Five Arguments Against Taking Care of Aid Workers

Why should the United Nations and NGOs take care of Aid Workers?

In the four weeks since my article, Humanitarian agencies need to stop failing their staff on mental healthwas published in The Guardian, people from across the humanitarian sector have expressed support for my petition and the need to comprehensively look at the issue of wellness. However, a number of people have also argued that this issue should not be addressed.  

None of their arguments are logical or evidence-based. In this post I will not restate my premise; I am interested in a different game.  The hidden point here is that virtually all of us in the aid sector argue this way – albeit with more refinement – when staff safety, health or welfare is discussed.  

A lot of the more innocent-sounding arguments against improving the wellness of aid workers come worryingly close to committing the same fallacies, as do these quite transparent and, I would dare say, offensive ones.  

Here are five of their arguments:

1. “I have zero sympathy for UN staff who are paid extremely well. They don’t deserve any additional support.”

On the face of it this does not appear to be a logical argument, if only because arguments about staff welfare need to be cosmopolitan in essence. To simply say that UN staff are well-paid, and by inference, able to either withstand the mental health pressures of aid work, or that monetary compensation suffices, is not the strongest of arguments.

This argument also ignores efforts by the UN and non-UN humanitarian partners to address staff health, safety and security, especially in emergencies. In 2007, the Inter Agency Standing Committee, a forum established under the United Nations General Assembly Resolution 46/182, issued Guidelines on Mental Health and Psychosocial support in Emergency SettingsThese guidelines, which were signed by the Director of OCHA Geneva, stated:

“Many aid workers experience insufficient managerial and organisational support, and they tend to report this as their biggest stressor. Moreover, confrontations with horror, danger and human misery are emotionally demanding and potentially affect the mental health and well-being of both paid and volunteer aid workers, whether they come from the country concerned or from abroad.

The provision of support to mitigate the possible psychosocial consequences of work in crisis situations is a moral obligation and a responsibility of organisations exposing staff to extremes. For organisations to be effective, managers need to keep their staff healthy. A systemic and integrated approach to staff care is required at all phases of employment – including in emergencies – and at all levels of the organisation to maintain staff well-being and organisational efficiency.

The word ‘staff’ … refers to paid and volunteer, national and international workers, including drivers and translators, affiliated with an aid organisation, support measures should in principle be equal for national and international staff.”

As recently as last year, in an April 2014 meeting of the UN’s High-Level Committee on Managementthere was a wide ranging discussion on how to reconcile duty of care for UN personnel while operating in high risk environments. This not only included discussions on how to look at the psychological dimensions arising from working in an insecure environment, but also issues of after-service care for survivors and families, and follow up in terms of indictment and prosecution for perpetrators of attacks on UN staff.

2. “You have a fat chance of changing anything; senior managers don’t think it is important.”

This argument is invalid for a number of reasons. Simply thinking something will never change, is not a reason to never demand change. The aid sector is changing; it is continuously looking at how we can be better at our jobs.  As noted by “J” in a recent AidSpeak post, Take Care, there is a growing “movement within and around the industry to recognize the legitimate needs of aid and development workers.” The fact that over 1,340 people have signed a petition to address staff welfare at the World Humanitarian Summit is an indication of this, as are the number of public submissions to the World Humanitarian Summit on the topic of staff wellness .

ACF International - Statement: Solutions to reshape aid must address the urgent need to Protect Aid Workers

CHS Alliance - Caring for Staff Matters 

McDonald - Address Aid Worker Welfare at the WHS 2016 

Nobert - Sexual violence against and within the humanitarian community 

PHAP - Humanitarian effectiveness and staff wellness

In addition, deferring to the wisdom of senior managers on this matter is dangerous and contrary to the egalitarian nature of aid work. For UN staff, our core competencies require us to actively seek out ways to improve programmes or services, as well as stand “by decisions that are in the Organization’s interest, even if they are unpopular.” 

The UN and non-UN humanitarian partners have already endorsed the need to address staff wellness through the IASC, and therefore to advocate for humanitarian organisations to apply their own policies is not only legitimate, it is the right thing to do.

3. “How can you argue for improving wellness for aid workers? The priority is the people affected by conflicts, not you!”

Aid workers cannot serve affected persons well if we are not well. Aid doesn’t happen without aid workers. If aid workers aren’t well, then aid won’t be delivered well.

As Frida Fostvedt recently tweeted, The last thing someone running from war needs is a neurotic aid worker


To argue that “priority is the people affected by conflicts” and not “aid-workers” is broadly non-egalitarian. It infers that people affected by conflicts ought to have a relatively higher weight of attention and care because they are our benefactors in a gift-exchange relationship. This is wrong. As Alessandra Pigni says, “this is not a contest to see who can suffer the most.” 

At the end of the day, aid workers deserve to be given the same attention that we demand of the people we are seeking to help. To again quote “J” “we have to disabuse ourselves and everyone in our spheres of influence of this falsely dichotomous choice between taking care of aid workers (us) and delivering more life-sustaining aid to those who need it most.


4. ”If you ask donors to fund wellness programmes, they won’t.”

To consistently apply this argument across the aid sector is absurd as it implies that we should not ask donors to fund nearly half of the current humanitarian aid programs, given that 63% of humanitarian response plan activities this year are not funded. We should also not ask donors to fund education, early recovery or livelihoods activities given they are consistently under-funded in appeals year after year.  

41 donors have in fact committed themselves, through the Good Humanitarian Donorship group, to “promote the use of Inter-Agency Standing Committee guidelines and principles on humanitarian activities,” which inter-alia includes the Guidelines on Mental Health and Psychosocial support in Emergency Settings

Donors also stated “that implementing humanitarian organisations fully adhere to good practice and are committed to promoting accountability, efficiency and effectiveness in implementing humanitarian action.” Good practice, efficiency and effectiveness includes investing systematically in caring for the physical, mental and psychological welfare of aid workers (the business case for this is discussed in my bog post, You can’t fully #ReShapeAid with Sick Aid Workers).


5. “If you don’t like your job, quit. There is a mile-long queue of people behind you waiting to fill your shoes.”


It doesn’t matter if there are a thousand people willing to fill the shoes of one aid worker, they too deserve to work in a healthy, safe and secure environment. No humanitarian or development worker would advocate to stop ILO promoting International Labour Standards on the basis that there are queues of unemployed masses willing to work in unsafe and dangerous jobs, so why would an aid worker advocate this approach within the humanitarian sector.


Amongst the overwhelming positive messages I have received in support of my petition to improve aid worker wellness, I liked this one the most:

“What I like about your article is that it shows some respect for aid workers who are good enough to be employed in emergencies, but somehow aren’t good enough to receive care to make sure there is nothing wrong with them…”

To support the inclusion of aid worker wellness on the agenda of the World Humanitarian Summit, sign the petition.