can these sorts of practices be adapted, and adopted, in African cultures? Are there traditions within African cultures which in fact use some of these practices already but give them a different name? I’m conscious that here in Kenya, for instance, trying to impose yoga or mindfulness as a stress relief tool may be seen as an effort to convert people to Hindu or Buddhist religions. Yet some of the techniques used in both these practices can probably be found in many other ancient cultures, including in Africa.

There are examples where the use of yoga and mindfulness have been introduced in different cultures, among aid workers and the communities they serve, with positive results – as this video from a woman who worked in Afghanistan suggests. Capacitar training also uses yoga, tai chi and other practices for trauma healing in communities that may be otherwise unaware of these traditions.

Self-care needn’t require a commitment to these increasingly popular practices however. As this blog by an Afrofeminist writer eloquently describes, there are many ways of practising self-care without having to devote oneself to yoga, and without necessarily having to completely change one’s lifestyle. Spending more time with family and loved ones is  important for aid workers and any other social change makers; because one of the big symptoms of stress and burnout is social detachment and disengagement, triggered by repeated exposure to the brutality and injustice that represent the darkest elements of human behaviour.  After such exposure, it is vital to seek out community and friendship. This can restore one’s faith in humanity and help cultivate compassion in a working environment that can be susceptible to ‘compassion fatigue.’ This video by the Headington Institute provides some advice to aid workers on how to maintain relationships with loved ones as a means of self-care.

Stress and how one responds to it is in some ways a complex matter. In the aid sector, both the individual and the organisation need to listen more – to themselves, to their staff, and what forms of support and healing are appropriate. It could take some time before aid agencies  go beyond a ‘one size fits all’ approach to staff care, but in the meantime there is a lot aid workers can do to help themselves. The starting point is that old adage, ‘Know Thyself’. What is your body trying to tell you and are you willing to stop and listen?

 

 

Aid Workers in Turkana: Outsider Lives and Compound Lifestyles

For the last couple of weeks, I’ve been up in Turkana county, in northern Kenya. This is one of Kenya’s poorest counties; dry, arid and hot, it is not an easy life up here. Rural and pastoralist communities are spread out throughout the county, struggling to survive with a scarcity of water and relying on their cattle, goats and camels and various Food for Assets and Credit Transfer programmes; since the devolution process started in 2013, the county government is now leading many of these development initiatives in the area. Meanwhile, the refugee community in Kakuma in Turkana West sub-county is struggling to survive on the handouts of humanitarian agencies, with everyone waiting to find out if the camp – home to around 185000 refugees – will be closed following the Kenyan government’s announcement to this effect a few weeks ago.

It goes without saying that this is a very different context for aid interventions than Nairobi, where I’ve been most of the time whilst conducting field research in Kenya. In Nairobi aid workers are either based in national offices where they travel out to the field every few weeks, to their programmes dotted around the country (this of course includes Somalia for a lot of organisations, who cannot be based in the country permanently due to security risks); or they are based in the regional offices where they may be travelling even less, playing an administrative or supportive role to the staff based in countries such as South Sudan or Uganda.

Here in Turkana you can find aid and development workers who have barely travelled to Nairobi; some who are from Turkana and have rarely left the county. The air conditioned, bustling offices and plywood desks and swivel chairs of the INGO national headquarters in Nairobi are a long long way away. Here in Turkana most INGO offices are on sandy, dusty compounds with few trees or foliage, and a slow, sleepy atmosphere permeates with only fans and an occasional breeze to cool people down in temperatures of 35 to 40 degrees.

Most of the people I’ve spoken to here, whether programme directors or field officers, are Kenyans. This would not have been the case 10 or 20 years ago. The expat aid worker presence, both here and in Nairobi, is falling year by year as Kenyan expertise increase and the restructuring of INGOs leads to more operations being managed and implemented at local and national level rather than from Europe. This reality, which can be seen across the globe as well as in Kenya, makes the need for greater recognition of the specific challenges faced by national aid workers even more crucial if we are to fully understand aid practice.

And here I outline some of those challenges that I’ve noticed as I spend time in Lodwar, the main city in Turkana and the local base for development INGOs including Oxfam, World Vision, Child Fund and Save the Children among others; and Kakuma, the base for humanitarian INGOs and UN agencies providing assistance to the refugee camp.

  • Many of the Kenyans I’ve spoken to are not from Turkana; their families are in another part of the country and they are visiting them every 2 or 3 months when they are on R and R (rest and recuperation). This is not the sort of place to bring your family, I’ve heard a few people say. So they must make do with speaking to their loved ones on the phone – provided they are not right out in the rural areas, where phone network may not work – or on skype – provided there is internet network, which is very intermittent here. And after 2 months, they spend what can be a day or more travelling to their family homes, for what may only be 5 days if they stick solely to the R and R they’re entitled to.
  • For most of Turkana county, you can find aid workers staying in guest houses or local accommodation, some in remote villages with no electricity or internet, and some in Lodwar and other large towns. In Kakuma, you can find them in one of the UN or INGO compounds. These are self-contained areas housing offices and staff accommodation, some of them small prefab units for people passing through for a short period of time. When not in the camp, humanitarian workers are confined to these compounds – it is where they work, eat and socialise – and are expected to return there when the curfew begins in the refugee camp at 6pm. Whether in Kakuma or other towns and villages in Turkana, there is not much to do outside office hours. None of the fancy restaurants found in Nairobi. No yoga classes or parks to walk around. And no supermarkets selling luxury items. In these circumstances, the social structure of one’s organisation is often all that exists in terms of support and social interaction. But on some weekends people travel out of town, to their homes or on R and R. So the humanitarian compound can be a quiet, uneventful place. Although some compounds, particularly those housing the UN staff, are better than others – one here has a gym and tennis court as well as cafeteria and bar.
  • One is very aware here of being seen as an outsider. In Lodwar, aid workers from outside Turkana told me of how they find the culture very different from their own; characterised by the diet – a lot of meat, mainly goat – or by the perceptions of women, for instance. One African expat in a senior position at an INGO told me of how she found the local authorities very reluctant to meet her when she arrived to introduce herself and make herself known to the community. She suspected there would have been a very different welcome if she’d been a man. Several others I spoke to in Lodwar commented on how the local community had seemed very suspicious towards them at first. This is partly a throwback to the derogatory treatment they were subjected to in colonial times, I was told; but also part of their guarded attitude as pastoralists defending their small communities and livestock, and their disillusionment with INGOs coming and going with endless surveys and overambitious or unfulfilled promises of development assistance.
  • In Kakuma, mistrust plays out in a different way. There is hostility particularly from the host community, who are tired of seeing the plethora of aid agencies turning up in their four wheel drives, hiding behind huge compounds just beside the refugee camp, and assisting the refugee community whilst apparently ignoring the abject poverty of the local population; although a number of organisations are trying to address this disparity with development interventions with the host community as well. One American expat told me of how she’d been attacked twice whilst going for a run in the area outside her compound, although she escaped largely unharmed on both occasions. Refugees too are also at times unhappy with the insufficient assistance received from the aid agencies here, occasionally protesting outside the agency compounds.

What is important to most aid workers I speak to in Turkana is having some form of social support network to turn to. Sometimes this may only be friends and family back home. For others, who are stuck up in a remote village for two months, it may be just one other colleague who is there with them. And for the expat humanitarian workers here in Kakuma, friendships are challenged by the continuing turnover of staff, as people finish one humanitarian posting and move on to another.

Life isn’t all bad of course. Staying in a quiet town with few ways to pass one’s time means money is saved, and for Kenyans this is particularly important when there are likely to be several relatives from the extended family expecting support. Expat aid workers have their supplies of luxury items such as olive oil, muesli, cheese and wine they’ve brought with them from Nairobi to keep them happy. And in the humanitarian compounds there is usually a party or gathering to go to at a neighbour’s house; one aid worker described his life there as ‘a bit like summer camp’.

Few aid workers have complained directly about their work with the communities. Those that have refer to the difficulties of meeting people’s expectations, particularly in what is often referred to as a very aid-dependent community. Most love the work they do, and feel a sense of fulfilment from the impact it has. The greater challenges often relate to what can at times be unbearable heat; the rough terrain throughout Turkana which can halt transport plans, particularly in the rainy season, leaving aid workers stranded in one place with few provisions; and the insecurity in certain areas – particularly on the borders with West Pokot county, where cattle rustling occurs between the Pokot and the Turkana pastoralists.

It has been an insightful time up here, exposing me far more directly to the realities of aid and development work than what I’ve witnessed so far in Nairobi. No doubt what I have described is familiar for many development and humanitarian workers. But outside the sector, these small but significant nuances are not always acknowledged in debates and analysis of what ‘aid work’ entails.

With only a few months left of my field research, it will soon be time to make sense of all of this and draw some conclusions, which I hope will be of value to the aid sector and to the many and diverse professionals working within it.

Unpacking the Personal in Aid Work

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

Stress in the Aid Sector: Who Suffers Most and Why?

Something in my heart snaps. My hands tremble and my eyes burn. For the first time since arriving here I cry. I cry for the dead boy buried in the cornfield. I cry for the hungry man beaten by the police. I cry for the little boy whose hopes of living with family have been shattered. I cry for the woman who will never recover from the wounds inflicted by her husband…

Miranda Gaanderse, relief worker in Rwamanja refugee camp, south-western Uganda (from Chasing Misery, ed. Kelsey Hoppe, 2014).

Why do some aid workers suffer from stress more than others? How do they cope with their emotional difficulties and what does this tell us about who they are and why they are doing this work? These are some of the questions I will be considering as I conduct field research in Kenya for my doctorate.

My research is inspired by my own experiences and those of my colleagues in the aid sector. Having worked in many different roles and in a variety of contexts – from villages at risk of demolition by Israeli authorities in the West Bank, to communities recovering from conflict and the tsunami in Sri Lanka – I’ve realised that stress and burnout is more complicated in this sector than one may originally assume. It is not merely the consequence of working in emergency or crisis situations, nor is it solely related to insufficient institutional support or the difficulties of working in unfamiliar settings, far away from family and friends. As mentioned in a previous blog piece there is a wealth of literature addressing the possible causes and symptoms of stress and burnout. However, whether it be in academic literature or in NGO/aid agency policy papers, we are told little about who it is specifically that suffers from stress and why. In particular I have found that there is an emphasis on the experiences of people operating in emergency settings – primarily relief workers – and on expats; with little attention paid to the reality that stress and burnout are also problems for other types of aid workers – such as development professionals or human rights activists, and nationals operating in their own countries.

The fact that there are so few studies about national aid workers is of particular concern, given that they make up approximately 90 per cent of the workforce.  They are often at the most risk from the work they do, due to their social proximity to the victims and perpetrators of human rights abuses and the state authorities responsible for addressing such abuses. They are also usually on lower salaries, with less benefits than their expatriate counterparts. They cannot simply leave the country when times get tough, nor do they have the same luxuries as many of their expat colleagues in terms of living arrangements and housing allowances.

Recent, and now increasing, reports of female aid workers being sexually harassed whilst on the job also highlights that women are at times faced with specific challenges and risks that are not fully recognised and no doubt are a serious source of stress.

Although these issues are receiving growing attention, this is not yet being translated into providing better advice and support that acknowledges the complexity of aid workers’ experiences. My research is thus aimed at highlighting that stress among aid workers can only be fully addressed by examining the diversity of personalities and identities within the sector and the influence of these elements on behaviour and experiences.

Motivations are particularly important here; I believe a deeper understanding of these may shine some light on why some people suffer from stress more than others. It is common for aid workers to be perceived as purely altruistic (particularly in the media and indeed by our own family and friends), or the complete opposite; in other words, motivated by what they may gain in terms of personal or professional development and status. Aid workers increasingly try to debunk the image of the altruistic hero by emphasising their primarily selfish motivations. My feeling is motivations are more complicated than this, and may be influenced by one’s background, upbringing and political beliefs. I’m interested to find out what role these motivations play in how aid workers approach and deal with the pressures of their job.

I also hope to reveal how one’s identity – whether this be class, gender, race, sexual orientation, culture or religion – influences the aid worker’s experiences. Whilst aid workers themselves share their experiences of the specific challenges of being, for instance a woman, or gay, far more analysis is needed to understand how these challenges contribute to stress and burnout in the sector.

It is my belief that understanding these issues is vital if organisations are to provide better staff care, and if aid workers are to make sense of the emotional upheavals associated with their jobs. I hope that my research, as well as this blog site, will provide opportunities to share experiences and reflect on how as aid workers we can understand ourselves and each other better.