My father taught us very early on to respect the sea. As young girls, my sister and I would go into the water with him on an inflatable raft and learn to “catch” waves, to ride them into the shore. If we started paddling too late, we would miss the wave entirely; too soon, and it would break on top of us and sometimes throw us off the raft. We would go tumbling along on the sand under the water, forced to hold our breath until the wave let us come up for air again (getting “rolled”, as he called it). It was scary, but exhilarating.
Our most important lesson came on calm days, when he taught us not to mistake the smooth surface of the water and absence of waves for a lack of action underneath. Even when they are barely visible on the surface, there are always currents and sometimes a strong undertow. These powerful forces can carry us very far — in a direction that we may or may not want to go. And sometimes they act stealthily, taking us a ways down the shore before we even realize that we are being redirected.
When I first took a break from aid work, I felt burnt out and alone. I started this blog in part to confront that stereotype, to respond to the many whispered conversations and questions of, “I feel like that too” and “But how did you do it?” and “Aren’t you scared you’ll never be able to go back?” I had seen a close colleague and friend, someone who I had long admired in the field, leave her job in a sudden and heartbreaking way. I supported her as best I could during her last few months at work, when she felt abandoned by the very entity that she had given so much to over the years. She eventually took the difficult and brave decision to open a lawsuit against the organization, for failing to support her in the wake of being diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder due to grueling work with survivors of violence in places like Sudan and Lebanon. It wasn’t something that she had wanted to do. But when the organization’s systems of accountability and care failed her, where else could she turn for answers and support?
Leaving work also gave me more time and space to appreciate the posts on a Facebook group I’d been introduced to during my time working in DR Congo,”Tu es un humanitaire quand…” which roughly translates to “You are a humanitarian when…” (insert tongue-in-cheek response). Oh the French sense of humor. An example from the group’s description:
Quand tu rentres en France, tes potes et ta famille te posent toujours la même question : « Alors c’était comment ? », attendant que tu leur résumes un an de mission en 3 minutes (car après 3 minutes, ils décrochent).
// When you return to France, your mates and your family always ask the same question: “So, how was it?”, after which you summarize a one-year mission in 3 minutes (because after 3 minutes, they stop listening).
Fast forward a year, and these divergent and somewhat subversive voices seem to be collecting into a current that could shift the whole “humanitarian” industry. From a collective created to share the sometimes beautiful, sometimes difficult, and usually uncomfortable and hard-to-describe moments of aid work; to individuals taking legal action when they feel all other avenues have been exhausted in seeking timely and transparent action regarding staff well-being and safety issues.
More and more, there are visible signs of this. A friend recently went public about his lawsuit against a major aid agency to seek “organizational accountability and support for [his] injuries” following an incident in the summer of 2012, in which he and several colleagues were attacked. He and four others were shot, one person was killed, and four people (including him) were kidnapped, while working inside one of the refugee camps in Dadaab, Kenya.
Of course, the incident most directly affected those attacked and their loved ones. But it had a ripple effect on many of us who had been working with them, in the same refugee camps, who shared in private our fears and anxieties around returning to the camps so soon afterwards and knowing so little about what had occurred. Yet despite the reality of the dangers we faced, and the legitimacy of communicating one’s personally acceptable level of risk (whatever it may be), many of my colleagues were not willing to express these concerns to their employers. Their biggest fear was that to do so would put their jobs in jeopardy, or lead to them being seen as “weak” and not having what it takes to work in that environment.
Three years on, and I wonder how the discussions now being made public might affect those currently working in places like Syria and Afghanistan. Perhaps it will encourage others to proactively engage with their organizations around what risks are acceptable, and what safety and well-being measures are necessary and possible–even within the constraints of these environments.
And then there is the inspiration that is Megan Nobert. She shared the horrific experience of being raped while working in South Sudan, by a fellow aid worker under contract to the UN.* She sought support from her employer and from the UN but after meeting a dead end, decided to speak out and draw attention to a pervasive yet rarely-discussed issue: sexual assault among aid workers. (Her survey of aid worker experiences is here.)
All of these people are dedicated aid workers. And all of them say the same thing about the driving force behind why they decided to speak out, or take legal action, or both: because they felt there there was a lack of support and accountability from their employer in the aftermath of a critical incident (kidnapping, rape) and/or long-term trauma (cumulative stress, PTSD) suffered as a consequence of their work. None of them say anything that indicates that they believe their employers could have 100% prevented these things from happening. That is unrealistic. But they all speak clearly and eloquently about the need for transparency and accountability. First, in reducing what is called “residual risk”, or the remaining risk after everything reasonably possible has been done to prevent an incident. And second, in supporting staff who have been harmed physically, emotionally, and/or sexually while carrying out their work (which often means living in insecure places).
A plethora of initiatives and actions have been taken, some of them preceding the events above and some created by their momentum:
- The CHS Alliance, formed by the merger of HAP International and People In Aid, uses the Core Humanitarian Standard (CHS) on Quality and Accountability to act as “the first response to requests from humanitarian and development actors for quality and accountability initiatives and standards to harmonise organisational structures for the sake of their many users.” They recently released the 2015 “Humanitarian Accountabilty Report” and held a Sexual Violence Management Conference for the Humanitarian sector to improve both prevention and response to sexual violence in aid work.
- The Headington Institute promotes the wellbeing of aid workers, with the vision that, “One day, all humanitarian workers and emergency responders will have the personal skills, social support, organizational resources, and public interest needed to maintain their wellbeing and thrive in their work.” In addition to training and crisis support services, they conduct research on resilience and recovery from stress and trauma, and are now entering into research on sexual violence among aid workers.
- Humanitarian Wellbeing is a website I came across in a friend’s facebook post – I’ve no experience with them but they identify as “a team of internationally qualified life coaches, with backgrounds in Social Work and Psychology, and more than 50 years experience in humanitarian and emergency work” and offer psychosocial support, as well as personal and professional coaching, for aid workers.
- There is much to be said for the power of story and of testimony. Imogen Wall has been instrumental in bringing humanitarian aid workers together both publicly (in the Guardian’s “Secret Aid Worker” series) and more privately (in the members-only Facebook group “Fifty Shades of Aid”) to share stories of what it’s like to work in the sector, the injustices and WTF moments both big and small.
There is solidarity here. And a growing space in which people feel empowered to speak with louder and louder voices about practices that have, up to now, been considered “part of what you signed up for.” These are the words of a friend’s boss when employees asked, three times, about staff well-being during a global all-staff meeting.
My friend’s boss is wrong. He doesn’t yet realize that we have already been carried farther down along the shore than we realized. Not only by our own small strokes in the big blue sea, but also by the undercurrent of others’ actions and testimonies, which grow stronger and wider as they join with other currents. A sea change is underway.
“Ironically, Asmail [the alleged perpetrator] and Nobert wanted the same thing, the very thing the U.N. declined to do: They both wanted an investigation.‘The reason there are processes in place are so that both parties get the chance to speak,’ [Nobert] said. ‘He still deserves the opportunity to put his version of the story on record. At the end of the day they treated him as guilty without having any proof, and while I have proof … there should’ve been some sort of process. I should’ve been allowed to tell them what happened; he should’ve been allowed to tell them what happened.’ Instead, Asmail disappeared from South Sudan, and Nobert’s case disappeared from the record. The U.N.’s 2015 statistics on sexual exploitation and abuse, which its website states are current through the end of May, do not include a single complaint against a vendor anywhere in the world.”
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