Hot water

People are like tea bags.
You find out how strong
they are when you put
them in hot water.

This tea-bag approach to what some might call resilience reminds me of what an old boss, the head of our agency’s programs in Darfur, called the problem of the “frog in boiling water.” He said that a frog can be immersed in a pot of water, and if that pot is put on a stove and the burner turned on, the frog won’t notice the gradual increase in temperature until it is too late; until she literally boils.

The metaphor may jump out (no pun intended) for some faster than others: when working in insecure environments, this was used to explain how at first something like a carjacking may cause all aid agencies to halt operations. As the frequency of such incidents increases, they become normalized to the point where a carjacking occurs and… activities go on as planned. Perhaps the incident is a footnote at the security briefing. Conversation fodder at a weekend get-together. Until we find ourselves literally working in the midst of carjackings and bombings and kidnappings and becoming desensitized to it. We are no longer best-placed to judge our own safety, despite the security mantra that it is our responsibility first and foremost to do so. We need someone else, someone somewhat removed from the increasingly “hot” situation, to make those assessments for us and for the management structures under which we are working.

Yes, strength does come out when one goes through difficult situations. I’ve found this to be true after the death of a loved one, or the break-up of a romantic relationship. But more and more, friends and former colleagues come forward to share needlessly dangerous situations they have been put in by (at best) neglectful and (at worst) willful actions by others working in the humanitarian aid field. It’s time we as a professionalized sector take a good, hard look at how security and safety, how staff well-being, is managed within humanitarian settings. Because often, those I speak with who are taking a break from emergency work are doing so in part because they used up all their strength in dealing with dangerous and difficult situations that could have been avoided. What a loss, for them and for all of us. Thankfully their strength can, in many cases, guide them through recovery.

May we hold in our hearts and minds those whose strength has not held out—the never-talked-about suicides, or ongoing depressions, or breakdowns that occur in ways both visible and not. Those injured or killed by accidents or attacks that could have been reasonably avoided. And those whose status as “local” or “national” staff even further remove them from these conversations.

Yes, the work demands a certain amount of risk-taking. And this should reflect the balancing point between the organization’s and individual’s risk threshold. But we should also be aware of how our ability to determine these thresholds changes with prolonged exposure to risk, and put in place systems to help our fellow froggies out when their pot of water is in danger of boiling over.


Photo © 2010 J. Ronald Lee.



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