I followed the World Humanitarian Summit online. I often got bored and missed key events such as the screening of Sean Penn’s new aid romance (or drama, whatever it was, it was booed at Canned and screened at the WHS, go figure). Anyway there was nothing to tweet about in terms of aid workers’ mental health, which was known from the start. One may ask “why screening a patronizing film on aid, and ignoring staff care?”. Here are my thoughts.
When the petition on staff wellness came out I signed it out of solidarity, it seemed a good way to raise awareness among aid workers so that they would pester their HR department and demand better working conditions and support. Like the amazing group of Syrian aid workers I interviewed in Gaziantep: they formed a staff committee and took difficult issues straight to their country director demanding better staff care. And things did improve for them.
The hashtag #bewellservewell has been a good way to widen the discussion among aid workers. But I never thought for a second that “staff wellness” would shake Ban Ki-Moon’s conscience or agenda, nor make its way to the WHS in some meaningful way. And I wouldn’t hold my breath expecting this or the next Secretary General to make a pledge for better staff care. And why should they? With wars raging right and left in the world, your alcoholic boss and dysfunctional team may be leading you to burnout, but they are not top priority on anyone’s agenda. Yes, somehow we do need to be well in order to serve well, but there are plenty of people out there who are not well, and they get the work done. Take this snapshot from the Turkish-Syrian border: “my manager is a functioning alcoholic who shouts at us in the office, but the donors love her, the organisation loves her, she gets the money for the projects.” Job done.
So, was it really for the WHS to come up with directives to enforce staff care, as if what is needed is a super-humanitarian government telling agencies how to treat their staff, and somehow policing the need to be decent human beings to one another, respecting diversity and inclusiveness? The values and mission statements are there, we’ve all got it on paper. Committing to a set of standards is worth something only if we then take concrete steps to make our workplaces transparent, inclusive, fair, diverse. It’s worth something if we are prepared to invest in learning, development, personal and professional growth. At the end of the day, it’s up to every organisation to put their house in order, and it’s up to aid workers to make sure that that happens.
Clearly there’s a long way to go if one of the key questions on social media around staff care during the WHS was: “Should #humanitarian staff be treated fairly?”. Change the term “humanitarian” with any other social group and the question is absurd.
(As for Sean Penn’s film, I could barely watch the trailer without cringing. This is much better, and hints at how we take on the field to save ourselves, under the pretence of “saving” others).