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Heart of darkness: The psychology of an aid worker

Heart of darkness: The psychology of an aid worker

The research on stress and mental health problems afflicting aid workers is fragmented and scarce. Those that exist are alarming. They identify a number of health and psychological problems among both national and international aid workers from Sudan to Kosovo: physical illness, distress, alcohol abuse, anxiety, depression, PTSD, risk-taking behaviours, nondirected anger and secondary traumatic stress. (Aka, compassion fatigue).

One study in particular sticks out.

The researchers look at the mental health of 53 aid workers representing 11 NGOs in Darfur. According to the General Health Questionnaire (GHQ), a staggering 50% of aid workers could be classified as non-psychotic psychiatric cases. The authors offer three possible reasons for the result, the third being the most intriguing: the tendency of maladjusted individuals to choose to become aid workers.

Jessica Alexander’s story, Chasing Chaos, is both a cautionary tale and a memoir, one that I imagine she would have liked to have read before setting off for Sudan. It is almost laughably typical; a story that is the genesis for stereotypes. A privileged, white American girl goes to Africa to do aid work, (on the most recent episode of the brilliant satire Ja’ime: Private School Girl, Ja’ime, played by Chris Lily, declares that she will take “my gap year to focus on modelling and I’m gonna do aid work in Africa”) falls in love with a black man, returns briefly home, hates questions about her work and her friend’s naive attitudes, goes back to Africa. I almost put the book down at this point, but was both surprised and pleased I didn’t.chasingchaos

It is a deeply honest memoir of the personal and the professional; at times patronising and self-deprecating, Jessica demonstrates both self-awareness and a superiority complex. At times it reads like a giant resume, as she regales the reader with accounts of each of her postings like she is competing with a fellow aid worker in a game of  “Who’s got the Bigger Aid Balls?”. The beginning of Chapter 5 starts with, “I signed my contract to work in Darfur shortly after an American woman stationed there was shot in the face”. Can you beat that?

This type of bravado is contrasted with refreshing honesty. On the night before leaving for Darfur, reflecting with her best friend, Jessica reveals a universal truth of aid work. “Right then, I didn’t feel compelled by them. I didn’t necessarily feel connected to the plight of Darfurians, either. This was what I needed to be doing for my career; it just happened that Darfur was the place I would be doing it” (p.93). Jessica, like all aid workers I believe, is searching for something deeply personal, burrowed somewhere within. Our own heart of darkness. This Personal Truth is in everyone, and each of us takes different paths to try and find it. The maladjusted among us drive that PT boat down the river into aid work. (Or dentistry).

It is never entirely clear what Personal Truth Jessica is searching for. It is not clear what her motivations are, but I suspect it is connected to her late mother. Aid work is essentially about the ‘I’; the ‘You’, the ‘Me’. The effectiveness of aid work, that global catch-word of the next five years, is personal and individual. As Jessica spins the reader through the number of agencies crowding the field and the Discourse of aid work, she nails a key assumption and barrier of program and project success: “It really just depended on who was there” (p.105).

I think that is what Jessica does so well: puts a human face on aid work. And not just her face, but the faces of her international and national colleagues. It is easy to forget amongst all these declarations, international days, proclamations, targets, goals and agendas that at the heart of the international aid and development architecture are humans. Not just on the receiving end, but also on the sending end. Humans Use & Make Aid work Necessary & Successful. HUMANS. Many who are young, unprepared and given a great weight of responsibility. “So maybe we got pissed off and yelled at drivers and ran over people’s possessions, but we were just human, we were good people, some of us too young to know how to deal with what was going on around us” (p.203).

Jessica reveals the inconsistencies, the ambivalence of aid work as she takes us to Sudan, Sierra Leone, Sri Lanka, New York and Haiti. But, she also offers valuable lessons for the next generation. (And the current). As she was struggling with the decision to leave an Internally Displaced Persons camp in northern Darfur, Jessica’s colleague rebuffed her self-indulgence when she asked: ‘”What about the camp?!” He laughed. “You think being here is going to change that camp? I’m sorry, my dear, but that camp will be here no matter if you are or aren’t”‘ (p.213). Although aid work is about humans, it is also about systems and structures that no amount of one person’s willpower can change. The role of the aid worker, as Jessica puts it, is to “move the bar a mere two inches” (p.217).

Chasing Chaois an enjoyable read; a POV of the subculture that is aid work and a must for any student or early career professional who wants to journey into the heart of darkness. It is also a call for the urgent need for organisational change when it comes to supporting the well-being and health of air workers. Organisations are failing those who put the well being health of others ahead of their own.

“My own stress was starting to show, too. The loneliness of the place was what really had startd to strip me of my sanity…I could feel myself slipping, my irritation mounting, my mental strength withering. I hadn’t actually thrown rocks at children that one morning walk to the office, but that seemed like a trivial distinction: just wanting to was bad enough. I was on the edge of – something – and for what?!” (p.203).

I give it three-and-a-half Blue Helmets.

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I received a free copy of the book, and was under no obligation to write a review.

source | El Taco Truck | yousef al otaiba

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Brendan Rigby

Managing Director & Co-founder at WhyDev
Brendan is an education specialist and co-founder of WhyDev. He is currently a PhD candidate at the University of Melbourne’s Graduate School of Education exploring complementary basic education and the literacy practices of out-of-school children in northern Ghana. Formerly, he was an Education Officer with UNICEF Ghana, and Director of Venture Support with StartSomeGood. Brendan has also been an education consultant and trainer for Plan, UNICEF, ScopeGlobal and the Victorian Curriculum and Assessment Authority. He is obsessed with tea, American football and karaoke.

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7 thoughts on “Heart of darkness: The psychology of an aid worker

  1. […] The research on stress and mental health problems afflicting aid workers is fragmented and scarce. Those that exist are alarming. They identify a number of health and psychological problems among both national and international aid workers from Sudan to Kosovo: physical illness, distress, alcohol abuse, anxiety, depression, PTSD, risk-taking behaviours, non-directed anger and secondary traumatic stress. (Aka, compassion fatigue).  (whydev.org article: The heart of darkness – psychology of an aid worker) […]

  2. Jenna

    “a tendency among maladjusted individuals to choose to become aid workers” – this is really interesting! I am hoping to do a case study on this for my final year at uni, alongside the broader question – Why people choose to do aid work? Can you give me any more information? Or provide any academic literature supporting this? Thanks 🙂

  3. […] In her memoir "Chasing Chaos," Jessica Alexander describes a decade of working in humanitarian aid in countries such as Rwanda, Sudan, and Sierra Leone. Brendan Rigby reviews the book and sees para…  […]

  4. “a tendency among maladjusted individuals to choose to become aid workers”
    So if I choose to work for development from home in my comfortable country does that just mean I’m well adjusted? 😉
    Thanks for the review Brendan!

    1. Perhaps Tanya, but I can’t promise anything 😉 The other two possible reasons the authors of that study give are: 1) Stressfulness; 2) Seriousness of the adjustment problems. Here is the reference: Cardozo, B. L., Holtz, T. H., Kaiser, R., Gotway, C. A., Ghitis, F., Toomey, E., & Salama, P.
      (2005). The mental health of expatriate and Kosovar Albanian humanitarian aid
      workers. Disasters, 29, 152–170

    2. Hi Tanya,
      They said only 50%, so you can definitely fall inthe other 50%! Cheers!

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