Compassionate and Inclusive Leadership: A Conversation Starter for Staff Wellbeing in the Aid Sector

“I think mental health problems in this sector are greeted with laziness and weakness. We’ve always not delivered in this sector, we can never do enough no matter how hard we try, so if you’re not always in tip-top shape, you’ll be seen as not dealing with it well.”

“I’m not sure they really know what people go through here.”

These remarks come from two aid workers I met in Kenya. In many ways, they are talking about the same thing; feeling unseen and uncared for in their organisations. Yet there are differences too. The first quote originates from an Irish man working for the United Nations; the second a Kenyan woman working for an international NGO. They are both referring to an organisational culture that doesn’t want to listen to people’s personal problems. But in the case of the Kenyan woman, she is referring specifically to her colleagues from high income countries in the Global North. In this respect, there is an added layer of exclusion that relates to the power dynamics of the aid sector – where the system’s pressurised environment, long working hours, pay scales, protections and benefits are largely stacked in favour of white people from these high income countries. Whilst we have enough studies to show that many aid workers suffer from stress and related psychiatric illnesses, we need to be paying more attention to the stories behind these conditions; whose are being heard and whose are not.

My research has shown that it is hard for aid workers to speak about their wellbeing to their colleagues. But it is particularly hard for national staff operating in an environment where they are usually paid less than their international colleagues, and where they often struggle more to prove themselves as sufficiently competent to do the job. This is not only about nationality, but also about race. Many European or American people of colour working in the sector fight the same battles to be seen, heard, valued and rewarded on an equal footing with their white colleagues.

What is required to address these problems, for which we should all take responsibility, is greater reflection and dialogue around the power imbalances that permeate through the aid system; from the so-called aid ‘beneficiaries’ – itself a telling term that empowers the giver more than the receiver – up to the staff, management, board members and donors. We are all part of this system in different ways, and if we were more willing to admit this – and the ways in which we may be keeping this structure in place – we might have the beginnings of a conversation that is essential for our sector if we are to adequately address staff wellbeing.

Without taking the time out of the institutionalised busyness and urgency of our working lives to actually listen to the people that make up the majority of the sector’s workforce – nationals from the Global South – and their own lived experiences of exclusion and discrimination, we cannot fully address problems of stress, bullying and sexual abuse that currently plague the sector. Similarly, the localisation agenda will mean very little unless national aid workers have more of a say in how their employers could be supporting them better. The stories that I heard time and again from national staff in Kenya suggested a lack of sympathy towards their family responsibilities, of the long distances they have to travel to get to work, and of the limited opportunities for career progression. At the same time, the bullying culture that many of us are aware of – and indeed have been on the receiving end of – makes it particularly difficult for these staff to speak up, when precarious contracts are at stake.

Yet we have to find ways of listening and learning from those whose voices often get drowned out due to the sector’s ongoing control and influence by white people from the Global North. People like myself are not the experts and do not have all the answers when it comes to the wellbeing of the majority world. And we must learn to take a step back and listen to the lived experiences of colleagues who have much to share about what inclusion and wellbeing really means; including those from the LGBTQ+ community, nationals from the Global South, people of colour and those with disabilities.  Whilst white women too feel excluded from key discussions within the aid sector, this is not about who is the biggest victim; it is instead an invitation to reflect on our privileges and how we may be misusing them – and indeed how we may use them effectively to fully support and show our solidarity with others who do not look like us.

What might a listening and reflective culture look like and how would it operate? These are valid questions, which I am looking forward to discussing at the upcoming AIDEX conference in Brussels in November. In partnership with Dr. Addy Adelaine and Ladders4Action, we will be running the first of a series of workshops to be held in different locations in the Global North and Global South, on Compassionate and Inclusive Leadership. I’ll unpack those words:

Compassionate: strengthening our ability to feel our own emotions and listen to and be present with the emotional voices of others

Inclusive: more than just ‘diversity’ and having different faces at the table; it calls on us to recognise the underlying power dynamics at play and to create an environment where everyone feels welcome and respected.

Leadership: recognising that everyone is a potential leader, and that there is a collective responsibility to ensure equal opportunities to share knowledge, expertise and lived experience.

Compassionate and inclusive leadership therefore matters if we are to be more accountable as aid workers – towards each other and towards the communities we serve. I look forward to taking the conversation forward at AIDEX, and at further workshops we have planned in aid sector field locations.

For more details and to register for the AIDEX conference, click here

To register for our workshop at AIDEX, click here

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