The Realities of a Life in Crisis

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

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

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

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

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

One thought on “The Realities of a Life in Crisis

  1. michaelh

    Just watched the trailer of Living In Emergency. The film looks fascinating and powerful and I hope there will be an opportunity to see it in UK – preferably in a cinema. Is there a MSF presence in Kenya? It seems you and MSF could have a fruitful and mutually beneficial dialogue.

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