The “other side” of aid work (part I)

A dear friend of mine shared with me a link to a study currently undertaken by the Guardian on the impact of aid work on mental health and the relative support agencies give to their staff when “too much gets too much”. And so I wrote an article myself. Upon reflection, I have decided to also post it on here. It is this “other side of aid work” which has made me take the huge step to change my career now, even though it is painful and a little scary too; it is the other side of aid work—the one I would sometimes rather forget, and yet never wish to forget– that has become such a fundamental change factor

It is not easy to share “the other side of aid work”. The pain, the burnout, the sense that you cannot cope anymore; the sense of failure which some of us labour under because we think everyone else is doing fine in the same circumstances when we are not. And yet it is not really surprising that burnout happens, is it? We are only human beings and aid work exposes you to some pretty harsh realities –which we all wish did not exist but which you cannot ignore when you are working in this field.

Firstly there is the “day to day” which becomes part of your routine but is not, if you think about it, normal in any shape or form. In my case this “routine” has involved seeing the impact of conflict in brutally war- torn areas; extreme poverty and all its manifestations in individuals, different ethnic, gender and age groups, and families; sitting with victims of conflict and hearing their tales of suffering and abuse to International Humanitarian Law; hearing and seeing that minor illness and resulting death is not a scandal but the norm in some parts of the world, part and parcel of what it means to be alive and human.  All this, coupled with the love and hospitality the locals often manifest and share with us visitors, the gratitude they express for the (often  so little) we as aid workers can offer in terms of help; the guilt that we can just walk away, to a safe home or on R & R, while they remain, faced with the same realities day- in- day- out, sometimes for their entire lives. No respite, no change. Sometimes you feel like a fraud to such a degree that it chokes you.

To this, you can add security risks: there is something disturbing about a 30 year old single person writing a will or a “letter from the grave”; about putting in place security questions in case you are kidnapped; about constantly having to be vigilant (I still have constant 360 degree vision wherever I go and get edgy when someone walks too close behind me).  In some areas, the knowledge that every day could be your last and that you never know if you or your friends will come home at the end of that day becomes a core part of your psyche. You do not even notice that it affects you–but of course it is bound to.

Then there are the more drastic incidents: incidents of sexual harassment which even if only minor do somehow take their toll; the major security incidents preceded by the auto-pilot mentality that is involved in taking the correct security steps or planning an evacuation;  the fear you feel for your colleagues when an incident happens; the guilt you may feel that you are unscathed when you are in a safe place-by grace, by luck, by providence, who knows? The chaos, the uncertainty, the not knowing what will happen next—often coupled with crowded living conditions, perhaps (during a security incident in particular) lack of food and water. The pain and guilt you feel when you are evacuated from an area, leaving behind local colleagues, projects you have invested time in, people in the communities you have come to know and love. It somehow burns a hole in your heart, and no matter what you do and no matter what therapy you may have, nothing will ever enable you to “un-live” those experiences. They change your life forever. They have changed mine.

What makes it all worse is that, by definition, aid work attracts people who care: who want to make a difference in this world; who long to feel that what they do is meaningful and worthwhile and that they are heard when they speak up against malpractice and injustice. This also means that they can be sensitive by nature, feel the pain acutely when things go wrong, express anger (righteous and sometimes unrighteous) when confronting behaviours or situations that strike them as wrong. My sensitivity and my empathy for the feelings of others have served me well in my job but ironically, they have a flipside and are the cause for some of the painful memories engraved on my heart. I would not miss any of it for anything in the world—it has made me who I am and equips me for the next phase in my life. But it has not been easy.

I have been lucky in that most of my employers have been very supportive. True, you get the odd person here and there from whom you get a vibe that they think you are weak because you are struggling. I feel for those people as what they think is ignorant and dangerous–for them and for others. These are often the people who continue working in dangerous or stressful environment, adopt dangerous coping strategies, trying to prove something and ultimately burning out completely. Not all of them, for sure, but some of them. Their prejudice does not have to be my concern although their well-being is. All I can do in response to such prejudice is to speak up, to show those around me who know me (and those that don’t) that aid workers can continue doing a great job, that it is not weakness but strength and compassion that can lead to our experiences harming us, to admitting to our pain openly and without shame.

Dear relatives and friends recently reminded me that changing your career does not change your calling, nor who you are in Christ. True, I may have felt called to a life-long journey in the development sector when I sat in that taxi in Mexico in 1995; and in many ways it does feel as if the ground is being pulled away from under my feet. But the “essence” of me will never change. The gifts I have, the personality traits, the things that make my heart beat faster, the passions, all those things that make me truly “me”…..all of them are a God- given part of who I am. By definition, they remain with me, and can also be channelled in different ways—into different types of employment, through varied volunteering roles, even through every day interactions on the London Underground, in the park, in the supermarket.

Right now nothing is certain and that is scary. But if the boat is no longer safe nor right, and if you want to walk on water, you have to get out of the boat!

Link to the above-mentioned study on the Guardian website: