Opinion: Caring for aid workers in conflict

Aid workers in east Aleppo, Syria. Photo by: M. Rihawi / UNHCR

Providing aid to those suffering from disaster or conflict is always a challenge. It can cause stress, frustration and even feelings of anger and helplessness. These experiences can in turn exacerbate the personal issues and struggles all of us bring to work.

It is critical that in these demanding environments, humanitarian aid staff and others receive the care they need. And if there is one place staff care is needed right now, it is in Syria and its neighboring countries.

Syria represents the largest humanitarian crisis since World War II. But that sobering fact is an abstraction, and doesn’t begin to capture the suffering that has been inflicted on women, men and children. Many humanitarian aid workers experience a deep sense of anger and powerlessness in the face of the scale of Syrian suffering. While these reactions are not unique to working with Syrians, the situation does have characteristics that make the aid worker experience different.

More than half of Syria’s population has been uprooted, often without basic belongings and a future source of income.

The first is magnitude. Out of a population of about 18 million, 5 million Syrians have been forced from their country, mostly taking refuge in Turkey, Lebanon, Jordan, Iraq and Egypt. Six million Syrians have been driven from their homes and forced to live in another part of their country. In total, more than half of Syria’s population has been uprooted, often without basic belongings and a future source of income. This is equivalent to more than 130 million Americans driven from their homes by violence or the threat thereof.

On top of this is the relentless and often targeted destruction of homes, businesses, hospitals and schools. Such attacks have eliminated decades of social and economic development.

Lack of access also differentiates the Syrian crisis. Due to the political and military dynamics, aid workers are especially constrained in their ability to reach Syrians in need. Aid organizations are doing tremendous work in refugee camps in Jordan and elsewhere, as well as working with families and individuals in neighboring countries. But the worst suffering is being inflicted within Syria, where it is very difficult to reach.

Nor is there an end in sight. Syria descended into violence following protests that began in early 2011. Nearly each year since has seen the involvement of another power, with its own favored armed groups and goals. Losses by one faction and its patrons simply open opportunities for gains by another. A cease-fire in one area is used as an opportunity to intensify attacks in another.

A real cessation of hostilities and a return to stability appear to be far over the horizon. Trying to relieve the suffering this causes can come to look like a Sisyphean task. At that point, compassion fatigue comes very close to despair.

For these and other reasons, it’s especially critical that organizations trying to assist in Syria care for those who care for the suffering. A number of humanitarian aid groups are doing just that. They have obtained outside expertise and built their own internal staff care capacity. The following are three strategic steps groups have implemented or should consider:

1. Treat your people as your mission.

In the face of a humanitarian crisis of any magnitude, it is tempting to prioritize project-related outputs above staff personal lives and needs. While understandable, over time it will undermine the mission, morale and the organization. Instead, put your staff first. Embrace an organizational commitment to staff care and resilience, and implement policies and procedures to that end.

2. 24/7 Help and support.

People under intense stress cannot wait for assistance. That can lead to further stress and even open an organization up to liability. Twenty-four-seven support means comprehensive support at every stage of any employee’s work experience. This can include expert and confidential psychosocial care from local and international providers with experience working in the field; pre- and post-deployment resilience consultations; educational materials and learning; resources and expertise for responding to critical incidents in the field; and other well-resourced and well-communicated initiatives.

3. Include local staff from the start.

Local staff struggle with numerous pressures, including fearing for their own safety and survival and meeting basic needs. The full range of support should be available to all those seeking to fulfill the mission. Organizations should consider a process for identifying when national staff have been directly impacted by local events and provide systems for meeting emergency needs.

Syria is a tragedy of unusual proportions and intensity. We all hope it ends sooner rather than later. In the meantime, NGOs will continue to provide aid and comfort in Syria and other countries. The least the rest of us can do is offer them the psychosocial support they need and deserve.

Join the Devex community and access more in-depth analysis, breaking news and business advice — and a host of other services — on international development, humanitarian aid and global health.

About the author

  • Garybrown

    Gary Brown

    Gary Brown, LCSW, MPA, is a staff care specialist with The KonTerra Group. He has provided training and support to the United Nations International Labor Organization, U.S. Agency for International Development and leading international humanitarian aid groups.