One humanitarian’s story: thoughts from ‘C’ about the sector

Posted on: March 5, 2020 | By: Tom Arcaro | Filed under: General posts on the humanitarian aid industry

Warning: long read, 5100+ words

One humanitarian’s story: thoughts from ‘C’ about the sector


One woman, one story
I have had many Skype visitors to my “Global Citizen/Humanitarian sector” sociology class over the years, humanitarians all.  In a previous post I discuss five of these guests, but below I go deeper into the encounter we had with a humanitarian who, chooses to go by simply ‘C’.

Although she is ‘only one person’ her experiences will resonate with many who share her demographic profile: white, 30ish, female, and from the global North, the United States, no less. Please note as you read her statements that her tone, cadence, pauses, and stress on certain words and phrases brought her words to life in ways that cannot be conveyed adequately in the bare text you will read below. There was emotion in her voice as she spoke to us, and we could see that emotion on her face. Though the computer screen was flat, her words created rich, three dimensional images for my students and me.

The class and I asked her a series of questions, and below, with my comment at the end, are the gifts of insight and reflection she gave to us.

How has your race, gender, or global North status impacted your life as a humanitarian?
With this first question we went straight to an issue we’d talked about numerous times during our semester. This question -and her answers- led to others, mostly asked by my students. In a previous discussion I had told C that we had talked about the iconic article by Teju Cole that uses the phrase ‘white-savior industrial complex.’

C:  “Yes, I can talk about the ‘white savior complex’.

You can have the tendency to get drowned by the really academic concepts and theory behind it, but, I would like to share with you guys that there are very real consequences to this phenomena, in terms of how we run our operations and how we run our programs. Yeah, it’s not just a theoretical debate.

And for me, in simple terms, I guess it comes down to a matter of the fundamental lack of perspectives that we tend to have being from the global North and being a person of non-color.

Yes, we give a lot of lip service in our proposals about how we’re going to be doing needs-based assessments and discussions with community stakeholders and beneficiary consultations to prove that we’re really trying to position ourselves as partners in communities, and there’s a lot of words [in proposals]written to that effect.

The game is kind of rigged from the beginning. Donors already have very specific objectives and they have predefined global policies on how these objectives need to be reached. Our projects are really tightly defined by budgets and log frames where we say we are going to promote behavioral change from X to X percent, so we are already coming into the game with our idea of what’s right and what’s wrong and how we’re going to fix things.  That causes a lot of problems.

I can give you a practical example. When I was working in Congo, we had a project where we were trying to convince moms who had  severely ill children to come to the hospitals to get treatments. Here you are white, from the West…of course it makes sense, if your baby’s dying of starvation, you’re going to bring them to the hospital to get the best care and try to keep them alive; so from our perspective it’s a non-point, nothing to discuss.

We were running into the ground on this; we weren’t meeting our donor objectives in terms of number of babies saved per month.  Moms just weren’t coming in, and again, you assume this role of almost an insult, you know, that we’re providing these services and moms aren’t taking advantage and, you know, ‘how can they be so callous to let their babies die and not come in for treatment’.  It’s such a simple question.

It’s a pretty patronizing stance when it comes to what we’re trying to accomplish.

And it just wasn’t working.  We finally sat down six months in – which was way too long – to try to get out of our perspective and our preconceived notions of what’s right and how frustrating the community was being and started asking questions about why mothers weren’t coming.

We got very humbled in the response; we got a different perspective that we just weren’t in a position to understand the first. The moms were saying ‘look, it’s a two to three day a trip to the hospital. We don’t have transport, it’s expensive, so I’m going to have to spend money to get to the hospital. What am I going to eat for the week that I’m there while my kid is in treatment? What happens if my kid dies? How am I going to pay for the body to get back to the village? What’s going to happen to my other five kids at the house? Who’s going to take care of them? Who’s going to go out to the field to get their food? If I take this baby, who’s probably going to die, to your hospital, I’m putting the other five at risk.’

Yeah, okay, that makes a lot of sense, that makes a lot of sense.

The issue there was lack of perspective and coming in thinking you know what’s right, these people don’t, why can’t they agree with you? That positioning is really harmful. It’s a positional question that makes us misunderstand.  It becomes a non-starter in terms of our projects, and it’s [white savior complex]something you’ve really got to consider all the time.”

Student question: “Do you think there can be a solution to that? Because we’re [from the global North] always going to have our way of viewing the world; and even with people like you and other people who are more educated on the white savior complex. It’s like our professor likes to say it [white savior complex] is ‘baked in’ to our world; or it’s almost like there is no real way that I can see it being extracted from the whole humanitarian aid sector, so I was wondering your opinion on that.”

C:  “That’s a really good question. I don’t think it is something that can be solved. It’s something that you just have to be aware of all the time. When you’re drafting your proposals, when you’re drafting your log frames, when you are doing your stakeholder consultations in the community, you’ve just got to have it in the back of your head; what is my position in this. ‘What is my perspective and am I getting in the way of hearing other people’s experience and are we designing the projects for the donor, or are we designing the project based on really being humble about our perspective not being the only one?’

And that’s a really hard thing to do, because everybody needs to be involved right? It’s not just the community field officers, it’s not just program managers, it’s not just coordination ; everybody’s got to be aware of their own background and identity coming into this. So that makes it really hard. To answer your question, I don’t think it can be solved.”

Student question: “[Regarding]the story that you were telling, what ended up being the resolution to that? You said that intervention happened six months into the project. What was the funding like and what was the donor response? Did you keep doing the same thing even though it was ineffective?”

C: “Very good questions. The program was a year and a half long, so six months into it we only had a year left to try to make changes to the project based on this new perspective we were finally listening to.

We sat down with the donor and said look, we are not reaching the objectives, this is why. We didn’t take this into account when we first designed the program. Can we work together and figure out a little bit more time to try to make this better?

Luckily we had a donor that was pretty flexible. That’s not the case with everybody. So we put into place programs to help with transport, we put into place programs to help support moms having food in the hospital, we tried to decentralized some of the services that we had at the hospital. We tried to get more happening at the rural clinics, so they didn’t have to come quite as far.

It didn’t fix the problem, but it helped. It improved by the end of the program period, but we didn’t meet our original defined targets. And the lesson learned there was we needed to listen more, and I mean really listen, not the bullcrap needs-assessment stuff that we say we do to make the proposal look pretty, but I mean really listen to people and put down our own opinions.”

Student question:  “What were the numbers? What was the starting goal; how many babies you were trying to save?”

C: “How many babies are we trying to save…isn’t it just a normal way to say it… Yeah, that’s pretty much what we had as the title of our projects sometimes. We were looking at about 5000 kids and an area covering half of the Democratic Republic of Congo.”

Professor: So let’s segue from there and talk maybe a little bit about being a woman in this field, and being a global Northerner.

C: “As for me being a woman, I would like to share with you some experiences. Two different levels of challenge. The more obvious one, cultural norms. Different country, different religion, different way of seeing a woman, that’s the more obvious one. Then there’s the slightly more insidious challenge, which is with my global North colleagues. 

So of the more obvious one. Working in Afghanistan and Pakistan, as a woman, I’m not allowed to shake a man’s hand or look him in the eyes. And that -you know I’m American- we look people in the eyes when we’re discussing serious things. Just try it one day, try to have a serious conversation and look at somebody’s shoulder. It’s a really difficult thing to do. It took me months before I could train my body to react this way. And it was necessary, because if I didn’t, it was extremely insulting and it caused problems in a conversation.

So on one hand, I can’t look somebody in the eyes, and on the other hand, I’m negotiating a multimillion dollar project for this group of communities. We’re talking about security access, military issues, serious stuff, and I can’t shake their hand. So it really took adjustments on my part to make this happen. 

But, on the other hand, something that was very cool that my male colleagues did not have the opportunity of, in Afghanistan, I had guys working with me who have been in Afghanistan longer than me, years, and they have never been invited by local colleagues to eat, they had never seen or heard anything about the wives, the daughters and the families, that whole personal side, with our local colleagues. They didn’t have access to this because you didn’t speak about it; [as a male] you didn’t get to ask about wives or anything, it was just a taboo thing. As a woman, I had the best of both worlds; I was like this third gender. It was very strange because with my Afghan colleagues in the office, we could converse. And I was also invited to homes and got to go and share dinners with wives, with kids, with the daughters, and it was something that my male colleagues never had access to. So that was actually pretty cool.

I would say for the more insidious stereotyping, in the job, it was with my Northern colleagues. So, number one, there’s way more women in the development sector, than there are in emergencies. The hardcore teams that are coming in after a disaster or right when a conflict breaks out, it’s pretty much 99.9% guys. There are not a lot of women there.

Which, I admit when you go out to a bar, I can wear a potato sack and not have taken a shower for a month and I can still get all my drinks paid for, because I’m the only woman for miles. That’s convenient.

On the other hand it is very difficult to be taken seriously and I would say one of the hardest things was the stereotype that women are emotional, and that men are much calmer under crisis. So this stereotype is like on cocaine in the field, because, let’s say you have to have a base evacuation, and so people are fearing for their life, people are panicking; so in order to make the right decisions in that kind of context, you have to stay very, very calm. This necessity, as a woman, is compounded by having to prove that I can stay calm and not get emotional.  But it’s like, if I had a male colleague, a field colleague, in the same position, we’re both stressed out, we’re both scared – if he gets emotional, it’s the stress of evacuation and the AK47 stuck in your face and that does something to you, you get stressed out. If I get stressed out, it’s immediately ‘ah you know women, they’re a bit emotional, difficult in a crisis situation.’ So you really have to play a lot harder, if that makes sense. That kind of eats on you after a while, because you have to swallow a lot and you have to have a poker face that isn’t natural in some settings. So that has been a tricky one.”

Professor:  One student just now raised the issue of the psychological stresses and mental illness. On a survey directed to ‘global South’ national humanitarian workers, one of our questions is, to what degree is your job emotionally taxing?  And the vast majority of the respondents say it’s either somewhat or very emotionally taxing. Then I asked the second question whether or not psychological counseling services are available to staff. A huge number say no, it’s not available to national staff and, if it is available, it is not available in adequate form. So I guess back to you, as we can see by your c.v., you’ve been in a lot of different places, in high stress situations. What counseling was available at the time and what long-term counseling is available to international staff?  Also, you mentioned that there’s a divide between the national staff and the international staff. The national staff are reporting high emotional stress and minimal support to deal with that emotional stress. Regarding this, what was your experience in terms of that as an international humanitarian?

C: “I’m very happy to say that there’s been a lot of progress in the past ten years. When I first started, you could not say that you needed help, you couldn’t say that you were stressed, you couldn’t say that it was difficult, because you would be seen as weak, and then they would question whether you’d be able to hold your own for the next mission. So you just had to shut the hell up and move on, and that was it for years. Slowly, they started realizing that in terms of long term, keeping staff, avoiding people burning out, having stability and consistency on the projects, they needed to be better about helping people process what they’ve been through. Just in the past five years, they’ve really made huge steps in most of the organizations that I have been either working for, or as partners with, full time psychologist on staff, people coming in.

Particularly if there’s been a crisis; so let’s say we had to evacuate the whole base, everybody’s shaken up. When you think you’re gonna die, there’s physical reactions. Your head can say one thing and your body is doing something else and you can’t control that. In your mind – the mind is a funny thing. Some people will forget. Like we’re talking about something that happened the day before and people will forget the entire last 24 hours. They just won’t – it won’t be in the memory. Other people will freeze and it will take days for them to move a muscle. Other people shut down. Other people pretend, or seem to be fine with things, and it comes out ten years later. So it’s really important after an emergency incident that you have the debriefing, and organizations are getting way better about that.

Again, sadly, it’s very much a privilege for expats compared to local staff. I would argue that local staff, they’re in the shit. We get evacuated and we can go back to our home countries; we can take two weeks of R and R, cocktails on the beach, massage, forget everything, destress, relax. But the staff, they’re stuck. We can’t move them out of their country of origin if – sorry to curse – if shit hits the fan. We can’t help them, we can’t pull them out, so they’re stuck. We’ve dealt with this stressful incident and a lot of people end up just throwing themselves into work and trying to manage for their families, for their kids. They’re dealing with whatever mess just went down and they don’t have the same kind of options. So, I would argue there’s way more need with local staff. So, we’re still quite slow on that regard.” 

Student question: I was wondering, have you seen with diagnosis’s of PTSD, and the treatments following that, any gender differences in terms of response or treatment protocols?

C: “That’s a good question. I’m not sure about the gender differences. To be very honest with you guys, I just got diagnosed with it two months ago. I didn’t think I had any problems, I mean, I was saying you’ve got to be hard and poker faced and I didn’t think there was anything wrong with me, and I freaked out one day at a movie. There was a movie playing and some people were attacking this factory and I just freaked, I almost jumped out of the hotel window, I was panicking. And I said oh my gosh there’s something really not normal about this. So to answer your question, I don’t know because I am just getting into this process myself. And it took me a really long time to understand what was wrong; and I was one of those where it’s just kind of simmered and I didn’t pay attention to it and it exploded really weirdly years later. So I would come back to you on that in about a year once I’ve gone through treatment and I’ll tell you all about it.” 

Student question: Obviously PTSD is a really serious issue, have you ever found that in the two months of knowing that you have it, that people try to invalidate because you aren’t like a soldier or something like that? Sorry if that was a heavy question.

C:  “No, no, you guys are making me think here. I have found that — to be honest with you, no one has ever made me feel that it’s less than what soldiers have been through. Probably because I don’t talk about it with anybody, so that makes it hard to be compared. I’m very surprised that I’m talking with you guys like this…so there’s that. So no, is the short answer for that. At least I haven’t felt that.”

Professor: The first time we talked, I remember you reflecting on your experience in Myanmar dealing with the Rohingya crisis. If you feel comfortable, can you recount that story to the students and talk about the ethical ‘big picture’ issues that you faced? These go directly into what I wanted them to get out of the Dawes [That the World May Know: Bearing Witness to Atrocity] book. So if you feel comfortable doing that, that would be great.

C: “I think if I look back on everything, it wasn’t the evacuations or the weapon roadblocks, those weren’t the things that messed me up the most. I think the thing that was the biggest struggle was my experience in Sittwe. Sittwe is in Rakhine State, where the majority of Rohingyas were living in Myanmar. 

The humanitarian imperative for me, I don’t want to use a cliché, but it’s really simple in my head: you’re damned if you do and you’re damned if you don’t. That’s it. 

So I arrived, it was 2013 and they just have had this big conflict, so the majority of the Rohingyas got pushed out of Sittwe. It was maybe 400,000 people that had been set up in these temporary camps on the outside of the town.

But when I arrived, this was maybe nine months after this had happened, people were still really hopeful that things were going to work out and they would be able to move back to their homes in downtown Sittwe. 

And the [Myanmar] government was playing us like a fiddle, and they did a great job of it. They let time and necessity work, so that international humanitarian actors would step in and provide the basics: shelter, food, water. So what we ended up doing was building a slum. We justified by saying, okay we’re only going to do semi-permanent structures right, we’re not using concrete, we’re not using anything permanent; always in the hope that this situation is going to get sorted out. But what that meant was that we just got poor quality things which are neither here nor there, it’s not a tent, but it’s not a house, somewhere in between. We built slums. We built slums and we contributed to creating an apartheid situation, which recently, as you guys are aware, is turned into a massive displacement and concerns of genocide.

And we built these semi-permanent ghetto cities with the basics, because people needed to survive, right?  When we got there the question was, okay monsoon season is coming, nobody’s got shelters, there were cholera outbreaks. Except the [Myanmar] government said that cholera didn’t exist because they’re a developed country. So we couldn’t use the word cholera, we had to use the phrase ‘acute watery diarrhea.’ So, acute watery diarrhea was starting to breakout because people didn’t have water, people didn’t have sanitation access, so something had to be done. We had to move on this. But as we moved we saw that we were just one by one hammering the nails into this coffin, which was they will never be able to move back to downtown.

The situation administratively and geographically is starting to solidify around them, to separate them. And it was the most frustrating situation to be in, because we weren’t stupid, we saw it coming, we saw where this was going. On a daily basis you saw where this was going. But you couldn’t not move forward with your projects. So you’re really stuck between a rock and a hard place. It was really difficult.”

Professor: Yeah you’re answering in wonderful and, I’m certain, very emotional detail. When you described it to me the first time, I thought you came up with the most brilliant analogy. You said that the humanitarian sector was playing checkers and the government was playing chess; you guys were just dealing in this simplistic short-term situation and the Myanmar government was using you as little pawns on a chessboard to reach their long-term goals.

C: “Absolutely. For me, this is one of the biggest problems about the humanitarian industry. Again, I don’t think it’s something that can be fixed, but we just have to realize that the position that this puts us in every single time there’s a conflict…humanitarian industries are built around six month projects, one year projects. That includes everything involved: budget, staff turnover, institutional memory disappears after six months because you’ve got new waves of people coming in. Our donors, they want their objectives met in eight months, twelve months.

Somebody like the government of Myanmar that’s a dictatorship, you know, these guys know how to sit and let’s things cook for fifty years. They’re on a fifty year plan, you know. And so they have got nothing but time to let these things play out and to move and nudge in the direction they want to go, and we don’t have that. So how can you negotiate on an even playing field when they’ve got that kind of time behind them, to wait and to maneuver? You can’t.”

Student question: Is it easy to feel like you’re not fulfilled, or as a humanitarian, that you’re running in place. I don’t know if it’s my personality, but I feel like [working in] this sector would feel like you’re running into a wall over and over. I guess my question is, how do you keep going back on these missions? Or what gives you the motivation, other than the humanitarian imperative, like with the understanding of the bureaucratic way the sector is set up, what compels you to like keep trying?

C: “Well here is my mercenary side that comes out to answer this question. Right off the bat, I’ll tell you …there’s a mortgage that needs to be paid and this is the only job I’ve ever done. So I know that there will always be conflicts, so I’m guaranteed employment for as long as I need it, in terms of the salary. 

So I will be very honest with you that that [working in this sector] is an important part for me, that I don’t know what else I could do if I wanted to change. I jumped into this right after college. So even if I wanted to get out of it, I wouldn’t know what to do. And the salary is there, and I think I got very good over the years at putting my ethical concerns into little boxes and putting them on a shelf and just pretending like I could try to do better next time. I don’t know if that strategy has been a real solid way to go, but it was what I was doing to keep going on the missions. I’m painting a really dark picture here. There have been good moments in this job for sure; so, I hold on to those I guess.”

Student question: Do you not feel disillusioned by the sector?  The whole class, we’ve been talking about the paradoxes that exist like what you describe with the Rohingyas or the Myanmar government. It seems like all these missions will be contributing to somebody’s trauma.

C: “How I ran into Tom was, after Congo I took a two year break and I, yes, considered myself very disillusioned and struggling. Struggling to figure out whether I’m gonna go back to work in this industry or not and how to get over all the hang-ups I have. You know all these little boxes just kind of fell off the shelf at one point and exploded, and I’m really struggling. So I Googled ‘disillusioned aid workers- what do you do next?”. I was feeling really lost and alone, and I was so surprised and happy to realize that not only am I not alone, but I am a cliché, because according to the findings of Aid Worker Voices, in the age bracket of 28 to 35, humanitarians who quit because  of disillusions are women. Okay, I am normal. Yes, I really appreciate…it was just a relief to know that I’m not the only one struggling with this and to have come across Tom’s work.

So yes, disillusioned, but here’s the thing right, just despite all of the problems in this industry, despite how rigged it is, despite so many things that need to be questioned. It’s not — conflicts are not gonna stop, war is not gonna end tomorrow and natural disasters are only going to increase as we move forward. So, there will, I think, always be a need for this industry. 

But coming back to your first question, we’re not going fix everything in this industry. But if you are coming into it and you know all the right questions to ask in terms of keeping in the back of your mind who you are, keeping in the back of your mind everything that’s challenging about this industry. Then maybe it can get better if people are just constantly asking these questions and pushing, pushing, pushing, pushing, pushing for reform; and already we have Sphere Standards that really put a benchmark to try to improve service delivery. Every decade or so there’s some significant improvements. And this sounds lame, but I think that if people know to question, then it can go somewhere better and it needs to, and it’s gonna stay as an industry considering where we’re all going, so yeah.”

Professor: You’ve said so much in such a passionate and articulate way, and I think we’re all very thankful that you’re taking this time. But I do feel like I need to process it myself and process it with them. I can’t tell you how appreciative I am on behalf of the class. I think we’re all appreciative of your openness, your candor, and your gift of presence here in the class, so thank you very much.

C: “Thank you guys for your patience.”

So much to unpack
C’s words were dense with both emotion and content, each of which deserve to be unpacked carefully. As she mentions, I have written about many of these topics elsewhere on this blog; none of the issues she raises are unique. That said, what C does offer is a very personal and human dimension, a rare gift.

Without exception every humanitarian I have talked to over the years recoils when the label ‘hero’ gets thrown their way. I am absolutely certain that C would respond the same way, though she will have to live with the fact that my students saw her as precisely that, both for what she has done in ‘the field’ but also -and perhaps more importantly- for disclosing to us her PTSD diagnosis. As one student said, “It got real.”

All said and done, I am not sure what ‘moving the needle’ really means in the context of the humanitarian sector. As a career educator, I will claim some knowledge about what it means to impact student’s lives in a positive fashion. C’s words ‘moved the needle’ for my students, no doubt.

Please contact me here if you have any comments, feedback, or suggestions.

Tom Arcaro

Tom Arcaro is a professor of sociology at Elon University. He has been researching and studying the humanitarian aid and development ecosystem for nearly two decades and in 2016 published 'Aid Worker Voices'. He recently published his second and third books related to the humanitarians sector with 'Confronting Toxic Othering' published in 2021 and 'Dispatches from the Margins of the Humanitarian Sector' in 2022.

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