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Let’s put staff welfare on the agenda at the World Humanitarian Summit

Let’s put staff welfare on the agenda at the World Humanitarian Summit

By Brendan McDonald

UN Secretary-General and the Emergency Relief Coordinator: We call on you to include staff welfare as a key issue at the World Humanitarian Summit.

Sign the petition.

In the last 15 years, aid work has become an ever-deadlier profession. Since 2000, 2,913 national staff have been killed or injured for their work, along with 544 internationals. Hundreds of others have been kidnapped or violently assaulted.

The danger is not just physical. It is mental and psychological. Numerous studies have shown aid workers suffer from high levels of anxiety, post-traumatic stress symptoms, depression and burnout. According to one study, 30% of aid workers return from deployment with symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). National aid workers are more seriously affected than international staff.

Behind these statistics are terrible stories: of breakdowns, alcoholism, divorce and years of suffering, of families left bereft when a loved one is killed or maimed. We all know so many who have suffered burnout and worse but who do not speak out for fear their careers will suffer, or they’ll be seen as weak.

Many aid workers, especially national aid workers working in their own countries, either don’t have life, invalidity or medical insurance, or have insufficient insurance. Those who suffer psychologically are rarely provided with adequate help.

As a result, the humanitarian world is losing experienced, dedicated staff every day.

To deliver principled, accountable and high-quality humanitarian action, we must ensure that communities and people affected by crisis receive the assistance they require from competent and well-managed staff and volunteers.

We believe this is one of the most significant challenges facing humanitarian response today. The aid industry is nothing without the thousands of dedicated staff who make it work: international and local, contractors and volunteers.

If the aid industry is to deliver, it must support and retain its staff. More importantly, the people behind these statistics, and the communities they assist, deserve better.

As aid workers, we demand that policies reflecting the highest standards of quality and accountability are in place for the security and the wellbeing of staff. We should not have to choose between our health and our work. If we are to Reshape Aid, this must be addressed.

We call on all participants of the forthcoming World Humanitarian Summit to recognise the physical, emotional and mental suffering aid workers endure during the course of their work and to include staff welfare as a key issue in the Summit.

We call on UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon, Emergency Relief Coordinator Stephen O’Brien and all involved in the World Humanitarian Summit to:

1. Invest systematically in caring for the physical, mental and psychological welfare of their staff.

2. Establish a mechanism to ensure all aid workers have access to adequate support in the event of illness or injury, particularly for national aid workers.

3. Support the Core Humanitarian Standard on Quality and Accountability. We are not reinventing the wheel. Building on the People in Aid Code, all humanitarian agencies, including the UN Secretariat engaged in humanitarian work, should commit to Commitment 8 of the Core Humanitarian Standard on Quality and Accountability and beyond to ensure it informs the way they interact with their staff. But we know policy commitments to improve staff welfare have not worked in the past. We call on donors to fund organisations committed to the CHS and its accountability mechanisms.

4. Support the establishment of a Global Humanitarian Association to advocate for the rights of aid workers and their families globally.

5. Establish a mechanism for tracking the well being of current and former aid workers, including contractors and volunteers and national staff.

Sign the petition.


Brendan McDonald has been in the aid sector since 1999 and currently works at the United Nation’s Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) in Geneva. He focuses on raising resources for the humanitarian system and on the rights of the displaced, asylum seekers and refugees. Brendan blogs at 7Piliers, and you can also follow him on Twitter.

Featured image shows Lake Bunyonyi in Uganda. Photo from Wikimedia Commons.

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