This is a question that has sprung up once again in aid/development debates, and one recent blog post arguing for ‘new words’ captures the issue very well. I have also been considering this question as I conduct research in Kenya. I have used the term aid worker in my research as I wanted to find an expression that could capture the diversity of people I was researching. To me it was the best term available to encapsulate all my research subjects – people working for international development, humanitarian and human rights organisations. But this by no means implies the term is sufficient; in fact it leads to a lot of confusion, for myself and others.
‘Aid worker’ is actually often associated purely with those involved in humanitarian interventions. So people have assumed that I am only interested in staff working for humanitarian organisations such as Medecins Sans Frontieres or the International Committee of the Red Cross. I’ve found myself having to explain that actually I’m just as interested in investigating the challenges of working on long-term development interventions; in talking to individuals who work on water and sanitation programmes or micro-credit schemes in rural settings, for instance. As what I wish to argue is that chronic stress may arise just as much from working in these sorts of settings as with short-term emergency operations in disaster areas.
But how can a human rights defender be considered an aid worker, some may ask? Well, as someone who has worked for both national and international human rights organisations, as well as development/humanitarian organisations, the easiest way to describe myself, when explaining what I do to people outside the sector altogether, is ‘aid worker’.
But of course this leads to huge misperceptions about what I do. The image of the heroic aid worker feeding a sick child or providing first aid to people fleeing war or violence is what everybody knows; yet I have never been directly involved in these sorts of operations, and in fact when working for human rights organisations there is often no assistance given whatsoever – it’s all about advocacy and raising awareness. But explaining that to an ‘outsider’ sometimes feels too clunky, too tiring….and sometimes one wonders, are they really that interested anyway in these finer details?
Furthermore, when we look at the actual job descriptions of aid workers, many are less on the operational side and more on the systems side of things – whether this be fundraising, M and E or strategy development. They are rarely doing the frontline work of regularly interacting and assisting ‘aid beneficiaries’ (another term that needs a serious overhaul). Yet as I’ve gone about my field research in Kenya I’ve been introduced to and interviewed a range of people who have offered themselves up as ‘aid workers’, who probably spend most weeks and months at their desks in an office in Nairobi, but who have a story to tell about stress and the challenges of the work.
This prompts a relevant question for my research; one which I feel inclined to ask my informants in the ensuing weeks – what does ‘the typical aid worker’ actually mean to people doing aid work?
This could be further expanded to ask more probing questions, like: What is the popular image they have in mind, and what is the real image that resonates more for them? At what point do people who enter the aid sector start describing themselves as an ‘aid worker’? And at what point does this concept of themselves get challenged by the reality they find?
The dissonance between the romantic image of the aid worker and the harsh reality of office politics, donor demands, unethical approaches and ineffective interventions can be a major challenge for people in the sector and, I think, a source of stress and contributing factor for those who burn out. This relates to a previous blog post I wrote about ‘moral injury’. The Headington Institute have a neat definition for this term and of another similar one, ‘wounds of the soul’:
They result from violations of deeply held beliefs about what is right […] when one must choose among “bad” options, [which] may force people to act contrary to their beliefs.
The writer at Headington Institute goes on to give other examples of moral injury within the context of humanitarian aid:
Inability to stop others from committing atrocities; carrying out management directives that violate personal values; witnessing random suffering caused by natural disasters; tolerating overwhelming injustice.
As the writer notes, these experiences can leave aid workers feeling full of guilt, shame and disillusionment – some of the hallmarks also of burnout.
So I feel it is true to say we must consider this term ‘aid worker’ and how we use it. Not just in the intellectual sense, but on a personal level too. Those working within the humanitarian/development/human rights sphere need to reflect on how they wish to see, and be, themselves. The narratives they, and their colleagues and organisations, build around their work may be serving to damage their own sense of self. What is needed in this work is not an inflated or exaggerated image of what one is expected to achieve in a world of extreme poverty and immense suffering, but confidence in the small and modest, but perhaps meaningful role, one can play in challenging opinions and changing lives.