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Humanitarian aid worker, aid thyself

Guest contribution by Allison Smith and Brendan Rigby, on a new aid worker support initiative by WhyDev

Two aid workers measure one year-old Syrian refugee Jawad al-Abbas at a medical clinic in the town of Kab Elias in Lebanon's Bekaa Valley. Syria's civil war has left many children suffering from malnutrition.
Two aid workers measure one year-old Syrian refugee Jawad al-Abbas at a medical clinic in the town of Kab Elias in Lebanon’s Bekaa Valley. Syria’s civil war has left many children suffering from malnutrition.

Aid workers tend to suffer higher-than-normal rates of depression, post-traumatic stress disorder, burnout and anxiety.

Members of the humanitarian community are well aware that getting drunk while out ‘in the field’ saving lives and helping the poor is a fairly common way of coping with the stress and isolation of these jobs. Studies show aid worker stress is no small thing.

The problem starts with isolation.

Aid workers are isolated from the friends and family that most of us count on as support networks when dealing with crises, whether physical or mental. Even when they return home, aid workers often struggle to describe their experiences and challenges to those who don’t understand the difficulties of working in the humanitarian context.

One researcher, Colleen McFarlane, has reported that: “Increasing evidence has suggested that international humanitarian staff are at risk of developing significant mental health problems.”

Based on a review of the scarce literature exploring this issue, McFarlane finds that aid workers have higher than average rates of PTSD, depression, anxiety and alcohol abuse. Those few studies that have been undertaken document distress, culture shock and burnout as part and parcel of the humanitarian staff experience.

(Editor’s note: See our related story on a new survey Who are the aid workers and what are they doing? Please participate)

It can be hard for aid workers to build a support network where they are, as friends and colleagues can be transient. Or sometimes an aid worker may be in a remote location where they are the only expat, and do not feel they can freely discuss their struggles with those around them.

There are some online aid worker networks, such as AidSource, on LinkedIn and others as listed here at WhyDev. However, these are still largely online communities that do not have the benefits of close, confidential peer-to-peer partnerships.

What’s needed is more peer-to-peer support and personal sharing of experiences.

While it’s clear that aid workers are often isolated and dealing with high levels of stress, few aid organisations provide their staff with the support they need. McFarlane says there can be a culture of ‘denial’ in the aid/dev community about this problem – as well as a lack of organisational capacity to address the psychological and social challenges staff face.

Aid workers sometimes reject the services that are available, such as stress debriefings, mandatory periods of R&R and other social support. Anger, fear, fatigue, despair and physical stress are all-too common responses from aid workers. Thomas Ditzler argues that “Without proper mental health support, workers may unwittingly add to their problems by seeking relief in stress management strategies that actually create more stress than they resolve”.

In short, there is an urgent need to demystify social support in humanitarian work, and provide new and innovative services to aid workers.

Having a peer and being part of a supportive network outside of the office and home can help aid workers cope.

In November 2012, WhyDev launched a pilot program to match and support aid workers around the world in a peer coaching partnership. Over 300 development practitioners participated in the program. Funding for the pilot was crowdfunded through, a campaign which raised just under $5,000.

A survey at the end of the pilot was sent to all participants. The results of the pilot suggest a rethinking of how we can not only prepare the next generation of aid workers, but also provide ongoing and open opportunities for peer learning and support, and the creation of new peer network that will support and improve the mental health of aid workers around the world. Highlights of the pilot include:

  • The average peer coach is a female expat aid worker, aged 26-35 years-old, has a postgraduate Masters degree and less than 5 years of work experience in international development.
  • 73 participants responded to the evaluation survey.
  • Overall, 43% of respondents were satisfied with the pilot program and 28% indicated that they were unsatisfied.
  • When asked what  the ONE significant thing they got out of the peer coaching sessions, respondents indicated a range of benefits from validation, reflexive practice and clarification to having a ‘new colleague’, expectation management and feeling less stressed and isolated.

“(Peer coaching) helped reassure me that it was not a career-risking decision to take a break giving me the confidence and conviction to continue when I was doubting. It reminded me that people I respect and who share my values also feel the same self-doubts I do and gave me confidence in myself, and also re-affirmed for me the importance of speaking truthfully about the challenges we face.”

WhyDev is currently running a new crowdfunding campaign to fund the next iteration of a peer network called DevPeers.

Allison Smith is a freelance writer and contributor to Beacon. Smith’s work has been published in Matador, Killing the Buddha, and In/Words Magazine & Press. She currently lives in Cambodia, where she drinks a lot of coconut water and even more iced coffee. For more Allison, visit her on Twitter @asmithb and her website.

Brendan Rigby, @bjrigby, is a doctoral student at the University of Melbourne’s Graduate School of Education and director of venture support at StartSomeGood. Brendan is an education specialist with eight years of experience working as a teacher, researcher and programme officer. He has worked as a researcher at Macquarie University; for a peer-to-peer microfinance NGO in Beijing, China; and most recently, he was an Education Officer with UNICEF in Tamale, Ghana.


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