What motivates aid workers? And do motivations have any bearing on how aid workers experience stress? These are two among many questions I continue to grapple with whilst undertaking field research in Kenya.
Whilst family, friends and even strangers we meet at a party may assume that we are selfless heroes, ask aid workers about what motivated them to enter their profession and you’ll get a mixed set of answers. Some will flat out deny they have any altruistic motivations whatsoever and will argue that they are getting far more out of what they do than any so-called aid ‘beneficiary’ or ‘recipient’. The rewards for aid workers may be self-development, expanding one’s understanding of the world, exploring different cultural or social realities, or financial gain; because, much to the surprise of the stranger you meet at a party who asks you what you do for a living, aid work a lot of the time actually pays quite well.
Aid workers are often keen to debunk the popular image of humanitarian hero with purely altruistic intentions. A female development worker in Tanzania interviewed by Maria Erikson Baaz is quick to point out the ‘egoistic will’ which drives her work (Baaz, The Paternalism of Partnership: A Postcolonial Reading of Identity in Development Aid, 2004: 90); and the aid blogosphere is full of snarky commentary (such as this one) that attempts to do away with false assumptions about heroic aid workers.
Aid worker motivations are nevertheless complex and cannot be easily categorised into the altruistic/selfish binary, as writers such as Sara de Jong (de Jong, ‘False Binaries: Altruism and Selfishness in NGO work, in Fechter and Hindman Inside the Everyday Lives of Development Workers: The Challenges and Futures of Aidland, 2010) and, most recently, Liisa Malkki, have highlighted. Malkki’s book, The Need to Help: The Domestic Arts of International Humanitarianism, which I have yet to finish, asks the question, ‘what is it we’re not seeing, and not being told, about the motivations of humanitarian workers?’ Her interest is particularly in the neediness that, she argues, often underlies a person’s decision to enter into this profession; a neediness to get away from home and find solace in a different community, or the neediness to live out a sense of obligation towards those less fortunate than oneself. She also notes that heroism, or some sense of self-sacrifice, were rarely the guiding motivations for the Red Cross humanitarian professionals she spoke to, although these factors probably had some influence. Many of her informants talked more about their ‘internationalist’ aspirations – the desire to travel and interact with different cultures, a sense of obligation towards the global south, whose communities were victim to the global north’s avarice and war-mongering – than a specific calling to a particular cause. Solidarity and a feeling of working together for a greater good were also important to the aid workers she interviewed.
What this indicates is that whether motivations are seen as selfish or altruistic, there is a moral undertone that guides a lot of people in this sector; aid workers do this work because they believe it is ‘the right thing to do’ in order to ‘share humanity’, to be part of this world and to take responsibility for the damage we are all causing to it.
I find this interesting as it relates somewhat to my own experience, and also to a term coined by a journalist interested in the trauma experiences of soldiers and of humanitarian workers; a term which I’m going to adopt here – ‘moral injury’.
I was trying to think back to when I first felt this urge to enter the humanitarian sphere. There was one pivotal moment that particularly lodged itself in my memory, and that was seeing the aftermath of the earthquake Izmit which struck Turkey in August 1999. I was so horrified by what I saw on the news, and felt this strong desire to go and help. It was during that same summer that a friend from University had travelled to Cameroon to do voluntary work. When hearing her account of her experiences there when she returned, I remember feeling this urge to do the same, and also to do my volunteering in Africa.
So I left University with this determination to work abroad for a charity, but I didn’t really know what sort of work. I guess I had that ‘need to help’ that Malkki was talking about. Whether it’s a ‘neediness’ as she is implying in her book, I’m not sure. But it did eventually turn into an attachment to a particular cause and a moral imperative to take action – on the war in northern Uganda, on the post-election violence in Kenya, on the occupation in Palestine…and so on and so on.
Fast forward to 2016, and the plethora of questions and debates that have arisen around why aid workers suffer from stress and burnout, and how it can be prevented. And one journalist’s reference to ‘moral injury’, which caught my attention. The point he was raising, actually in reference to soldiers but with relevance for aid workers too, was that maybe we become damaged by disappointment and betrayal; because we start off in this work with a sense of moral obligation but can end up hugely disillusioned when we find out that our intentions are not always appreciated. Perhaps our organisation does not share our moral standpoint, or maybe the communities we supposedly ‘serve’ do not want us to be there. Or perhaps we feel betrayed because of something we should have done, but didn’t; or equally because of something we did do but wish we hadn’t. Sometimes we may end up questioning whether we’re doing any good whatsoever, and whether therefore our work is completely at odds with our moral obligation towards those who are suffering partly as a result of our governments’ policies. I remember leaving Palestine in 2011 with those very questions and wondering whether my presence there was appreciated, or made any difference. Perhaps no surprises what happened next – I’m undecided whether to call it a burnout, but it certainly resulted in a break from the sector and a difficult emotional period lasting over a year.
What do the mixed, changing and at times unrealised intentions of aid workers mean for how and whether they experience stress and burnout? I’m interested in exploring this here in Kenya, where I’ve spoken to a number of people, both Kenyans and expats, whose motivations do not point immediately to moral obligations, nor to purely altruistic intentions. Some have fallen in to this work without really planning it, some are in it for the opportunity to live abroad and be exposed to different cultures, and some are using it as a stepping stone to another career later on down the line. And of course there are indeed some who are passionate about what they do, and believe they can make a meaningful difference to people’s lives. I am not doubting that there are often caring intentions at play, but I am interested in exploring how different motivations are recognised and how they influence the behaviour and choices of aid workers. Sarah de Jong makes an interesting argument that altruism and selfishness may exist simultaneously and are not necessarily in contradiction to each other (de Jong in Hindman and Fechter, 2010: 37). I believe it is important to recognise this in order to understand fully why people enter the aid sector, how they change throughout their professional lives, and the reasons why some of them end up leaving for good.