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Can Humanitarian Organisations be Humane with Aid Workers?

I’m thinking of giving myself a new job title (photographer?) while attending those curious socialising events called ‘expat parties’. When I don’t opt out altogether, I generally find myself hearing yet another story of burnout, unbearable stress, terrible managers, or impossible colleagues.

Why is there so much suffering among aid professionals?

I used to think that if only we could take better care of ourselves, then life in the field would improve dramatically. Whereas this holds some truth, I’ve now explored enough organisations, and talked to enough professionals and volunteers, to confidently acknowledge that any ‘staff care’ intervention has to address the root causes of the malaise. These often lie in the way organisations are structured, and in the culture that permeates the workplace: the high staff turnover built into the system, the constant ’emergency mentality’, a culture that would rather sweep failures under the carpet than learn from them, and burnout seen as a necessary evil that comes with the job. These are just some of the reasons to wonder whether humanitarian agencies can indeed be humane with aid workers.

What gives me hope, is that a workplace [r]evolution is taking place as you read this. Those who adapt and change will find themselves working in new and better ways, as opposed to those who hang on to old hierarchical and controlling models who will stagger along for a while, making other people’s life miserable, and then will eventually die out.

It takes just one manager who is willing to be a maverick and the work environment is transformed for the better. Even within some of the most beaurocratic organisations, we can ‘think different and do different!‘ I occasionally come across ‘enlightened’ managers who have embraced the common sense philosophy that a good work environment is not only more enjoyable, but also more effective, more sustainable, and indeed ‘more humanitarian.’ Then my confidence that humanitarian organisations can be humane is rekindled. But I’m aware that these unorthodox voices are “usually countered with various degrees and forms of suppressive action from the hierarchy because they threaten and embarrass the organization” (Walkup, 1997: p. 43), which means that such brave managers need allies.

Are you just following rules, or are you seeing the patterns of change and planting seeds for new ways of living and working together? Can you be a maverick, and help to make humanitarian organisations more humane?

organisational development for ngos


The title of this post is inspired by Harrell-Bond (2002), Can Humanitarian Work with Refugees be Humane? 

A great article on humanitarian organisations and the role played by mavericks who defy obsolete rules and conventions is Walkup (1997) Policy Dysfunction in Humanitarian Organizations: The Role of Coping Strategies, Institutions, and Organizational Culture 

Peter Senge’s quote is from his book The Necessary Revolution. How Individuals and Organizations Are Working Together to Create a Sustainable World

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Mindfulnext by Alessandra Pigni is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License.