Humanitarian aid work has become increasingly dangerous, with aid workers more stretched than ever. For the first time since World War II, more than 50 million people are displaced worldwide. Attacks on aid workers more than tripled in the last decade.
Of course, the traumas of aid workers pale in comparison to those they serve. But many do face near-death experiences — 45 percent of those surveyed in the 2013 report had believed their lives were in danger or that they would be seriously injured at least once during their careers. They hear firsthand accounts of rape and murder on a near daily basis. They are usually an ocean away from their families. All while they are expected to fulfill the impossible task of helping to feed, house and protect the world’s growing number of displaced in a world of shrinking humanitarian resources.
Experts in the humanitarian business think the aid world is failing its staff for two reasons: first, lack of funding. But many interventions — providing online support and identifying staff willing to speak frankly about their struggles, for example — cost little.
More fundamentally, the issue is old-school attitudes about mental health, as many humanitarian managers tend to equate psychological support with weakness. One UN employee who was violently assaulted a few years ago while working in a war zone and who continues to suffer from post-traumatic stress as a result, thinks it’s also because so few people know there’s a problem.
“The U.N. and other humanitarian organizations are the ones developing policies on gender sensitivity, human rights, labor law and so on,” she told me. “So people just assume that these organizations are applying the same standards to their staff. But it doesn’t work that way.”
Aid workers need to be tough, resilient folks with a high capacity for hardship. This must change, and not just for high-minded humanitarian reasons. Depressed and anxious aid workers perform poorly.
Aid organizations exist to alleviate suffering and maintain and protect human dignity. They should do better at applying these principles to their own staff.
[Written by Rosalie Hughes, a freelance journalist who worked for the United Nations refugee agency and other relief organizations in Kenya, Rwanda and other African countries from 2009 to 2013.]