Archives for posts with tag: expat life

I have been appreciating stillness lately. Here in Kenya, I spend a lot of time on my own, cherishing the calm and quiet. I don’t seem to be desperate for company and entertainment all the time like I used to be, instead enjoying moments where I can be with myself and dip in to my inner being. By having time on my own, I can also reconnect with other passions and interests, and avoid the common trap in this line of business of defining myself purely through the work I do.

Indeed, I spent most of my years of NGO work telling people, without much thought, ‘I’m an aid/human rights/development worker’. This was partly because I would have struggled to claim another identity for myself. My time outside work usually revolved around smoking, drinking, partying or sleeping. And none of these activities really form an identity. So I remain grateful for the months I had last year to rediscover my passions. They were there all along, but it took a concerted effort of slowing down and being still to realise them once again.

Such moments of stillness are crucial for NGO workers, faced so often with mounting pressures, expectations, negativity and disappointments in their daily work. It is also easy to live through our work when the job often continues beyond office hours – in discussions with friends or associates, in networking dinners and social occasions. Topics of conversation so often revolve around the difficult situations we’re working in, the communities we’re trying to help, the lack of resources there to support us, the deficiencies of the structures we have to work with….we forget to switch off and talk about something completely different. Particularly when working in the field and overseas, it becomes ‘normal’ to spend all our time outside work either reading or talking about the very human rights or humanitarian issues which we’re confronted with each day.

Of course there is nothing wrong with doing this; so long as there is also some time given over to stepping out of that space, that identity and seeing what else lies beneath in one’s soul. This means taking time out to admire the beauty which surrounds all of us, to remember that as well as the horrors of war, conflict, poverty and human rights violations there is also the abundance and power of nature, of creativity, of love. Whilst there may be many things for us to feel guilty about, there is also much to feel grateful for.


A monkey and I admire the view of the River Nile in Uganda

The other day my Kenyan colleagues and I sat around a table in their office drinking coffee and eating samosas and mandazi (doughnuts). Two hours had been set aside specifically for the purpose of connecting with each other, and not talking about work. When I was confronted with this unusual exercise, my initial reaction was one of panic. What are we going to talk about? What can I say that’s interesting? But as we went round one by one, contributing something to the very light and candid conversation, I began to relax. I realised this was the first opportunity I’d had to actually get to know the people I’d been sharing an office with for the past few weeks. We laughed and joked, and were moved by stories about our families, or about how we spend our time at the weekend, or about what we value in life. This simple initiative to bring people together in a relaxed way, and to take them away from their all-consuming work and other pressures, was very important. I wondered how often this happens in an office in London, for a full two hours.

One of my colleagues said something which particularly resonated with me. He said that we must find time to admire the flowers. This was of course a metaphor for how we should approach our work. We have much to focus on that is distressing and unpleasant. But admist all that, we each have an amazing and powerful ability to create some stillness in which to marvel at what is pure, beautiful and magical; and to have gratitude for such small and simple pleasures.


hibiscus (Photo credit: Wikipedia)


In the last few months, the term ‘burnout’ has cropped up in many conversations, particularly those with fellow NGO workers. It is a term used to describe the physical, emotional and mental exhaustion felt by any ‘human service’ professionals – carers, doctors, teachers. Less is written about burnout among people in my sector – development and NGO workers (click here for a previous post on who I mean by this). Over the next few weeks, my aim is to bridge this gap in an accessible way and hopefully generate some discussion around what we as development workers mean by burnout.

Without going too far into semantics, I’m talking about those who as part of their work are tackling issues of world poverty or injustice – whether it be campaigners, aid workers, volunteers or activists. There is much analysis and debate about the development sector – whether it is effective; whether it is actually more the development worker that benefits as opposed to the communities they are supposedly trying to help; whether the needs of people living in poverty or victims of human rights abuses are really being met. Furthermore, entire narratives are constructed and deconstructed concerning who we mean by ‘the poor’ or ‘victims’.

But what of the development workers themselves? How much do we know about them? There are two common interpretations – one that is the general public perception, that they are doing a good, or even heroic, job under difficult circumstances; the other, more academic and critical, that their ideals, actions and interventions are doing more harm than good. But rarely are their personal and individual identities acknowledged or assessed. There is much analysis about those at the receiving end of international aid, but little with regard to the ‘aid giver’ – their background, family history, or the expectations which lead them into development work and their particular job. Some go into this kind of work with idealism – because they studied development at University or have been politically active on different causes. Others want the adventure of living and working in challenging contexts, and would rather be ‘on the frontline’ than in an office. And there are some, believe it or  not, who are simply doing development work with career interests in mind; who seek managerial positions in head offices of big charities and at the United Nations where they’ll secure a hefty salary plus considerable benefits.

Is our level of burnout determined by our reasons for doing this kind of work? Some would say that the more idealistic we are, the greater the chance of burnout. That is because if we enter the development sector with too much self-righteousness and confidence that we can make a difference, we’re likely to be sorely disappointed in our achievements after a year or so. Conflicts will still rage on, poverty will still surround us, and human rights abuses will continue – and meanwhile we’ll have been reduced to half our former selves. With this in mind, those with a concern for the coping strategies of NGO workers, particularly those working in the field, have emphasised the importance of self-reflection and knowing oneself and both one’s limits and limitations.

Those who want to heal the world may need healing in the first place. By not acknowledging this, we risk projecting all our vulnerabilities, and unwanted “shadow aspects” onto others (the poor, the oppressed, the sick etc.)….for many healing oneself and others can truly happen only when we look within, before we plunge into action.

Alessandra Pigni, Psychologically Equipped: Practical Recommendations to Better Prepare Humanitarian Professionals for Field Missions, White Papers Series #5

Burnout can manifest itself in various way: ‘physical depletion and fatigue, (..) feelings of hopelessness and helplessness, (…) emotional drain, (…) the development of negative self-concept and negative attitudes towards work, life and other people ‘ (Combatting Burnout, Ayala Pines and Elliott Aronson, 1983). It can be a daily struggle to fight against these feelings, especially when up against poor work practices, long hours and heavy workloads with little appreciation from managers; let alone the challenging environments that one finds oneself in when working in conflict or poverty-stricken areas.

Development workers with the local population in northern Uganda

It is not unusual for foreigners, particularly development workers, to be disliked by the local population. And this is no surprise, when people living on a dollar a day are watching white folk drive around in large land rovers and dine in fancy restaurants whilst discussing how best to help the poor communities around them. With more aid money each year apparently disappearing down a black hole and never reaching its intended recipients, and with our national identities often associated (sometimes mistakenly) with our own Western Governments’ disastrous foreign policies, we are not necessarily seen as heroes in the politically volatile environments we work in, even if we are among our friends and families.  Whilst our job may be campaigner, humanitarian officer or programme manager, our task is also to build trust with the communities we work with, and this can be a major challenge in itself.

Burnout then, is as much to do with the disappointment and disillusionment we feel when we realise that our good intentions are not always fully appreciated, or even appropriate, as it is to do with exhaustion. We have to learn each day about the people we are living amongst, and how they view us. And in order to learn about others, we have to learn about ourselves – to question why we have chosen this type of work, and what we hope to achieve from it, and what our insecurities are and why we have them. Can we give as much time to understanding ourselves as we do to trying to understand others? Our motives and intentions when doing development work need to come from a place of love, not just for others but for who we are, warts and all.

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