Let’s not make stress in the aid sector only a white person’s problem

Stress isn’t just a matter of insecurity or trauma; it’s also about the ability to look after one’s family and be cared for equally.

Gemma Houldey
2 July 2019, 10.01am
Kenya's Dadaab refugee camp in 2013.
Flickr/Internews. CC BY-NC-ND 2.0.

In 2012, after returning from working with a local NGO in the West Bank in Palestine, I suffered a burnout. It was the second time I had left a job in the aid sector because I could no longer cope with the pressures and demands of the role, and felt huge doubts as to whether any of my actions had a positive impact on the lives of others. These experiences inspired me to complete a PhD on stress in the aid sector, based on field research with national and international staff from a variety of international NGOs and UN agencies in Kenya.

My findings confirmed what most of us in the sector already know: mental health problems and emotional distress are common, and organisational support is insufficient. But the larger lesson is the extent to which these problems are understood and addressed according to white, western assumptions about aid work and its challenges. In a sector that’s approximately 90 per cent comprised of national staff from countries in the global South, the policies and practices of staff security and wellbeing are skewed in favour of employees from the global North.

There’s a clear racial dynamic at work here, since the aid and development sector has a long history of domination by the ideas and interests of white practitioners and decision-makers. While worthy of grave concern, reports of high rates of depression and post-traumatic stress disorder, and of sexual harassment, largely originate from this same group, but what about the opinions of national staff? What is their experience of stress? Here are some examples from my research.

Jane is a Kenyan woman who used to work for an international NGO in Kakuma refugee camp in northern Kenya – a so-called ‘hardship location’ owing to its remoteness and the fact it is the site of an ongoing humanitarian intervention to support the camp’s 180,000 inhabitants. When she worked there in 2013-14, Jane was also looking after her own two young children, even though staff in such locations are usually discouraged from bringing their families with them.

Jane had little choice because her husband, who remained at their family home in another part of northern Kenya, wasn’t willing to look after the children by himself. She would leave for work each day very upset and worried about her youngest child, who cried a lot in her absence and was being looked after by a locally hired helper. Jane worked long hours delivering babies in the camp, sometimes taking night shifts. She wanted to leave but felt trapped because - as the only sibling in a family of eight who was earning money, and with her husband also unemployed - she was under a lot of financial pressure. Jane told me that it was hard to discuss her family responsibilities with her manager.

“The policies were not giving room for that. It is like, ‘if you perceive you have a younger child that needs your attention, then you resign and when your child grows you can seek full employment.’ That is how bad now the regulations and the rules of such places like camps can be.”

Jane ultimately had to leave her job because it became impossible to juggle work and family life. As another Kenyan woman I met in Kakuma called Rosemary told me: “And even sometimes when you are low, you tell your family ‘I want to leave this job, I’m tired’….You try to talk to someone and someone is telling you, ‘no, you can’t leave a job, where are you going to go without a job in Kenya. You are very lucky you have one, you have to be there.”

The situation was quite different for the Kenyan men who worked in Kakuma. Some had worked there for years whilst their wives and families lived in another part of the country, seemingly without the same repercussions. John, for example, had been working for a UN agency for over 10 years when I met him in 2016, whilst his wife and two children remained far away in western Kenya. Like most aid workers in the camp, he could only see his family every nine weeks for five to ten days during the ‘rest and recuperation’ cycle that is common in hardship locations like these, but this entailed many other difficulties.

John’s journey to his family home required an expensive flight or a precarious bus journey to Nairobi, 700 kilometres away, and from there another six hour journey by road to where his wife and children lived. He had to pay for these journeys himself, unlike his international colleagues who were provided with free flights to take them from Kakuma to Nairobi. In addition, as one of his colleagues told me – another Kenyan man called Peter – it was hard to find another job with the UN outside Kakuma, and possibly closer to their families, because opportunities for national staff were scarce.

These stories provide an alternative understanding of what might be stressful in the lives of aid workers. John’s story in particular highlights the fact that international employees still have a greater entitlement to security measures such as flights out of the emergency area they work in. These disparities are common in the sector, as noted by both national and international aid workers.

Most European or American staff I spoke to during my research – including those in Kakuma – were unmarried and without immediate family responsibilities. They were able to spend their rest and recuperation periods and other holidays in Nairobi, visiting friends or taking a break on the Kenyan coast. For those on emergency deployments, a foreign passport made it more likely that they would be able to find similar or more senior jobs in another country when their contract was up.

But most of the Kenyan staff had fewer options. Women like Jane found it particularly difficult to live up to the expectations of humanitarian agencies that their staff should be available 24/7 and not be ‘distracted’ by family matters. Of course this is an issue for all staff no matter their nationality or gender, but the value the sector places on staff mobility and on not letting family life ‘get in the way’ places women in a much more difficult position. They must challenge patriarchal norms in the wider community whilst working in a structure that fails to recognise its own patriarchal tendencies. Rosemary also told me that many of her colleagues couldn’t cope with only communicating with their children via skype on an unreliable internet connection. “Some of my friends, they break down. They really break down,” she said, telling me that some had become complete workaholics or drank too much.

The time is long overdue to listen to aid workers from the global South, who know far more than expatriates do about what it means to suffer, with no means of escape, in impoverished or conflict-affected environments. The ‘localisation’ agenda of aid agencies - their efforts to build local versions of themselves staffed by nationals of the country concerned - should provide more opportunities for local aid workers to define and advance their own ideas around wellbeing, but simply increasing the national workforce won’t in itself address the sector’s tendencies to privilege the ideas and concerns of expatriates.

Whilst more effective staff support structures like counselling and safeguarding are needed for everybody, there are other issues at stake for national staff. In a sector that values toughness and the ability to ‘get on with the job,’ it isn’t easy for people to speak up about personal problems, and - as was suggested to me by some of my informants - it is particularly challenging for national staff to do so when they fear the risks that might be posed to their jobs, and the stable incomes that come with them that are so hard to attain. This may help to explain why we hear so little from national aid workers about the current allegations of sexual misconduct in the sector.

In this respect, stress is not just about a lack of security or the impact of vicarious trauma; it’s also about the ability to look after one’s family whilst continuing in a job you cherish, and the feeling of being cared for and valued equally by one’s colleagues and employers.

A more nuanced discussion about staff wellbeing in the aid sector requires that we reflect on how white privilege may show up in aid policies and systems that support some aid workers more than others, and how aid work is still defined and determined by those with the right passport and education, along with mobility and added protections, that are harder for people of colour to attain. We also need to foster more open and honest conversations with staff from the global South about what stress means to them, and how to address its causes and effects.

As Jane’s story suggests, the results of these conversations may well mirror the problems that aid programmes are supposed to be tackling in the first place. Wellbeing can’t be properly addressed without recognising the structural forces within and beyond the aid sector which contribute to inequality and the silencing of the personal lives of so many of its staff.

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