Global Call For Improved Aid Worker Wellness

The World Humanitarian Summit Synthesis Report Backed Calls To Improve Aid Worker Wellness in Istanbul

Are you curious about how aid organisations could improve the health and safety of their staff? Or about what the World Humanitarian Summit consultations have to say about aid worker security? The responses to these questions are just some of the key findings among the wealth of information contained in the World Humanitarian Summit’s report, Restoring Humanity: Synthesis of the Consultation Process for the World Humanitarian Summit.  

What the Synthesis Report has to say is encouraging; but it’s just not enough by itself.

“Improving the safety and security of aid workers is a priority concern. It requires building trust with armed groups, traditional leaders, government, and other local stakeholders; effective communication strategies on humanitarian action and safety and security of aid workers under international law; adherence to humanitarian principles; security management systems commensurate with the local level of threat; and ensuring staff are adequately trained in security management.”

As aid workers we must now have an honest discussion about the current state of health and safety in the sector, where we want to be – and how, exactly, we are going to get there. 

This is bigger than the World Humanitarian Summit alone; it’s also bigger than our individual employers and donors. Only by working together will we be able to tackle all of these issues raised on aid worker health and safety in the Synthesis Report. The severity of the situation, and the fact that it has gone on for decades, necessitates a mindset change, a cultural shift that can happen only with buy-in from across the system. We cannot afford to miss the opportunity the World Humanitarian Summit provides.

What could be more deserving of the attention of humanitarian leaders than reducing the number of aid workers who never come home while increasing our capacity to deliver aid? 

This question needs to be answered before we get to Istanbul next May.


 The 2014 statistics for aid worker security show high levels of violence against civilian aid workers, with national staff accounting for the vast majority of those attacked and killed. The consultations robustly condemned these attacks and called for measures to increase the safety and security of humanitarian workers.  In particular, international humanitarian actors should assess the risk transferred to local partner organizations and take greater responsibility for their security. The consultations also made specific mention of attacks against healthcare personnel, and of the gender dimensions of these attacks.

 A number of proposals emerged from the consultations to improve the safety and security of aid workers: building trust with armed groups, traditional leaders, government, and other local stakeholders; developing and implementing effective communication strategies on humanitarian action and safety and security of workers under international law; adherence to humanitarian principles; ensuring that security management systems commensurate with the local level of threat are in place and adaptive to change; and ensuring staff are trained in security management and are aware of good risk and security management practices.


Submissions also called for the systematic inclusion of specific clauses strengthening accountability for the protection of humanitarian workers into the Humanitarian Plans of donors for all countries, more robust and systematic monitoring of attacks against aid workers, and specific analysis on attacks against healthcare workers.


The consultations noted that effective support to communities in need requires healthy and competent aid workers. Studies show that international humanitarian workers suffer from high levels of anxiety, post-traumatic stress symptoms, depression and burnout. The increased vulnerability of national humanitarian workers was also noted. According to the Headington Institute, while studies vary widely, Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) rates among aid workers range from 8-43 per cent, major depression from 8-20 per cent and anxiety from 8-29 per cent. For example, a recent study by Antares Foundation noted that 30 per cent of aid workers return from deployment with symptoms of PTSD


While sporadic research exists, staff support is not based on or improved through systematic collection or analysis of data on these issues. The consultations emphasized the need for humanitarian organizations to invest systematically in caring for the physical, mental and psychological welfare of their staff. They called for standardized organizational policies and procedures on the psychosocial care of both international and national staff, echoing the Core Humanitarian Standard (CHS) on Quality and Accountability, which calls for staff to be supported to do their job effectively, and treated fairly and equitably.

This effort should include adequate levels of support before, during and after humanitarian operations, such as psycho- social assessments, proactive engagement and wellness services for staff working in hardship stations, de-stigmatizing psychosocial care and counselling, strengthened standard operating procedures for immediate actions for those exposed to an attack, including procedures for leave, immediate and continued access to trained stress and peer counsellors, continued access to psychosocial healthcare after employment when post-traumatic stress symptoms often appear, as well as long-term human resource policies and staff rotation for international staff who have served in hardship duty stations. Although such interventions require donor funding, a first step is recognition and dialogue about the problem, as well as initiatives to better collect and analyze information and link results to support services.


The consultations emphasized the role of donors in driving change, calling for the allocation of a percentage of their funds to staff well-being support packages, and for funding to be contingent on commitment to the CHS.


Participants also called for greater global oversight and accountability of staff welfare, for example by establishing a Global Humanitarian Association to advocate for the rights of aid workers and their families, creating a mechanism to track the well-being of current and former aid workers, including contractors and volunteers and national staff, and improving technical expertise on staff welfare.  

p.106 World Humanitarian Summit secretariat, Restoring Humanity: Synthesis of the Consultation Process for the World Humanitarian Summit
(New York, United Nations, 2015)