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Discussing ‘Organizations on the Edge of Chaos’ at Oxford University

“Organizations on the Edge of Chaos: Exploring Culture, Burnout, and Resilience in the Humanitarian Sector” a talk by Alessandra Pigni delivered on December 17, 2013 at Oxford University at The Institute for Ethics, Law and Armed Conflicts (ELAC) in the course of the conference titled “Humanitarian Workers: Personal Ethics, Psychology, and Lifestyle”.

Oxford University by Alessandra Pigni

Burnout, Power and Transformation in Aidland

‘It is by telling some elements of her own story as a psychologist in a humanitarian organisation that Alessandra Pigni started her presentation. This experience showed her the extent to which the organisational culture in aid agencies can be dysfunctional and averse to change. Indeed, as she argues, most distress aid workers experience in the field does not come from the actual work with communities or because of the particular context they work in, but rather from the ‘defensive’ and ‘sacrifice’ culture of these organisations. Alessandra made it clear that burnout is not simply overwork or the accumulation of stress. Referring to the work done by Professor Maslach and Professor Leiter, she listed six potential sources of burnout: overwork, lack of control over the work, lack of reward, community problems, lack of fairness, and finally mismatch between personal and organisational values. According to Alessandra, the question of power lies behind this organisational culture that leads to burnout. While organisations need to change and adapt to be resilient, it appears that a settled power structure in humanitarian organisations make them averse to evolve. Alessandra concluded her talk by noting that the fact that today’s organisations are “on the edge of chaos” (as described by Ben Ramalingam in his recent book Aid on the Edge of Chaos) offers the great potential for bringing about transformation and “new ways of living and working together” (Peter Senge, The Necessary Revolution).’

– From the conference report by Anaïs Rességuier.


Humanitarian Workers: Personal Ethics, Psychology, and Lifestyle (Oxford, 17.12.2013)

As part of ELAC’s ongoing research on humanitarian ethics, Hugo Slim and Anaïs Rességuier organised a conference on 17 December 2013 at the University of Oxford entitled “Humanitarian Workers: Personal Ethics, Psychology, and Lifestyle”. The aim of the conference was to come to a better understanding of the human face of humanitarian action.

While individual actors play a significant role in shaping the practice of humanitarian aid, their experience has been generally disregarded by recent academic literature which has mainly focused on macro-level analyses of the political and operational challenges that this practice faces in armed conflicts and disasters. The primary objective of the conference was to start a discussion on the lived experience of individual humanitarians through three disciplinary angles: ethics, psychology and anthropology. The dialogue took place at the interface of theory and practice, inviting around the table European researchers and humanitarian professionals.

ELAC Humanitarian Workers Conference Summary Report – March 2014

I would like to thank Hugo Slim and Anaïs Rességuier for organising the conference and initiating a fruitful discussion on the psychology and ethics of humanitarian work.

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