Tag Archives: self-care

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.

Healing Solidarity and what’s to come on Life in Crisis

Today I am providing a quick update on my work on stress in the aid sector, and news of an exciting, inspiring and innovative conference coming up next week, which everyone can join and participate in!

These last few weeks I’ve reached that point that many doctoral researchers will be familiar with; where the Phd truly takes over and ‘normal life’ grinds to a halt. The good news is that I’m in the finishing stages, and I’m really looking forward to sharing my findings with aid practitioners and people who are interested in engaging further in debates concerning stress and wellbeing in the aid sector.

In the weeks and months ahead I will be publishing some key reflections and findings emerging from my thesis on my blog site. I will be looking at far more than simply the common stressors in the sector, such as the challenges of living in remote or dangerous environments, and considering how aid structures, systems and policies contribute to particular expectations around how staff should behave. The thesis includes a host of personalities from my research in Kenya, who are not simply ‘aid workers’ but human beings with a diversity of experiences, hopes, desires, fears and insecurities. My interest is in highlighting how there are particular assumptions made about what constitutes ‘good’ aid work (heroism and altruism are terms I investigate and deconstruct), and these often leave out the personal lives and vulnerabilities of staff, in racialised and gendered ways. There will be a focus on the inequalities that exist between national and international staff, but also the specific challenges facing, for instance, national women aid workers or African expatriates working in Kenya.

For those who want to learn more right now, before I start publishing some thesis extracts, you have a wonderful opportunity through the Healing Solidarity conference, organised by development practitioner, facilitator and coach Mary Ann Clements. This is a free, online conference running throughout next week, 17-21 September, and featuring a host of speakers from the development sector.

Topics up for discussion include neo-colonial structures of power in aid, bringing humanity back into aid interactions, how to transfer decision-making capacities and resources to grassroots groups, and building sustainable ways of working that address individual and organisational wellbeing. Building on my research findings I will be discussing how western public messaging, as well as aid agency policies and systems, contribute to an idealised image of what constitutes the ‘perfect humanitarian.’This imagery produces expectations and pressures that are difficult to live up to, particularly for aid workers from countries in the global south who do not have the same privileges as their counterparts from Europe or America. You can see a sneak preview here:

We cannot talk about stress and wellbeing in the aid sector without acknowledging the role of aid organisations, systems and structures in shaping the way staff behave and restricting the spaces and opportunities for discussion around personal problems and vulnerabilities.

Please do join us for the conference! Sign up and join the Facebook page to get all the details. Each day from 17-21 September there will be 3-4 discussions with different speakers, which you will be able to comment on via the Facebook page, and there will also be daily live reflective practices that you can join. The full details of the schedule can be found here. This is going to be a great opportunity to interact with development practitioners, experts and activists who are trying to reformulate the way we envisage and deliver aid in ways that foster a more inclusive and equitable workplace and environment. I’m so excited to be part of this conference and look forward to listening to all the incredible speakers!

Self-Reflection and Self-Care in the Aid Sector: Opportunities and Limitations

Most aid workers probably know somebody who has been through a form of extreme stress or burnout, and who has set themselves on the road to recovery by taking time out, seeing a psychotherapist or leaving their job. Of course many people don’t take any action, and become more and more sick. But what I’m interested in exploring here is who it is that chooses to step away from their work and seek help or take a break.

My research suggests that it is mainly female aid workers from western countries who take action. Out of the 125 national and international aid workers I spoke to in Kenya, a total of eight people described to me a specific and chronic health issue that they’d been diagnosed with. Six of these were European women, one was a European man and one was a Kenyan woman. This chimes to some degree with the Guardian survey of aid workers conducted in 2015, which found that approximately twenty per cent of their 754 respondents had suffered from PTSD and panic attacks, whilst forty four per cent suffered from depression. This is a far higher statistic than my own, but what’s important to note here is that the majority of the survey’s respondents were female, and identified themselves as international staff working for an international NGO.

The aid workers I spoke to with chronic health problems had all learned about their condition through seeking professional help of some sort; and in the case of the Europeans, this often occurred when they had left the field and were back in their home country. Some of these aid workers talked to psychotherapists, and some of them embarked on different forms of self-care such as yoga or meditation.

These opportunities to acknowledge one’s own health problems are few and far between when in the field. As one of my informants, a French woman working for an international humanitarian agency, told me:

“Not during the mission. I think that during the mission, when you’re in these sorts of situations, and when you have this kind of position, when you are in charge…no there is no space for you!”

This points to a working culture that many will be familiar with in the aid sector: one where emotions and feelings are pushed aside in the interests of caring for others. Where meeting urgent deadlines in the provision of food, shelter and other forms of assistance to people in need takes priority over the consideration of whether the aid worker themselves is coping. An Ethiopian man I met, who works for the UN  put it like this:

“Fear comes in, nightmares at night when you sleep, I had actually about all these stories and some people had gone through real stuff. I’ve been kidnapped once, ambushed I think more than four or five times […] I always knew that if I don’t go 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, […] kids will miss their vaccination or immunisation and these are the vital services that children need.”

But it is not only work-related pressures and working culture that are relevant in considering why many aid workers don’t acknowledge their own suffering and seek help. In the case of the 64 Kenyan aid workers I met, their approach to their job was in some ways different from their international counterparts, and this had implications for the degree to which they recognised and responded to stress in their lives.

It was clear from some of the Kenyans I spoke to that they did not wish to complain about a job which they felt fortunate to have, and which was enabling them to support their family. Most of the Kenyans I spoke to were married and had children that were either their own or they were looking after, and many had financial responsibilities such as paying school fees for siblings or other relatives as well. This was in contrast to the majority of people I met from western countries, who although were often in relationships and in some cases had children, did not share these extended family responsibilities. Self-care, and professional help, was thus easier to access for many international aid workers because they were more mobile and able to travel out of Kenya if needed, and had more disposable income. In addition, it was suggested to me by both Kenyan and European aid workers I spoke to that the reason that national staff didn’t take up counselling offered by their organisation was fear that doing so might threaten their jobs. As one Kenyan man I spoke to put it:

“I think we’re too busy to focus on such things or to look for counselling. I think there’s also this fear that the moment you approach HR that you need counselling services on your work, then it’s a sign of weakness or a sign of incompetence or something. At least that’s what I’d feel.”

There’s no doubt that a resistance to admitting to experiencing mental health problems in many contexts and for many people, whether from Europe, Africa or elsewhere. But in the aid sector there are extra factors worth considering – particularly for organisations attempting to provide psycho-social support to their staff. In a country such as Kenya, terms such as mental health or trauma are viewed somewhat suspiciously – as many of my informants told me. Alternative forms of therapy such as life coaching, yoga or meditation are certainly available, but they are fairly expensive – as is psychotherapy, if it is not paid for by the aid organisation. More reflection and creative ideas are therefore needed to ensure support for aid workers is accessible and relevant for all – both nationals and internationals.

 

 

 

Understanding the Spiritual Lives of Aid Workers

Isn’t it about time aid organisations paid more attention to the spiritual lives of their staff? After all, it is often faith of one sort or another that is guiding the work of aid professionals. With approximately 90% of the aid sector being made up of people from non-western countries, I think it is safe to say that the majority of that 90% would identify themselves with a particular faith. This is in contrast to western aid workers, where I would guess that the percentage who identify with and actively practise a particular religion is much lower. This is a fairly informed guess, given that I used to work for a large Christian charity where about half the number of its UK staff (including myself) did not identify with the Christian faith, nor any other religion.

Religion, and more broadly spirituality, has a bad press in the UK and many other western countries. We often tend to associate Christianity, for instance, with negative tropes such as power, domination (including the colonisation of countries in the global south), conflict and abuse. In the aid sector, we may work with and support faith-based organisations in our development programmes but in the workplace we shy away from discussions around faith and spirituality. The assumption seems to be that those are things for poor people in need, not for us. Development and aid programming is after all built upon rigid, rational formulas and frameworks that do not allow space for the subjective, fluid and hard-to-measure experience of what may be labelled ‘the supernatural’ or ‘occult’.

Yet by dismissing faith-based practice as something irrelevant to aid work we are overlooking the importance of these practices in guiding and supporting aid professionals in the most challenging of circumstances. From my own research in Kenya I have seen that spiritual growth and development has a major role to play in understanding why some people – European and African – overcome, or completely transcend, the challenges of their work in the aid sector.

Being religious or spiritual means many different things, and I am not simply suggesting that going to church can be a panacea for all ills, or a route out of personal suffering. What I believe is that spiritual practice, and faith, is a way in which to make sense of suffering in order to support one’s way of being in the world.

I found the way some of my Kenyan and Somali research participants talked about their faith and their work particularly informative. The Somali aid workers I met were often working in situations of heightened insecurity, where the threat of bombings or gunfire was always nearby. They believed that these were circumstances that had to be accepted as ‘God’s will’, and that rather than dwelling on the challenges it was better to appreciate the life that God had given them. It was this form of faith that enabled the Somali aid workers to laugh and joke about situations that their western counterparts balked at, such as the bombs they could hear outside their offices which the Somalis would say was the ‘popcorn’ starting again.

In a very different context, I remember the calmness and sense of acceptance that emanated from a Kenyan aid worker I spoke to in Nairobi, when she told me about her organisation’s restructuring and the likelihood that she would lose the job she’d been in for over 10 years. She felt strongly that her Christian faith would help her remain self-assured and confident of her abilities despite these circumstances.

‘My faith is more important now than anything else. Mostly because my faith helps me affirm my beliefs of who I am and what I’m capable of doing. Such that, as I step out, whether I’m stepping out or not, or as I face this matter, I face it with confidence. We always say, when one door closes another door opens. So I encourage myself with the word of God!’

Furthermore, aid work enabled some of my research participants to engage in a meaningful occupation that could give them spiritual growth. A number of Kenyan aid professionals I spoke to referred to how their work had given them a sense of purpose by making a difference to the lives of others. Working to assist victims of war, or poor communities, had also helped them to appreciate their own good fortune, in spite of the hardships they too may have experienced when growing up.

Having a sense of purpose is clearly very important for aid work. Loss of purpose, or meaning, is often what leads to disillusionment and burnout in the aid sector. And when faced with immense human suffering, along with the high expectations of aid beneficiaries, employers and donors, it isn’t hard to lose that sense of purpose, if the aid worker feels that their actions can never fully meet the needs of others. Yet faith and spiritual awareness are clearly vital elements in addressing these challenges. Reflecting on my own experience, and on the stories of some of my research participants, I can see that engaging in spiritual practice helps to build an awareness and knowledge of oneself. This may ultimately mean recognising one’s limitations as much as one’s capabilities; seeing that we cannot be all things to all people, and that we too are humans who are vulnerable and imperfect (perfectly imperfect as some spiritualists like to say). But by understanding ourselves better, we can also instil more trust in our abilities to overcome difficult situations – to respond to these situations in a way that helps us grow and learn.

Spiritual and religious practices are also a way of fostering greater connection with others. Prayer and meditation often takes place in a collective space, where people feel sufficiently safe to share their innermost feelings and vulnerabilities. These spaces are vital in the aid sector as its organisational culture so often stigmatises mental health and shuts out emotional expression. Whilst many western cultures may consider counselling and talking therapies to be the solution for mental health problems, we forget that there are other important spaces that exist in cultures different from our own. African aid workers, for instance, may feel more comfortable opening up to known and trusted faith-based or traditional healers than to a professional psychotherapist coming from a European country.

As I have said before, there can be no ‘one size fits all’ approach to staff care. But at least acknowledging and working with these alternative forms of healing and self-care could serve two related purposes: of understanding better the spiritual lives of aid workers – as multi-faceted human beings rather than mere aid delivery robots – and of providing them with support that is grounded in their own cultures and belief systems.

 

 

 

 

 

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.

 

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?

 

 

Unpacking the Personal in Aid Work

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

The Role of Mindfulness in Aidwork

Using the terms mindfulness or meditation in the work setting of a humanitarian or human rights NGO can often feel inappropriate or irrelevant. In a sector that focuses primarily on caring for others, this method of self-care may seem at best of secondary importance, at worst in contradiction to the principles of selflessness that are associated with aid work. In the wider Western world, these terms also have negative connotations – of being hippie or ‘New Agey,’  therefore only understood and respected by people who have chosen a spiritual path. And a common accusation is that meditation is a navel-gazing exercise, which allows us to be detached from, or to escape, the realities of the world we live in but has no value in bringing any sort of change to those realities. This accusation can be found in, for instance, an article by Guardian columnist Suzanne Moore, which claims that mindfulness is all about self-help, but does nothing to change an unjust world. I would like to take issue with some of these assumptions about mindfulness and meditation, whilst also highlighting and attempting to address the uneasiness that exists towards the practice, both in the humanitarian and human rights sector and the wider world.

But first, what is mindfulness and how can it be distinguished from meditation? I see mindfulness as a practice, or exercise, that can be applied at any point in any day, no matter what we are doing. Meditation is one tool in which to practise mindfulness – a way of stepping out of what one is doing in the day, and dedicating 5, 15, 20 or 50 minutes to simply sitting and being present. Focusing on the breath is a common way of anchoring ourselves in that present moment. Mindfulness, whether through quiet, solitary meditation or otherwise, is an opportunity to transcend the endless chatter in our heads – the grievances about the past, the anxieties about the future – and simply focus on experiences as they happen, in the present. We can practise mindfulness without needing to meditate. The moment may be something as mundane as doing the ironing or as challenging as physical or emotional pain. Or the enjoyment of eating chocolate or walking in the woods. How often do we actually taste the food we are eating, when most of the time we are eating whilst working, or reading, or talking to others? How often do we actually feel our physical pain, when our instinct is to distract ourselves from it or be so consumed in worries about the possible future implications of the pain? Mindfulness puts us in touch with the immediate sensory experience, so that we are able to really feel what is happening, and acknowledge what that feeling is. It helps to deepen our awareness of all the thoughts, feelings and emotions that make up who we are, not only as individuals but as part of the human race.

Relating this back to humanitarian and human rights work, being mindful is a way of ensuring that we are not continuously led by our emotional responses. This is not to say that emotional responses to injustice, or human suffering, are not important. I think the problem that Suzanne Moore and others – including myself at times – have with ‘spiritual’ practice is the notion that it is too inward-looking, and makes robots out of human beings; real, raw emotions may in fact be lost in the search for authentic and transcendental enlightenment.

But mindfulness is as much about connecting with the outer world as it is with navigating our inner world. Both of these are important – we cannot help or show understanding to others if we are unable to help or understand ourselves. This is why compassion plays such an important role in Buddhist teachings of meditation. By exploring what is happening within, we can connect with deeper truths about human existence, consciousness and suffering that we so often overlook, ignore or avoid in everday life. Mindfulness also enables us to take a moment to watch the emotional reactions we have and guage whether they are helpful for us and for others. Anger and rage may be common experiences when working on issues related to oppression and injustice, but they are not always helpful. I have worked in settings where these emotions, displayed bombastically, provocatively and argumentatively serve to alienate the sympathisers to our cause as much as our opponents. Is that what we really want to achieve each time we disagree with something or someone we don’t like? Breathing in to and observing those emotions, instead of always getting lost in them, helps us to gain some clarity over how it is we really wish to respond, and what it is we really wish to convey when we react to human suffering. We are mindful not only in observing our thoughts and emotions, but also in putting those thoughts and emotions into action, for a particular effect or outcome. This is why it is an essential tool to bring into all that we do.

The debate over the relevance of mindfulness in aid work and activism is far from over, and in fact has only just begun, as more and more people take up the practice as a means to relieving stress and burnout. Whilst I try to practise various forms of mindfulness in my everyday life, I also continue to ask myself certain questions about its scope and use in the sector I work in. How can it help aid workers interact more effectively and compassionately with people around them? What role can it play in the quest for social justice? Is it merely a practice for the privileged or can it have meaning for the communities served by aid workers? Perhaps some readers have experiences to share that can help answer these questions.