Running Towards Trouble
MAY 23, 2019
In a sector which prides itself on helping others, fighting for equality, diversity and well-being, do international development and humanitarian organisations practice what they preach? International Development and Humanitarian Aid Workers need protection at work just like everyone else – If you agree, please get in touch!
Accountability is rightly everywhere in international development and humanitarian work these days. Good intentions and promises are no longer enough to prove that the sector is taking responsible action. Accountability is owed to funders, to governments, to communities, and beneficiaries. Yet have we forgotten about accountability to staff?
In a sector which prides itself on helping others, fighting for equality, diversity and wellbeing, do international development and humanitarian organisations practice what they preach?
My name is Dr. Addy Adelaine and I have been running towards trouble for over fifteen years. For me working in the Humanitarian sector sometimes feels like being in an abusive relationship. I love my work, but I know it hurts me. Yet, time and time again I go back and I can’t seem to walk away.
It is for that reason that I have decided to try to change things.
After university, I stumbled into my first job as a district manager on a large-scale emergency response programme in Malawi (let’s mull that statement through again - “my first job”). It wasn’t the mud hut, lack of electricity, communication and running water I found hard - I adapted. It was the personal impact of living amongst a community experiencing extreme poverty and famine, and the responsibility you feel when you are trying to make a difference against such adversity.
I quickly learnt that what I had learnt in text books did not match with what occurred in practice. With no time to stop and reflect in a crisis or to have anyone at hand to ask for help, the personal impact on me was huge.
Unsupported and emotional wellbeing
On top of the day to day suffering I witnessed, I felt unsupported, homesick and missed my culture. Even when I did meet other expats, I often still felt isolated. As a black woman from a working-class background it’s rare to meet people from my own community when overseas. Perhaps unsurprising given that the sector usually demands unpaid internships, good connections and master’s degrees to even access entry-level jobs.
It was only when I had learned to not just work in the community, but to be a part of it, that my loneliness subsided. Whilst working crazy 17 hour days, I became close friends with a local lady, a co-worker. I don’t know how I would have coped without her guiding me through this crazy first job and being a shoulder to lean on. She was intelligent, inspiring, and kind with a brutally quick sense of humour. In the midst of chaos, she was a ray of sunshine.
But shortly after I left my contract, I was told that my friend had died in childbirth. I was wracked with guilt, I didn’t feel as though I had done enough and I blamed myself for my friend’s death. After seeing famine, I felt guilty about feeling guilty. It felt selfish to mourn a friend, after seeing what I had seen. Back in the UK, I felt isolated as I couldn’t explain to friends and family about my experiences, while my former employer offered little to no support.
Trauma and safety
It took several years for me to be drawn back in. Again I found love in my work, but also harm. This time I faced armed robberies, car crashes, a friend’s sexual assault and the death of a colleague and a child I was working with.
We should not underestimate the trauma these experiences leave. At times I have considered counselling, but there is a kind of shame in asking for help. I also fear that doing so might impact my career – it is hard to get insured if you have any records of mental ill health.
The challenges I have encountered have led to me yo-yoing in and out of the sector. Every time I return, I beat myself up for staying, as I know the negative impact the work has on me personally. Every time I leave, I beat myself up again – I have anxiety over the people I leave and guilt over what more I might have done. I love my work, but often ask myself what type of person am I to run towards trouble. Surely it must be madness?
My experience is not unique
I have watched many colleagues and friends combat employment barriers because of their own identity, and suffer from the trauma they have encountered whilst trying to help others. Many have seen friends and colleagues die, working in environmental and economic disasters or in war zones. Most feel let down by their employer and the lack of support they’ve received.
Such a situation is bad for the sector. Every time an experienced practitioner exits the door, so does all their knowledge and hard won lessons. With such a high turnover of staff, the sector inevitably repeats its mistakes, work suffers and communities pay the price.
It doesn’t have to be this way
As humanitarian and international development workers, we need to stop beating ourselves up for decisions to stay, or to leave. Instead of guilt, maybe we should get together and seek to change the nature of the relationship between staff and organisations.
I passionately believe that international development and humanitarian practitioners should be properly supported in their challenging work. Greater accountability to staff is needed to make the relationship more positive and productive for all parties.
Ladders4action is a new organisation established to address the realities of practice. We help CHANGE MAKERS - people committed to helping others in crisis.
We offer practical support, creating a strong network hub and developing our own in house media team to make sure that there is a strong platform to international development and humanitarian aid workers voices being heard.
Working with Unite to improve the sector
We are keen to collaborate with Unite as the main union for Aid Workers and reach out to other members to create a hub for humanitarian and international development staff, to campaign together, organise and raise employment standards in the sector.
To build up collective sector-wide advocacy, we need to know where to start and what issues matter most to you. Here are some of the ideas we have thought of:
- Health and wellbeing of staff members
- Fair working conditions
- Women’s leadership and gender pay inequality
- Work place, sexual and gender-based violence
If you are interested in getting involved we would love to hear from you.
We need you to get in touch to know if there is a demand for creating a sector-wide hub. Please contact us with your opinions.