My last blog piece highlighted that emotional experiences in aid work can be complicated and not always directly related to critical incidents or the challenges of living in remote, unfamiliar or insecure environments. An interesting area of my research which I feel needs further investigation is how these emotional experiences play out in aid workers’ relationships. As I commented in the last blog piece, the emotional impact of aid work may be a relational issue; in other words, how we recognise and process our emotions may be determined by the social context – whether we feel safe in opening up, and how the other person responds to us.
These issues have arisen a number of times recently in the course of my field research. In particular, both Kenyan and expat aid workers have highlighted to me how difficult it can be to talk about their work to their friends and spouses. One Kenyan working for an international development NGO in Nairobi told me that his constant travel, and the fact that his wife didn’t even live in Nairobi but in another county a few hundred kilometres away, had put considerable strain on their recent marriage. It was very hard for his wife, who does not work in the aid sector, to understand the context of his job and the expectations associated with it, which so often include frequent travel. In this situation, I wonder how easy it is for someone to talk about the challenges they face in their work, when they know that their loved ones may not really understand where they’re coming from.
This is a part of the aid worker’s life that many, including myself, can identify with – how to form meaningful relationships with people who have no experience or understanding of the specific pressures and difficulties we have in our work. As one humanitarian worker remarked to me yesterday, so often we’re either seen as saints to be worshipped, when actually we can be as selfish – if not more so – as anybody else; or our work goes completely over people’s heads and the best questions we may be asked are whether it’s dangerous in Africa, or whether we’ve seen any lions whilst we’ve been there. I’m sure I’m not alone in having spent quite a bit of time at social gatherings, and in friendships and romantic relationships, trying to articulate my experiences but ultimately feeling like I’ve failed because I can’t find the right words or I feel the person listening is unlikely to fully understand. Sometimes it is far easier to offload your sense of guilt, of despair, of disillusionment about your work to the person you’ve worked alongside for the last few months than the friend you’ve known since childhood. Talking about the torture of political prisoners or women you’ve spoken to who’ve been raped several times serve as conversation stoppers in most social contexts back home in Europe, but are stories which seem less shocking and more worthy of analysis and meaning-making among fellow aid workers.
What does this mean for our relationships? It can result in a distancing from friends and relatives back home, a feeling that we no longer have anything in common with people who seem to have followed a far more conventional path than ourselves. And it can have implications for romantic relationships too. How much are our partners or spouses willing to listen to our work-related woes, whether it be about the boredom of logframes and meeting donor requirements or the horrors of what we’ve seen or heard in communities we’re trying to assist? Are they able to support us in the way we would wish, if they are more often on the other end of skype or a phone line than right next to us, or when their professional environment may be poles apart from our own? These factors can make opening up on an emotional level very difficult. We stop ourselves from recognising our anger or sadness because we don’t know how to express it to those around us. The organisational culture that pervades the aid sector – which often seems embarrassed by or disapproving of too much emotional outpouring (a paradox given that engaging in humanity and social change work is all about being emotional) – hardly helps either.
Relationships are nevertheless a grounding element in an aid worker’s otherwise frenetic lifestyle. Some have told me that having a relationship has made a big difference to their approach to work; it allows them to switch off after they’ve left the office, and it also provides them with much needed social support, particularly when working in remote settings. Without the support of a loving and understanding partner, the risk of going down the route of the ‘cowboy’ – as one person I met described those who are perpetually single, with few roots back home, who travel frequently to high risk settings and drink a lot – seem much greater. Yet aidworkers can be very picky about who they wish to be with; a relationship’s viability often seems to rest on whether the partner in question is willing to travel and live abroad. And if we find it difficult to form meaningful relationships with people outside the broad social change sector, that narrows the possibilities also.
I will be reflecting on these issues as I continue my field research, as it’s clear from those I’ve spoken to already that how problems are shared with loved ones, and how those loved ones respond, are big factors in determining to what extent aid workers recognise and deal with stress. In the meantime, for those in pursuit of a more snarky take on these issues, please read the OnSanity’s blog piece, ‘52 reasons not to date an aid worker‘ – there’s something there for every aid worker.