World Humanitarian Day: Remember the Human Behind the Humanitarian

Welcome to my blog site, Life in Crisis, which I’m launching on the 19 August to mark World Humanitarian Day.

Although I would not strictly call myself a humanitarian worker, I have operated within the humanitarian sphere for many years, in Palestine, Kenya and Uganda among other places. As someone who has worked for human rights and development organisations, and with local communities living in or recovering from conflict, I am fully aware of the challenges of this sort of work. These challenges relate both to our external environment and our internal emotional landscape.

On the one hand, living in unfamiliar terrains, often isolated from close friends and family and exposed to untold suffering on a daily basis takes its toll on even the most hardened aid worker. On the other, we’re often fighting our own inner battles of guilt, anxiety and self-doubt; constantly asking why we’re doing this job, whether we’re making any difference, whether our egos are getting the better of us, whether in fact our presence in the countries we’re operating in is doing more harm than good. We may have our own expectations of what this job was meant to be, or may be frantically trying to meet the expectations of our managers and colleagues. And so often it can feel like we’re failing on both counts, because we simply cannot respond to all the demands that the work places on us. And we cannot solve all the world’s problems, or the problems of the country we’re working in, or even the problems of one person asking for our help.

World Humanitarian Day is important as it forces us to remember the complexities of the challenges faced by aid workers. What do I mean by this? Firstly, that who we call the humanitarian worker encompasses hundreds of thousands of different people, of all ages, nationalities and backgrounds. They may currently be working on the Ebola response in West Africa or assisting refugees from Syria, but they were also the first responders during Hurricane Katrina in 2005, and are providing food and shelter to people fleeing the ongoing violence in Ukraine. Many are volunteers who have given up their day job to respond to something they feel deeply concerned about; many others are doing this work as a career, within the UN or international NGO sector.

And they are not all white and from the Western world, as one might assume from portrayals in the media. The popular image of the caring and nurturing twenty-something – often female – holding a sick African child, is one snapshot of a far more diverse and complicated sector. An estimated 90 per cent of humanitarian workers are nationals who operate in their own country. In other words, nationals from countries undergoing natural or man-made disasters and conflicts such as Syria, Nepal or Afghanistan are all playing a crucial role in humanitarian interventions, and the chances are they are putting their lives at far greater risk than their expatriate counterparts in doing so.

This is because of the high risks they face of being targeted or attacked in their own environments, and the unfortunate reality that they are unlikely to receive the same sort of support from their employers as would their expatriate colleagues. 

So today is an opportunity to remember the human face of the humanitarian worker, whether they be from the US, Europe or the developing world. It is a chance to recognise the complexity of each and every personality in the sector, and their associated morals, values and motivations.

There are two dominant narratives that describe the humanitarian worker. One is of the selfless hero – the popular image promoted by aid agencies themselves and by the media. The other is the selfish and privileged careerist – portrayed often by aid workers themselves who wish to debunk the selfless hero myth. But neither narrative gives a fair representation of the many thoughts, beliefs, feelings and emotions behind every humanitarian intervention. Aid workers are not always heroes, but they are not villains either. They are often walking a fragile tightrope between responding to the suffering of the communities they are assisting and to their own personal and emotional needs. All too often the latter plays second fiddle to the former and the desire to maintain the facade of the humanitarian hero. And it is this neglect of ‘the self’ – of understanding and working with complicated personal interests, motivations and feelings – that can lead to far greater emotional difficulties such as chronic stress and burnout.

This blog site will be examining and reflecting on these issues in more detail over the coming months. But for now, suffice to say, if we are to really ‘reshape aid’ we need to consider the personal as well as the professional aspects of aid work. We need to remember that feelings and emotions matter for the humanitarian as much as they do for any other human being. They shape their choices and their actions, and therefore have a huge role to play in how humanitarian work is done. This is why the current petition calling for staff welfare to be included on the agenda of the World Humanitarian Summit in 2016 is so important. It highlights that aid interventions – as flawed as they may be at times – cannot be efficiently administered or improved unless we address the emotional suffering of aid workers and the impact this has on what they do. World Humanitarian Day may seem an uncomfortable way of recognising the existence of this suffering alongside the suffering of the populations receiving aid.  But it’s also an opportunity to keep pushing the issue of staff welfare and self-care onto the agendas of all aid workers – managers and field officers alike; it is a collective responsibility and one that we can start addressing today.

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  1. Pingback: The Realities of a Life in Crisis | Life in Crisis

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