An aid worker with the Norwegian Refugee Council talks to Syrian refugees in Lebanon. Will aid worker security be on the agenda at the World Humanitarian Summit? Photo by: Sam Tarling /  NRC / ECHO / CC BY-ND

International aid work is more dangerous than ever. While attacks on aid workers declined in 2014, they remain not far below the unprecedented level of attacks the previous year, according to the Aid Worker Security Report.

The year 2013 set a new record for violence against civilian aid operations, with 251 separate attacks affecting 460 aid workers. Of those, 155 aid workers were killed, 171 were seriously wounded, and 134 were kidnapped. Overall, this represented a 66 percent increase in the number of victims from 2012. The figures remained elevated in 2014, and there’s little reason to believe that wasn’t also true last year.

There are codes to help address the results of this heightened level of violence and subsequent stress. These include the Interagency Standing Committee Guidelines on Mental Health and Psychosocial Support in Emergency Settings, Sphere Core Standards and the Core Humanitarian Standard on Quality and Accountability. All address the core issues and seek to move international aid organizations to action and accountability.

Yet the issue of staff care aid workers is rarely on the agenda of global aid meetings. One good sign of how the issue is rising up the ladder of concern, staff care will be discussed at May’s World Humanitarian Summit in Istanbul, Turkey.

KonTerra senior adviser Nigel Fisher is supporting the lead up to the summit by advising on the emerging vision, narrative and action areas, giving particular focus to adapting the approach and international system, including what reforms the international system needs to undertake to meet this changing reality, and how to increase the engagement of local and a diversified set of humanitarian partners.

These are some of the issues that should be considered in May — and beyond:

Addressing stigma head on

Mental stress and depression are still stigmatized in organizations of all sizes, no matter what their missions. Ironically, the expansion of nongovernmental organization programs into increasingly risky locations can itself be a barrier to reducing stigma, including self-stigma.

There’s often an unfortunate sense that aid workers “know what they’re getting into” when working in a high-risk environment. Even more powerful can be the natural tendency to compare one’s own situation to the vulnerable and suffering people one is assisting. “Why should I complain? At least I have food and a place to sleep.”

Aid organizations need to make it clear to employees that unaddressed stress and similar issues harms not only themselves, but also the people they assist. Psychosocial challenges impact performance. Managers need to emphasize that, especially in high-risk environments, these challenges are real, legitimate and even to be expected.  

But this can’t just be words. Organizations must fully prepare employees on what issues could develop, and what resources are available to address them, before they actually deploy to a high-risk environment. Likewise, managers in high-risk environments should be trained to help identify issues so they can help workers address them early.

Comprehensive wellness programs

Preparation, appropriate intervention and referral to services presuppose support programs to which employees can be referred. Individual support and related programs are critical.

But comprehensive care goes beyond traditional psychosocial support. It includes adequate leave, education, planning, networking and other opportunities that help employees thrive personally and professionally.

It’s summed up in Sphere Core Standard 6: “An agency’s duty of care to its workers includes actions to promote well-being and avoid long-term exhaustion, injury or illness.  Managers must make aid workers aware of the risk and protect them from exposure to unnecessary threats to their physical and emotional health.”  

Contracting

In the past decade or so there has been a rethinking of risk management, especially security. While once viewed as a “nice-to-have,” it’s now correctly viewed as a “must-have.” Most donors are open to upfront discussions on the need to include security and risk management in contracts.

The same needs to happen with staff care. If we’re going to protect employees from physical harm, we also need to assist when they experience the inevitable mental stresses that accompany high-risk environments, especially conflict situations. Comprehensive employee protection, staff care and well-being should be built into budgets from the start. The good news is that progress is being made here.        

For example, after the Haiti earthquake in 2010, one of our clients secured a significant allocation from a private donor specifically to support all staff care and resilience work its Haiti office did over the course of six months. Donors are beginning to acknowledge the need for support for psychological security.

Staff care is receiving more attention today than ever before. But the risks aid workers run and stresses they endure still run far ahead of the attention they’re given. The discussion at the World Humanitarian Summit is a unique opportunity to raise the issue further up the agenda of aid organizations and donors. Here’s hoping it’s the start of a much larger conversation.

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

  • Lynne Cripe

    Lynne Cripe is the director of resilience services at KonTerra. She was director of employee engagement, support and communications at CARE USA and a technical adviser with USAID. She earned a B.A. in behavioral studies from The Master’s College and her Ph.D. in social ecology from the University of California, Irvine, and was a Fulbright scholar in the Philippines.